Tech business incubator thrives

Despite the nation’s economic turmoil, many of the businesses in the Milwaukee County Research Park’s Technology Innovation Center continue to grow at a rapid rate.

"These companies are all small, startup companies, so they are very agile and flexible. They can respond quickly to the changing economic environments," said Guy Mascari, director of development at the Milwaukee Country Research Park. The businesses located in the incubator have things in common, including their location, which have contributed to their growth, he said. And companies located in the Technology Innovation Center are in “support type” business in information technology.

"The majority of their products lead to efficiencies, so even in a bad economy businesses are willing to invest in those technologies because it goes right to the bottom line," Mascari said.

Fifty businesses are located within the Innovation Center and use 61,000 square feet of space.

According to a recent survey of the companies located in the Innovation Center, all but three either experienced growth in the number of employees or remained constant since their start in the center, and most have increased the amount of space they need as well.

Andy Matter, president and founder of Niceware International LLC, one of the companies located in the Innovation Center, has expanded his business from three employees in 2002 to 15 today.

"Growing from two people, it’s safe to say our revenue has grown 100 percent since the day we started,” Matter said. “We are growing at an astonishing rate, we are probably at 20- to 30-percent annual growth rate, and are looking to add two more people before the end of the year.”

Niceware International specializes in the auto ID industry. It has developed software that assists businesses in deploying RFID and bar coding, Matter said. The company has developed specific expertise in a couple of different markets, including health care. For example, printing barcodes for patient wrist bands that hold all their medical information, or bar codes in other areas like manufacturing and production facilities that need to keep an inventory of parts.

"It is almost like we are a little bit shielded from the effects of the market, because our technology is a means to better efficiency," Matter said. "In down times, companies have to sit back and say, ‘Ok, what can we do to cut costs and be more efficient?’ Our products are a way to do that."

Niceware International is one of the largest companies within the research center. It leases about 4,000 square feet of space.

"All of these companies, really keep an eye on the bottom line. They are all very careful with their hires, making sure the individuals fit in well with their company," Mascari said. "Every one of the people they hire is vital. There isn’t a lot of room for fat." 

Within the Innovation Center, Mascari also has the flexibility to offer additional space when it’s the right time for a company to grow.

"We joke about it sometimes, but it really is convenient for us to be able to say, ‘We need this much more space, do you have it or will you have it a month from now?’" Matter said. "We have really gotten into the habit of looking a few months or a quarter ahead of time and accounting for additional space we might need."

Matter said Niceware might eventually relocate outside of the Innovation Center, but for now the location fits the company well.

Sieve Networks, a provider of network infrastructure solutions, and an authorized reseller of Apple and Sisco products, is also located in the research center. The company first started there in 2005 with two employees.

"We have experienced growth every year we have been here," said Patrick Fetherston, president. "This year we are on track to grow our revenue about 400 percent, and we plan to add an additional five people next year." 

The company currently has eight employees and leases 1,362 square feet of space across four rooms.

"The growth in this building alone has just exploded over the last few years," Fetherston said. "I think part of it is that we can all kind of help each other, there are a lot of other businesses in the building that we work with." 

"One of the great things about the incubator is that the rent for the space is affordable, we have the flexibility to offer the companies additional space as they need it, and it really provides a network of peer support," said Mascari. "Even though a lot of these companies are in competition with each other, they can really learn a lot and bounce ideas off one another to help them succeed and grow."

Companies looking to get into the research center go through a screening process, Mascari said.

"We really take a look at their business model, before they come in and make sure they have done all the investigative research about their competitors and their industry. Ultimately we want to see them succeed," Mascari said. "I think that they are able to succeed because most of their products and services lend themselves to efficiencies for companies, and in today’s economy companies can’t afford not to make those kinds of investments." 

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