Down times have a potential upside: they demand reinvention. The James J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul hopes that its developing business incubator can be part of its reinvention strategy, demanded by both the good and bad times of the last two decades.
Like many a nonprofit, the library (or "The Hill" as it's sometimes called) fell on hard times in 2008. But the roots of those hard times had been growing since the rise of the Internet. The library's claim to fame for many years has been its business reference service, which helps entrepreneurs and other business-oriented visitors locate information that they can't find anywhere else. Then the Internet changed everything.
"We had invested heavily in online proprietary databases you couldn't get without heavy subscription fees, but in the last three to four years, many of those databases have become more widely available at no cost," says Greg Heinemann, chairman of the board of directors of the James J. Hill Reference Library. "With the confluence of the Internet and Google, and even proprietary data being more widely available anywhere, we needed to redefine what we did."
Part of that redefinition will open this spring or early summer, when the James J. Hill library will open a business incubator, a center that gives access to resources, connections and opportunities to help entrepreneurs start successful new businesses.
The incubator will occupy 10,000 square feet in the library, primarily on the ground floor but also on the floors above the reading room. Heinemann says the incubator will include working areas for entrepreneurs and possibly flat-screen TVs with telepresence technology so that access to content from all over the world will be available. The idea is to create a place for dialogue and connection rather than supply individuals with technology or content. "We want to be able to offer connections with experts here and worldwide," Heinemann says.
"There has been an explosion of interest in business incubators and accelerators around the country," explains John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. "Historically, there have been a lot of large-scale efforts where the overall track record wasn't good, but now we're seeing a number of smaller, shorter-term efforts led by entrepreneurs or tied to specific industries that have showed signs of success."
One of those efforts is the University Enterprise Laboratories Inc. (UEL). The UEL is a collaborative research center in St. Paul that houses 30 early-stage businesses that are involved in some way in bio- and medical technology. "It's a community of businesses in similar areas that gets them shared resources and other content and, most important access to people in the business community who can help them," Stavig says.
The UEL, which started in 2005, has succeeded in part because it focused on one area of industry, Stavig explains. But it has also enjoyed funding and support from a number of stakeholders, including the University of Minnesota, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the state of Minnesota. "They've created more than 300 jobs, and the tenants have really benefitted from co-location with similar companies," says Stavig.
The Hill's incubator also has a solid lineup of interested parties that Heinemann hopes will be able to help it succeed: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Erik Jolly at the Science Museum, and the College of St. Scholastica. Stavig says that's good, because incubators are less about the technology they offer and more about how they use that technology to make connections and mentoring available to new entrepreneurs. "Starting up a business is hard all by itself, and making the right resources available to entrepreneurs in a timely way is even more challenging," he says, explaining why many business incubators don't succeed. "You need people who can share their experience, who are at the right point in their careers-where they have the expertise others need and are interested and able to give back-to make it work. James J. Hill has unique resources with their research focus, but they also have to pull together the committed leadership to be available to these businesses."
A Partnership to Keep IT Jobs in Minnesota
Recovery from the economic crisis means jobs, both creating new ones and protecting the ones that exist. A new partnership between Maverick Software Consulting and MnSCU intends to keep IT jobs here in Minnesota.
In 2006, Thomson Reuters was a client of Maverick Software Consulting. To help the company save money and give it a more reliable talent pipeline, Maverick established an office on campus at Minnesota State University in Mankato. Maverick recruited the best computer science students and offered them jobs in software testing and development. The students worked for an hourly wage with teams on Thomson Reuters projects.
"It's great experience for the students at a convenient location and a good wage, and it gives them the start they need," says Marty Hebig, founder and president of Maverick Software Consulting. "Thomson Reuters gets an affordable software development and testing resource in the same time zone. Then when the students graduate, Thomson can employ them full time."
Now Maverick has partnered with Advance IT Minnesota, a program to develop the IT workforce in Minnesota that's managed by MnSCU. The partnership will expand Maverick's existing center to three more universities: Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and Minneapolis, St. Cloud State University and Winona State University. The offices at those schools will go live when Maverick finds clients interested in a similar arrangement to Thomson Reuters'.
The program makes sense for employers and employees, says Bruce Lindberg, executive director of Advance IT Minnesota. "It's the supply side of the labor market we're concerned about," Lindberg explains. "We see the type of program Maverick runs as the best route to prepare students to be the kind of employees that companies are looking for-employees with experience, who already know how to work in their organization."
Lindberg says that faculty at the targeted universities have been very supportive of the partnership. "They understand that the skills that employers want-like the ability to work on teams, take initiative, and be self-managed-students develop those skills in the workplace, not the classroom," he says.
Equipment for the centers has already been purchased, and Hebig says that Maverick's goal is to get at least one of them up and running in the next three months.
So far the Thomson Reuters program has been a success for Thomson and students alike, Hebig says. Not only has it kept millions of dollars in the local economy, it has led to jobs for nearly all the participants. "We've had 120 students graduate in the program in the last four years, and 119 of them have full-time jobs now," he says. "Two went to Microsoft, seven to HP, three to Intel, and 27 to Thomson Reuters."