By Anthony Clark | Gainesville Sun
With the University of Florida building the fifth business incubator in Alachua County, consultants have recommended that the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center carve out its own niche to stay relevant.
They were critical of the existing GTEC program as low performing in most categories important to startup companies, based on interviews with people involved in or familiar with the program.
GTEC also should transform from simply a place for tenants to rent into a true incubator that provides a broader range of consulting services and encourages interaction among member companies, said the report from a three-person team from the Georgia Tech incubator in Atlanta.
The Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency commissioned the assessment as a first step to improving incubator services and facilities after oversight was transferred from general government to the CRA for the 2011 fiscal year. The assessment cost more than $20,000.
The city owns the GTEC building at 2153 Hawthorne Road and contracts with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce to manage incubator services.
GTEC opened 10 years ago as a place to nurture technology companies with $1.4 million in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and $180,000 each from the city and county governments.
It will soon have more competition with the opening of the UF Innovation Hub to go with the UF Sid Martin Biotech incubator, the Santa Fe Center for Innovation and Economic Development and the privately funded Synogen.
“... GTEC will quickly be overwhelmed by the Hub if it does not differentiate itself,” the report says.
GTEC is sustained through rent charged to tenants, with 14 companies now occupying space.
According to the assessment, the program has not done enough beyond collecting rent.
“The staff acts more like facilities managers than incubator business catalysts,” it reads.
But some tenants don't want any more than just reasonably priced office space.
Chamber President and CEO Brent Christensen said he was surprised by how many issues considered critical to an incubator were ranked low in importance by tenants.
The consultants said the resident mix should “include more coachable enterprises who are interested in an incubator program …”
Other recommendations for GTEC include:
* More consulting services, including one-on-one mentoring with successful entrepreneurs.
* More access to investors.
* Reconfigured facilities that encourage interaction among companies and include space for smaller companies of one to three people.
* Management with prior experience with an incubator and in building a successful company.
CRA staff presented the assessment and their plans going forward Monday to the CRA board, which consists of city commissioners.
“We have already made some moves to rectify some of the issues that are in this report,” Christensen said.
He would not elaborate further.
The chamber fired Executive Director Booker Schmidt in March and the communications manager left a short time later.
Christensen said the program has had some successes, with companies that grew and graduated. They include AxoGen and Sinmat, which both moved into larger office and manufacturing space, and WiPower, which was bought out by Qualcomm.
Current and former companies have created 289 jobs, according to the CRA.
The most immediate plans include working with the GTEC advisory board to determine what companies are most appropriate, hiring new management and reconfiguring the building.
CRA Manager Anthony Lyons estimated it may cost $250,000 for renovations, overdue maintenance and to expand programs for tenants.
CRA projects are funded through a portion of property taxes collected in designated districts.
Of the six commissioners present, the four who spoke expressed support for investing in GTEC.
Scherwin Henry, whose commission district includes east Gainesville, said GTEC “should have been a higher priority. This is a long time coming.”
Todd Chase, who once had a company in the facility and served on its board, said, “It doesn't have a huge budget and has probably done as good as it could do for many years.”
The CRA also presented plans to redevelop the GTEC parcel to include additional buildings and develop adjacent city owned property that could house program graduates and other businesses.