News Column

Idea Incubator Takes Shape

December 13, 2013

Jacob Demmitt, The Roanoke Times

Blacksburg entrepreneurs are about to find a new place to get their creative juices flowing, as a group plans to launch an office that will give early stage startups a free place to call home.

It doesn't even have an official name yet, but already the town is abuzz as people want to hear more about the project that for now is just being called "The Space."

When the public got its first glimpse of the building on Wednesday night, organizers expected about 30 people to show up to learn more about the free-flowing think tank The Space could one day become. By the time the event got going, more than 200 local entrepreneurs, Virginia Tech professors and creative thinkers had filled the office.

This entrepreneurial community has been growing in Blacksburg and coming together more frequently as the town's heavy hitters roll out one pro-innovation initiative after another.

Now they say this most recent project will create a nucleus for the whole group to revolve around.

Many details are still being finalized, but organizers do know that the 5,000-square-foot office -- which used to house Virginia Tech's Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, or ICAT -- will be turned into an idea incubator that will help young startups get off the ground and feed into the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

The Virginia Tech Foundation will cover two years of rent for The Space, which sits on the ground floor of the Collegiate Square complex in downtown Blacksburg. After that, it should be self-sustaining through donations and fundraising, organizers hope.

"So far, only big cities have had hacker spaces but nowhere in the New River Valley is space like this available," said Iccha Sethi , founder of Let's Code Blacksburg and a Rackspace programmer who plans to use the office. "You have school libraries, school clubs; you have things in separate companies, but there is not one space which brings everyone together."

Nathan Latka, CEO of the Heyo company and one of the brains behind The Space, said this is exactly the kind of facility needed to pull the community's big thinkers out of their apartments and into one area where they will meet and collaborate.

During Heyo's early years, when it was a startup by a group of Tech students and not a million-dollar Facebook marketing company, Latka remembers the frustration of working out of dorm rooms and random places around campus.

He said TechPad was an OK solution but parking was difficult and paying for desks so early in Heyo's life cycle was damaging. Campus libraries are free, but companies can't leave equipment overnight. The corporate research center has nice facilities, but it was too far away from campus for three student co-founders with no cars.

"I'm jealous a space like this exists because it would have been extremely powerful from a growth perspective for Heyo to have in its early days," Latka said.

"This is a unique space that blends together a town, a sharp student community, industry and the full power of academia and the Virginia Tech Foundation. It's going to be an extremely exciting space that will generate tremendous amounts of economic success for the region."

The Foundation has spent the past few months working on the idea with local businesses, the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, the corporate research center and other major players in the region. They have formed a leadership team and hope to give The Space its official name and have it up and running by January or February.

"The Foundation is very much focused on finding ways in which we can advance the innovation ecosystem of the University," said Foundation CEO John Dooley. "We believe this is a critical step toward that end. We need to find ways in which we can nurture young entrepreneurs, match them with other folks with entrepreneurial ideas, and then build an ecosystem here that allows us, quite frankly, to attract the greatest talent that we can find from across the globe."

ICAT will station an employee in The Space to make sure everything is running smoothly. There will be lockers to store belongings and beanbag chairs, couches, desks and whiteboards throughout for brainstorming sessions.

In the middle of the office there will be what organizers are calling the "pool," an open space where anyone can walk off the street and work for a few hours. Around the edges there will be so-called "Jacuzzis," permanent desks that are reserved for particular startup teams.

Tech students will be a big part of The Space, but organizers say it was created for the whole community.

"It's a really nice collision of privacy -- but complete openness -- with no cost, great parking, great WiFi and the sharpest minds you'll find in Blacksburg -- all in one spot," Latka said. Organizers are beginning to look for teams to put in the Jacuzzis. They'll consider teams with "wild crazy" business ideas, social initiatives and any other startup that shows potential to be productive.

Card Isle Corp., a startup that wants to build kiosks that print customized greeting cards, is one of the candidates. They said they would use the space as a headquarters to prototype, learn about the industry and expand their company.

"If you've got a business plan, you can go up to the CRC or the other places in the community to work on your great idea," said ICAT Director Ben Knapp. "But before you have a business plan, before you've got funding, you need space to kind of flesh out the idea."


(c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)

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Original headline: Idea incubator takes shape in Blacksburg

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Source: (c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)

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