Business incubator to move into new larger facility

June 24–Like so many of the small businesses it has helped develop since its inception in 2012, the Edge Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation has outgrown the space it’s housed in.

The center opened six years ago in a 9,000-square foot building owned by Regions Bank on 22nd Avenue in downtown Tuscaloosa.

Jim Page, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, said ground was broken on a new dedicated facility for the entrepreneurial incubator at 2627 Tenth Ave. last June, and that Harrison Construction anticipates finishing their work there by the end of October.

Operations are slated to begin in January, and Page said that will bring about fundamental changes in how the center works.

“At the Edge, we partner with the University of Alabama right now and we kind of serve the managing entity and they partner with us on programming and marketing,” Page said. “When we get in the new building, our roles are largely going to reverse — they’re going to be the managing entity, and we’re going to just support them from a programming and marketing standpoint.”

Management of day-to-day operations will fall to Theresa Welbourne, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama and the executive director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute.

Welbourne said the plans for the Chamber to turn over operations to UA have been underway for two years, since she moved to Tuscaloosa from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“The way it’s worked, contractually, is that the Chamber runs the day-to-day of the building, overseeing the lease, tenant relations and the like,” Welbourne said. “We have a team and we really focus on the programming, the learning content, but we’ve been doing things to transition that. When we move into the new space, we’ll take over those operations.”

Page said the lion’s share of the cost of building the $11.6 million facility is covered by a 2013 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and the city of Tuscaloosa will pay for the rest. Page said this will allow the new location to launch with no debt, a huge advantage for the incubator.

The new building will bring several major upgrades to the Edge’s efforts to aid entrepreneurs. Their current home is 8,700 square feet with seven offices and 12 shared space workstations. The new facility will be more than 26,000-square feet and feature 25 office, 100 workstations, training rooms, a conference room and a lounge.

“The new facility coming out of the ground right now is truly going to be a game-changer because it will add significant capacity to what has already been successful,” Page said. “I think the sky’s the limit in terms of what can be offered at the new facility, whereas we’re severely handicapped in the facility we’re in now.”

Welbourne said her team is in the process of pre-leasing the new space, and that any interested entrepreneurs can reach out and see if the Edge is right for them. The phone number for the Edge is 722-5166.

The Edge has primarily served as an incubator for entrepreneurs, where small businesses can lease all-inclusive office space for a nominal price and focus on developing their ideas or growing their staff instead of fretting over the overhead cost of rent and utility bills.

Welbourne said the new center will allow the Edge to also serve as an accelerator. These accelerator programs will allow new or established businesses with entrepreneurial ideas to spend 8-12 weeks in a more formal, structured environment that offers training, mentoring and coaching about the small-business world. At the end of each accelerator program, Welbourne said, participants can demonstrate the ideas they’ve developed and seek funding from interested investors.

“When we talk about incubation and acceleration, the emphasis is often on new companies but we will be working with established companies as well, because many of them are still very interested in being entrepreneurial,” Welbourne said. “We’re really hoping this will be a hub for both established businesses and people who are just starting out, as long as they all are interested in entrepreneurship and innovation.”

Page said improving the Edge will also advance one of the Chamber’s top priorities — to create jobs for students passing through the University of Alabama, Stillman College and Shelton State Community College and keep those young professionals in the Tuscaloosa area.

“Anecdotally, I’ve talked to countless students over the years that come to the university and fall in love the campus and the community, the quality of life, the low cost of living, and they have a real interest in staying here, but a lot of them don’t feel like they are going to have the job opportunities to stay here so they leave,” Page said. “We lose untold numbers of students every semester to other communities because they don’t feel like we have jobs available for them to stay.”

Page stressed the need to develop the availability of rental space, counseling and mentoring, workshops, training programs, networking, collaborative opportunities, access to capital and more in the Tuscaloosa area.

“All of that collectively forms the ‘economic ecosystem.’ ” Page said. “We want to be known as a community that, if somebody has a great business idea, whether it started at the university or just in the community, that there’s an ecosystem here to support them, nurture them and give them every resource and opportunity to grow and be successful.”

Both Page and Welbourne praised the strong spirit of collaboration that allows the Edge to be successful.

“The great thing about the Edge is that it is a true public-private partnership, a community initiative between the university, the city and the business community through the Chamber,” Page said. “It’s what makes our business incubator unique and I think it’s what will make it successful in the long-term. It’s something the whole community can be proud of and it’s accessible to the whole community.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.