Growth and impact

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On First Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, among the likes of warehouses and a developing park, sits a newer, modern building that is impossible to miss. Above the building the words Innovation Depot stretch into the sky. From first glance, it is clear that something unique and unlike anything else in Birmingham is happening here.

Susan Matlock, president and CEO of Innovation Depot, said the goal of Innovation Depot is to create an environment where technology can flourish.Innovation Depot is a not-for-profit business incubation program founded in partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It focuses on the development and growth of emerging businesses.

“Since Innovation Depot is a small business incubator, we offer things that make a difference to early stage companies in order to create both wealth and more jobs,” Matlock said.

Currently, 75 emerging businesses call Innovation Depot home. The businesses here can be categorized in one of the following ways: information technologies, biotechnologies, engineering, and general business.

Small business incubators offer several benefits for emerging businesses that renting traditional office space simply cannot.

“We offer businesses the option to sign a short term lease, but at the same time, they have the ability to move into a larger space or smaller space if needed during their time here. We also offer help in the form of training sessions and interaction with established business professionals,” Matlock said.

Every year, Innovation Depot receives around 120 to 130 applications from beginning businesses interested in calling Innovation Depot home. However, there are several criteria the business must meet before it is allowed to reside at Innovation Depot.

“We set these criteria in place because as a business incubator, we are not just about small business employment, but about economic impact,” Matlock said.

First, businesses must have a business plan. Matlock said this is especially important because Innovation Depot wants to foster growth potential in its program. The business must be financed or financeable. A final and very important qualification for Innovation Depot is that the business must create jobs and have economic benefit for the region.

Once a business has been approved for Innovation Depot, the staff and board immediately begin helping the business to succeed. Each quarter, businesses are required to submit quarterly financial statements and their objectives for that quarter.

“We want to know what the businesses are doing, and how we can offer our resources to help them,” Matlock said.

The Innovation Depot Board of Directors meets monthly to evaluate each business. They do this to provide resources and help link the businesses to individuals who can foster growth for emerging businesses.

Each month, Innovation Depot offers training courses for its businesses. “We offer seminars from companies like Price Waterhouse Cooper in order to illustrate the important chemistry of outside management,” Matlock said.

The unique training and interaction Innovation Depot offers its residents is just one of the reasons incubation is an outstanding growth opportunity for emerging businesses. Not only is the training a great learning opportunity, but it comes at no extra cost to the depot’s resident businesses.

“We are here to make a difference in the businesses while they are at Innovation Depot. That is why we offer training and constant interaction with them,” Matlock said.

Financially, Innovation Depot is a smart choice and invaluable resource for emerging businesses in terms of real estate. This option also allows the business to move into a bigger space as it expands, or a smaller space if it needs that.

“During the hardest part of the recession, we did not raise rent. Being at Innovation Depot was good for many businesses then because it gave them the opportunity to move into a smaller space if they needed to downsize. Elsewhere, they might not have been able to afford rent and would have been forced to close,” Matlock said.

Not only does Innovation Depot offer desirable services to its clients, but the building itself is a unique place to work. Once the home of a Sears department store, the Innovation Depot’s modern, sleek building boasts an on-site restaurant and catering company, as well as tenant-only, private terrace.

Although businesses cannot stay at Innovation Depot forever, it is certainly a good place for emerging businesses to start. With the training, expertise, and support Innovation Depot offers its businesses, it undoubtedly contributes to the evolution of working in the Magic City.

Visit Innovation Depot’s website at www.innovationdepot.net for more information.