Rhonda Abrams, USA Today 9:12 a.m. EDT
All over the world, cities want to nurture entrepreneurs and attract innovation.
One approach has been to establish “accelerators” or “incubators” — programs where entrepreneurs receive business assistance, get mutual support and often share workspace.
For a good example of accelerators, head to New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina, civic leaders launched a variety of programs. I recently toured the BioInnovation Center and met graduates of the IdeaXcelerator run by the nonprofit Idea Village.
The BioInnovation Center is located in a new, $48 million Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design gold-certified building in the heart of New Orleans’ medical and business district. The center provides 66,000 square feet of subsidized “wet” labs and offices, and offers business assistance, events, financing and legal help.
“We’ve built a community where entrepreneurs and scientists can learn from one another,” President Aaron Miscenich said. Tenants in the BioInnovation Center also have created hundreds of well-paying jobs for the city.
These entrepreneurs — and the companies they run — represent the vibrancy and diversity of New Orleans’ new business climate.
“I’m so proud of what’s going on here in New Orleans. It’s why we chose the name Renaissance,” said Dr. Tarun Jolly, founder of Renaissance RX. By identifying through DNA testing how patients metabolize specific drugs, Renaissance RX enables physicians to tailor prescriptions to each individual’s needs.
Renaissance RX launched in the BioInnovation Center, and its rapid growth means that it has just about outgrown the facility. Started with four employees in October 2012, the company now employs 58 employees with a contracted sales force of 250 to 350 and another 300 DNA collectors working in 44 states.
“I’m now recruiting people from California,” said Jolly, 38. He’s also collaborating with the University of New Orleans to create a training program to meet growing local biotech demand for talent.
Sarah Mack, Tierra Resources
Originally from Colorado, Sarah Mack, 37, came to Tulane University in New Orleans for her doctorate in water resources.
“I fell in love with the city,” she said.
After Hurricane Katrina, Mack was one of the city’s emergency managers, looking at how to make the city safer and restore wetlands.
But “there was a $5 billion gap of what needed to be done,” Mack said.
She looked at other ways to attract financing for wetlands restoration.
“In 2007, the concept of carbon credits was booming,” she said.
Because of cap-and-trade policies, a market-based idea to control pollution, companies that emit too much in greenhouse gases can offset their carbon use, but none had applied credits for wetlands restoration. Mack created a for-profit company to do just that.
The IdeaXclerator helped Mack transition her idea into a business.
“I had a Ph.D. but didn’t know business. When I won the Water Challenge, a lot of that funding ($50,000) was used to get a Conoco Phillips contract.” Her company now is working on projects in California and Florida and soon will be working internationally.
Entering the historic building that houses the Solomon Group, you get the same cool vibe as entering a tech office in San Francisco.
Gary Solomon, 27, has converted the downstairs into the bustling headquarters of the company he founded with two partners, Steve Fink and Jonathan Foucheaux.
Although Solomon’s family has been well entrenched in New Orleans, he left for brighter lights and a bigger city for college.
“After Katrina, I could have stayed in New York and struggled,” he said. “There were a ton of lighting designers much better than me, and they weren’t making any money. It was the right time to go home.”
Solomon realized that New Orleans was host to world-class events, such as the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and NBA All-Star Game.
But “we had third-world resources,” he said.
So he and his partners set up a production design and implementation firm. They light the Superdome, built eight broadcast environments during Super Bowl XLVII and are designing a Miss USA Pageant. They’ve been nominated for a set-design Emmy.
Most important, they are creating jobs.
“We exhausted the workforce of people doing what we do. So now we are looking in related fields,” Solomon said. They’re also attracting new workers from as far away as Los Angeles.
“The pay is lower,” he said. “But the cost of living is less, and the pace much saner.”
Together, these entrepreneurs and other graduates of New Orleans’ accelerators are generating hundreds of jobs, creating optimism and building ‘buzz’ for this rapidly revitalizing American city.