By guest authors Irina Patterson and Praveen Karoshi
I am talking to Tim Lavengood, executive director of the Technology Innovation Center (TIC), which is a not-for-profit business incubator dedicated to supporting the growth of very early stage tech companies. Founded in 1986, the incubator is based in Evanston, Illinois.
Irina: Hi, Tim. Would you tell us briefly how you ended up at TIC?
Tim: Sure. I was a business partner with someone who had a significantly industrial career, far more so than me, Donald Frey. Donald had been the chief of engineering of Ford Motor Company and had a local area company here. I was his business partner, his distinctly junior partner. He was a mentor of mine, and I was working with him. He took an interest in this incubator and when its manager left, he asked me to leave our little partnership and take this job, so I did.
Prior to that, I was working with Donald and another Northwestern University professor, and we were doing consulting with foreign governments, mostly developing country governments, on how to target their economic development investments, how to leverage indigenous resources coupled with technology that we would usually source from the United States, and how to produce globally competitive products for hard currency.
I worked in Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, and did a couple of other jobs in the Caribbean.
Irina: Where did you go to school?
Tim: I have a bachelor’s and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin.
Irina: How long have you been with the incubator?
Tim: I have been here for 12 years now.
Irina: Great. Would you give us a brief overview of the incubator?
Tim: Sure. We serve innovation-based businesses. We are not sector-specific, but we focus on technology businesses and help companies to develop a strategy for going to market based on their ability to innovate as they go up against better-branded, better-funded competitors. We basically provide four categories of resources: space and infrastructure; services; links to institutions of higher education; and what I call a peer group of entrepreneurs, peer-to-peer learning, which we facilitate.
So, in a little more detail, we provide month-to-month leases of small spaces; high-quality broadband [Internet connection] that a typical startup would not have access to; telephone and telephone usage; furniture; and common meeting areas. We bill all of that into a month-to-month package so that companies don’t have to make long-term commitments.
We also provide services, mostly legal and financial. We help companies begin to understand their company’s financials, develop valid financial projections, and learn to deal both with potential equity investors and with banks.
And then, on the legal side, we deal mostly with the issues of incorporation, bringing in new partners, and keeping shareholders happy. On the other side, what most of our companies are doing is taking intellectual property to market, those tend to be more complicated transactions than “You give me a product and I give you the money and we say goodbye to each other.” These are long-term things dealing with licensing, royalties, and ongoing income streams, so we also help the entrepreneurs to understand how to structure those kinds of deals.
Then, in terms of access to universities, we do about 20 projects with student teams from Northwestern, UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] and others. Most of them deal either with design and prototyping issues for our companies, how to get a product ready for market or ready-tailored to go after a new niche market. The students we use are mostly from the business schools. They will come in and help the companies.
There are also some instances when university’s faculty and students have been launching companies. Three or four of our suites are actually rented by Northwestern.
We also take on a lot of the winners of university business plan competitions. If the winners want to go forward and try to commercialize an idea, they will come here. We have some university faculty here now from Northwestern, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and the University of Chicago, and sometimes there is collaboration between our small companies and university faculty in pursuit of things like small business innovation or research grants with the federal government.