Spirit: IDEA Center to spur entrepreneurship and growth

Published 11:37 am Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Elizabeth Cook


Countless communities have business incubators to help people start businesses.  The Rowan IDEA Center is being designed to do more, says Addison Davis, project manager.

If all goes as planned, the IDEA Center will provide everything from co-working spaces to a media production facility. It will have a “maker space” where prototypes can be built. Services would include mentorship, educational programming, access to angel funding, and networking.

“It’s important that we have business, academic and government work together to make this a truly viable space,” Davis says. “That’s where we’re trying to be really different from many other incubators, in that we are hoping to have a more comprehensive approach.”

The IDEA Center aims not only to help start businesses but also to help existing small businesses accelerate their growth and to foster a culture of entrepreneurship that ultimately will grow the local economy.

The county commissioners gave the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce $145,000 in runway money to figure out how to get the IDEA Center off the ground. What components will it need, who will run them and how will the center will be funded?

The project could occupy as much as 43,000 square feet of West End Plaza’s available 320,000.

IDEA is an acronym for innovation, development, entrepreneurship and acceleration. The IDEA Center is a collaboration among government, business and academia. Catawba, Livingstone and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College are involved, as is Rowan-Salisburys.

“Right off the bat, Catawba made a generous donation of $20,000 to hire a consulting firm called e2Advisors that they had worked with before,” says Mikey Wetzel, head of the IDEA Center board. A Hilton Head, South Carolina, firm, e2Advisors had a track record of getting similar projects going and was well-versed in what was going on around the country.

Where ‘magic happens’

The firm also envisioned something more than the customary co-working space of other incubators.

Wetzel uses a farmers market for an analogy.

“Underneath that roof, all sorts of magic happens,” he says.

In addition to selling produce, the market could hold craft sales and educational programs, promote healthier lifestyles and eating organic, and support local farmers. And the whole place can be advertised instead of each vendor doing his or her own advertising.

Similarly, the IDEA Center could also be where magic happens for local entrepreneurs with a range of services and facilities, creating a synergy for participants and the county.

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Wetzel says.

The IDEA Center wants to encourage budding entrepreneurs to aim beyond a small lifestyle business that employs only themselves, Davis says.

“We’re hoping to coach these kinds of candidates to think bigger, to take that lifestyle concept and move it into a scalable concept, so that it can be something that is growable, that we can move beyond Rowan County in scope and scale.”

There’s a difference between creating a job for yourself and creating a business, Wetzel says.

Wetzel, who worked with Microsoft for 16 years before opening Go Burrito restaurant in Salisbury, hopes the center will become something of a technology hub.

“Rowan County is just as perfectly suited for tech as anywhere else,” Wetzel says. “Give me a couple of high school kids with a PC and some time after school, and they can create software or some web service or a mobile app.

“I would love to see the IDEA Center be the heartbeat of that.”

An upcoming “pitch contest” planned by South Rowan High School on April 28 will be held at West End Plaza. The IDEA Center will piggyback on it by holding a similar contest for adults immediately after the South event. Cash prizes of up to $1,000 will be offered.

“We are aligning ourselves with the school system so that we can generate a culture of critical thinking and business-oriented thinking to develop candidates for the IDEA Center,” Davis says.

Stop the brain drain

The current phase of work for the IDEA Center includes preliminary space planning, budgeting and timetables. Fundraising avenues are being explored. An outside firm or firms will be recruited to operate different parts of the center.

Having venture capital funds and angel funds is a key component, Davis says.

“That is one of our primary tasks is to align business funds with the business center so they will look at projects coming out of here …,” Davis says. “We also want to create a venture capital fund for Rowan County.”

At the moment, Davis is looking for grant money, sponsorships and donations to operate the IDEA Center itself, which is a nonprofit agency.

The IDEA Center is a very long-term project, Davis says. Results won’t be immediate. They will come five, 10 and 30 years from now.

“At the end of the day, what we want to do is to create a culture here of development,” Davis says, “a way of thinking that attracts people and that keeps people here, to stop the brain drain, so that we can create a quality of life here that people want to enjoy, to participate in.”

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