Driving to the Technology and Entrepreneurial Center feels like ferrying to an island.
Soon after the business incubator was built in 2003, the TECenter was supposed to have been surrounded by large buildings making up a robust Nampa campus for Boise State University. An artist's rendition of the campus kept by Executive Director Denise Dunlap pictures large university classroom buildings and an industrial research park.
Instead, with the exception of the College of Western Idaho Academic Building across a park-sized lawn to the northwest, the TECenter stands alone, surrounded by empty lots.
But the island has provided fertile ground for more than 120 sapling businesses, including about 30 that continued growing after leaving the TECenter.
MetaGeek CEO and founder Ryan Woodings worked alone when he moved into the TECenter in 2006. The company had grown to eight people when it moved out in 2008. Today, MetaGeek, which helps tech professionals install, maintain and troubleshoot wireless networks, has 30 employees in Boise. It has averaged 34 percent yearly revenue growth since 2008.
"By the time we moved out, we had our feet underneath us," Woodings says. "It was a steppingstone to getting out on our own."
The TECenter's 21 current tenants are wildly dissimilar. House of Design builds manufacturing robots. WMDTech builds fake bombs for law-enforcement training. Trout Jousters produces video. Of the current TECenter companies, 76 percent work in technology-based industries. The common thread is that all work with some form of intellectual property or bring new slants to existing industries, Dunlap says.
"They need to be innovative," Dunlap says. "Everybody thinks they are innovative, but we want that innovation to be part of their competitive advantage."
The TECenter offers help that young companies may not find in conventional office or industrial space, including access to four conference rooms, a video room and free printing and information-technology support.
That's attractive to companies like House of Design. Ryan Okelberry and his two partners are the only employees of the 2-year-old company. They are busy figuring out how to program a robotic arm to swap parts or take photos on an assembly line, and being at the center means they don't have to deal with utilities or a hiccupping Internet connection.
"We pay for these things in our rent, but we don't have to manage the computer system, IT, phones, printers," Okelberry says. "It's all there."
The center offers coaching, too. Dunlap, Program and Marketing Manager Will Fowler and business experts in the community hold regular training sessions.
Woodings says the coaches address Business 101 topics such as bookkeeping and reading financial statements that trip up many young entrepreneurs.
"The cheap rent at the TECenter is nice, but it's their connections and how they teach you how to do business that is really valuable," Woodings says. "It's things like, 'how do I find a good lawyer?' that as an entrepreneur you might not necessarily know."
The center charges 60 cents per square foot for industrial space, a little more than the 47-cent average in 2013 reported by Colliers International. Office space ranges from 89 cents to 95 cents per square foot, compared with the Valley average of about $1. The rent includes utilities.
A SELF-FEEDING ORGANISM
Officially, the TECenter is a Boise State operation. Its mission is to stimulate job growth in Idaho. The university owns the building and property and takes care of some of its ancillary costs, such as security and road maintenance, Dunlap says.
TECenter employees are employed by the university, but their salaries are paid with revenue from tenants. The building was built and renovated with $4.5 million from two grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Agency.
The center doesn't make enough money to succeed in the for-profit world. But it breaks even, raising the roughly $18,000 a month it needs to pay for salaries, utilities and any in-building maintenance, Dunlap says.
Being self-sustaining insulates the incubator from budget cuts, Dunlap says. The TECenter is renting 75 percent of its space. She'd rather be at 85 percent so companies had room to grow while she keeps a waiting list for companies looking to get in.
"We have the blessing and the curse of being self-funded," she says. "We are responsible for making cash flow, but whatever we earn, we get to spend."
Ruckus Fermentation President Joshua Riley says he could have found a small industrial rental space in Moscow, where he recently graduated from the University of Idaho. Instead, he chose to relocate to the TECenter, because he wanted to draw on the knowledge and business networks of Dunlap and Fowler.
Ruckus has patents pending on a fermentation system that turns fruit juice into alcoholic drinks overnight. Riley originally planned to market his technology to breweries, but market analysis under Dunlap and Fowler's supervision led him to change course. Now, he's preparing to distribute his bootlegger bottle to boutique stores. His ideas to market to breweries and wineries could work down the road, but the research gives him confidence in his plan to start small and scale up.
"The TECenter got us to this point," Riley says. "We'd probably be stuck in the same rut of chasing microbreweries, but they helped direct us toward other outlets, to find a niche."
Other contacts have helped, too. "For us, it was 100 percent the network," Riley says. "It helps with a lot of little things - like our label done by a lady here. Denise is especially involved at BSU, and that got us opportunities to network in the Boise area."
Tenants have the ear of another group that could prove useful to start-ups: the Boise Angel Alliance. Dunlap is an Angel Alliance member, and Fowler is chairman of the group's screening committee. which has invested an average of $100,000 each in 20 companies over the alliance's seven years.
Only one TECenter company - loan-software developer LoanTek - received investment money from the angels, group founder Kevin Learned says. Most of the TECenter companies have local or regional potential, and Learned says the angels look for businesses situated to reach a national or international customer base. Fowler says he couldn't comment on the angels' investment except to say the investors have been pleased with LoanTek's plan for growth.
If another LoanTek comes through the incubator, the angels will be among the first to know. "If Denise and Will tell the angels, 'there's an interesting company. You should take a look,' certainly we'll do it," Learned says. "That's the thing an incubator can do, is get investors to look."
Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle