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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 06:14 pm

Where ideas begin to grow

Inventors and entrepreneurs call for business incubators

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Ron Earley, Springfield inventor, with sweet gum balls.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

For Springfield inventor Ron Earley, like many others, the sweet gum tree in his yard was a real pain. Commonly referred to as “ankle-breakers,” the tree’s spiked globular fruit can be treacherous to walk on and can suffocate lawns if left uncollected.

So Earley — as a half-joke, he says — chopped up a handful of sweet gum balls in his blender and sprinkled the contents on his walkway after a light snow.

Not only did he discover that ground sweet gums create less of a mess than ice or sand, once the snow melted, the birds and squirrels gobbled them up. Earley believes that his sweet gum answer could cure a lot headaches for property owners if the balls could be chopped up on a mass scale. Earley is working with a local machinist who’s developing an industrial-sized sweet gum grinder – Mrs. Earley wasn’t very happy when he used the blender to develop his prototype, he says – as well as a landscaper who is willing to bag and ship them to customers.

That’s not even the best part. Earley, who lays claim to more than 30 inventions including the patented the Grip ’n’ Rise cane attachment, lighted cane, Finders Beepers wireless key strip for luggage, clipless suspenders, concentrated tea, and an ocean wave-powered turbine, believes that such innovation can jumpstart the U.S. economy.

“From one gumball idea, you’re spinning off three environmentally friendly companies,” Earley says. However, despite a growing interest in entrepreneurship, the real cost of marketing and selling a new product is an obstacle too large for many would-be inventors to overcome.

“Ideas are great but they’re expensive,” Earley says. Not including the cost of engineering, development and marketing of the invention, a U.S. patent can cost up to $15,000 in application filing, prosecution and, if approved, maintenance fees.

One solution Earley came up with is to open an incubator, a place where inventors work with electricians, welders, carpenters and plumbers, as well as business professionals who can assist with design, production, marketing, and ultimately, sale or distribution of the products.

The incubator concept began formally in 1959 in Batavia, N.Y., and is often misunderstood, says Tracy Kitts, vice-president of the Athens, Ohio-based National Business Incubation Association.

“A business incubator is not a building,” says Kitts. Instead, he explains, an incubation program involves several components. First, incubators work with new companies that are subjected to a selection process.

In addition, an onsite manager must be present, and the incubator should provide comprehensive business services, such as marketing or regulatory experts. Eventually, companies would graduate.

The incubator also usually receives an equity stake in the businesses that are developed, Kitts says. For example, Earley proposes that 50 percent of sales from his “Products Orphanage” would go to the inventor, while the rest would defray overhead costs and pay back business loans.

Last week, the Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce, which comprises about 20,000 small businesses, announced it supports the idea of small business incubators to help stem the 12.6 percent unemployment rate among African-Americans nationally. Small business, including those represented by the Illinois Black Chamber, are looking forward to some $50 million allocated for incubators in the federal stimulus bill.

“If we’re going to share in the debt, we might as well share in the participation,” says ILBCC president Larry Ivory of small and minority-owned businesses.

Says Kitts of the NBIA: “To drive our economy forward, in the long run we need education and opportunity. Business incubation is really the best bang for the buck.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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