Nurturing Hamilton County' startups: INCubator hatches 499 businesses in 25 years

Nurturing Hamilton County' startups: INCubator hatches 499 businesses in 25 years

November 9th, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Richard Carmack, vice president of RMJTactical, talks about the tomahawk business where he works, which supplies special forces here and abroad with a tool designed to help save lives. Carmack hangs one of the popular tools on a shop rack during its manufacturing process. On Thursday, the Cattanooga-Hamilton County Business Development Center marked its 25th year helping get small businesses off the ground at the Cherokee Boulevard location.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Hamilton County's small business incubator is sitting on 499.

That's how many ventures have graduated from the Cherokee Boulevard facility since it was created 25 years ago, officials said Friday, and it may reach the 500 mark by the end of 2013.

Kathryn Foster, who directs the INCubator for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said the facility has 73 businesses and a waiting list.

"We have more businesses than ever," she said, mentioning a $5 million refurbishing of the 90-year-old building two years ago that created more space inside the structure that held the 3M Co. for many years.

The 125,000-square-foot, county-owned INCubator offers below market rate space as well as access to seminars, help with business plans, accounting setup services and counselors.

The Tennessee Small Business Development Center has an office in the building to run classes, answer questions and help companies. There's even a on-site store for office supplies so companies don't have to leave the site.

Foster said companies typically stay for up to three years, but officials are flexible.

"Other companies might need to stay a fourth year," she said. "I'm not going to hurt anybody financially."

Richard Carmack, chief executive of tomahawk maker RMJ Tactical, said his business has benefited from the connectivity of the different entrepreneurs within the INCubator.

"The big thing is the intellectual response," he said.

Jay Doshi, who owns the nanofiber company eSpin Technologies, noted he used to house his business at the INCubator before moving it to Enterprise South industrial park.

"I had a terrific experience," he said, adding he would recommend others starting new ventures to consider the facility.

Foster said there are 19 technology companies in the building. The big upgrade included EPB's ultra-fast Internet and a modern telephone system.

Ron Harr, the Chamber's chief executive, said the renovation included a 3,000-square-foot technology conference center.

"This room is now fought over," he quipped, adding that 54 percent of the companies now in the INCubator are minority- or women-owned businesses.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said that about 400 people work in the building every day.

"If you think about it, that's a pretty large employer," he said.

Coppinger said it's estimated that 90 percent of the companies which graduate from the facility are still in business three to five years later.

Former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, who was cited for his contributions to the INCubator, added that the facility is one of the largest of its kind in the country.

"It helps spread that cost of getting started a long way," said Ramsey, who recently stepped down as the state's deputy governor.

Foster said the waiting list is especially on the office side of the INCubator, which offers manufacturing space as well.

While officials have toyed with duplicating the business incubator in other locations, there's nothing serious at this time, Foster said.

The Chamber said the INCubator runs at an annual deficit of about $80,000 to $100,000 a year. That shortfall is picked up from the Chamber's "Chattanooga CanDo" economic development effort, which is partly financed by the city and county.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.