By SARAH PALERMO
Did you know the best-selling software program for property appraisers and assessors is made by a company in Plymouth?
The company, which has grown from seven to 12 employees in the past eight months, is an anchor member of the Enterprise Center at Plymouth, or ECP, a business incubator space sponsored by Plymouth State University and the Grafton County Economic Development Council.
ECP is the newest member of the New Hampshire Business Incubator Network, which includes locations in Conway, Durham, Hanover, Keene, Manchester and Portsmouth.
“We basically have the state covered,” said ECP Executive Director Michael Tentnowski. “Of course, there’s a void between Manchester and Plymouth called Concord. I didn’t do a demographic profile, but it would seem like a natural to me. There is always room for a well thought out, progressive incubator.”
That’s exactly what some Concord-area officials think, too. They visited the Plymouth center last week with an eye toward possibly creating a similar space here.
But the first thing to know about incubator spaces is they are more than just space.
The Plymouth center offers Grafton County startups access to high-speed internet service as well as access to experienced business professionals, like Tentnowski, who has been in the business development field for more than 20 years. He’s able to answer questions, or find an expert in the community who can.
And for some entrepreneurs, having access to peers is almost as valuable as a fast computer and a full Rolodex.
Allison Grappone lives in Concord but commutes to AlphaLoft in Manchester, where she works on growing her new business, Nearby Registry. It’s an online gift registry service that connects consumers with independent shops who might not have the time to run their own registry services.
When Grappone won the statewide Start-up Challenge contest in 2011, her prize package included mentoring at AlphaLoft, an incubator organization with four spaces in Manchester, Durham and Portsmouth.
“Honestly, it reduced a lot of the barriers to starting up a business. I was surrounded by people who were asking similar questions to what I needed, or they had asked them in the past,” she said.
As she writes a request for proposals for software work, she can have a web developer at the desk around the corner review the language. And the developer can look over the estimates candidates send back, so Grappone knows what’s a good deal.
There are lunch-and-learn sessions with lawyers and human resource professionals and accountants. Local investors visit often to meet with entrepreneurs and are willing to listen to and help refine pitches, even if a company’s not ready for outside funding, Grappone said.
If a center opened in Concord, she’d consider switching locations only if the programs offered matched her needs.
“Anybody can rent an office anywhere. When you’re starting a business, you want a space filled with smart people willing to give of their experience and time and mentor others. These are people who aren’t looking for their next sales lead, they’re looking to participate in this enterprise so the business environment around them gets better,” said Marc Sedam, vice chairman of the board of directors for AlphaLoft.
“Physical location is the very last thing someone should look at when thinking about an incubator. You want to know, who’s in it, what kind of help and support do they offer?”
Sedam is also executive director of UNHInnovation. His office manages and promotes intellectual property developed by the university, and creates partnerships between UNH and businesses. UNH contributes about $300,000 annually to the centers, and operating with one leadership team reduced redundancies, Sedam said.
Until this summer, AlphaLoft’s four locations were run by different groups. But last month, they all combined forces – and budgets.
“What we don’t want as a state is to Balkanize, where there is an incubator every 10 miles. We’re not Cambridge. There’s not enough activity to split into tiny pieces. That’s a way to make sure no one’s successful,” he said.
There are still several questions for advocates to answer before an incubator in Concord could be successful.
The project in Plymouth was about 10 years in the making – from conception through feasibility studies, location scouting and construction.
“You can’t just say I’m going to build something and hope somebody shows up,” Tentnowski said. “Unless you do a feasibility study and an asset inventory, it’s not proper planning.”
He told the group from Concord that last week, and they heard him, loud and clear, they said.
Speaking after their tour, Steve Caccia, vice president of student affairs at NHTI – and the school’s recent interim president – Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, and Byron Champlin, a city councilor and a member of the Concord Economic Development Advisory Council, all said this is a project in its infancy, but they are eager to learn more about incubators.
“Generally speaking, there’s a high incidence of companies that sling shot off of incubator spaces to stay in their local community and grow there. Why would we not want that?” Champlin said. “My concern is we might be a bit behind the curve (of other centers around the state), but we can learn from their experiences and lessons to develop, if we go this route, a really strong contender.”
NHTI would be interested in joining the partnership to offer professors as experts where needed, and to gain internship opportunities for students, Caccia said.
“I don’t think we would have the power or the expertise or the resources to do it on our own, but the more resources and the more local assets that are vested in it, the more successful it could possible be.
“Anecdotally, my gut’s telling me if we did it, we could make it work,” he said. He thinks the chamber and the city might be able to find grants to fund a feasibility study.
“But it’s not a case of ‘if you build, it they will come.’ You’ve got to ask all the questions first,” he added.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)