HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – When BZ Sensor Solutions opened at BizTech nearly three years ago, there were only six clients in the sprawling high-tech incubator in Huntsville.
Today, the facility that was once in limbo is at near capacity two months after Huntsville-based PROJECTXYZ subsidiary Creekwater Investments purchased the building on 515 Sparkman Drive.
The 20,832-square-foot site was only 40 percent occupied when PROJECTXYZ owners Larry and Kim Lewis acquired the facility in November. A revitalization of the property and BizTech itself now has organizers scrambling to find room for entrepreneurs in need of startup space, collaboration and mentoring.
BZ Sensor Solutions Vice President of Business Development Scott Gates said his company was at BizTech “when it was at its worse,” but now he sees the facility as a hub for entrepreneurs in north Alabama.
“A lot of that has to do with new management at BizTech, as well as the Lewis’ and XYZ coming on board to put in the time and the effort to grow this kind of business,” he said.
Struggling to find space
Known for more than 10 years as the BizTech building, the property is now operating as The Entrepreneurial Center (TEC 515), which officials feel is a better representation of the facility moving forward. A new sign and logo are in the works.
TEC will launch with an open house at 5:15 p.m. Thursday to coincide with BizTech’s monthly “515” promotion, which includes food trucks, local craft beer, networking and more. The Women’s Business Center of North Alabama, Rocket City Launch and other BizTech tenants will be available to discuss their products and services.
Larry Lewis, president of PROJECTXYZ, runs the small company with his wife and Chief Executive Officer Kim Lewis. The couple is talking with a couple of architects and a design/build company to come up with a plan to refurbish the site.
Nothing is concrete, but Larry Lewis said the redesigned building will be brighter, have glass walls and larger working spaces to promote coworking among tenants and members of the public. The facility will also feature specialized labs for clients.
“When we purchased the facility back in November, we still had office space available for clients … but now we’re struggling to find space for folks,” he said. “That has prompted us to move a little bit faster with coming up with a plan for renovation and maybe engaging architects to think about how we can expand the facility.”
Larry Lewis said they will install solar panels on the roof of the building after recently being accepted into the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Green Power Providers Program. Lewis Energy Solutions, a new client of BizTech, along with Southern Solar, will install and monitor the system.
The couple plans to apply for a low-interest loan from the AlabamaSAVES program to help finance the cost of construction.
BizTech, which tapped retired Huntsville Times publisher Bob Ludwig to lead the organization last year, now fosters 23 local startups. David Kingsbury, newly-appointed BizTech chairman, told AL.com he anticipates at least 50 percent more clients will be added to the BizTech roster by the end of the year.
BizTech is now serving three types of clients: virtual, open table and resident. Resident companies pay for mentoring and lease private space at the building, while open-table startups take advantage of open co-working space and mentoring for a monthly fee. Business owners who already have offices or work from home can become virtual clients, meaning they receive mentoring but no working space at the facility.
The incubator recently unveiled Startup2Launch, a three-stage client development program designed to help entrepreneurs jumpstart their businesses “quickly, intelligently and with the least risk as possible.” BizTech is also offering CEO roundtables, educational workshops, one-on-one mentoring and brown bag lunch and learn events.
Bridging the gap
Lance Gilbreath, director of community engagement for BizTech, said the organization will host young entrepreneur nights that target high schoolers and college students to “bridge the gap with what the building used to be” and what it is today.
Ludwig said BizTech has been too insular by limiting itself to mostly high-tech companies. The need for startup space is not as critical as it was 20 years ago when BizTech was founded, but a combined entrepreneurial center with a virtual option could be key in helping transform the local startup community.
Kim Lewis said the goal is to make TEC a place “where any entrepreneur can have a chance to grow.”
“You’ve got several organizations here that are concentrated strictly on small businesses and giving them the tools, the resources, the equipment they need to thrive and grow into a viable small business in the community,” she said.
January 20, 2015