By Sherri Buri McDonald
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
Last year, Krista Schultz, a special education consultant in Eugene, took a product development class at Lane Community College and created the Calm Down Kit, designed to help preschoolers work through their tantrums.
When the class was over, she asked, “Now what?”
A friend told her about the Fertilab Thinkubator, a nonprofit co-working space in Eugene with lots of programs to help budding entrepreneurs. But Schultz said she was too intimidated and stayed away — until Fertilab recently launched, “The Clinic,” a program for beginners.
“I had zero business background,” Schultz said. “I didn’t even know where to begin.”
Schultz and other local entrepreneurs are finding there’s more help than ever at each stage of developing a business — from refining their raw ideas, to finding space, hiring employees and raising money.
“I feel pretty relaxed because I know they’re going to help guide me on where to go next,” she said, adding “I don’t have to figure all that out myself.”
After working with Clinic mentors over the past couple of months, Schultz said she has a clearer view of where she’s headed. She hopes this month to enter ID8, Fertilab’s five-week pre-accelerator program, to continue to build her business, explore her market and increase sales.
If Schultz completed ID8 and wanted to grow her business even more, perhaps with help from outside investors, she could apply for the intensive 12-week Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or RAIN, business accelerator in Eugene.
“RAIN for me is this overall goal, but I know I have some preparation to do before I get there,” she said.
If there are any gaps along this growing continuum of startup services, they’re at the front end, when people are trying to figure out whether they have a worthwhile idea, and at the tail end, after companies graduate from the RAIN accelerator, said Joe Maruschak, a founder of Fertilab before he was named chief startup officer of the RAIN accelerator in Eugene.
Maruschak said he doesn’t think there are any huge gaps in resources. Rather, the challenge lies in routing people to the right resources.
“The problem you see with (services such as) RAIN, SCORE, and (LCC’s) Small Business Development Center is accessibility,” Maruschak said.
When Maruschak and others launched Fertilab two years ago, “I was really accessible,” he said.
“Now with RAIN, I’m not accessible anymore; I’m institutional,” Maruschak said. “People don’t think they can just walk up to me anymore.
“When someone has an idea it’s intimidating to say, ‘I have an idea, but I don’t know what I’m doing.'”
The Clinic is helping to solve that problem.
“Before the Clinic … there were people who wanted to be in ID8 who were just too early stage,” said Jeff Gish, who launched and sold a transportation business in Spokane, moved with his family to Eugene to complete a Ph.D. program in entrepreneurship, and is a mentor for both The Clinic and ID8.
“People with just an idea can chat about their idea and see if it makes sense or not,” Gish said. “The Clinic can nurture the seed.”
Another Clinic mentor, Cary Torkelson, said someone with a new idea might not know what to do next, or might feel overwhelmed by all that might be required to turn the idea into a business.
It’s useful to have “someone at the other end of the table, helping them know what questions to ask and how to flesh out their business,” said Torkelson, who has 20 years of Wall Street and startup experience.
Fledgling entrepreneurs meet for 20 minutes with a panel of three mentors. The entrepreneurs share what they’re struggling with and the mentors give homework assignments that the entrepreneurs are expected to complete before returning to Clinic in two weeks.
“It’s active — not let’s sit around and talk about your business,” said Innovation Director David Youngentob, who oversees Fertilab’s entrepreneurship training programs and activities.
Schultz calls the time with the volunteer mentors “super helpful.”
“It’s only 20 minutes, so they get down to business right away,” she said.
“Each time I get two to four homework assignments,” Schultz said. “It gave me focus (as well as motivation) knowing I couldn’t come back unless I did the homework.”
One assignment that Schultz said had immediate results was to think of 10 potential local customers and to talk with as many of them as she could.
She tallied up local preschools, pediatricians, parenting groups and other possibilities.
“That was really helpful because I’m kind of shy about talking with potential customers,” Schultz said. “That just helped me to say this is a homework assignment I need to go into this store and talk with them.”
Schultz ended up getting her kits on the shelves of the Dancing Weasel toy store in Eugene. She said she had heard that the retailer was interested in the kits and the homework assignment nudged her to be proactive and contact the store, instead of waiting for the owner to call her.
Schultz created the Calm Down Kit to encourage children to view tantrums as storms that will blow over as they use “brain-
calming” techniques, such as taking three deep breaths, counting to 10 and clenching and releasing their hands.
The kits, which were designed with the help of Schultz’s friend, Cari Ingrassia, a graphics designer, include a photo book to look at, bubbles to blow, and a small pillow to squeeze. The kits sell for $25 at the Dancing Weasel and on Etsy, the online marketplace for handcrafted goods.
Tom Keating, CEO of Cognitopia, which develops software to help people with autism and others with cognitive disabilities, is further along with his business.
Keating had successfully raised research funding to study software that could help people with disabilities, but he wanted to get those products into people’s hands.
He enrolled in ID8 last fall and was connected with mentor Matt Fanelli, who eventually became Cognitopia’s chief operating officer.
Fanelli has an MBA and a law degree from the University of Oregon, so he knew the language of business and startups, but Keating was a newcomer to that world.
“ID8 was a crash course for me in understanding business,” Keating said.
After completing ID8, the pair entered the RAIN accelerator. Cognitopia graduated from the accelerator earlier this year and now is testing software to help with goal setting and follow-through.
The software has many visual prompts and continual reminders to help guide users. It also creates charts to track the users’ progress, as well as to share with supporters, such as parents and teachers.
The company hopes to start selling the product in early 2016, while it develops several other new products, Keating said.