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Innovation in RGV

MARIO GONZALEZ/ THE RIDER GRAPHIC

UT Rio Grande Valley, the City of Weslaco and the Weslaco Economic Development Corporation have signed an agreement to redevelop a building that will house the university’s Center for Innovation and Commercialization and a new business incubator.

“We hope that this center [will be] a laboratory for students who want to learn something about entrepreneurship,” said Mark Kroll, dean of the College of Business and Entrepreneurship. “The purpose of it is to help new ventures develop a business model.”

As part of the agreement, the City of Weslaco will provide a building located at 257 S.

Kansas Ave. that will house the CIC, currently based in the offices of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. The Weslaco EDC will provide $1.3 million for the renovation of the office space, and the university will be in charge of the day-to-day operations.

“Once we have the facility up and running, we want to create a marketing scheme that’s going to attract new businesses that want to invest in this community because of this,” said Joey Treviño, executive director of the Weslaco EDC.

Additionally, the three partners will jointly apply for grant funds to cover the remaining costs, according to the memorandum of understanding among the three entities.

The location in Weslaco will provide a geographical advantage for this endeavor.

“It’s sort of in the mid-Valley, so it’s sort of strategic … it’s centrally located,” Kroll said. He also mentioned the well-located space and the willingness of the city and the EDC to help redevelop the property.

“I believe [Weslaco has] a very dynamic business community,” Treviño said.

The CIC was established in 2012 by UTRGV legacy institution UT Brownsville with the help of a grant from the Economic Development Administration (EDA).

“We’re a resource for students or faculty that want to commercialize ideas or products, but we’re also a resource for companies within our community and region that would like [do the same],” said Laurie Simmons, the manager of the Center for Innovation and Commercialization. “Our mission at the center is to develop an entrepreneurial skill set for the students as well as to help economic development in the Valley.”

Teams of students and faculty work based on the needs of a particular company, Simmons said. They help the company build a business model canvas in order to help them decide if they wish to move on with their idea or product.

In the future, the CIC hopes to add new services and capabilities.

“What’s going to change in the future is that with these teams … we’re also going to have mentors,” Simmons said.
“It’s going to be more of a three-pronged approach.”

Expectations are that by working with teams involving academics and mentors with abilities and knowledge in different fields, businesses that work with the center will obtain professional and real world experience. These teams will be to conduct market and industry analyses, develop competitive company profiles, evaluate go-to market strategies and build financial models in order to build sustainable business models, Simmons said.

In addition to the resources provided by the CIC, the development of the Rio Grande Valley Angel Network, investors who will provide financing for the companies working with the center, is underway.

“We’re an organization of about 17 members, [and] we hope to have 40 members by the end of the year,” Simmons said.

Kroll said projects will be presented to the participating investment community and they will make a decision as to whether or not they want to finance it.

Although the names of its members are not made public in order to respect their privacy, they are professionals throughout the Rio Grande Valley who are accredited investors with a minimum net worth of $1 million, excluding their household, or who have a yearly income of $250,000 individually or $300,000 as a family or household.

In recent years, the effectiveness of the thousands of incubators located across the country has been placed in doubt. Yas Motoyama, director of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, which focuses on education and entrepreneurship, and his research assistant Emily Fetsch, concluded after reviewing more than 35 academic articles that more research is needed to determine whether incubated businesses outperform their unincubated counterparts.

Asked about the research findings, Treviño said he thinks that the dynamic between the Weslaco EDC and UTRGV is going to create a better opportunity for success since, based on his research, most incubators have not partnered with a higher education institution.

“We’re not just going to take anybody,” Simmons said. “We’re looking for companies that are scalable, that can grow and produce jobs, and have some disruptive technology.”

Any students, faculty or local businesses and entrepreneurs interested in working with the CIC can contact Laurie Simmons at laurie.simmons@utrgv.edu or may call her at 357-0167.

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