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Rethinking the Eugene entrepreneurial ecosystem through a Thinkubator

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Fertilab is a non-profit community and network of resources that exists to support the entrepreneurial community in Lane County, Oregon. It’s home to scientists, engineers, marketers, software developers, and founders of just about every entrepreneurial industry vertical. It’s a melting pot of collaborative ideas and innovations, and that’s just what the founders had in mind when they launched this ‘thinkubator’.

“FertiLab grew out of 2 separate ideas, from 4 individuals who were all looking for mid-career changes, but finding few opportunities at their levels within Eugene,” says Shula Jaron, cofounder and Executive Director of FertiLab. “Matt Beaudet and I were interested in the idea of starting a community lab in Eugene, and so we spent over a year visiting community labs around the country and discovered that the Community Lab business model—of just letting individuals come and play around in a lab—wasn’t working. We thought that by not only creating the lab, but positioning it around a space for biotech startups, we could create a winning model.”

At the same time, other people in the Eugene community were looking to jumpstart the entrepreneurial ecosystem through a more focused approach too—one that looked to engage the community as a whole.

Bringing the concept to the community

“Joe Maruschak and Jason Boone were seeing a need for a startup Incubator in Eugene, but they were struggling to find people who shared their vision. The four of us found each other and decided to get some direct feedback from the people we wanted to serve by gathering everyone for a 2 hour event to help pinpoint needs in the community.” Shula states, “Through our guerrilla marketing campaign 50 people showed up for JumpStart Eugene/Springfield, and the biggest discovery was that although there were plenty of people interested in startups and developing innovative ideas, nobody knew each other or had any idea of what resources existed to help. FertiLab as the Hub of Entrepreneurship was born.”

But leveraging a community gathering into an actionable plan does not happen overnight, and the founders of FertiLab looked to use this initial gathering as the springboard to engage a broader community.

“The Eugene entrepreneurial ecosystem, from an organization standpoint, is very small but very cooperative. We try hard to share programming between groups that might be considered competitors because we believe these shared experiences, successes and failures will make the community even stronger.”  Shula adds, “This is extremely important, because our mission is to create a vibrant startup scene, not to create a huge FertiLab organization.  By collaborating with other organizations, we are able to offer founders the best resources for their needs, without diluting our mission. This truly makes what we all do more impactful on the entrepreneurs that we work with, because we are not afraid to refer people to another organization that might be a better fit. We hear this a lot, but it’s true, a rising tide lifts all boats, and when the community has a win, we all benefit.”

A focus on collaboration

The founders realized, based largely on their backgrounds in big organizations,  that they needed to be deliberate with both the space layout and programming in order to bridge the cross-industry gaps.

“ When we opened our doors, FertiLab’s main purpose was to be the entrepreneurial community center. A place where people could come and work on their startups, interact with other startups, find co-founders, partners, mentors, and work in a cooperative environment. This was true of our biotech lab as well. Both the lab and the main co-work space are deliberately designed as open work areas to encourage communication and collaboration.” Shula adds, “ From the very beginning, we recognized in order to truly drive innovation we needed entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds and from different industries to “bump into” each other. So we had this idea that if we could encourage scientists to interact with software developers, and game developers to interact with hardware engineers, we could actually build both a networked community as well as drive some new innovation.”

And how have these efforts played out? According to Shula, their focus around collaboration has already played a role in driving innovation.

“This approach has worked really well to create our community base and a network of resources that entrepreneurs can tap. We have seen the drive for new innovation borne out in small ways so far. An example is one of our tech companies- they were talking about a problem they were dealing with and a game developer overhead the conversation. He was able to offer them a unique solution and a collaboration was created.”

Through the hard work of the founders, an engaged community, and participating companies, FertiLab has been a catalyst in the Eugene entrepreneurial community since its inception. But with growth and success comes new challenges. Challenges that Shula and the FertiLab team are aware of and already planning to address.

“We have an opportunity to grow very rapidly. There is quite a large desire for the type of co-located community that we are building, and our programming is always fully subscribed. We have two huge challenges, however, that will affect how large our impact is. The first is just the physical space that we exist in –while we want to maintain the open nature of our working spaces for the very early stage entrepreneurs, we also have discovered that as our startups grow, they need slightly more private space to work.  Basically, we require some private offices and labs, and dedicated event and classroom space, which we don’t have access to in our current location.” She adds, “The second big challenge is focused around capital — both for the participating companies and for the organization. The ability to provide access to early stage seed money for our companies would be very beneficial. Most of the companies don’t need huge sums of money, in fact, $5,000 goes a long way toward launching a business for the bootstrapped entrepreneur. In addition to seed money, finding the funding to support our mission of realizing the future of economic development in Lane County.”

Growing the mission

With a firm grasp on the structure and growth challenges, Shula and her team are creating a sustainable and impactful organization. But as any founder realizes, along with challenges, there are always a few surprises along the way.

“When we started, we knew we wanted a lab space, but we had no idea if there would be any demand – so it was quite surprising to us how quickly we filled up and continue to have people inquire about vacancy. Now that we know a little more about the market, we can see that there is actually quite a healthy demand for lab space in Oregon and very little actual infrastructure already in existence. In addition, another big surprise is how many new faces we see at every event we throw. An average of 40% of the audience is generally new to our organization. We hold events every week, so you can imagine how many new faces this means! There is a huge interest and curiosity around entrepreneurship and apparently we haven’t fully tapped the market yet.”

And tapping that potential is something the founders and board members are passionate about. Much of that can be attributed to the 4 cofounders’ passion around creating something great for Eugene — a place they all call home.

“All four of the cofounders were committed to making Eugene their permanent home. We believe in the potential of Eugene and I think that this passion shines through when we talk with people. So, we believe we were the right people to launch this organization because we already had defined Eugene as our ‘place’. Most Eugenians are quite passionate about being here and want to see the city thrive”, but Shula points out that Eugene is unique in many ways too. “Eugene is a very grassroots kind of town – so many interesting and unique organizations have sprung out of the earth here, so we appeal quite strongly to the general community. We are not a university or state lead organization. We are home grown and community driven. FertiLab works well here.”

Not ones to rest on their laurels, Shula points out that they are already looking at the next evolution of FertiLab.

“FertiLab is going to go big. First we are expanding out into additional locations outside of Eugene, with Springfield being our first stop with the idea that we want to mine new innovation and entrepreneurs from across the region and state. As a part of that, we are constantly evolving our offerings to meet what the community and our entrepreneurs need, based largely on what is not being met by someone else. This could mean creating our own seed fund or offering for sale a suite of services for startups. We will stay flexible and willing to seize opportunity if it arises. That said, our ultimate goal is to make the Southern Willamette Valley a location of choice if you are starting up a tech or biotech venture, and we hope that somewhere in there people might say they chose Eugene because of FertiLab.”

For more information visit,  FertiLab Thinkubator, follow FertiLab on twitter or like FertiLab on facebook

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Mitch Daugherty