Editor’s note: Joe Magno is Executive Director, the North Carolina Center of Innovation Network, which is a partner with WRAL TechWire

GREENSBORO – Business Incubators have been around since the late 1950’s and continue to be a location of choice for young entrepreneurial companies searching for a home to “hatch” or get their small businesses off the ground. The concept of business incubation has evolved over the years from places where concepts could be developed, to facilities that supported the growth and development of young business entities, to environments where young enterprises with common interests can benefit from a network that promotes sharing.

Whether in a research or academic setting or as part of a community effort, incubators have spawned many successful businesses and continue to grow in numbers as they evolve. The term “Incubation” however, should be more closely examined to reflect more clearly how we might grow today’s high technology based businesses more effectively.

The word “Incubator” is a noun defined as an enclosed apparatus providing a controlled environment for the care and protection of premature or unusually small babies, an apparatus used to hatch eggs or grow microorganisms under controlled conditions, or a place, especially with support staff and equipment, made available at low rent to new small businesses.

In today’ rapidly moving global economy it may be time to rethink our terminology and consider a more active terminology to define how we might grow 21st century enterprises more effectively. How about the term “Cultivation”?  Cultivation is a verb, and thereby implies action, and is defined as the action of cultivating land, or the state of being cultivated, or the process of trying to acquire or develop a quality or skill.  Cultivation implies care and nurturing.  Cultivation requires action and observation.

One way of comparing incubation and cultivation might be to consider incubation of an egg vs. cultivation of a seed. You place the egg in an incubator, set a temperature, and let it sit until it hatches (or doesn’t).  Sure, you look in on it and from time to time turn it, but for the most part leave it alone and let nature take its course.  When germinating a seed there’s usually more involved.  You need to place in in soil, making sure that it’s placed properly, keep the soil moist and nutritious, in most cases let the sun or light in, and from time to time perhaps even do some tilling and maybe even some culling to allow the healthy plants more room to grow.  When the seed becomes a seedling you carefully transplant it into an environment where it can grow into the plant it was destined to be, all the while understanding it is still a fragile seedling that continues to need nurturing from time to time.

Crucial questions

A true business cultivator can be identified by asking the following questions:

  • Are applicants thoroughly vetted prior to acceptance or “planting” in the facility to make certain it is ready to grow?
  • Is there a well thought out business plan?
  • Does it have the needed capital or the ability to effectively raise it?
  • If the company is based upon specific intellectual property, is it secure?
  • Have the Principals secured the engagement of appropriate mentors who will be willing and able to assist with cultivation?
  • Are they willing to accept advisement and suggestions?

Once moved in or “planted” are sufficient resources available to assist in the “Cultivation”?

  • Does the facility encourage a sense of community?
  • Does the facility provide ample support in the form of business educational and informational events?
  • Are staff members understanding and empathetic to the needs of growing companies and are they readily accessible?
  • Are support services readily available to support the companies?
  • Will the facility assist in “transplanting” when the company is ready to move out?
  • Are there relationships with realtors and others that can assist the young companies as they grow out of the facility?
  • Will the facility encourage a continuing relationship with a meaningful follow up system once a young company leaves?