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Business Incubator Series: Interview With Ken Kousky, CEO, MidMichigan Innovation Center, Midland, Michigan (Part 5)

Posted on Thursday, Mar 17th 2011

By guest authors Irina Patterson and Candice Arnold

Irina: Do you use a lot of volunteer mentors?

Ken: Yes. Our mentor profiling is I’ll work for fame and feeling good or I’ll work for fortune.

If you want to work for fortune, then you want to eventually get paid, or you’ll take equity. We’re letting our mentors profile and say, “I’m looking for a small company. I really want to mentor and help. But I want a stake in it. I want some equity. I’m doing this as a semiretired professional, and I want to get paid for my services.”

Or, “I’m doing this because I believe it has social and community value.” They have options of defining how they’re willing to mentor.

Irina: On average, how many applications do you receive per month?

Ken: Our problem is how much more physical space do we have for physical tenants versus for open members. We’re trying to market the general membership while reducing the number of people looking for physical space. We often can’t meet their physical needs today.

We’re probably talking to about 20 to 30 companies a month as potential affiliate members. We’re not necessarily going to house them, but we want to sign them up for support services.

Irina: How many do you sign up out of those 30?

Ken: Right now we get a 20% conversion rate. We hope that we’re going to close a lot more of them. We’ve just started this program in the past two months, really.

Irina: The general affiliation program?

Ken: Yes. We had a membership program, but it lacked focus. I just started this job in January [2011]. So, we’ve been evolving a lot of these ideas. I’ve been on the board for two years. This is a bit of an organizational transformation from being space-centric and facility-centric to being service-oriented.

Irina: Once you accept a company, what are your next steps?

Ken: That is very specific to the company. We ask the company to self-select what they believe their needs are. We’re learning here. What we find is they all say they need growth capital. We tend to look and say, No, you need sales. You need customers.

I need money to make money, they say. It’s sort of a funny circle. We let the companies identify their critical needs and pick the workshops and services that they believe are most appropriate for their needs. It’s a pre-market process.

We end up preaching to these members that they really should be focused on sales. In general, I’d say that’s the one trend we’ve noticed at this stage. They are asking for guidance in raising capital, and we try to provide that effectively.

But, in many of the companies that we’ve looked at, they’re going to have to shore up. They’re going to have to de-risk their offering to be able to sell it to investors on the terms they’d like to. We typically find that the way to de-risk your offer is to demonstrate more sales, to show technology acceptance and market acceptance.

Irina: Do you have any staff members?

Ken: Yes. We have a staff of six to seven.

Irina: What tools you use? Do you use any special technology?

Ken: Well, we’ve probably had to go to the cloud and Web 2.0 tools sooner and more effectively than most organizations because we really expect our tenants to show up and be face-to-face. Most of our programs are distance learning and outreach. I think we’re a heavily information technology–dependent organization, one that is sharply focused on collaboration.

Irina: Do you have any success stories that you’d like to mention?

Ken: Yes. I alluded to this earlier. I said that the dream of every angel club or innovation incubator center is to find the MIT PhD who has a brilliant new invention that hasn’t been tapped.

We actually had an MIT PhD in material science working in a lab, pretty much on his own. He had some radical ideas about how to approach lead acid batteries.

We’re building $300 million battery facility a couple miles from the incubator that’s a project between Dow and Kokam in Korea, to build sophisticated new batteries.

They’ve been able to take about half the weight out of a traditional lead acid battery and produce the same or better life. It has a longer life cycle, weighs half as much, and costs less to produce. That is a revolutionary technology.

This segment is part 5 in the series : Business Incubator Series: Interview With Ken Kousky, CEO, MidMichigan Innovation Center, Midland, Michigan
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