Incubating on the wing

I am writing this article in airports and on airplanes as I return from a junket to Montreal (actually, Laval, but they are close enough to be the…

I am writing this article in airports and on airplanes as I return from a junket to Montreal (actually, Laval, but they are close enough to be the same thing) for a conference called Driving Incubation beyond Incubators.

It has been some time since I mentioned my plans and activities on the incubation front, but that does not mean either my attention or interest has lapsed — just my available time and funding to pursue the subject.

Briefly put, I was involved last spring with a feasibility study to see whether some kind of business incubation service might be both needed and viable in the Yukon.

A business incubator is basically a place where selected start-up businesses are offered affordable office space and other professional and business-coaching services over a three to five year period to help them get their fledgling businesses ready to fly.

Promising enterprises are adopted by the centre, nursed and nurtured to early maturity, then released into the wild.

There are well over 100 such centres operating in Canada today, and probably at least 10 times that many in the USA.

But none north of 60.

From my involvement with the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre, and with the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce’s Yukon Business Development Project, I already knew that the need for such a service already existed, at some scale or other.

The question I was looking to answer with the feasibility study was, would an incubation centre meet those needs, and could we support one?

The answer we got back, after some pretty quick and intensive work by me and my disinterested, outside consultant, was a tentative “yes.”

Tentative because, though there was certainly some very evident need and interest on the part of the Yukon business sector, there were some quite large “ifs” that had to be dealt with before we could move to a stronger position.

Two of the biggest “ifs” were if a suitable, affordable building space could be found for such a centre; and if the centre could find the buy-in and operational financial support it would need to get started, and to operate until such time as it could become self-sufficient.

Both those questions entail other questions that need answering, and I have been researching those over the past months.

First, just what kind of space is required, and where?

And what do we mean by affordable office space — affordable to what kind of businesses?

Second, Just what kind of buy-in funds do we need; and what would be a reasonable and realistic costing for support for operations, and for how long?

I have been priming funds and talent to start answering those questions over the past months.

But, in doing all this, I am always keenly aware of how new all this is to me, and how limited (really, non-existent) my expertise is when it comes to business incubation.

That is why I was so quick to seize the opportunity to attend this conference in Montreal.

It was a chance to meet up with some actual experts at this kind of enterprise, and to shamelessly exploit their experience and good will for suggestions about business models, standards, best practices and a whole range of other things.

I am returning with some answers and also, perhaps more importantly, some better defined questions that will help me as I try to launch the market studies and resource surveys I hope to undertake over the coming months.

Some of the more surprising, and perhaps valuable, things I learned in these past few days:

My received wisdom that most business incubators in Canada rent office space to their clients at local market rates is wrong.

The man I met from Statistics Canada, which is about to release a study it conducted last year of business incubation centres, informed me that about 45 per cent of incubators charge more than the going rate, another 45 per cent charged less, and only 10 per cent charged for floor space at the local going rate.

My received and accepted wisdom that most incubators are “bricks and mortar” enterprises, centered around physical buildings, is also wrong.

The man from Stats Can told me there are many such incubators hiding out there, and that many of the “bricks and mortar” incubators also actually engage in very extensive “virtual” incubation services to businesses not within their walls.

(A “virtual” incubator is one that does not offer services like office space or office support, but does offer things like business coaching and assistance.)

Both those questions — What is the best pricing model for “bricks and mortar” floor space for a Whitehorse incubator? Could we, and should we, get “virtual” incubation services out to start-up entrepreneurs in the Yukon’s communities — have been on my mind for some time.

The conference shook up my thinking on those two fronts, and on a number of others.

For one, I was beginning to envisage a general-use incubator, but it turns out that those are relatively rare beasts.

More than 65 per cent of Canada’s incubators are technology-centred; very few are generalist.

Maybe I have to revise my thinking on that front, too then. Or maybe not.

That’s the stimulating part of this project: I am, at the moment, literally and figuratively winging it, and learning as I go.

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