Fort Wayne’s Founders aim to link young business leaders

August 25th, 2012

News Coverage:

Fort Wayne's Founders aim to link young business leaders

New venture aims to foster collaboration, slow 'brain drain'

By Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel

Saturday, August 25, 2012 - 6:50 am

In 1787, America's founders signed a Constitution boldly designed to “form a more perfect union.”

In Fort Wayne this week, a new generation of Founders officially began to promote a more perfect union among Fort Wayne's growing but still mostly unorganized and unrecognized cadre of young entrepreneurs.

“We're not traditional or trying to build an empire. People want something different: the ability to collaborate freely without somebody trying to sell them things,” said Steve Franks, who co-founded what he hopes will become an incubator for the next generation of Googles and Microsofts after leaving a similar – yet much different – position at the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center.

The NIIC at 3201 Stellhorn Road and the Founders' office at 614 S. Harrison St. are both incubators of sorts: places designed to help turn good ideas into sustainable and hopefully profitable businesses. But while the NIIC's glitzy 55-acre campus is definitely Big Time, providing expertise, equipment and potentially funding to clients with hundreds of employees and budgets in the millions, the space Franks and young protégés Ray Angel and Ryan Imel have created is notable for the very simplicity of the concept and its surroundings.

Walk through the door in the century-old brick building and you enter a totally modern but sparse environment: Just a few tables and chairs equipped to accommodate computers and the people who use them. And those people are the key, because interaction and cooperation among people who previously may have worked on their laptop alone is precisely what Founders aims to stimulate.

Franks, 60, met Angel and Imel while managing the NIIC's Student Ventures Lab, which helps young people develop ideas into working models. But the 27-year-old Angel, who was developing a web-hosting program and 24-year-old Imel, working on an internet education idea, eventually decided they needed a place where they could work and collaborate on their own terms and on their own schedule.

A few days later they learned the 2,500-square-foot space on Harrison was available -- and Founders was born. Today it can accommodate up to 40 people – all of them encouraged to share ideas and to provide mutual support and inspiration. “It's not secretive, it's collaborative. 'Millennials' like to work together,” Franks said.

“We feel like the entrepreneurial community is reaching the critical mass that makes this possible,” Angel added. “This kind of place has been cropping up all around; Fort Wayne is just catching up.”

The downtown location is essential too, Imel said, because the area is gradually building a reputation among young people as a desirable place to live, play – and work. “What you don't get in the coffee shop is the people (to work with).”

Although it will cost about $3,000 per month to keep the doors open, it costs nothing to sit down, plug in a computer, pour a cup of coffee and start up a conversation. The co-founders are paying some of the bills for now, but the organization also accepts donations and Franks said he hopes people who have used the service will see value in it and help support it financially. Companies created with the Founders' help can also pledge ongoing support, but that's entirely voluntary – there's no attempt to acquire a stake in successful start-ups, he said.

There's been a lot of talk about Fort Wayne's “brain drain”: the loss of many of our best and brightest young people to bigger and supposedly better cities and opportunities. Founders won't stop that all by itself, but Franks is convinced it can help by reassuring savvy 20-somethings that they are not alone, that this city understands their needs and desires and is taking steps to address them.

And, of course, the so-called “social media” will play a huge role in the Founders' success: Thanks to the Internet, it will be clear who is at Founders at any given time, enticing others to come in and interact with others with similar – or perhaps vastly different – backgrounds, talents and interests.

“You may come in with one idea and leave with something new and different,” Angel said.

That's how inspiration works. It's also why Founders lists its opening time as 8 a.m. – while closing time fluctuates. Who's going to tell the next Edison to leave when he or she is about to invent the next light bulb or phonograph?

Now some of you may be thinking: Founders sounds like a cool place just to hang out – maybe even meet new friends or romances.

Not to worry, Angel, Imel and Franks say: If you're there, the other people in the room will probably expect you to be working as hard as they are.

That's how inspiration works, too.

How to find the Founders
For more information or to contribute, go on line to http://atfounders.com.

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