In a city where manufacturing is our greatest industry, it’s easy to forget the impact of generating our own jobs and wealth. Step inside Rockford’s EIGERlab, where home-grown entrepreneurialism is the basis for a new economic paradigm
Mark Tingley, owner of Accelerated Machine Design & Engineering, is steadily growing his company, thanks to services he’s obtained through EIGERlab’s business incubator and accelerator programs.
Some manufacturers create and assemble things. Others process foods or chemicals.
But EIGERlab, 605 Fulton Ave. in Rockford, is making something completely different. In a city where 20 percent of all jobs involve manufacturing, EIGERlab has spent the past decade helping to build companies of the future – companies capable of bringing jobs and wealth to the community.
At its core, it’s a nonprofit business incubator and accelerator, an organization that helps new companies to start and helps existing companies to grow. Inside this former engineering office on the Ingersoll campus is a battery of resources to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams. As its sciency name implies, it’s a laboratory where business ideas come alive.
Locally, EIGERlab is a center of innovation, one that has propelled homegrown businesses as far as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and as nearby as the factory floors at our region’s manufacturing powerhouses.
Nationally, it’s actually one of about 1,200 U.S. incubators supporting innovation. In 2011, North American incubators helped about 49,000 startups that supported nearly 200,000 workers, according to the National Business Incubators Association (NBIA), a trade group to which EIGERlab belongs.
In other communities, as in Rockford, incubators are doing incredible things. Chicago’s 1871 incubator and coworking space puts digitally focused entrepreneurs, investors and mentors in the same room.
In Silicon Valley, YCombinator selects a handful of startups for an intensive three-month bootcamp that often results in investor funding. It’s graduated Internet juggernauts such as Dropbox, Reddit and Airbnb.
EIGERlab serves many industries, but it has an inherent knack for high-tech manufacturing and engineering. Hidden away in an old industrial complex owned by Ingersoll, EIGERlab’s accomplishments are often overshadowed by local economic news, yet this just may be Rockford’s best shot at igniting a new paradigm.
“What’s the last big manufacturing company that we attracted to Rockford?” asks Dan Cataldi, EIGERlab’s executive director. “We don’t attract a lot of big companies to Rockford. It’s competitive, and we’re like anybody else. But Woodward Inc., that’s business retention and an expansion of an existing company. We have to keep and grow our own.”
Inside the Lab
Consider EIGERlab as a sort of one-stop shop for business resources, where nearly 250 local businesses received help in 2013.
Along with incubating and accelerating businesses for a fee, EIGERlab is also home to a product development center, covering everything from licensing and patenting to rapid prototyping on a 3-D printer. There’s even a workforce development center that trains unemployed or underemployed workers on entry-level machining skills.
Within the building, independent groups offer additional services, the sorts of relationships that factor into everything else, at little to no cost. There’s the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), a state agency that offers business planning consultation and training, and SCORE, a nonprofit that pairs up retired executives with small businesses in need of a mentor. EIGERlab even has resources for obtaining government contracts and exporting products to foreign countries.
“We have 40 manufacturers that sit on an advisory council and inform us as to what they need,” says Cataldi. “EIGERlab is about identifying what small to mid-size, growth-potential companies need, and how we can connect our services with a need in the community, to get them to grow quicker.”
Companies housed in the lab are provided with furniture, Internet and meeting spaces, on a one-year lease that allows for occupying more or less space, as business needs evolve. About half of businesses that pass through EIGERlab are manufacturers, so there’s also access to an adjacent 20,000-square-foot shop.
Before setting up in the incubator, a company first must endure a business planning process that analyzes 20 factors, from business concept to operations and customer relations. While housed here, the company must pursue its growth strategy.
“The objective isn’t just to rent cubes,” says Cataldi. “It’s to rent cubes with the idea that you’ll grow to two cubes, then three cubes, then four cubes, and then we move you to some other part of the building, where there’s more dedicated space. Phase three would be to go forth and continue to grow a company outside the EIGERlab.”
The signs of business expansion are all around. Upstairs, there’s a Chicago-based IT company that specializes in e-commerce infrastructure. Since re-shoring its operations from Kiev, Ukraine, the company’s Rockford operation has exploded, expanding from three cubes in 2011 to 26 cubes today. Next door, an engineering company has expanded over five years into nearly 1,800 square feet of office space, plus an additional 5,200 square feet of shop space. Nearby, there’s a company working behind closed doors, handling traffic photos for potential I-PASS tollway violators.
“Sometimes, the computer can’t sort it out, so these people have to,” explains Mike Cobert, EIGERlab’s assistant director. “Every time you go through the tollway and you don’t pay, there are up to eight photos taken of you.”
The CNC shop downstairs provides a training ground for unemployed or underemployed workers earning certifications for manufacturing jobs. They’ll learn about the basics of acquiring and holding a job – showing up on time, dressing properly – and learn about advanced manufacturing, before testing their skills using computer-controlled manufacturing machines. Graduates are often hired by local manufacturers.
Nearby are several 3-D printers, which enable rapid prototyping of various products: a beer tap handle designed for Madison, Wis.-based MobCraft Beer; prototype hand tools made for Snap-On; hair dryer attachments. Not every client in need of a prototype comes from Rockford.
“You may be be shocked at how many people are coming in from Chicago,” says Cobert. “We’re currently helping one entrepreneur, drawing the part and prototyping it. He says, ‘Mike, I can’t tell you how thankful I was the day that I found EIGERlab, because for years, I’ve had this idea, wanted to do something with it, but couldn’t.’”
In the adjacent manufacturing shop, EIGERlab companies are producing things, and in some cases performing “skunkworks” research and development. In one corner, a local manufacturer is refining a new production system for a new type of equipment. Here, engineers can test their application away from the office grind. Just a few feet away, a new business owner is sharpening saws for industrial clients. Thanks to an arrangement with Ingersoll, which owns the building and leases space to EIGERlab, these clients aren’t responsible for electrical costs.
“For a startup company, that’s huge – ‘I know my monthly cost is this,’” explains Cobert. “That’s important, because they don’t have to worry about spikes in energy costs.”
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