Business Incubator Says You Can Come Home Again

By Dan O’Brien– The Business Journal

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Those who relocated from the Mahoning Valley years ago and returned for the holidays might not recognize the city they left.
Mike Hripko, YSU STEM Research and Technology--Based Economic Development

Mike Hripko, Director of YSU STEM Research and Technology–Based Economic Development

Today Youngstown is in the midst of an economic renaissance, officials boast, and the Youngstown Business Incubator, Youngstown State University and the OH WOW! Roger and Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science and Technology demonstrate why.

“We want to introduce people who have left Youngstown to the New Youngstown, the new high-tech Youngstown,” said Mike Hripko, director of technology-based economic development at the YSU College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, as he welcomed visitors to the YBI.

The program invited those visiting for the holidays, as well as the general public, to an open house and tour Thursday of the incubator, the newly opened National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or NAMII, and the OH WOW! center.

About 25 had signed up for the morning and afternoon tours, but just a handful attended the morning tour largely because of a winter storm that swept through the Mahoning Valley Wednesday, Hripko noted.

Initiatives such as the incubator, energy and advanced materials research at YSU’s STEM, and NAMII, are among the many efforts that have helped reshape and rebrand the city, he observed.

“What we’re trying to do is get the message across that Youngstown is transitioning very rapidly and very successfully to a high-technology center, with many layers of economic development,” he remarked.

The premise is that out-of-towners will take this information back their own communities and spread it, thus opening up the potential for future connections, investments or technological collaborations, Hripko added.

Last year, the incubator hosted about 100 in both the morning and afternoon tours, and those from out of town returned to their homes with a renewed appreciation for Youngstown and the changes under way, Hripko said.

“We extended our communication base, and now we’re able to reach out to many more people and keep them updated,” he said.

The incubator’s chief operating officer, Barb Ewing, said former residents of Youngstown are scattered all over the world, and YBI has a list of about 6,000 contact names that she considers “the single-most powerful tool we have to help our portfolio companies.”

The incubator provides low-cost resources and office space to fledgling technology companies, while it also accelerates product development from more established businesses, said the YBI’s Rose Shaffer. “We offer an Inspire fund [solely] to our early-stage companies,” she said, and introduces these businesses to venture capital firms and angel investors.

Through the JumpStart network, the YBI also can introduce companies to potentially more funding through sources such as the Innovation Fund, Shaffer said. Should a project be selected, it could lead to a first round of funding for $25,000 and a second round of $100,000.

The incubator acts as a mentor to three types of companies, she explained. The early-stage development businesses, housed in the incubator’s Inspire Lab, can use office space there at no charge for up to two years. Should the company’s products begin to take hold in the market, they could move to office space upstairs and rent at a rate of $3 to $8 per square foot.

Once that company becomes self-sufficient, it can relocate to another building on the campus of incubator. “We try to keep our graduate companies on campus so they can continue to collaborate with other entrepreneurs,” Shaffer said.

Turning Technologies, for example, moved from the incubator to the Taft Technology Center downtown four years ago and today boasts some 200 employees. Another tech company, Revere Data, moved into the Semple building next door to Taft two years ago.

“They’re both graduate companies that still contribute to our campus,” she noted.

Twelve companies are housed in the incubator, and the organization interacts with 81 companies across northeastern Ohio, Shaffer reported. Another 41 companies are associated with the Inspire Lab.

Another aspect of Youngstown that demonstrates the region’s true potential is NAMII, Hripko said as he guided guests on a quick tour of the building.

The site, a former furniture warehouse connected to the incubator via a walkway, is home to one of the nation’s most innovative hubs for intellectual resources, Hripko said.

NAMII was formed through a $30 million federal grant supported by another $40 million provided by a consortium of private industry, higher education and nonprofit institutions. The Youngstown site was selected because it’s located in the center of the “tech belt” between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Hripko added.

The NAMII hub specializes in additive manufacturing, a process where complex parts or components are created through 3-D printing. Among the partners in the consortium are government agencies such as NASA and large defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

“What’s important is that these companies do a lot of research in different areas,” he said. “But, they share a lot of this information with the consortium.”

Through licensing its intellectual property, Hripko said, NAMII is on track to be self-sustaining in about three years.

“Energy, materials, advanced manufacturing, software development, biotechnology — there’s a very rich technology blend emerging here,” he affirmed.

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