We’ve all heard of the term incubator. It’s mostly in the context of a science lab where a controlled environment helps create the ideal conditions for the growth of microorganisms (the good ones). Or you might have heard about it around hospitals and babies – an apparatus where premature or ill babies are looked after until they are well enough to face the world.
The premise of a business incubator is not much different, and it draws from both these scenarios. For an entrepreneur a new business is like a baby, needing round-the-clock attention and care. And it also needs the right environment that can help it grow and flourish.
So, is that all there is to it? Let’s find out a little bit more.
Meaning: what’s in a word?
The corporate world describes a business incubator as a facility that is established to nurture fledgling businesses during their young or early years. It offers all the support services and builds the right environment needed by the yet young and fragile business to grow before it can take on the world as a serious entity.
Do not mistake a business incubator as a business assistance program or service. An incubator’s role is that and so much more. But before we get into it, let’s step back a bit and see how the concept came into origin.
History: how did the term originate?
The formal inception of business incubation started in the USA way back in 1959. Massey-Fergusson, the largest industrial center in Batavia, shut down in 1956 and left behind an 850,000 square foot complex of multi-storied buildings which was purchased by the Mancuso family. Instead of splitting it into many units and renting it out to several businesses, as many would have done, Joseph L. Mancuso decided to offer shared office services, but took it a few steps beyond by including assistance with raising capital and also offering business advice. And that’s how Batavia Industrial Centre became the world’s first business incubator. Over the years it has helped thousands of businesses find their feet in the corporate landscape.
The idea took off in the 1980s and soon spread to the UK and Europe, emerging on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean as innovation centres, pépinières d’entreprises, science parks, etc.
Business Incubator: Not business assistance
We’ve already mentioned above that a business incubator is not like a typical business assistance program. For starters, a business incubator does not cater to the needs of any and every company. Entrepreneurs looking to be part of a business incubation program have to apply for admission. The criteria for acceptance vary from program to program, and company to company. However, in general, only those startups which have feasible business ideas and a workable business plan are admitted.
Yes, most business incubators offer office space and shared administrative services to clients. But the core of a true business incubation program is the services it provides to startups. Many incubation programs serve affiliate or virtual clients which do not occupy the incubator facility. These could be home-based businesses or companies in their early days that work out of their own premises but can benefit from incubator services. Virtual clients could be those that are too remote from an incubation facility but can receive counselling and other assistance electronically.
Startup companies often turn to an incubation service to overcome the hurdles of lack of resources, experience and networks. Some of the most common incubator services include:
- Help with business basics and marketing
- Networking activities including access to strategic partners and investors
- Market Research
- Accounting/financial management
- Assistance with bank loans, loan funds and guarantee programs
- Help with presentation skills and business etiquette
- Links to higher education resources
- Comprehensive business training programs and mentoring
- Technology assistance
- Help with regulatory compliance
- Intellectual property management
Present Day Scenario
Today there are about 7,000 incubators worldwide, with a large chunk of them spread across the US and Europe. While government entities, such as cities or counties, take up 21%, around 33% of these are sponsored by economic development organizations,. And then there are academic institutions, including two- and four-year colleges, universities and technical colleges, which account for another 20%.
Business incubation isn’t limited to just developed nations; incubation environments are being created in developing countries and organizations such as UNIDO and the World Bank are offering financial assistance. Several countries also run incubation programs that are funded by their regional or national governments as part of their overall economic development strategy.
Business incubation isn’t a program that is limited to assisting individual businesses. It is a means of meeting a range of economic and socioeconomic policy needs of a nation, including but not limited to job creation, fostering an entrepreneurial climate, building or accelerating growth of local industries, diversifying local economies, business creation and retention, identifying potential business opportunities and community revitalization.
How long a company spends in an incubation program depends on a number of factors, including the type of business and the entrepreneur’s business expertise. Businesses with long research and development cycles take much longer than say, a manufacturing or service companies which can produce and bring a product or service to market quickly. On average, incubator clients spend close to 33 months in the program. Several incubation programs rely on development benchmarks, like company revenues or staffing levels, instead of time.