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Business is growing at Janesville Innovation Center—and so are businesses

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Jim Leute
April 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—Working for an environmental consulting firm in Illinois, Lori Huntoon was frustrated when her employer turned away work from nonprofit organizations, law firms and other small customers.

“The check just wasn't going to be big enough for the firm to go after,” Huntoon said. “It really bugged me. Who was going to help these people?”

The answer, quite possibly, is Huntoon, who left the firm and started her own business, HydroGeoLOGIC, one of the newest tenants at the Janesville Innovation Center.

HydroGeoLOGIC and three other young companies have taken up residency at the center, which opened last April. By doing so, they more than doubled the number of companies that now call the center home.

The center at 2949 Venture Drive on the city's south side now has seven of its 13 offices and manufacturing bays filled.

“This office is so perfect for me,” said Huntoon, a geologist who lives near Shopiere. “I really needed a professional presence, and because I live just 6.1 miles away, I can bike to work.”

The city built the center with a $1.2 million federal grant and its own contribution of $850,000 in TIF funds for a total cost of about $2.05 million. Janesville Innovation, a local nonprofit economic development organization, leases and manages the facility.

A board of 16 governs the center.

Targeting entrepreneurs within a 30-minute drive, the center has three main goals:

—Support start-up companies that have the capacity to create jobs and move to larger Janesville locations.

—Provide short-term space to existing companies that need more room for product or process development.

—Provide space to companies that have decided to locate in Janesville and need temporary space while their facilities are built or renovated.

Most observers of business incubators say they take time to get off the ground. The first few months are typically devoted to organizational issues.

That happened in Janesville, but the recent growth has been impressive.

It's been due in large part to a boost in marketing, said Mike Mathews, the center's operations manager.

“We got our brochure out, got the website up, and when the ground thaws, we will get a sign out,” he said. “We've been speaking to a lot of groups, and the tenants themselves have been helping to get the word out.”

“It takes time, and not every entrepreneur is right for the center.”

Brian Rubash recently rented an office for Tapzi, a mobile applications company that allows businesses to send deals directly to phones based on proximity.

His office is just down the hall from his wife, Andrea, who was the center's first tenant when she opened That's Kinda Cool!, a provider of website templates for photographers and other boutique businesses.

For now, Rubash's new office space is not a significant part of his business plan. He does, however, crave the networking the center's growing population provides.

Mathews, Rubash said, helped steer him toward a Madison-based mentorship program that he said has been a tremendous value.

“There's no way I would have known about (the program) from my couch,” Rubash said. “The office space does give me a sense of legitimacy. Investors aren't going to take me seriously in my living room.”

Tenants pay higher rent than is common in the Janesville market, real estate agents and city officials have said.

Those lower rates, however, do not include advantages found at the innovation center, including shared facilities such as a conference room, break room and other amenities.

The one-year leases are flexible, giving either side opportunities to opt out. They also provide for additional space, if available.

Mathews said it's possible the center could pick up one or two more tenants in coming weeks. Simply Solutions, the center's lone tenant in a manufacturing bay, also is considering an expansion.

Most of the tenants came to the center as existing businesses looking to expand, and most of them came from the owners' homes, he said.

“Most have a proven product, sales revenues and clients,” he said. “Brian Rubash is really the only true start-up.

“It's also been really interesting to see the number of female business owners here.”

While a husband and wife own one company, half of the remaining six are women-owned.

“Things really have been picking up in the last few months,” Mathews said. “Since we opened, we've had about three dozen contacts.

“And the community awareness of the center is certainly increasing.”



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