INCubator hatches summer projects

Oakland University’s SmartZone business incubator, which was formed in 2006 to help nurture startup companies, will be doing some growing of its own this summer.

The Incubator will forge new partnerships with the Rochester Downtown Development Authority and the Pawley Lean Institute while its partner incubator in Macomb acquires a new building.

In addition to outfitting startup companies with advisory boards, student interns and faculty research, the OU incubator also provides them with financial investments.

OU INCubator, which currently has three on-site clients and a number of would work together with Rochester DDA to provide microloans of up to $50,000 for small businesses.

“The DDA will be working with the OU Incubator to identify sectors of the retail market that would benefit most from being in our downtown,” said Jaymes Vettraino, Rochester city manager.

The two teams are still figuring out the details but expect to begin offering loans in 12 to 18 months. Companies would qualify for a competitive, low interest rate microloan based on their business plan, according to Vettraino.

“We’re interested in relatively small amounts that can maybe help give small retail businesses that first step that they need to start,” Vettraino said.

With an interest in seeing companies foster in downtown Rochester, the DDA would assist in targeting businesses they deem as a good fit and helping them come up with full business plans.

Vettraino said he’d like to see a continuous cycle where they provide companies with loans in return for economic growth and the DDA would offer a “second round of funding” if necessary.

In 2008, the OU INCubator launched another partner incubator in Sterling Heights with an office at 205 Sterling Ponds Court. Less than two years old, the Macomb-OU Incubator will open up a northern campus in the Plumbrook Technology Park off 18 Mile Road between Mound and Van Dyke roads.

The 36,000 square foot building was donated by Michael Damman of A.J. Damman Co., a commercial developer based in Troy. Formerly a childcare center owned by Ford Motor Company, the building will house laboratories and tenant clients.

Once retrofitted, Stephen Cassin, Macomb County executive director of planning and economic development, said the building should be opened by July 1.

While the OU Incubator is what executive director David Spencer calls a “mixed use incubator,” focusing on life science technology, defense, alternative energy and advanced manufacturing, the Macomb-OU Incubator focuses primarily on defense.

“It’s what we do best,” Cassin said, who added that since 2000, “nearly 66 percent of all new defense contracts ordered to businesses (in Michigan) went to Macomb (County).”

The Macomb-OU Incubator is one of 15 SmartZones in the state, which means it is technology-based incubator approved by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Cassin said Macomb-OU Incubator has received three earmarks valued at $282,000, $384,000 and $100,000 from the federal government over the last few years. The state of Michigan has also recently committed $250,000, Cassin added, and he expects to continue getting grants from private agencies as well.

To offer its expertise, the Pawley Lean Institute will be moving to the Macomb-OU Incubator in July.

“In the coming year, the OU INC looks forward to a new focus in medical technology and health science technology in alignment with the new medical school being launched with Beaumont Hospital and OU,” Spencer said. “We also will be working close in Macomb with the OU-Pawley lean institute to develop best practices in lean processing for defense in southeast Michigan.”

The Institute, which focuses on lean practices, will have “two and a half” staff members on site, according to director Julianne Leigh: a program coordinator and student intern working full-time and Leigh, who would work part-time whilemostly remaining at Oakland’s campus.

The program coordinator would set up programs and network with clients and the intern would help throughout the summer and fall, according to Leigh.

She credits Dr. Mary Otto, vice president for Outreach, with spearheading the movement between the Institute and Spencer and the Incubator.

“She’s been instrumental in developing this relationship,” Leigh said.

All lean faculty would have access to the incubator to conduct lean research and instill lean thinking into their curriculum.

As for what lean is, Leigh said “it’s about eliminating waste, really.”

“With any industry, it’s generally not the people but the process that needs improvement,” Leigh said.

The Institute would work with the INCubator’s client companies to eliminate their waste and make them more efficient.

“I think this will be wonderful for the Institute and Macomb County and the businesses,” Leigh said, calling the move to have a learning institute housed within a business development zone an “exciting natural fit.”