How to Design a Business Incubator
Leveraging design to create purposeful use of space is extremely important for a business incubator, as these spaces have become synonymous with innovation. While these spaces require heightened collaboration and idea-generating areas, at the same time, they need private spaces for individual work. So, how can the design of a business incubator help cultivate all of these things? I interviewed M+A’s Director of Design, Dan Pease, and Interior Designer, Kelly Heitkamp, to find out.
By Entrepreneur magazine's definition, a business incubator is an organization designed to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services that could include physical space, capital, coaching, common services, and networking connections.
Traditionally seen with technology startups, business incubators are spreading into other arenas. Cardinal Health recently launched Fuse Innovation Lab to develop innovative products for use in healthcare. Additionally many municipalities in the Central Ohio area are creating entrepreneurial centers to get small business owners out of their basement offices and into a space with infrastructure, collaboration, and most importantly, a network of support.
Q: Microsoft recently described its business accelerator, Microsoft Garage (pictured below), as "a protected habitat for Microsoft employees and their wild ideas." How can you leverage design to promote a nonbiased, creative space conducive for an incubator?
Pease: Creative synergy can be initiated and promoted by considering each user’s requirements to conduct business. Having open creative areas with centrally-located amenities, promotes a relaxing environment – allowing better and more honest participation in discussions/workshops. People need to feel a level of acceptance to let their guard down and offer, in some cases, ideas that are a little out of the box.
Heitkamp: The design process should mirror the innovation of the start-up companies —and Microsoft Garage is a perfect example of this. Because the purpose of these spaces is to promote out of the box thinking, you have to approach the design in a similar way. Part of the design challenge is to determine exactly how this is done. To help foster innovative thinking, the environment should change your frame of mind as soon as you walk in the door. It could be through using materials in unexpected ways, incorporating amenities that allow the users to feel comfortable, or incorporating cutting edge technology.
Q: What are specific design elements/techniques that you would integrate into creative spaces?
Pease: The creative area should have a combination of casual seating and flex space with chairs positioned in a circle or u-shape to promote idea sharing. The lighting level should be designed to reduce glare and stress. And bold colors/materials should be used to invigorate the casual, yet fun environment. I’d also integrate a tabletop smart-screen to help efficiently capture creative sessions and a marker wall or pin-up area. Ideas left pinned-up for display helps engage stakeholders who may not have been in the discussion.
Heitkamp: From a space planning standpoint, it's all about an open environment promoting connection and interaction between the users.
Another component—one that can be hard for us, as architects and designers—is taking a step back from the design and avoiding the urge to make things look "too perfect." Not only does a space with some raw edges communicate authenticity, it is a reality for most start-up companies. A space designed for a startup company shouldn't look or feel the same as a corporate headquarters. I think harnessing the charm and excitement of a start-up space through the building design is important.
Q: On one hand, you need to foster cutting-edge ideas that challenge normal business practices, but on the other hand these ideas should serve the business and its market. Are there any traditional office elements you would incorporate?
Pease: Sometimes an individual user or small group will want to take time to work on their own. There needs to be intimate break-out rooms, in close proximity to the creative space, that are enclosed to control sound. The size should accommodate four to six people and should include similar amenities as the creative space. Locating both types of spaces near a kitchenette aids in creating a non-stress setting. Again, we want the users to be comfortable and relaxed, making conversations honest and personable. This attitude promotes teamwork and makes the process fun, resulting in more efficient productivity.
Heitkamp: In an open office environment, it’s important to incorporate quiet, private spaces for respite and contemplation. Striking a balance between private and public spaces, while maximizing flexibility, is the sweet spot. A lot of this has to do with boundaries in the space. Is a stud and gypsum board wall really better suited to be a glazed modular wall or a visual division of space created by high backed seating piece? This is an example of the kind of questions that you should be prepared to ask when designing the space.
With millennial entrepreneurs launching about twice as many businesses as boomers, business incubators could have a huge impact. The "millennipreneurs," as they're called, are taking the entrepreneurial leap at a younger age and have higher targets in mind. Business incubator design that can offer an innovative, collaborative, technology-integrated space, business coaching and opportunities for networking could be a huge asset.