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Potsdam business incubator aims to turn ideas into investment

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POTSDAM — At Peyton Hall on Main Street, the windows glow purple, the sound of machinery echoes through the corridors, and innovators and entrepreneurs work on the startup ideas they hope will take them places.

The Peyton Hall Business Incubator, which opened in 2011, is operated by Clarkson University’s Shipley Center for Innovation.

The incubator provides office and workshop space for startup businesses, with a focus on technology and innovation. It houses 23 businesses, about three-quarters of its total capacity.

Some are run by Clarkson students, others by area entrepreneurs, and a few by interested parties from out of state. They work on a wide variety of ideas, from military applications to aeroponic agriculture.

Some of the businesspeople do their work behind closed doors, the windows papered over, carefully hiding their progress from curious onlookers.

Now that the incubator has been up and running for two years, the pressure for success is growing for some of its earliest tenants.

“This is the deciding year,” said Matthew E. Draper, deputy director of Clarkson’s Shipley Center for Innovation.

The Peyton Hall offices are not meant to be a permanent home for startups; instead, they are a place for eager innovators to test their ideas and find some funding before striking out on their own.

After two to five years in Peyton Hall, businesses are expected to leave the nest, regardless of whether they’ve found success.

“We will kick them out,” Mr. Draper said.

On average, Mr. Draper said, nine of every 10 startups fail. The incubator hopes for a higher success rate by being more selective in choosing which businesses get investment from the Shipley Center and space in Peyton Hall.

“There are ideas that get kicked out before they even get here,” Mr. Draper said, recounting the story of a group that spent three months working on its idea for an electronic tablet before the Shipley Center decided it wouldn’t work.

He said the target is three successes for every 10 startups in the incubator.

Healthy Breathing LLC hopes to be counted among the triumphs. The three-man team is working on an inconspicuous, wearable device that can monitor a person’s breathing and send data to a smartphone app.

So who is its target market?

“Everybody that’s breathing,” said Dr. Alexandru Stoian, a cardiology specialist at Canton-Potsdam Hospital and the company’s medical mind.

James Carroll and Daniel J. Rissacher, both engineering professors at Clarkson, complete the company.

The Shipley Center was on board with the idea from early on, and the team had little trouble earning its place at Peyton Hall, which it uses to build prototypes.

The team hopes to market its device to health-conscious consumers, giving them an in-depth look at potential respiratory problems.

First, however, the men need to find funding. “We’re using our own resources right now,” Mr. Rissacher said.

The team has had several meetings with potential investors, with no major successes yet.

“It’s kind of slow right now. It’s been kind of frustrating,” Mr. Rissacher said.

The incubator is not meant to be a money-making enterprise for Clarkson. Mr. Draper said it should eventually be self-sustaining, bringing in returns on investments in successful startups.

“Ultimately, the market decides,” he said.

The incubator allows companies to try, fail, and try again in privacy, away from the buzz of technology hot spots like Silicon Valley, Mr. Draper said.

“It allows them to test things out and not end up on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow if they mess up,” he said.

Renoun Ski Co., one of Peyton Hall’s first tenants, knows plenty about failure.

The company was started by a group of Clarkson students with a shared love of skiing.

“We had the know-how for the skis, but when we went to the Shipley Center, they did pretty much all the business stuff for us,” said co-founder Cameron L. Jones.

Mr. Jones and his partner, Cyrus K. Schenck, plan to create custom skis made with special adaptive materials unlike anything else on the market.

Their early efforts saw plenty of trial and error. Their first model was dubbed the “brick” because of its inflexibility.

However, they have found a design that works, and the funding is coming in. The partners hope that by next year, they will be counted among Peyton Hall’s first success stories.

“We may end up moving at the end of the year to an actual office,” Mr. Jones said, indicating Burlington, Vt., as a possible location.

Mr. Draper said he hopes the Shipley Center’s resources and the resources available locally will lead some of the incubator’s successes to stay in the north country permanently. He envisions the region as a center for invention and job growth, and he hopes state government will see things the same way.

In May, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a search for “Innovation Hot Spots,” several business incubators statewide that will be deemed worthy of state funding and support. Peyton Hall has submitted its application for consideration.

Bringing investment to the north country is all part of the plan, Mr. Draper said.

“If they don’t want to stay here, we didn’t do our job,” he said.

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