Innovative incubations

November 2nd, 2014

News Coverage:

Published: November 2, 2014 3:00 a.m.

Innovative incubations

Business center, churches join forces to help develop local startups

Frank Gray | The Journal Gazette

The numbers are what stood out in the mind of Karl LaPan, president of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, a sprawling business incubator on the city’s north side.

Statewide, 38 percent of the available workforce is not working, he said, citing an Indianapolis Star article that quoted various economists in the state.

Between 9 percent and 11 percent of all businesses, he said, have been started by entrepreneurs.

The numbers, LaPan said, were perplexing. How could one rewrite the rules and get more people into the workforce?

The question has brought together two dissimilar groups – the NIIC and the Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, a business incubator and a group of 140 congregations – and a plan to bring together pastors, people with dreams and people with know-how to create jobs and strengthen the community.

The program, called One Body Business Connection, hopes to help develop startup businesses, existing home-based businesses and newly established technology ventures.

Organizers also hope to help connect local entrepreneurs, vendors and mentors.

From the church side, it makes sense, said Steve Staley, director of development for Associated Churches.

Churches feel the strain when the economy is flagging, he said. But if churches can help people grow, the community and the churches both grow stronger.

The innovation center is something of a hidden gem in the community, Staley said.

Entrepreneurs know about it, he said, but most people who drive by it assume it is part of IPFW or Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast.

Meanwhile, churches might be full of people with ideas for their own businesses. Problem is, some of those people don’t know how to pull it together, don’t know who to ask for advice and don’t know about the Innovation Center.

“That’s why we’re getting the pastors involved,” Staley said.

With 140 churches with 100,000 members of all denominations, sizes and ethnic backgrounds, the association is the perfect way to spread the word.

When people are trying to start a business, they often turn to typical sources for advice: accountants and lawyers, LaPan said. But that can be expensive, so many turn to their pastors.

“The pastor is a trusted adviser,” he said. “We hadn’t thought about that.”

It was a natural fit, LaPan said. “We had an opportunity to engage with another organization that wasn’t in our business.

“It’s our job to say, ‘what if,’ ” LaPan said. “Could we create something that could move the needle on unemployment? If we can get people thinking more highly of themselves and boost their esteem, we can make a difference.”

“I was blown away and encouraged” by the reaction of the churches, LaPan said.

“Many of the pastors shared that they are doing more job and career coaching,” he said. “If they had additional resources (in the form of the Innovation Center and the guidance it could provide), it would be incredible.”

LaPan said the program could also bring together individuals with similar ideas who could partner up.

When people team together in groups of two or three to found a business, he said, they are more successful than individuals or groups of four or more.

“We do want to see collaboration,” he said.

The NIIC offers extensive services that can’t be found in other places, LaPan said.

The Innovation Center is a full-time operation that critiques business plans, determines how people are wired and can help people avoid costly mistakes.

The center also gives people psychological testing that helps determine what type of work they are suited for – and helps them avoid work they’re not suited for.

Charlie Hatten, president of the New Haven Chamber of Commerce, said a lot of pastors don’t necessarily have the time or the skills to advise parishioners with entrepreneurial aspirations. But with the program, they will have somewhere to send people seeking advice.

Hatten has noticed a trend among young people, who can now stay on their parents’ insurance policies until they are 26. Some, he said, are looking at the four years after college as a time to try to establish their own businesses. They are likely candidates for this kind of program.

One goal is to find individuals who are working in their garages or basements, dreaming of growing a business, and provide them with the knowledge of resources they can turn to, said Jim Bentley of the NIIC.

“We can encourage them to jump and hold their hands as they do it,” Bentley said.

The organizers also hope to connect business founders with mentors.