Innovation Spaces

Posted on 2/1/2018 by Fred Kenney

ACCELERATOR              INCUBATOR                MAKER SPACE

One tool to encourage entrepreneurship is innovation space. Innovation space can take many forms: Accelerators, Incubators, Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, and Co-Working Spaces. There has been some discussion in our region recently about establishing certain types of innnovation space. Sometimes the discussion is helped when everyone uses the same lingo. So below are descriptions of the different spaces, their benefits, and some Vermont examples. Some organizations offer more than one kind of space or service and therefore may serve a continuum of start-up stages and some are physical while others are virtual.

But first: Calling all Makers and prospective makers! Mark your calendars for the annual Open House and innaugural Maker Faire at the Hannaford Career Center on February 15 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.  This is an opportunity to showcase innovation and creativity and to get information and provide input on the potential to establish a community Maker Space in Middlbeury, perhaps right at the Hannaford Career Center.  

Accelerator: An accelerator is a structure that offers a program and resources in exchange for shares in your company. Accelerators usually work with startups for a short and specific amount of time, usually from 90 days to four months. Accelerators also offer startups a specific amount of capital. In exchange for capital and guidance, accelerators typically require a percentage ownership of your company. Accelerators may offer some or all of these resources: money, contacts with partners and resources, investors, community, media outreach, supervising, mentoring and training. Some accelerators, especially those that offer funding, may also require you to get approval on how you are spending the money. Find out the requirements of the accelerator to whom you want to apply. Often, they will ask that you have already built a prototype. Some prefer investing in teams, not individuals. At the end of the day, most accelerators are backed by some investors who are not charity organizations and they want to make a profit, same as you. However, some accelerators are backed by and partner with publicly-funded institutions. Examples of accelerators in Vermont include: The Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET) with locations in Burlington and Middlebury (a member of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation-ACEDC), Accel-VT, located in Montpelier and associated with the VSJF, and Vermont Small Business Accelerators, LLC, a private firm in South Burlington.  

Incubator: Incubators offer resources and sometimes even a bit of starting capital. However, you may need to pay for a membership, or even give some equity. In exchange, you get a working space, mentoring, and a network of partners. Incubators usually are at least connected to some investors or invest themselves. There are many types of incubators and conditions can vary a lot. With mentorship periods often lasting more than a year and a half, incubators focus less on quick growth and have no specific goal in mind for your company other than to become successful at the right pace. In fact, the goal of some incubators may be to prepare your company for an accelerator program. Many incubators are funded by grants through universities, allowing them to provide their services without taking a cut of your company. It may be difficult to get accepted by an incubator if your networks aren’t already connected in some way, as many only accept pitches from entrepreneurs with whom they already have a relationship. If your goal is to gain the mentorship of an incubator, be prepared to perfect and utilize your networking skills. Examples of incubators in Vermont include VCET, the Incubator Without Walls (iWOW) at Lyndon State College's Center for Rural Enrepreneurship, and the Old Stone Mill, run by the Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship for Middlebury College students(also an ACEDC member).

Advantages/Disadvantages of Accelerators and Incubators

Whether you work with an accelerator or an incubator, there are pros and cons of both. For starters, the advice and guidance of mentors can help you avoid mistakes that could cripple your startup if you were trying to go your own way. Both options also provide access to capital that may have been otherwise unavailable. Additionally, both accelerators and incubators provide the space to develop your idea. Lastly, being a part of an accelerator or incubator can provide invaluable connections, and some may also have networking events to help you boost your exposure.

Many advantages of incubators and accelerators come with an opposing disadvantage. For example, your routine and your vision are completely your own when working with only your team members. Working with an incubator or accelerator can impose the opinions of your mentors and take your idea in a direction in which your team may not be in complete agreement. Working with these mentors is also a big time commitment, and will likely require you to spend time away from developing your product by attending meetings with mentors and/or investors. Additionally, your schedule depends on your mentors.

Maker Spaces and FabLabsMaybe the most popular kind of a innovation place today is the less structured one where people of different skills gather to turn their ideas into physical objects. Or, the place where people do not talk about their ideas, but rather make ideas happen. A makerspace will usually have the whole set of prototyping tools, from a simple screwdriver or a saw to 3D printers and laser cutters. Makers are people willing to discover new ideas and share them with others. They help each other to materialize these ideas. People work on anything from simple art projects to complex robotic solutions. It is also a lot about education. Many makerspaces are running courses on Arduino projects or maybe even workshops on wood processing or 3D printing. FabLabs are similar to makerspaces but more academically and professionally oriented. There you can find lots of tools and machines for your mini production runs (and prototypes). But do not expect to have strong community support. If you need help from others, you will probably need to pay them a fee. Also, FabLabs are a very good place to find out about the complexity of mass production processes. Examples of Maker Spaces in Vermont include: The Foundry in Lyndon, the Mint in Rutland, the Generator in Burlington, and one in the works for Middlebury: The XFactory.

Co-Working: A co-working space is a place where different people and companies share a bigger office with shared amenities like coffee machines, an Internet connection, working desks and chairs, fridge, meeting rooms, a lounge area, etc. Space can be dedicated or used by different entities at altering times and can e especially useful for remote workers. The key benefits of a co-working space are a well-organized and equipped office space at an affordable cost and an opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs. Examples of co-working spaces in Vermont include: the KB Coworking and Conference Center in Vergennes (another ACEDC member), VCET in Middlebury and Burlington, and the Study Hall in Burlington.