Plans hatching at Plymouth State University’s new business incubator
By Warren Johnston
Sunday, December 8, 2013
(Published in print: Monday, December 9, 2013)
A dozen or so local, state and federal officials packed tightly into the foyer of the gleaming new Enterprise Center on Bridge Street in Plymouth last week, waiting to tour the building.
Mark Scarano, chief executive officer of the Grafton County Economic Development Council, had just enough room to make opening remarks and head the group in the right direction to start exploring the $2 million facility, the latest of the state’s five business incubators.
The three-story, 9,000-square-foot Plymouth incubator, a partnership between the council and Plymouth State University, joins facilities in Manchester, Keene and North Conway, and the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center in Lebanon, which is one of the largest business incubators in New England.
It is the result of a lengthy collaborative effort between public entities and private investors, and is another key piece in the strategy to create new businesses and jobs in Grafton County, Scarano said.
“We wouldn’t be here without the great support of our congressional delegation and from the Economic Development Administration, which provided much of the funding we needed,” Scarano said, with a nod to EDA Regional Director Willie Taylor, who was getting a first look at the nearly finished building during Wednesday’s tour.
When Taylor was last in Plymouth, in 2011, the facility was in the planning stages. He toured the abandoned shell of the old Richelson’s Department Store, which still stood on the corner site. The 1937 cornerstone from the old building is now embedded in a wall in the foyer of the new Enterprise Center. A plaquecommemorating the remarkable history of the founder of the store, a Jewish immigrant who, as a young man, escaped from Imperial Russia along with his younger sister, will soon be mounted under the stone, Scarano said.
Before the EDA will provide funding, a project must fit basic requirements: It must be a collaborative effort; the businesses and jobs created have to fit in the global economy; the environmental impact of the building has to be minimal; and the project has to help reposition jobs in an area that has suffered some sort of economic setback, such as industry closings or agriculture downturns, Taylor said.
“This project fits all those criteria, and you should be very proud of it,” he told the tour group and members of the Plymouth Regional Chamber of Commerce, who were meeting in the building. “This is the kind of project that our funding is set up to help.”
Studies have shown that the Economic Development Administration gets some of the highest returns from investments in incubators. When they are tied to institutions, such as Plymouth State and Dartmouth College, they are even more successful, Taylor said later.
The building had 12 funding sources, with the EDA providing the largest share, $781,000. Some $700,000 more was raised from private businesses through the New Hampshire tax credit program, Scarano said.
Since opening in October, the center, which is structured to help startup software, accounting, defense and security firms, has leased all of the space available to three software firms, said the center’s executive director, Michael Tentnowski, who also teaches at Plymouth State’s College of Business Administration.
A new round of funding is scheduled to kick in after the first of the year, and the money will be used to complete the building during the first quarter, making room for six to eight new companies that are on a waiting list, Tentnowski said.
The businesses typically remain in incubators for 36 months before they are ready to move into permanent facilities.
Companies in the Plymouth Center will likely follow that pattern, he said.
The high-tech, highly secure facility also has a small, black-walled, sound-deadened room with one-way glass that allows students and other observers to watch meetings without disturbing the participants, Scarano said.
“The contractors call this the ‘creepy room,’ ” he said during the tour.
The center has created seven new jobs thus far, and the facility also is functioning as a place for business monitoring and business education for professionals. A recent workshop attracted 230 participants from 35 companies from the Plymouth community outside of PSU, Tentnowski said.
The largest and the most successful part of the entrepreneurial picture in the region is the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center in Lebanon’s Centerra Park, which Taylor and other officials visited later in the day Wednesday.
Originally built in 2006 and expanded in 2012, the 54,000-square-foot building, a partnership among the Grafton Development Council, the North Country Council and Dartmouth College, has provided at least 250 jobs and has helped launch about 35 companies, Scarano said, adding that the project was primarily funded through the Economic Development Administration.
Standing in a second-floor conference room overlooking the glass atrium in the center of the expanded building, Taylor and the other touring officials looked down on a first-floor courtyard with patio tables and chairs, and then through the surrounding glass walls into the laboratories of GlycoFi Inc.
Although GlycoFi is now a successful biotech company owned by Merck & Co., the firm’s presence in the incubator makes the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center financially sustainable, said Gregg Fairbrothers, founding director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, which oversees the incubator.
GlycoFi is one of the incubator’s big success stories, along with the biofuel company Mascoma Corp. and Adimab, which is developing yeast-based antibody technology.
Biotech companies generally stay in incubators from five to seven years, Fairbrothers said.
Adimab and Mascoma grew and built or bought buildings nearby, but GlycoFi decided to move back to the DRTC after the company was purchased by the international pharmaceutical firm, which was fortunate for the incubator. Having a permanent tenant in half the building helps subsidize the startup biotech companies in the other half, Fairbrothers said.
“We are working to see that the efforts of the DRTC are helping to develop companies that will develop and grow and stay in the area,” he said.