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An Inside Look at Arizona State University's SkySong Incubator

An Inside Look at Arizona State Universitys SkySong IncubatorYou've heard of Y Combinator and TechStars. While they may be world-class accelerators that have dazzling track-records for helping startups launch, they're not for everyone. Some entrepreneurs need a little more time to hammer out their idea before they're ready for the spotlight -- and they may not want to give up any equity.

Though decidedly less sexy, incubators have come a long way in the last few years. Here, we give you an inside look at Arizona State University's prestigious SkySong incubator:

At 42 acres, SkySong is massive. The final plan for the mixed-use facility consists of more than 1.2 million square feet of office, research and retail space, as well as multi-family residential units and a hotel/conference center. And while the footprint of SkySong will soon expand as additional buildings are constructed, its dominating physical presence is only half the story.

"A lot of the companies we work with aren’t even housed at SkySong or affiliated with Arizona State University," says Gordon McConnell, SkySong's executive director for Venture Acceleration, a program that identifies and equips high-potential startups. "We may send some companies to our colleagues in other well-run incubators, and international startups in nine countries use us as virtual space," he adds. "We give them a home and an address in the U.S."

Related: Business Incubators Help Entrepreneurs to Hatch Brilliant Ideas Business Incubators Help Entrepreneurs to Hatch Brilliant Ideas

But the real work is done on campus through ASU's Edson Student Accelerator , McConnell adds. Each year, the accelerator hosts a competition that brings teams of students together to present their startup plans, with funding and space for the winners. Last year, 26 individual students or student teams gained the opportunity to build their business, and the number of applicants jumped 35 percent for next year’s program. Winning startups receive up to $20,000 in seed money, space to run their operations and the support of mentors to help their businesses grow successfully. Getting into the Edson program requires more than a good idea, however. "We tell our entrepreneurs that an idea is only one percent of the equation. The other 99 percent is execution," says Brent Sebold, a venture manager at SkySong. "What matters is, do they have a team that can execute on the idea, can we help them build a company, can we help them generate revenue and will they create jobs?"

Related: Ten Top Funding Sources for Startups

Entrepreneur Magazines College Entrepreneur of 2011 winner Gabrielle Palermo
Entrepreneur magazine's College Entrepreneur of 2011 winner Gabrielle Palermo, 22, says SkySong’s mentorship and advisors aided her company’s journey from idea to startup. Photography by David Johnson

The Edson program must be doing things right, as three of the five finalists for Entrepreneur Magazine's College Entrepreneur of 2011 are part of the program, along with the winner, Gabrielle Palermo , 22, COO and co-founder of G3Box, a social venture that converts shipping containers to medical-outreach centers. "Without being accepted into the Edson [program], I don’t think we’d be at all where we are today," says Palermo. "Professional space, funding and particularly the broad mentorship program with industry professionals from all over the country helped us create a business that we can continue with after graduating.

"Non-student startups also see advantages to affiliating with SkySong. Eric Trappen, 41, CEO of Emerge·MD , a company that provides cloud-based communications services to health-care professionals, prizes Skysong's all-inclusive resources. "We don’t need network or IT people because they’re provided. We also have free access to meeting rooms and conference space," he says.

The other benefit comes from the environment itself. "With Arizona State University, we have access to experts in certain fields and interns when we need them," adds Trappen. "This place has a better culture and very good energy with lots of students around." Though every incubator will differ, if you want to replicate the SkySong experience, look for these key qualities:

  • Affiliation with a strong University and plenty of interaction between students and faculty
  • A full-service infrastructure to support your business needs
  • Management that really understands and supports the goals and needs of startups
Maria Muto-Porter is a freelance writer in Phoenix. Her career began in broadcasting as a reporter and producer where she covered local news and features in Toledo, Ohio. Muto-Porter served as editor for two publications including a national design magazine. She has also written and edited books, magazine articles and other business materials.
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