One of the more important challenges Ithaca faces in 2017 is business retention. Between Ithaca College, Cornell University and Tompkins Cortland Community College there’s certainly enough young brainpower and entrepreneurial energy to develop an intriguing and appealing start-up environment.
The only problem, of course, is keeping that talent in-house and not losing it to the bright lights of New York City or other glamorous cities.
Enter Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and Cornell University’s eHub. Though both cater to different markets, both are essentially set up to achieve similar goals, namely providing resources and workspace that make it as easy as possible to create and sustain a fledgling business in the competitive marketplace of Ithaca. Rev is a community start-up incubator opened a little over two years ago, while eHub is accessible only to Cornell students and opened its two locations, in Collegetown and Kennedy Hall on Cornell campus, over the summer in 2016. Rev currently has 40 ‘member’ companies that are utilizing their services, while eHub might have hundreds of students pass through their doors every day.
Rev and eHub both look quite similar: sleek, open designs with wide rows of windows peering out to the street, its main rooms cluttered with people tapping on keyboards and jotting down notes amid a sea of colorful chairs, tables and rugs filling the room. It’s like being inside the world’s most productive lava lamp.
Zack Shulman, the Director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, said the simple factor of having somewhere to work, whether that’s meetings or designing or discussing can be invaluable for someone who is trying to organize several people in a small, young business.
“It’s incredibly important, it’s game-changing,” Shulman said of having space when trying to create a business. “We love it when students start companies as students because when they become successful, when they stay in Ithaca they have great resources like Rev, so they can go from our resources on campus and then literally roll down the hill to Rev.”
The eHub building also houses some programs designed to help start-ups in more specific ways such as the eLab program, which caters to a wide variety of companies, 12 of which are from students in Cornell’s current graduating class. eLab has been around since well before the opening of eHub, and serves as an accelerator to equip young companies with money, resources and mentorship. Start-ups can consult Shulman, a managing partner in local start-up funder Cayuga Venture Fund, and a group of other successful entrepreneurs to learn from their experiences and strategies.
“It’s really provided a common community, just having a place where people can go is absolutely critical,” he said.
Mike Annunziata and Vipul Saran are products of the eHub environment or at least examples of what it can create, one of the success stories so far in the young history of the dedicated space. They started their business, Natural Cuts, together about a year ago and credited eHub with expediting their development process sizably. Natural Cuts is based on a new technology that extends the shelf-life of produce by months, aiming to reduce the amount of fresh produce that wastes away on a countertop or in a grocery store display before it is eaten.
“I think it would have come about significantly more slowly if we didn’t have a space to get together and work out,” Annunziata, 27, said. The eHub is essentially like free office space for them, “which really helps accelerate the pace of entrepreneurship on campus and new venture creation on campus.”
“Generally speaking, eHub is a very productive space,” Saran, 26, said. “It gives us a platform and a base to work out of, so that’s something that is actually very much required for a start-up when you can’t afford to spend money [...] It’s like when people say they start their businesses out of the garage. But at Cornell and the eLab program, it’s like our refined garage.”
Beyond providing a structure in which success can be bred, the collaboration and competition that spawns between different companies working in close quarters has created a vibrant community that Rev coordinator Jeremiah Cotman said was probably Rev’s most important achievement since its founding. Much like Shulman, Cotman said the community has become an integral part of the start-up process, and will assist in future economic development as it builds.
“Especially for our earliest members, it made a huge difference for them to know that there were other start-ups,” Cotman said. “They can come to a place and learn from people who have had successful start-ups before, but also see a community of other people working hard to start new companies.”
Cotman emphasized that the communal aspect to the start-up environment in town has also contributed to a better, less emotionally burdensome start-up experience. Creating a start-up just a few years ago in Ithaca could have been a pretty lonely, demoralizing experience, Cotman said, as the community was not connected so it would have been difficult to realize the common challenges one could face during a company’s infancy.
Annunziata and Saran both said facilities like eHub and Rev would go a long way to making Ithaca an even more business-friendly environment, an effect that will hopefully grow as more and more companies spring out of the area. Like Cotman, Annunziata said the start-up culture has taken on a supportive, fostering atmosphere in which businesses can support each other, even just with a passing word of encouragement.
“Having co-working spaces like Rev or eHub definitely encourages local entrepreneurship and local job creation by giving people that live here, grew up here, were educated here, the resources they need to succeed and giving them a tie to the area that will encourage them to build their business here.”