Business incubators spring up in town


The team from the Good Inc. Pet Feeder, are, from left, co-creator Rodrigo Fernandez, co-creator Eric Pheterson, and interns Jeevagan Natarajan and Willie Leung.

BRAD McCLENNY/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 2:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 2:11 p.m.

In an open room on the second floor of the old Firestone building at 308 W. University Ave., two recent University of Florida engineering graduates and an intern tinker with an automated pet feeding device with parts made from their 3D printer.

Their equipment fills the plot of space they have claimed for their company, Good Inc.

Throughout the room, tables and banners line the walls, marking the territories nine other companies have staked out in the newly opened Starter Space, a shared office space for startup companies that share rent to keep costs down with hopes of growing up and out after several months.

The arrangement also allows new companies to feed off each other's creative energy.

"We've got the community of being with like-minded, awesome people," said Eric Pheterson, CEO of Good Inc., which plans to provide test devices to pet owners in a month to gather feedback on how to improve their pet feeders.

Starter Space is the latest in a growing number of public and private business incubators and shared office spaces in Gainesville catering to demand from startup companies, many in high-tech fields, as well from solo professionals who want an office environment away from home or the coffee shop.

Founders Pad opened a year ago on the second floor of the downtown Union Street Station and recently moved to the second floor of the Sun Center West over Amelia's Italian restaurant. StartWhys started offering free weekly "pop-up" co-working events several weeks ago for the downtown innovation community to share ideas in different locations. And a new shared office space called MojoCoworking out of Asheville, N.C., has been looking for space in and around downtown Gainesville.

Starter Space was the brainchild of Duncan Kabinu, Quang Tran and Payal Khurana — three information technology specialists who are part of the downtown startup scene.

Kabinu said they would meet at coffee shops or at Startup Hour, where they would talk about problems and ideas for the startup community, including the need for a co-work space for the growing number of startups.

"The startup community is very supportive. They always do stuff together," he said.

Starter Space rented the Firestone building from Richard and Phoebe Cade Miles, who last used the building as a temporary office for the Cade Museum.

Kabinu said the space is open to any type of business, not just the high-tech companies that have dominated the startup scene. One of its tenants, Gulejo, is a coffee distributor founded by UF students.

The open floor plan encourages collaboration.

"Periodically, you'll see one guy jump from one side to go help somebody out, or get in a conversation about some technology so they learn stuff from one another," Kabinu said.

Upon its opening late last month, Starter Space has had more interest than space, he said.

Kabinu said the idea is to build a bridge between the talent coming out of the University of Florida and the startup ecosystem to keep students in town.

Pheterson said he already got the message that Gainesville supports startups when, as a student, he observed the progress of Innovation Square — from the demolition of Shands at AGH to the construction of the UF Innovation Hub.

"It clicked when I was graduating: We've got to do a startup, and we've got to do it in Gainesville," he said.

Good Inc.'s founders started working on the pet feeder last spring as cadets of the Hacker House program, moved into the Founders Pad for the extra space, and for a time "squatted" in the Hackerspace, a lab for technology tinkerers in the basement of the Sun Center, until Starter Space opened.

"We don't plan to be here forever, either," Pheterson said. The idea is to grow into their own office space.

Founders Pad started as a project between some of Grooveshark's leaders and property owner Ken McGurn.

The program moved out of the Union Street Station when McGurn leased the space earlier this summer to a law office, and recently Founders Pad started moving into Sun Center West.

Paulo Da Silva, who manages the program, said Founders Pad will return to its original idea of being more of an "accelerator" than an incubator — taking people with good ideas in the pre-startup stage and helping them form companies. He said Founders Pad had became more of a co-work space because it had extra room that startups were interested in.

The program now has three companies — TapShield, Big Picture Games and Maid Suite.

"Once they're ready, they would be the kind of companies that would go in the Starter Space or the Innovation Hub," he said.

Unlike the wide-open room in the Union Street Station, Da Silva said the new Founders Pad will include private offices to cut down on distractions, as well as a common area.

McGurn said they offer three levels of support — leasing space, providing legal or accounting help, and investing in the more promising companies.

With StartWhys, startup company founders Trevor Abbott and Julian Miller were looking for a permanent co-work space but decided to use donated space wherever they could find it to keep their events free of charge for people to collaborate and share ideas.

The first event, at the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development, drew 20 to 25 people, while another recent event at Hackerspace drew 30 to 40, Abbott said. The events have attracted students as well as people who wanted to get out of their offices to work in a different environment. They met again last Thursday at Starter Space.

Nicole Sands plans to bring MojoCoworking to Gainesville through a licensing arrangement after renting temporary space last summer at the original Mojo in Asheville, N.C.

The digital platforms manager for Greenpeace USA, Sands said she is motivated to create the kind of place where she wants to work, with an attractive environment and a good location that would provide space as needed for people who work for themselves or work from home.

"I really enjoyed working from home initially. You get to the point where you want to get out more and go to coffee shops and find you want something more formalized," she said.

She said she also enjoyed the energy of being around different people doing different things.

"I think I was more productive just being in that environment," she said.

Sands said she is looking for the right spot on North or South Main Street or downtown.

An alternative to the downtown area is Gainesville CoWork, which opened a year ago in Magnolia Parke on NW 39th Avenue. With many techies attracted to downtown, the location in northwest Gainesville has attracted professionals such as in insurance and accounting.

Anthony Clark is the Gainesville Sun business editor.

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