FRAMINGHAM (07/03/2000) - Without the resources to get goods and services to market, even the most innovative startups can miss the boat.
By bringing different startups together into large complexes with resources such as research labs, T1-wired office space and secretarial pools, business incubators lower costs and increase the survival rates of new companies. They also provide the contacts and business know-how that are vital for startups to seize opportunities in a world where time is of the essence.
Among those jumping on the incubator bandwagon are an increasing number of universities. The transfer of technology from campuses to companies can yield lucrative intellectual property rights for universities, while also helping local economies, providing more jobs for graduates and generating tax revenue.
For students, there's an added bonus: the opportunity to get hands-on training in the high-tech industry while earning a degree. Here's one young student who went even further, using the incubator at his university to start a company of his own.
If anyone is young and restless, it's 19-year-old Andy Lufburrow. Before he even graduated from high school, Lufburrow had already started a small systems integration company. So when he was looking for a college, his attitude was "What can you do for me?"
He found what he wanted at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
Not only does the school have a strong computer science and engineering program, but its technology center also includes an incubator for high-tech businesses.
That made UMBC an exciting environment for Lufburrow, an up-and-coming entrepreneur who didn't want to put his business ideas on hold while he pursued his education.
Digimo, which Lufburrow started at the incubator, is half Web development company, half training business. Students who train in Internet applications at Digimo hook up with employers after they graduate.
"We know that students will be hot for jobs while they are in school," says Lufburrow. Through Digimo, he says, they can "get that real-world experience but not have to drop out." The companies that patronize Digimo not only get top-notch Web design, but they also gain access to a talented pool of potential employees.
When Lufburrow first set up shop at UMBC's incubator, the business was "just myself and an office," he says. At US$5 per square foot, space is already a bargain; an additional 50 percent off the regular rate gave Lufburrow a serious leg up. And because Digicom's headquarters are on campus, he and his employees, who are also students, can easily shift between work and school.
Though he came to UMBC with some business experience, it wasn't until the incubator's board of advisers got involved that Lufburrow's company found its direction. Those mentors showed him that the real value-added part of the company lay in its use of student labor.
"We're still a Web development house," he says, "but we also have a long-term objective for clients because we can give them a future workforce." Now, legal advisers at the incubator are coaching Digimo as it seeks its first $1 million in venture capital.
A network of contacts was perhaps the most important thing the incubator provided, says Lufburrow. He was able to spread the word about his new company through events sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, with which the incubator works closely.
More recently, advisers have been "door openers" who "bring people to the table," especially in attracting venture capital, says Lufburrow.
He says he plans to carry his new business relationships into the future.
"People that are loyal to what I'm doing - that's the most important thing," he says. "That's going to help you define your next venture."
With all the potential for profit, does Lufburrow ever think of dropping out of school?
"It's not even an option," he says. Though juggling his responsibilities can be a challenge, he adds, he realizes the value of getting an education and knows that his experience at the incubator will only bring more opportunities in the future.
"This will allow me to write my own ticket," Lufburrow says, imagining ventures to come. "It won't be a relearning process. I'll know the steps to get started right off the bat."
Fryer is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, California.
Name and job title: Andy Lufburrow, CEO
Company and location: Digimo, at the UMBC Technology Center in BaltimoreWhat he does: Provides both Web design and a pool of future employees to 20 clients, ranging from mom-and-pop businesses to Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia.
How he got the job: Lufburrow successfully started a systems integration and consulting business in high school. By the time he was a senior, Lufburrow was raking in $130,000 annually.
Skills required: "Drive, passion and a demonstrated ability to work hard," says Lufburrow. He had to present a business plan for his technology-focused business, outlining how the company would differentiate itself from other Web development businesses.
Training needed: Lufburrow, who began programming in GW-Basic at the age of 7, was already familiar with C, C++, Unix, HTML, Visual Basic and various database programs.
Salary potential: Digimo is pursuing a first venture round of up to $1 million; if the company is successful, Lufburrow's salary could qualify him for retirement at the age of 30.
Career path: Once he graduates, Lufburrow says, "I will definitely be a serial entrepreneur. This isn't my last idea."
Advice: "Whatever you do, do it well - and stay focused."