By guest authors Irina Patterson and Vandana Upadhyay
Irina: What would be an ideal company that could benefit from your incubation?
Diane: It might be one to four people who have just earned what is called an SBIR grant [Small Business Innovation Research]. They may have earned a Phase I SBIR or NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] or AFRL [Air Force Research Lab] grant, and they have a potential investor already.
So, they have a customer and an investor.
SBIR grants are very different from traditional funding that technology companies receive. Here, the government is the investor, and it does not want any of the IP or any of the revenue. It is free money, essentially, but you have to work hard for it.
So, the ideal company might be an SBIR Phase I company that has a really strong team in terms of management skills, as well as innovation and technology skills.
We will not only help them through Phase I, we also prepare them for Phase II. While they are preparing for an award for Phase II, we’ll help them think strategically to get into Phase III, the commercialization stage. At this stage it becomes a business, not just a research project.
Irina: How many companies have been incubated to date?
Diane: Since 2009, we have incubated nine companies and we have three offers out to companies. We are negotiating with them, and we expect to add another three in the new year.
We are currently incubating six companies, although a couple of our companies are in different parts of the state.
Irina: Would you list the core benefits that you provide?
Diane: We have a wide range of resources that we provide to the companies. But probably the three or four that are most critical to the companies.
Grant funding is number one.
Number two is probably the experienced CEO mentor that we assign to the company, who helps them to develop high-level strategies and helps to open doors that would not be open to them otherwise.
The third thing is probably the network of connections that we have, not only in the aerospace industry but also in all the federal agencies that are funding the research that the startup companies are working on.
We have close relationships with NASA and AFRL. And we are able to take those companies’ technology to the individuals in those organizations, saying, “Hey, we think you ought to be interested in this. Do you have a topic that matches up with it or do you think you might be able to put a topic out there that kind of matches to it?”
And the fourth resource is probably the office infrastructure. We have an office space and a conference room and a little lab and we have the telephone, copier, fax, and so on.
Irina: How are you different from other technology incubators?
Diane: One of the differences is that we are focused on aerospace and we are connected into the industry and agencies that can help fund them.
We also have access to very specialized manufacturing facilities that are industry-approved. The aerospace requires that all the equipment that is used in the manufacturing to be certified and industry approved.
And we have access to those types of equipment, that might cost upwards of half a million dollars, and small companies can’t get to it. It is not like a software incubator that really doesn’t need that type of equipment.
Then, we have two other programs in eSpace that help our client companies in the incubator.
The first is our Straight to Space program (S2S). It is a workforce development program in which we provide training grants to entrepreneurial aerospace companies that hire technicians and engineers from outside the aerospace industry in an effort to replace all the Apollo-era employees who are retiring now.
And so, when our companies start to grow, we are able to provide them additional funding through these training grants, when they start to hire people. We also help other companies throughout Colorado, but we can also help our own companies in providing training grants for new employees.