Incubating business ideas: Tech-related firms get their start at NDSU research park
FARGO—Ray Berry and his partners at OmniByte Technology have moved half a dozen times since launching a startup that provides customizable software service technicians use in the field.
But their address has remained the same as the fledgling business moved to progressively larger office spaces in the business incubator at the Research and Technology Park at North Dakota State University.
The business, formed in 2015, rolled out its two software application in the past year, with clients around the country ranging from $25 million in revenues and 26 technicians to $1 billion in revenues and 700 technicians.
OmniByte, which has 11 full-time employees and expects to hire three more soon, works with the heating-ventilation-air conditioning, sheet metal and plumbing industries. It provides software for portable devices that increase the efficiency of their field work and how it connects to the back office, such as invoicing.
Berry said the incubator provides lots of benefits for startup tech firms, including flexible space, consulting services and the chance to network with other entrepreneurs.
"I would have to have signed multiple leases," if he had to rent conventional space as his business grew. Also, having an address at a university research park was helpful, Berry said. "It really kind of legitimized ourselves really quickly." The incubator started in 2007, seven years after establishment of the research park, which has more than 1,300 employees in businesses at the park or firms that have graduated from the incubator. Their salaries in 2015, the most recent available, totaled $85.2 million.
Research park tenants or graduates include Appareo, John Deere Electronic Solutions, Intelligent InSites, Myriad Mobile and Pedigree.
The incubator has space for 18 to 20 firms. To be accepted, clients must be technology-related and come with ideas that are plausible and promising, said Chuck Hoge, the research and technology park's executive director.
Another consideration: "Are they coachable?" Hoge added, since tenants are given a lot of consultation to help their ventures succeed.
"By and large we haven't had to turn away too many companies that wanted space," he said.
One of OmniByte's neighbors is Project Phoenix, the developer of AegisFlow, a web-based marketplace that connects people to drone pilots.
AegisFlow enables databases to "talk to each other," and can be used to hire drone pilots to take photographs or video, among other uses, said Anthony Molzahn, the firm's chief executive officer.
The software platform now has a few dozen beta users, and Project Phoenix plans a formal release soon, he said.
Having fellow entrepreneurs as neighbors has been invaluable to Molzahn and his co-founder and chief architect, Avi Blackmore.
"It really is a community," Molzahn said. "Call it altruistic support, helping each other."
Tiffanie Honeyman is the CEO of OpGo Marketing, a firm that helps clients measure the success of their marketing programs, and a recent graduate of the business incubator. She and her staff of four moved in July to offices in the Black Building.
One of the incubator's most valuable services, in Honeyman's view, is offering advice on drafting a viable business plan, making a pitch to prospective partners or customers, and making reliable projections, with advice suitable to the stage of the business's development.
"They kind of hold you accountable to your projections," she said. "They basically blow holes in your business plan."
As with OmniByte, OpGo switched offices inside the incubator as it added staff. OpGo, which has developed a dashboard for clients, performs marketing audits, marketing planning as well as measuring marketing performance. If marketing returns aren't satisfactory, OpGo can make recommendations, Honeyman said.
After roughly two years in the incubator, Honeyman determined that she was ready to take OpGo downtown when she had a book of clients and stable cash flow.
"That was a sign to me we were ready to move out on our own," she said. Some of her clients have been with her for more than two years. "That was another sign that we were ready."