Downtown Business Incubator provides nurturing place for fledgling businesses

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 | 9:01 p.m. CDT; updated 12:00 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 6, 2012
A grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Wednesday for the opening of the Brent and Erica Beshore Downtown Business Incubator. The incubator will be used to assist entrepreneurs and startup businesses.

*This story has been updated to correct the amount of the donation from Brent and Erica Beshore.

COLUMBIA — "Daunting" is how Caroline Leemis described the experience of launching her own business.

With no background in business, she has to learn everything from scratch. The books she has read since June could stack up to three feet, and she spent all summer writing business and marketing plans.

"It’s just overwhelming, especially when you’re doing this all by yourself," she said.

But soon Leemis will be able to work with a bunch of entrepreneurs just like her and get professional advice from business experts.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday afternoon marked the launch of the Brent and Erica Beshore Downtown Business Incubator. The space was filled with dignitaries including Mike Matthes, city manager, Michael Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development Inc., Heidi Fuhrman, director of The League of Innovators and several ambassadors from Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

The incubator, named after Brent and Erica Beshore, received a $20,000* donation from Brent Beshore, owner of the venture capital firm AdVentures and a member of the Regional Economic Development Inc. board of directors. Other partners include The League of Innovators, the Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Center and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

The workspace, painted in light blue and furnished with 30 desks, will provide startup businesses with the support and resources they need to grow. Tenants will enjoy 24-7 access, wireless Internet and a business address.

Located on the ground floor of the parking garage at Fifth and Walnut streets, the incubator has the most valuable resources at hand. It’s adjacent to REDI and close to the Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Center, which offers free consulting service and seminars for small businesses.

The idea of a downtown incubator started two years ago but was threatened when the city’s application for a federal grant failed. Brent Beshore stepped in and helped with the financing.

Beshore said he has seen the excitement for entrepreneurship in Columbia, and he wants to see something meaningful happen at the incubator.

About 15 people, including Leemis, have filed applications so far, Furman said. She said the applications will be evaluated and the startup entrepreneurs selected soon.

For Leemis, the entrepreneurial community and the rich business resources are the most attractive amenities of the incubator.

"I want a place to come to a few times a week, to interact with people and bounce off some ideas," she said.

Leemis graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in interior design. She has been planning on launching her business, Caroline Leemis Design, since June. It will target small businesses that are looking for renovation or relocation and small private clinics to see how their interior design could improve patients’ experiences.

Leemis worked for several architecture firms before she decided to start her own company to use her education to its full potential. Although she has experience in design, the business part can be frustrating, she said. She has to work out the idea and the plans all by herself, and deal with stuff that she knows little about, such as taxes and marketing.

She’s working from home right now, and she said it’s not efficient working alone. Leemis is excited about the incubator, which she said is a good place to hook up small businesses with professionals to get as much help as needed for sustainable development.

The business incubation model started to grow in the 1980s, providing startup businesses with cheap working space and counseling service. The model came to a halt after the dot-com bubble, but is now at its all-time high, according to the National Business Incubation Association. The association's website shows there are about 41,000 new businesses sharing 1,200 incubators countrywide.

The model proves to be an effective one. The success rate of these new businesses is as high as 87 percent, while those without an incubator have a lower success rate of 44 percent, according to the website.

Incubators also are effective job creators. A 2008 study by the Economic Development Administration shows incubators have a higher return on investment in employment than other public projects such as road construction. The administration reported that 47 to 69 jobs are generated for every $10,000 invested in business incubators. The 2008 data are the most recent available.

Fuhrman said one of the purposes of setting up a business incubator is to retain local talent.

Lots of students graduate from MU, and we want them to stay with their business ideas, she said.

"This is a way for us to focus on creating jobs by growing our own companies, instead of trying to recruit companies, so that we could gain more control over the opportunities to create jobs," Brooks said.

The incubator will be able to hold 30 people at one time, and the rent is $150 per person per month, Fuhrman said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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