Park's EnterpriseWorks helps make 'tech transfer' work


Park's EnterpriseWorks helps make 'tech transfer' work

When professors want to get an idea off the ground, they look to the University of Illinois Research Park's EnterpriseWorks, a 43,000-square-foot building that has nurtured 74 startup businesses since the park's opening.

The university, with state funding, built EnterpriseWorks to support the UI's "tech transfer" initiative – helping professors bring their ideas, whether a software program or a pharmaceutical drug, to the marketplace.

After spending their early years incubating on campus, several companies have gone on to establish offices in the research park or in Champaign County. Others have moved to Silicon Valley. Some have closed up shop.

Companies that started in the UI business incubator or its predecessor, the Technology Commercialization Lab, include iCyt, a company that builds cell-sorting machines; software firm PowerWorld; and SolarBridge, which manufactures technology for solar-powered systems. All are touted as success stories. Each one is now in the research park.

About 61 percent of the firms launched in EnterpriseWorks and the Technology Commercialization Lab have graduated into self-sustainability, according to the university. Of the 45 companies that graduated, 13 are no longer around. Of the remaining 32, 18 have stayed either in Champaign County or in the research park.

Even if a company leaves Champaign-Urbana or Illinois, that does not end the UI's relationship with the company, said Ravi Iyer, interim vice chancellor for research at the UI.

"There's still some university interest," in Phoenix Coal, he said, due to the company licensing technology from the university.

"I'm sure we would all like all of them to stay here (in Champaign County)," said Scott Pickard, former manager of the research park. But companies tend to migrate to places where they can get financing, where the chief executive officer lives, or where employee or manufacturing needs take them.

It made sense, for example, for Phoenix Coal – an EnterpriseWorks graduate previously called Dynamic Separations – to relocate to Kentucky, a coal-mining state, said Iyer. The mining company uses technology developed at the Illinois State Geological Survey and licensed by the UI.

"It's unrealistic to expect that 100 percent of your companies are going to stay here," Pickard said.

EnterpriseWorks could be much more successful if the UI would consider the quality of the prospective business, not quantity, said Peter Fox, president of Fox Development Corp. and, with Clint Atkins, developer of the research park.

"They need to be really careful about who they lease space to," he said. "We're not the only incubator facility in town. Until we do that, we're sort of kidding ourselves."

Startup businesses in EnterpriseWorks also need more guidance, he said. "The university is making a big investment every time a business goes in there," Fox said.

One thing that could boost that number is developing more local venture capital, so companies don't have to relocate to get financing, Pickard said.

Outside financing, known as venture capital, is less plentiful in Champaign-Urbana than in larger cities or on the two coasts.

About the same time the university established the research park, it also created Illinois Ventures, a university-related organization that provides seed money to new businesses and helps them find more venture capital. About 39 percent of research park companies have received funding from Illinois Ventures. Fox Ventures, a subsidiary of Fox Development, has also invested in several companies housed in the research park.

Many of the research park companies, particularly ones in EnterpriseWorks, also receive federal grants called Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants, specifically for early-stage businesses.

Although the lab can hold up to 36 companies, it isn't full right now. There are 29 tenants working in a variety of industries including software or information technology development, biotechnology and education. How much space each one occupies can vary. Companies can rent office or lab space. A single office can be around 120 square feet and a lab can be about 570 square feet. Companies also have use of conference rooms and other shared spaces in the building.

The university annually reviews the companies' plans, including their space needs and financials, according to Laura Frerichs, associate director of the research park and former vice president of business development and marketing for Fox Development.

"We don't want them to be renting space they're not using," Frerichs said.

As a result, the university has created a new affiliate program specifically for companies in very early stages of development. For about $100 a month, the startup company can have services such as a mailing address and mailbox in EnterpriseWorks, access to shared conference rooms and access to entrepreneur-in-residence consulting services.

The entrepreneur-in-residence program, also new, involves the university hiring someone with entrepreneurial experience for four hours a week of on-site consulting at EnterpriseWorks and other programs or workshops. The first entrepreneur to sign on is Tim Hoerr, former chief executive officer of iCyt and founder of Serra Ventures, a business consulting company now located in the research park.

News-Gazette staff writers Christine des Garennes and Julie Wurth contributed to this report.