ELLSWORTH — Nearly four years after moving in its first tenants, the city’s business incubator is undergoing its own growth spurt.
With a nearly full house of start-up companies and affiliates, city officials recently formed an advisory board to help determine what they want the Union River Center for Innovation to look like in five years.
The incubator recently received several grants, including a three-year, $125,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute that “helped the center to be able to achieve some major goals and to grow,” including expanding programming and offerings, said Janna Richards, the city’s economic development director, who also oversees the Center for Innovation.
The city bought the Water Street building and the six-tenths of an acre it sits on, which formerly served as Community Health and Counseling Services, in 2015 for $125,000.
It set aside an additional $55,000 for physical improvements and first-year operation costs, and has since supported the space with in-kind donations and an annual donation of $25,000 in tax increment financing (TIF) reserve funds.
The building is still owned by the city and run via a partnership with the Ellsworth Business Development Corp. (EBDC), said Richards, which rents the space from the city. The goal is to provide a physical space for new and emerging businesses as well as offering networking events, programming and classes for entrepreneurs.
The recently formed advisory board will help the center imagine what the future looks like, including identifying stable sources of funding and determining the city’s involvement going forward. It also will discuss expectations for tenants who eventually graduate (they are allowed to stay five years as an incubator tenant).
“If they get really big they might have to leave,” acknowledges Kat Taylor, who works part time as the center’s entrepreneur in residence and co-founded GenoTyping Center of America, one of the center’s incubator companies.
But once they graduate, the city is eager to help companies find space to continue operating in Ellsworth. Even those that move on, said Taylor, “Their brand is associated with the output of this incubator.”
The center also recently received grant funding from the Maine Community Foundation ($10,000) and the state Department of Economic and Community Development ($25,000).
The money from the three grants will be used to hire a marketing firm (Pulse Marketing Agency out of Bangor) as well as add several “business coaches” teaching programs in areas such as accounting, leadership and management.
Business coaches work one-on-one with entrepreneurs, said Richards, as well as offering programming that’s open to the public. An upcoming seminar led by accounting coach Ken Bustard on Jan. 9 will cover tax options and structures for small businesses. Attendance at the seminars has been growing in part thanks to the city’s marketing efforts, said Taylor.
“It’s been a major range from people who just have an idea to start a business to people who own a business,” she added.
Along with a community lab, high-speed internet, a conference room, printing services and private offices, the incubator offers co-working spaces for up to five tenants on a daily or monthly basis.
The co-working spaces are busiest in the summer, when visitors are looking for office space, said Richards.
“It’s really a collaborative innovative setting, there’s this really great dynamic for networking.”
Asked where she hopes the center is in 10 years, Taylor replied: “I would want it to have all new tenants and the rest to have graduated and run a business in Ellsworth. I would think in 10 years we’d have a second cohort coming through.”