UNR’s Innevation Center is a magnet for startups
When Jim Sacherman founded his first business, he was its sole proprietor – which was great for taking catnaps under the desk but not so much when he needed mentoring or additional resources to grow his fledgling business.
It’s those experiences that now help Sacherman, director of the Innevation Center University of Nevada, Reno at the corner of Sinclair and Liberty streets in Midtown Reno, stimulate growth for businesses located at the center.
As technology continues to transform the economic and business climate of Northern Nevada, the Innevation Center plays an increasingly prominent role in incubating new technology and software startups as well as serving as a pipeline for UNR students to find jobs with local technology companies.
The Innevation Center was originally intended to serve as a bridge between downtown/Midtown businesses and the university by focusing on small businesses, entrepreneurship and design. Over the past 18 months, however, it’s become a go-to collaborative workspace and gathering place that’s fostering the incubation of startups and accelerating the growth of technology and innovation in Northern Nevada.
In addition to a handful of privately owned companies, the Innevation Center houses the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center, the Nevada Center for Applied Research, and Nevada Industry Excellence.
One area of the center that’s tremendously important to many companies and individuals working there is its “makerspace,” dedicated area for equipment, knowledge and collaboration to Innevation Center members, UNR students and employees, and the community.
The basement-level workplace contains computer-numeric controlled tools, milling machines, lathes, presses and similar production/fabrication tools, as well as a 3-D printing lab and workstations where members develop and refine hardware ideas and products.
“Because of the makerspace, the Innevation Center has created a community that’s based around hardware manufacturing companies that utilize the space and the rest of the center,” Sacherman said. “We want to grow the technology companies in Northern Nevada, which are primarily venture-funded, small tech-based startups.
“We have the ability to work with and mentor these companies, find funding for them, and support them with mechanical and electrical development of their products,” he added. “We also have some pure software and biotech companies in this space. It’s a variety, but the goal is having companies that need the infrastructure we provide with real growth potential. They could change the landscape of Northern Nevada.”
Many companies come to the Innevation Center because it’s easy for them to find engineering and other talented student interns from the university, and the majority of those interns have gone on to become employees upon graduation. Another area where the center has demonstrated value for startups, said Operations Manager Rose Catron, is the scope of its resources.
“Most startup companies can’t afford the items that are available in the makerspace,” she said, “and almost no startup company is going to have the entire breadth of experience to make everything they need. It’s such a high-cost threshold to fill in those gaps, and the makerspace completes that puzzle.”
Oftentimes, the many different types of technical experts working at the makerspace creates a collaborative environment that helps individuals overcome development or design challenges, said Makerspace Manager Crystal Harvey. The collaborative environment and shared expertise help center members overcome technical challenges they might not have the wherewithal to defeat on their own.
Companies that are utilizing the Innevation Center’s resources and workspaces include:
• Capstack, a commercial real estate platform that connects borrowers with mortgage brokers and investment bankers to find new and creative sources of capital.
• Clickbio, which makes customized labware and plasticware for laboratory automation.
• Breadware, which helps companies accelerate development of Internet of Things products.
Breadware relocated to Reno from Santa Barbara, Calif., in April of this year in part because of the many ways the Innevation Center could help it grow. The company had scouted locations in Seattle and Boulder, Colo., before settling on Reno. Its relocation also included a round of seed funding by local venture investment groups WaterShed Growth Ventures and Ozmen Ventures. There’s a similar 65,000-square-foot Innevation Center in Southern Nevada that was donated by Switch founder and Chief Executive Officer Rob Roy.
Reno’s shift from traditional industries into more technology-related ventures continues to power growth in the tech sector. The decision by major tech giants to locate operations in Northern Nevada also sends a signal to startups that Northern Nevada is a viable place to do business, Sacherman said.
“Part of my goal is to create more high-tech, high-paying jobs in Reno,” he said. “Having a number of those (large) companies here lets smaller companies realize that there is tech happening in Reno, and it really creates an entrepreneurial startup environment.”
The Innevation Center also has served as a pipeline for investors seeking high-quality deals in tech and other startups. The staff at the center spends a great deal of time connecting center members with potential investors, Sacherman said.
Despite the frothy economy of Northern Nevada, it remains challenging to find investment dollars, both on local and regional levels. Local investment dollars are crucial to the firms at the Innevation Center, Sacherman noted, because large investment firms in Silicon Valley and New York typically don’t look at startups seeking Series A or seed capital.
However, being in Reno hasn’t been a drawback for these companies, Sacherman said. The key is growing Reno’s pool of early-stage investors.
Looking ahead, Sacherman hopes to continue growing the number of companies housed at the Innevation Center – as well as the number of successful companies that have left to establish operations under their own roof. The focus remains on incubating tech companies.
“It’s very important for us to pick an area of expertise, specialize in it and grow that area. Long-term, that will create a number of jobs in a specific area, and it becomes a draw for people in that business.”