Helping entrepreneurs: Incubators help nurture startups until they can stand alone

SURGE Business Development is a State College incubator that grew out of a Penn State internship program.
SURGE Business Development is a State College incubator that grew out of a Penn State internship program. CDT photo

Incubators are a place where a new baby — a tiny thing that just can’t survive without help — can get support, get strong, can grow until it is big enough to survive outside.

But incubators aren’t just for human babies. They can also be the perfect place to nurture an idea and turn it into a business.

A business incubator is more than just an office building or a storefront.

According to the National Business Incubator Association, there were more than 1,250 incubators in the United States in 2012. In 2011, those incubators helped about 49,000 startup companies, which in turn “provided full-time employment for nearly 200,000 workers and generated annual revenue of almost $15 billion.”

“I think that what it’s really about is the support network,” said Stan LaFuria, of the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership. “It can be very beneficial.”

Incubators became a hot economic development tool in the 1980s and ’90s, when a great deal of funding to create or support the projects became available. That’s when MVEDP first created its incubator, about 50,000 square feet of its 210,000-square-foot Moshannon Valley Enterprise Center in the repurposed former home of the General Cigar Co. factory in Rush Township.

“What a good incubator really provides is experience. Startups often have a great idea but their founders may have gaps in their knowledge or experience. A good incubator will have a variety of skills that a startup might not even know that they’ll need in order to be successful,” said Kerry Small, of SURGE Business Development.

SURGE, which stands for Supporting University Research, Growth and Entrepreneurship, is a downtown State College incubator that grew out of a Penn State internship program.

“Depending on the incubator, virtually every necessary business service can be accessed. Accounting, technology support, marketing, sales, management and other disciplines, or sometimes it’s just an experienced ear to hear an idea,” Small said. “Some incubators provide ... support in every area of the business, some are more specialized.”

That isn’t the only local incubator. The Centre County Industrial Development Corp. has one. Restek started there in 1985. Today, its chromatography supplies are sold around the world.

Over the course of about 20 years, LaFuria’s incubator helped get about 60 businesses started. Like a preschool, the facility gave many of them the tools to move on. Some moved to bigger facilities in the enterprise center, or to their own buildings elsewhere.

LaFuria talks about them like a proud teacher.

“It’s great for people who have an idea for a product or a service but they don’t have the experience in business. They just need that help,” he said.