Related programs will broaden focus from tech
ROHNERT PARK — The North Bay iHub and the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster are each on the verge of a significant evolutionary step, transitioning from a focus on high-tech startups to the promotion of innovative companies and nonprofits across a broad variety of industries in the North Bay, according to leaders coordinating those efforts.
The changes include a new name and branding for the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster incubator program, which has already begun to open some of its 30,000-square-foot facility as permanent office space for not only startups, but existing companies and nonprofits, said Lindsay Austin, iHub chairman.
For the iHub, a clearinghouse for North Bay business development programs and one of six designated statewide, a revamped website is expected to provide more robust information about programs for entrepreneurs in Sonoma, Marin, Napa and surrounding counties, Mr. Austin said
The changes, including the new name of the incubator program, will be teased along with the revamped Web offerings during the regular “Entrepreneur’s Happy Hour” at the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster on April 2. The changes will be formally announced during the program’s sixth anniversary celebration in September.
The evolution of the two programs, operated in conjunction with one another after the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster was named as the regional iHub in 2010, is the latest news for business development initiatives in a region that has seen a rapid expansion in resources available to entrepreneurs.
“What we’ve found is that the North Bay is not as dense as places like Silicon Valley,” Mr. Austin said. “We’ve realized that what makes sense in this physical location is to rebrand it as an ‘innovation community.’”
The Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster was launched in 2007, funded by contributions from individuals, North Bay companies and the city of Rohnert Park. Housed at the former Rohnert Park campus for Agilent Technologies, the program was the first of its kind in the North Bay and followed the lead of other incubators in catering to companies in the tech sector.
That focus on tech was not merely a product of Silicon Valley’s influence – while the Bay Area has an undisputed reputation for technology innovation, patent protection for new technology provides an additional layer of security for investors looking for a return from funding high-growth startups, Mr. Austin said.
Yet despite a number of companies taking part in the program, portions of the facility remained unfilled. Inviting new industry sectors to set up shop will not only put the fully-equipped office spaces to use, but promote the kind of incidental interactions that Mr. Austin said often spark new ventures.
“Innovation happens through interaction,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Austin said that regional investors are increasingly interested in funding companies in non-tech sectors like food, fashion and the not-for-profit realm. The North Bay, he noted, benefits from networks including the North Bay Angels and the local branch of the Keiretsu Forum.
Mr. Austin did not cite specific rates for office space at the facility, but said that they would be highly competitive. Approximately half of the facility’s 38 offices and 22 cubicle spaces are still available, with room for up to 70 workers in their main area, he said.
Sonoma State University, located near the incubator facility, is among the first to take residence in the revamped program. The school has leased four offices, making it the partial home of its executive MBA and other programs.
“Entrepreneurship isn’t a solo sport,” said Dr. William Silver, dean of the school of business and economics at Sonoma State. “By running some programs over there, we’re trying to create that interaction.”
Mr. Silver noted that Sonoma State is the anchor university for the North Bay iHub, addressing that role with initiatives that include the annual business plan competition, the Innovation Showcase, and the adoption of a full-time “entrepreneur-in-residence.”
While a frequent advocate for the university’s role as a conduit for attracting programs to benefit North Bay entrepreneurs, Mr. Silver also noted that those efforts were often detached from Sonoma State’s campus in Rohnert Park.
“We’re trying to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation in the North Bay,” he said of the broader iHub effort. “To do that, you can’t be site specific. Innovation happens everywhere.”
The new iHub website, expected for launch around the time of the formal announcement, will make it easier for the North Bay’s business incubators, co-working spaces and other programs to connect with potential client businesses, Mr. Austin said.
The roster of business incubation and development programs in the North Bay continues to grow. The past two years saw the opening of the Venture Greenhouse and Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in Marin County, along with co-working spaces like Work Petaluma and Santa Rosa’s Share Exchange. Another co-working space, iWork Healdsburg, is expected to open this spring, with ongoing efforts to secure complete funding for a new business incubator in Napa, Trellis Napa Valley.
Co-working spaces, which offer office space for short-term rent, represent a distinct service for “serial entrepreneurs” that simply require a place to do business either on occasion or on the go, said Carolyn Stark , executive director of the public-private business development group in Sonoma County, Building Economic Success together, or BEST.
Increasing the features of the North Bay iHub website could make it easier for those entrepreneurs to find facilities in the North Bay and have the kind of chance interactions that occasionally lead to innovative ventures, she said.
“In our county, there are entrepreneurial initiatives happening everywhere,” she said. “These are pieces of the entrepreneurial equation. The iHub can coordinate that.”
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