Last spring saw more than the usual “graduations” at the University of Northern Iowa.
The Innovation Incubator at UNI’s Center for Business Growth and Innovation saw four companies — iTracking Research, Dyton Creative Inc., Follow Your Strengths and Red Lab Technologies — move up and out.
Three-year-old iTracking had learned all it could in the incubator, said Mike Whitson, co-founder.
“The ITracking technology was mature enough to be viable in a commercial operation,” he said. “Five years ago, it was almost strictly basic research work.”
Back then the company had much to learn in the incubator — and it did.
“They helped us build a business. We wouldn’t be in business without them,” he said.
The incubator helped the company focus on marketing. It helped determine what customers actually wanted.
“The incubator forced us to go and talk to those prospects and ask them what is it they would like from our type of work,” Whitson said.
Alyssa Nolte, who earned a double-degree in marketing and psychology, brought additional expertise.
“With Alyssa’s help, we pivoted and readjusted the products and services we offered, and it’s taken off,” Whitson said. “… We’re in that rapid-growth phase.”
As iTracking moves to its own quarters, the incubator chugs along, helping other nascent firms find their footing.
“What we’re finding is while the incubation tenants, a lot are very motivated and action-oriented, but a lot of them don’t have that strong a business acumen, and most would acknowledge that,” said Paul Klinghorn, director of the Regional Business Center and Entrepreneur Outreach at UNI. “They’re technicians and not necessarily good at running a business. So, where we’re morphing our incubator, we’re wanting to take these young companies when they’re really early, the idea hasn’t been solidified and really flesh out what that business model needs to look like.”
A lot of time and capital can be wasted trying to discover what makes a company’s ideas and expertise valuable to potential customers.
The business incubator, operating since the 1990s, helps young companies assess the market and structure the business accordingly, Klinghorn said.
“They’re not winging it as they go,” he said.
The incubator also helps a company learn how to price a product or service and how to monitor finances.
“Clients who might recognize they have a good idea can vet it and help them structure a company that allows them to be far more successful,” Klinghorn said.
Companies also learn patience.
“It’s not about quick acceleration but looking at how we can help a company continue to progress in a strategic and thoughtful manner,” Klinghorn said.
That’s how a company acquires “the accountability piece” of the business mosaic.
“We’re trying to set these companies up in a way they can think through and be better-prepared to succeed,” he said.
An incubation period of three to five years is not uncommon.
“Sometimes it takes a while to get traction and move forward,” Klinghorn said. “A more structured process might help some.”
Greg Jass is “graduating” from the incubator for the second time. A co-founder of TargetClick Marketing, which got its start at UNI, Jass launched Red Lab Technologies as another foray into marketing.
“We work with marketing agencies, combine the technology of what they want to be able to do with their current marketing platforms and integrate them together so it’s a little more efficient for them,” said Jass. He is moving his company into the Millrace co-working space in Cedar Falls.
Company growth indicated it was time to move on, Jass said.
“We were looking for more office space, because our team is growing,” he said. He has four full-time employees and two interns.
The UNI incubator is part of a growing “startup ecosystem” in the Cedar Valley, Klinghorn said.
“They might graduate to Millrace or id8 or be prepared to go into an office in the marketplace and not necessarily wrapped around another support group,” he said. “It’s about belonging and support, so we’re continuing to work with others in the community to put programs and events on that source new entrepreneurs with new ideas and also make connections to assist entrepreneurs as they develop.
“We’re excited for all the players that have come on.”