Informal Incubators: Startup Workspaces Sprouting Up in Unlikely Places (Including an Expelled MIT Frat House)

2/3/10Follow @xconomy

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another trademark characteristic of the informal incubators: the minimal or non-existent rent charges that attract cash-strapped, early-stage companies or entrepreneurs who otherwise would have been working out of their apartments. Allurent’s Chung won’t reveal specifically how much he charges the third-floor residents, but notes, “let’s just say everyone (including us) seem to be pretty happy with the arrangement.”

Online life sciences PDF search tool Pubget, another Allurent tenant, attests to that fact. “Everywhere else it’s death by 1,000 expenses,” says co-founder and CTO Ian Connor. Pubget had been previously working out of MIT’s student lounge, which Connor says looks much like an informal incubator itself in the summer, marked by different entrepreneur hopefuls all attempting to hash out their startup ideas in the academic offseason.

Speaking of the Allurent space, it’s got something else to offer that we also see as characteristic of informal incubators: proximity to seasoned execs or funders with a lot of industry wisdom—and clout—to share. “When you’re just starting, you have to rely on a lot of introductions,” says Sponty’s Arram. “It’s very hard to cut through to influential people.” He says he can run upstairs to Allurent’s break room and grab a cup of coffee with Chung (who co-founded publicly traded Art Technology Group (NASDAQ:ARTG) before his Allurent days) if he’s looking for advice or contacts. It’s a convenience that would normally require an appointment if he was working from outside of the building.

That element of in-house support is reflected in another, slightly different flavor of the informal incubator: a stand-alone company working out of a seasoned expert’s and investor’s house. Wiggio, a Web 2.0 groupware for students startup, is based in the west Cambridge home lab of Bob Doyle, a Boston tech veteran who is the company’s first angel investor. Doyle (whose sons also helped to co-found Wiggio) has his PhD in astrophysics and is the CEO of an open-source enterprise management software provider called skyBuilders.com. He’s well known for co-inventing Merlin, a Parker Brothers handheld electronic game of the 1970s, and developing MacPublisher, the first desktop publishing program.

While the Wiggio/Doyle situation has a slightly more personal and singular feel than the community-style incubation of the Allurent or frat house spaces, it also reflects the sharing of resources and insights for the purpose of furthering innovation, without an officially advertised or planned infrastructure to do so. And Wiggio does so on the cheap, like the other informal incubators. The company paid no rent in the first year-and-a-half it worked out of Doyle’s home and has since migrated to a deferred rent payment model, so that once the company pulls in sustainable revenue, it will back pay Doyle for rent, CEO and co-founder Dana Lampert says.

Regarding Doyle’s role as an advisor and landlord, Lampert describes the shared business sense and push toward innovation that is paramount to the informal incubator model. “It’s really about helping us put together the right strategy. He helps us decide which features are most relevant to the market. He’ll say things like, ‘I tried it this way’ and ‘you don’t want to do it that way.’”

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