Tucked amid the gorgeous rolling hills surrounding Meadowbrook Hall in Rochester Hills, MI, is the Oakland University Incubator. Despite being a sprawling space complete with a demonstration hall the size of a football field, it’s a four-person operation. Amy Butler runs the place, and she’s got a vision to not only attract more tenants and corporate affiliates, but also to focus on outreach to bring more student projects from the university over to the incubator.
The OU Incubator, which is partially funded by the Great Lakes Interchange, offers the same services as most incubators: assistance with refining business plans, mentorship, and access to investors. Unlike other incubators, they don’t seek equity from tenant companies. Instead, they charge fees based on a menu of services companies can choose to take advantage of. Also unique to the OU Incubator is its Clean Energy Research Center. The center’s mission is to demonstrate applied research, as well as draw private sector investment to achieve a 40 percent reduction in the energy consumption of existing industrial and commercial buildings in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties by 2020.
Butler took me on a tour of the 25,000-square-foot demonstration hall, which used to be a horse-riding arena. Companies working in the incubator have set up small workspaces around the perimeter of the hall to concentrate on developing their products, which include a biomass densification project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a photovoltaic solar panel display, and biodiesel and ethanol projects. Thanks to another DOE grant, an Austrian woodchip-powered boiler heats the facility. The OU Incubator also houses an “Integrated Resource Center,” equipped with 22 computers, that functions as a brainstorming center and a place to hold investor pitch meetings. Butler says the incubator is also in the process of building a conference room that seats 80 people.
Despite all the space and amenities, I couldn’t help feeling that the OU Incubator was a bit empty. Though there are six tenant clients and 30 accelerator clients, Butler says the incubator went through a reorganization last summer that led to an expanded business model. It increases the services and assistance the incubator can provide, but it also limits the kinds of startups that the accelerator accepts. For instance, Butler says they don’t focus on retail or pharmacology, but tend to stick to the areas of concentration where Oakland University excels: engineering, physics, and life sciences. (Tenant clients lease space and have access to shared common spaces as well as phones and the Internet. Accelerator clients are growth companies with access to commercialization and capital investment assistance in the development of new products and services.)
Butler is also working on new ways to get interested parties to come together at the incubator through networking events. On Thursday, the OU Incubator will hold its first-ever Kickstarter launch party for “The Realm of Agennul,” a board game created by a group of OU students. Despite the fact that it’s not a cleantech startup, Butler is visibly thrilled to host the event, as it represents exactly the direction she wants the incubator to take. She imagines a vibrant space where students and seasoned entrepreneurs gather to collaborate and learn from one another. And, if she has her way, that demonstration hall won’t be quiet much longer.