A startup incubator that set out to create high-tech jobs in the North Bay but struggled to thrive during the recession has rebranded itself and changed direction.
SoCo Nexus, the business incubator in Rohnert Park once known as Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, has expanded its focus beyond technology companies to recruit startups from other industries. It is also encouraging entrepreneurs with more modest revenue projections to apply for its mentorship program.
The incubator cleaned out clutter in the 30,000-square-foot commercial space and reduced its pricing, elevating its occupancy rate from just 30 percent three months ago to 60 percent today.
"We decided we wanted to reinvent ourselves and have a broader mission, be more inclusive," said Lindsay Austin, acting executive director of SoCo Nexus.
The incubator provides low rent and a collaborative environment for startups. Companies are encouraged to take advantage of the flexible office spaces at the center as they expand, until they outgrow the space, Austin said. It currently has about 30 tenants, who collectively employ an estimated 60 people.
While it used to operate on a $200,000 grant from the Small Business Development Center and it received a one-time contribution of $1.2 million from the City of Rohnert Park, that funding has dried up, Austin said. Now, it receives $75,000 to $100,000 a year from corporate sponsors, and it recently received a grant of $22,500 from the Sonoma County Water Agency, Austin said.
The original Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster was narrowly focused on providing a home for tech companies, which tend to have higher valuations and are more likely to attract investment than other types of startups, Austin said.
"The problem with that is that in the North Bay, it turned out that there's just not that much going on in that narrow of a segment. We also realized there are a lot of other good businesses," he said.
The transformation began in January, when the former executive director, Michael Newell, left to take a new job at an optical company, Austin said.
"We were sad to see him go, but it gave us a chance to say, when you have a leader at the helm, it's going to go a certain direction. Let's decide the future we want to have, and then let's find someone that buys into that vision," Austin said.
Since then Austin, a retired technology executive who was chairman of the incubator's board of directors, has been volunteering his time as acting executive director. He hopes to name a new executive director within the next few months, he said. But that may depend on funding, and recently the group has been doing more with less, engaging in trades for services as redevelopment funding dried up.
Amee Sas, a broker with Artisan Sotheby's International Realty, came on part-time as leasing director in April and quickly made changes to the space, staging empty offices with furniture and lowering the price to rent. She's now development director for the group.
"There were some offices that were filled with furniture piled high," Sas said. "It was taking out all of the broken things and functional obsolescence, and then redistributing the things that were useful in a way that made the office ready."
Now, in addition to traditional offices, there are couches that encourage spontaneous meetings. A disco ball and flat-screen TV hang over a space where networking mixers are held.