Great ideas, like seeds, need fertile ground in which to grow. The Dartmouth Regional Technology Center (DRTC), a business incubator scheduled to open in early September at Centerra Resource Park, was designed to be that fertile ground, a place where entrepreneurs, inventors, investors, and people with the right connections can help a great idea take root and flourish.
The idea for the incubator itself took root more than five years ago in a conversation between Gregg Fairbrothers '76, chairman of the DRTC board of trustees and director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN), and David Pyke, associate dean of the M.B.A. program at the Tuck School of Business. Fairbrothers was musing about the need for support for entrepreneurs and nascent companies at Dartmouth and Pyke proposed the incubator idea.
To better understand how universities are supporting entrepreneurial activity, Fairbrothers did an in-depth study of existing incubators and entrepreneurship programs at universities around the country. The model he and Pyke settled on included elements from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Georgia Tech, among others. The key for a Dartmouth incubator, it was decided, would be a three-way partnership between government, commerce, and academia.
The business incubator represents a major partnership between the College and New Hampshire state government. Following initial grant support from then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen for a feasibility study completed by Tom Rainey of Rainey and Associates, Dartmouth agreed to contribute a land parcel in its Centerra Resource Park. State economic development and planning organizations North Country Council and the Grafton County Economic Council took title to the land, financed the construction through loans and state and federal grants, and in turn, committed to a no-cost, 25-year lease to the DRTC, a free-standing, nonprofit New Hampshire corporation. With Fairbrothers as CEO and chair of the board of trustees, and Pyke as another trustee, the hope is that close association with the College will provide early stage ventures with business development support and the credibility associated with the Dartmouth name and the Centerra address.
The incubator itself is a two-story, 32,000-square-foot building. Temporarily, the first floor will host researchers from Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) while other DMS facilities are in transition. The second floor contains additional lab space, office space, shared conference areas, and a spacious break area with a tree-shaded patio. "The best advice I got was, 'Don't cut corners on your break room,'" says Fairbrothers. "It may sound trivial, but people in other incubators repeatedly told me that the biggest value in an incubator comes from creating a space where inventive people from different companies and disciplines can interact and synergistically support each other." Companies will lease the office and lab space, at market rates, on a month-to-month basis, providing a crucial flexibility to young organizations not yet ready to make long-term financial commitments, and they will share the cost of the common space, office amenities, and conference rooms, substantially lowering the overhead for the fledgling firms.
"The biggest value in an incubator comes from creating a space where inventive people from different companies and disciplines can interact and synergistically support each other."
- Gregg Fairbrothers '76
Fairbrothers believes in creating mutually beneficial relationships, such as the public/private partnership that brought the incubator to fruition. Preferring to barter rather than buy, he persuaded Jeremy Katz '95, CEO of Segtel, a fiber optic telecommunications provider, to outfit the incubator with high-speed broadband service at no cost. Segtel, which already provides broadband to the rest of Centerra Park, will get a space for a co-location data center in the incubator out of the deal, but Katz described his participation in the venture in more civic-minded terms. "The incubator has a huge value [to the public]. There is a huge hurdle of basic know-how, basic service, and basic expertise that those who've been in business for decades take for granted. The advantage of the incubator is access to the know-how of Dartmouth. Whether it's Tuck, or the engineering school, or the medical school, or the DEN, it comes from being there. I think it's likely going to breed a new generation of companies that are going to be rooted in New Hampshire and inclined to stay here."
Fairbrothers built similar relationships with vendors, contractors, government officials, and entrepreneurs in the course of developing the incubator, but he is quick to point out that, at every level, collaboration is at the core of the program. "There are a number of people without whom this project could never have happened, " he says, citing in particular Provost Barry Scherr, Dean of DMS Stephen Spielberg and Dean of the Tuck School Paul Danos. "The list is a long one," he adds, further noting major support from John W. Ballard II '55 Th/Tu'56, chair of the Thayer Board of Overseers; Charlie Mannix, associate dean of DMS; former Associate Provost for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences Roger Sloboda; Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Adam Keller; Paul Olsen and Larry Kelly of the real estate office; General Counsel Bob Donin; and Sean Gorman '76.
The incubator will open for business in September, and its tenants will include Mascoma Corporation, which is working to develop the energy potential of cellulosic ethanol, a technology pioneered by the firm's cofounder Lee Lynd, professor of engineering at the Thayer School, and Wellan Medical Solutions, a startup with connections to the Thayer School and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC). Wellan is working to produce and sell an auxiliary medical device developed by two DHMC anesthesiologists.
Although the incubator will foster Dartmouth-affiliated companies, the facility is eager to attract any promising early-stage technology ventures. Fairbrothers thinks the potential for economic development and public service are why so many varied interests bought into the project. "The public good has always been the core idea here," he says.
By GENEVIEVE HAAS
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Last Updated: 12/17/08