University Incubators…Here we go again!

The next economic development disaster is brewing up in Tallahassee. FSU officials there have Incubator Envy and are hell bent on keeping up with the Joneses (Tampa, Boca Raton, Orlando, Gainesville, Sarasota, etc.). In the process, they no doubt will lobby for tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to put up a shiny new building and blow wads of cash on marketing a facility that will at best only benefit a small isolated slice of academia.

Why do universities feel the need to have incubators and why do state and local governments keep funding them under the “you scratch my back…” economic development model. Incubators are not just the next step on the evolutionary ladder of grad student lab work, they should be designed (and held accountable) for generating new products and real companies. Many articles have been written on what makes a successful incubator, yet whether they are venture backed, academically run or other, most have failed or at least failed to deliver (Univ. of Tampa & USF) on the grand promises of technology commercialization and or facilitating the next big thing. An article in the tech investment pub Red Herring cited the Aberdeen Group’s research on incubator failures, but this is just one of many sources for incubator disappointments.

The real prbolem here is the state and local government’s willingness to pour more money into a failed model. Academia run incubators are just a show pony for local economic development organizations that use them as leverage to waste more money on sexy marketing campaigns and incentives for companies to relocate to an area under the illusion that this will create jobs. I’ll save this broader topic for another rant, but just look at the numbers and do the simple math, this model does not work!