'Business accelerator' planned for Mesa - East Valley Tribune: News

'Business accelerator' planned for Mesa

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Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009 9:10 pm | Updated: 12:31 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Mesa, Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council are planning to develop a center for entrepreneurs and researchers to help them translate new technologies into thriving small businesses.

Known as a business accelerator, the idea for the facility at ASU Polytechnic is to help small businesses grow locally.

Besides a facility with office and laboratory space and equipment, it would be a place for networking, mentoring and helping researchers and entrepreneurs apply for venture capital and other resources to develop their ideas into practical products and technologies for industry use.

Those involved with developing the center say it would play off the area's strengths in aviation and renewable-energy research.

The goal aligns with Mesa's vision to foster high-tech, high-wage jobs in the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway region, said Councilman Scott Somers. He noted that ASU Polytechnic's focus on applied research, as well as the aerospace presence, helped push this idea forward.

Mesa also is slated to host the proposed Arizona Aerospace Institute, a public-private venture that would push aerospace interests in the region. Somers said the two entities might even share the physical space early on.

Barry Broome, president and chief executive of the economic council and who has developed similar technology accelerators in Michigan, said it's critical for Arizona to build a technology corridor much like in Silicon Valley.

"If we're looking at great technology corridors, they have a system for developing and delivering companies," Broome said.

San Jose is able to capitalize on the entrepreneurial environment it's created and build companies related to the next big emerging industry, be it computers and chipmaking technology, the Internet or solar and renewable-energy development, he said.

Broome hopes to reap benefits from Mesa's "unique assets" and take the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway area to "world-class status."

The accelerator would be a way to hold on to technological talent and provide an environment in which to harness that into a viable business model. That would prevent the talent and the research developed locally from leaving the state, say the promoters. Case in point: 80 percent of technologies developed in Arizona's universities move out-of-state places such as California and Massachusetts, Broome noted.

Broome said Arizona entrepreneurs' tendency to focus on construction, retail and housing-centric companies needs to be steered in another direction.

"Let's not go start 100 mortgage companies next year," Broome said. "Instead, let's take those entrepreneurs that want to start a company and introduce them to senior engineers that want to start a company but aren't the entrepreneur to run a company."

Linda Knopp, Director of News & Information at the National Business Incubation Association in Athens, Ohio, said that in areas where one economic engine is sputtering, they see local entities looking for other ways to spark economic development by fostering such accelerator centers.

These also tend to help local economies because those involved tend to build their businesses in the same area, she said.

Keith Hjelmstad, dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU Polytechnic, said it's critical for the university to go beyond helping students get internships with companies and nurture deeper collaborations.

"When you assemble the talent for applied research, you're looking at people who have an interest in getting things done, not just creating ideas but seeing them through to some other purpose," he said.

Hjelmstad said ideas such as in-house research being done to extract biofuel from algae, once they come to the point of being harnessed, could be an example of the center helping push it to the marketable level, but the faculty's "brainpower" also could be leveraged by outside businesses.

Steven Shope, president of Cognitive Engineering Research Institute, based near Polytechnic, and a member of Mesa's economic development advisory board, said that when he was starting his small business back in the late 1980s, he failed numerous times. A center like this, he said, would have helped him become even more successful.

The next step is to develop a business plan and a financial plan to help get the money needed to kick-start the initiative. Typically, said Broome, private foundations, government and private businesses would be the financial resource. The economic council's role would be to help set up an environment to attract venture capital. Investment like this takes time to reap rewards, he said.

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