Incubation period: Business center passes 25-year milestone

Katie Peffer, left, and Kara Abney package reusable plastic canning lids and rubber ring gaskets at the S&S Innovations operation at the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction. The fast-growing manufacturer is one of 64 tenants of the incubator program at the center.Since the center opened in 1987, more than 260 businesses have completed the program.

Phil Castle, The Business Times

When Jon Maraschin envisions what the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction might look like 25 years from now, he talks about the possibilities for a research park or perhaps additional facilities in nearby communities.

Jon Maraschin

That’s not to mention the addition of a space port, he jokes.

But what Maraschin expects to be the prediction most likely to come true is this:

The center will continue to provide programs and services to entrepreneurs and businesses over the next 25 years in much the same way that’s been done for the past 25 years. “In a perfect world,

I hope we’re still the guys who roll up their sleeves and help businesses find their way,” says the executive director of the center.

Tim Hatten, a business professor at Colorado Mesa University who serves as chairman of the Business Incubator Center board of directors, couldn’t agree more. “I expect us to continue what it is we do well.”

What the Business Incubator Center has done well since its inception in 1987 is help entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.  Over that span, more than 260 firms have graduated from an incubator program offering low-cost space and shared services.

The program boasts an 80 percent success rate, meaning 80 percent of the firms completing the program remain in business or have been sold. Thousands of other entrepreneurs have taken advantage of what Maraschin considers a one-stop shop for small businesses offering counseling, educational classes and even financing through a revolving loan fund.

The cumulative result, Maraschin says, has been homegrown businesses and jobs that have contributed significantly to economic development. “We’ve made a very big impact.”

The Business Incubator Center was born in the bust that followed the oil shale boom as part of a three-pronged economic development effort to help existing businesses, recruit new businesses and launch new ventures.

The center originally was housed in an old mining equipment warehouse. Within 10 years, the operation had outgrown the 40,000 square feet available there. In 1999, the center moved to its current location in a portion of the Department of Energy compound on Orchard Mesa. With the larger quarters, the center now offers tenants in its incubator program office and manufacturing space as well as a commercial kitchen.

Demand for services has increased over the years, particularly in the aftermath of the latest economic downturn, Maraschin says. Many people who’ve lost jobs are considering starting their own businesses and working for themselves.

Sixty-four businesses are involved in the incubator program. The number of entrepreneurs seeking services from the Small Business Development Center also has increased, along with the number of hours of counseling they receive, Maraschin says.

The Business Incubator Center is well positioned to meet their needs because so many services and programs are available under one roof, including the incubator program itself, but also the Small Business Development Center and Mesa County Revolving Loan Fund.

The center also administers the Enterprise Zone program in Mesa County. The program is designed to promote economic development and job growth by offering Colorado tax credits for new jobs, job training, capital expenditures, employer-sponsored health insurance and rehabilitating vacant buildings. Tax credits also are available for donors who contribute to approved Enterprise Zone projects.

Hatten has been involved in the Business Incubator Center for 18 years and served one summer as interim director of the Small Business Development Center there. Hatten also has traveled around the world in teaching business courses and working with entrepreneurs.

He says the Business Incubator Center is unique not only in the United States, but also the world, in bringing together so many services and programs in one place. “There’s nothing really close to what our incubator does.”

Grady Busse, president of Action Publishing in Grand Junction, could serve as the poster child for availing himself of those services while his manufacturing firm was located at the center. “I’m kind of famous for taking advantage of everything,” he says.

Busse says he started the manufacturing firm in 2001 in large part because of the center and the availability of low-cost space and the infrastructure that enabled him to start operations right away. “Everything was in place from day one.”

Action Publishing manufactures day planners, calendars and other accessories for academic and commercial markets.

Until the company graduated from the incubator program and moved into its own building in 2005, Busse attended workshops and courses and received counseling at the center. He says he especially appreciated the interaction with other entrepreneurs facing the same business challenges. “You’re surrounded by like-minded individuals.”

Busse was so grateful for the assistance he received he donated a 2 percent ownership interest in his company to the center.

Brad Stieg, another entrepreneur who operates S&S Innovations at the center, says he hasn’t yet been able to take advantage of all the services offered there. But the low rent for the 2,500 square feet of space he uses in the manufacturing building has been a big help. “It’s a whole lot more affordable.”

S&S Innovations manufactures reusable plastic canning lids. Stieg launched the venture to bring to market the lids his father invented in the 1970s. In addition to growing  Internet sales, Stieg expects to soon sell his products through several national retail chains.

Stieg recommends the center and its services to other entrepreneurs considering startups. “They’ve got good people who help with all this.”

Maraschin has worked as executive director of the Business Incubator Center for a little more than a year, only the fifth person to hold the position in the 25-year history of the operation.

After 15 years spent working in commercial banking, Maraschin says the last year has been the most rewarding — and challenging — of his career. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of this. It’s also been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Looking ahead to the next 25 years, Maraschin says the potential for the center and its ability to help start and grow businesses is nearly unlimited.

There’s an opportunity to add to the “economic gardening” services the center offers by collecting and packaging information for entrepreneurs in helping them make decisions about potential locations and other issues.

There are opportunities as well in working with the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Junction Economic Partnership on initiatives to offer a youth entrepreneurship academy and recruit firms that manufacture products for the outdoor recreation industry.

And there’s the possibility of adding a research park or opening branch locations of the center, starting in Fruita.

What won’t change, Maraschin says, is the core mission of the Business Incubator Center, and that is to continue to help entrepreneurs start and grow their ventures.