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Forging Relationships for Entrepreneurial Initiatives

Tech Advisors Network establishes partnerships with local tech incubators

January 20, 2017
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WPI’s Tech Advisors Network (TAN) has bolstered its entrepreneurial services by forming partnerships with two Worcester co-working and tech incubator programs to provide local work space and additional professional collaboration for its would-be entrepreneurs.

TAN, which offers aspiring student and faculty members, staff, alumni, and friends of WPI valuable business and marketing advice from the school’s alumni and friends, is paying for six memberships each at the co-working site Running Start and at the Worcester CleanTech Incubator (WCTI), which offers work spaces and entrepreneurial assistance.

TAN has also been working with Worcester’s Idea Lab to forge a relationship that would allow advisees another place off campus and outside the home to do their work and further explore how bring their ideas to fruition.

Sarah Mahan

Sarah Mahan, associate director of the Foisie Business School and the head of the TAN program, says the people who seek help through TAN sometimes lack the work space they need to develop their ideas in a dedicated environment. The new arrangements help move the work off the kitchen table or out of Starbucks or the dorm room.

“It’s a great way for them to get out of the house and go somewhere to collaborate with people,” Mahan says.

The partnerships also increase the likelihood that the development of the ideas will remain Worcester-based.

“What we need is more entrepreneurs to stay in Worcester,” Mahan says.

TAN brings together professors and students—and their ideas and projects—with seasoned, knowledgeable entrepreneurs who are alumni and friends of the university. Following a discussion with alumni advisors on how to expand initiatives aimed at implementing the school’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) strategic priority, former business school dean Mark Rice, now a professor of entrepreneurship, launched TAN in 2012. The initial focus of the initiative was to provide a novel way to engage WPI alumni and friends in enhancing the development of WPI’s I&E ecosystem, and to accelerate the development of entrepreneurial talent to support technology transfer.

“Mark's purpose in starting TAN was to fill a gap in entrepreneurship development,” says Mahan.

TAN began with 15 volunteer advisors and has expanded to more than 90—it is not uncommon for 50-plus advisors and advisees to show up for monthly TAN sessions, at which applicants pitch their ideas with an eye toward attracting an advising team. In addition, entrepreneurs who have previously been accepted into the program meet with their team of TAN advisors for help with creating and implementing business and marketing plans, developing prototypes, networking, and seeking investment funding.

Before making their presentations, the aspiring entrepreneurs get help in developing their pitch through the TAN Prep program. Once accepted, they typically spend three to six months with advisors—sometimes longer—meeting face to face or via Skype.

"What we need is more entrepreneurs to stay in Worcester." -Sarah Mahan

The TAN advisors, who enjoy networking with their peers as well as giving back to the entrepreneurial community through their advising, have logged more than 3,000 hours mentoring new businesses—with 69 new ventures supported through the program and more than $4 million raised by and for new ventures.

Like TAN, the three local worksite programs are committed to fostering innovation and pushing local entrepreneurial interests.

Worcester CleanTech Incubator aims to nurture the growth of new enterprises, addressing the most pressing issues of our time, according to its website, which says, “WCTI provides access to the physical, network, and capital resources companies need to propel ideas to market—to bring products to market cheaper and faster.”

In addition to well-equipped workspaces, including prototyping labs, WCTI, which is located on Portland St., offers in-house advising, mentorship, networking support, and services such as legal help. Joseph Bush, the incubator’s executive director, believes his program advances WPI's interests in supporting entrepreneurship. His program started with TAN this year.

“Building on the Tech Advisors Network, WCTI can go beyond mentors and advisors, creating a physical environment that fosters startups, while bridging valuable connections to the regional innovation and investment community,” says Bush, a 2004 WPI graduate. “Outside of the university and academic environment, WCTI provides a place where tenants share resources and ideas and learn from each other.”

Joseph Bush

WCTI recently joined StartUp Worcester, an initiative of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Higher Education – Business Partnership and the Venture Forum. The initiative helps incubate new businesses and retain young graduates of the area’s colleges and universities.

Running Start, which has been providing co-working spaces to Worcester professionals since 2012, is in its third year working with TAN. Located on Prescott Street, the membership-based program offers flexible spaces “for freelancers, remote workers, startups, and ventures of all types,” according to its website.

“Our members don’t fit the cookie cutter profile,” the website states. “They have unique personalities, work styles, and background. Diversity is what makes the Running Start community.” At Running Start there are discounts on complex professional solutions via TriNet and access to co-working sites throughout Massachusetts through a partnership with The Workbar Network. The program also is connected to the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s StartUp Worcester program.

“It’s our job to harness the energy of our members by offering a platform that encourages chance interactions and the sharing of ideas on professional and social levels,” the group states.

The Idea Lab on Franklin Street is run by the social action group Action Worcester, and offers rental space for offsite business sessions as well as free open work sessions on Wednesdays through its Accessible Entrepreneurship Initiative. The initiative is designed to ensure that innovative business development in Worcester is inclusive.

People are encouraged to use the Idea Lab spaces on Wednesdays to get work done in an atmosphere that is “primed for productivity and making connections,” according to the lab’s website.

TAN and the lab unsuccessfully sought a grant in the fall to develop a partnership, but Joshua Croke, the lab’s executive director, is hopeful that collaboration will happen in the future.

Croke, a 2014 WPI graduate, sees a good match with the TAN program. The lab has developed a model for its co-work space that emphasizes collaboration and would fit the TAN approach well, he says.  A new student ambassadors program with representatives from WPI and other Worcester colleges could help keep TAN advisees up to date on activities for entrepreneurial advancement in the city and on other campuses.

Croke says he plans to continue conversations with Mahan and others at WPI about how the lab space can be used by student and faculty entrepreneurs.

“At the Worcester Idea Lab, we have a space that encourages network building, innovative idea development, and entrepreneurial pursuits that complement the virtual incubator TAN has developed,” says Croke. “Our mission is to activate innovation and inspire creativity. Working together with TAN will help us succeed in making Worcester the most innovative city in the state.”

- By Thomas Coakley