December 4, 2014

Landlord donates space, but TechSandBox founder hopes for more sponsors

PHOTO/EMILY MICUCCI
PHOTO/EMILY MICUCCI
Alan Phillips, Jack Schofield and Walter Dobberpuhl, left to right, founders of social networking startup Homeplete.com, discussed their venture during a meeting at TechSandBox in Hopkinton last fall.

Last week, MetroWest's only technology accelerator and incubator, TechSandBox, announced its largest sponsorship to date, after its debut a year-and-a-half ago.

Landlord Harold Nahigian of Southfield Properties III has agreed to let TechSandBox operate rent- and tax-free in its 8,700-square-foot space on South Street for the coming year. This came as TechSandBox was scheduled to begin paying market-rate rent to Nahigian, CEO Barb Finer said.

Small, local companies step up

For the prior year, the incubator had been charged a partial rate, but as corporate sponsorship has lagged, Finer said it became clear that paying market rate in the coming year would have been difficult.

Nahigian, who sits on TechSandBox's board of directors, came up with the offer, according to Finer.

"He really believes in what we're doing," she said.

TechSandBox has generated a robust offering of pro-bono service donations from experts who can advise startup companies as they seek to commercialize their technologies. A number of small companies, mostly professional services firms, have stepped up as sponsors, and kept the lights on since TechSandBox's inception, Finer said. But larger corporate sponsorships have been difficult to come by.

"We haven't gotten the sponsorship from big companies that we thought we might get," Finer said, adding that she "underestimated the challenge" of landing them.

Since TechSandBox is one of a kind in the region, Finer has only been able to compare her model to those found within Route 128. Using those incubators and accelerators as a yardstick, Finer said she expected TechSandBox would draw greater enthusiasm quickly. In an interview Monday, she rattled off the large corporate sponsors of Greater Boston-area organizations and efforts, such as Mass Challenge and the MIT $100K Accelerate Contest.

"It's so much easier to get money in the city … I don't understand it," Finer said.

A 'vehicle' for growth

TechSandBox generates revenue from the 15 startups that rent space within the incubator and through membership fees, but sponsorship is its real bread and butter. Nahigian, who has developed the Hopkinton Innovation Park that is home to TechSandBox, feels strongly that his investment in the incubator is worthwhile.

A developer of research and development space along I-495, Nahigian said he views the incubator as a starting point for the region's tech industry.

This is important, he said, because the surge of electronics and communications companies that dominated the I-495 corridor in the past 25 years has crested and receded.

"The only way that we're going to see another group of new businesses take the place of those is going to be in some of the newer fields and I see TechSandBox as a vehicle by which to bring about the inception and the growth of a new set of businesses that are in the category of scalable technology," Nahigian said.

Nahigian said Finer and TechSandBox will need to be persistent as they try to prove their organization is worth the investment.

"It does take folks some time to get their heads around what she's doing and the purpose," Nahigian said. "It's like everything else; after a while, you start to ask more questions."

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