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Last updated: Mon. Jan. 03, 2011 - 11:53 am EDT

Boon to businesses: Could Innovation Center hold secret to success?

Center's clients have invested $71M in companies, created 229 products and 458 jobs

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For more information on Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, go to www.niic.net

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Karl LaPan calls it the “best-kept secret in town,” and he may be right.

What else would you call a glitzy facility that has spawned hundreds of good jobs and attracted millions of dollars in investment by encouraging creativity and cooperation – all in relative obscurity?

But that's OK with LaPan, whose job as president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center and Park is not to dwell on the past but to predict and protect the area's economic future.

“Our goal is to be Fort Wayne's ‘knowledge neighborhood,'” said LaPan, who was hired in 2000 – not long before the center opened a temporary office in the Raytheon Co. facility on Production Road, with the help of IPFW, the Chamber of Commerce and an $800,000 state grant.

For the past five years, however, the constantly evolving NIIC has occupied a 55-acre campus at 3201 Stellhorn Road, adjacent to IPFW and Ivy Tech – a confluence of intellect, research and entrepreneurship designed to reverse decades of economic decay.

LaPan knows it won't be easy. Even with the partnerships he's already forged, Fort Wayne lacks the presence of a huge research and grant magnet like, say, Purdue University.

Even so, NIIC's mission of providing the tools that can turn an idea into a product and help existing businesses operate more efficiently has already yielded tangible results.

As of last year, center clients had filed 90 patent applications, launched 229 products, invested $71 million in their businesses and created 458 jobs with an average salary of nearly $53,000 – activity that has accelerated dramatically over the past eight years.

In 2002, the center's clients – all of them off-campus – had revenues of $380,000 and employed 13 people with a combined payroll of $270,000. Last year, with activity about evenly divided between on- and off-campus, clients had 287 employees, payroll of $17.5 million and revenues of $22.4 million.

The NIIC's successful “graduates” include Aptera Software, which bought a vacant 12,000-square-foot building on Harrison Street downtown to accommodate its rapid growth. Some clients, however, have found that remaining on campus best suits their diverse needs.

With about 25 employees, Cirrus ABS is the center's largest on-campus client. Director of Product Development Kevin Mullett said renting space not only provides the company and employees access to conference rooms, a fitness center, kitchen and other facilities another site would have to duplicate, but also allows Cirrus employees to interact with other companies' employees, generating potential clients.

“We reap the benefit of that potential client pool,” Mullett said.

For Scadata, a company that designs and builds equipment to monitor water- and wastewater-treatment facilities, moving to the NIIC a year ago allows it to concentrate on improving its products, not on day-to-day business diversions, said Joe Ahdel, vice president of engineering and research and development.

“(The NIIC) helped make us into a real company,” said Herb Schwartz, who six years ago founded Schwartz Biomedical, which does research and some light production on campus (heavy manufacturing is prohibited there).

But the 10-employee center does more than provide so-called “incubator” space, entrepreneurship training and expertise in a variety of fields. It can also provide capital when necessary – an important tool in these days of lending-shy banks.

“Only a small percentage of entrepreneurs get funded (through traditional means),” LaPan said. “There's not always a lot of appreciation for risk, but we can help fulfill dreams. We're betting on the hometown team.”

When those bets pay off, the returns help sustain the center so it can continue to help others. Fees, rents and other private or self-generated funds account for about 70 percent of its $2 million budget, with local governments (11 percent) and state and federal governments (19 percent) providing the rest.

When I spoke with local businessman Don Willis recently about his new program to review and provide funding to worthy high-tech innovators, he was somewhat critical of the NIIC. And, certainly, Willis' network of volunteers carries less overhead – and requires no tax dollars.

LaPan readily admits the NIIC may not be the right fit for everybody. But the numbers indicate it is the right fight for some, and with $10 million in state funding available for future expansion, Fort Wayne should be glad the center is here – secret or not.


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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