By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- On the outside, the 97-year-old Youngstown Business Incubator building on West Federal Street doesn't look like much.
The five-story, 25,000-square-foot, former furniture store building stands between a parking lot and a handful of abandoned buildings.
But what goes on inside the incubator is another story.
In just the past five years, YBI companies have created more than 160 new technology-based jobs, earned 16 intellectual property patents and developed 19 new commercial software applications. YBI has numerous corporate customers including IBM, Textron, Lockheed Martin, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Dell, AT & amp;T and Disney as well as several universities.
"These companies are selling globally," said Jim Cossler, incubator director. "We have executives from some of the most well-known businesses in the country come here, and they can't believe this is happening in Youngstown."
Key to success
The incubator, which opened in 1997, provides many free services, and reduced or free rent to upstart technology-based companies.
There are 10 tech-based companies in the incubator, including Turning Technologies, Softek Software and Zethus Software.
Turning Technologies started as a three-man business with a small office at the incubator in the fall of 2001. The business now has 30 employees, takes up 11/2 floors of the incubator, and saw its business grow by 400 percent last year.
"We would never have experienced the growth we had if it wasn't for the incubator," said Mike Crosby, Turning Technologies' vice president of operations and one of the company's founders. "The incubator has been very instrumental in our success."
The company sells keypads for interactive classroom participation. The company unveiled a credit-card-sized keypad at a trade show last month and received 50,000 orders for the product before leaving the event.
Zethus just landed its first commercial customer, Bridgestone Firestone North America Tire.
The company will use Zethus' software to improve the speed and efficiency of its virtual modeling of new tire designs.
"Bridgestone could have gone anywhere in the world for that software, and they chose a company in Youngstown," Cossler said.
More than 1 million people use software and technology developed by the 10 companies in the YBI, Cossler said.
"In my mind, this incubator is a shining star in the state of Ohio," said Gary Mrozek, chairman of YBI's board of directors and executive committee.
Paul Harkey, vice chairman of the board and committee, said YBI started as a "diamond in the rough," but has grown into a high-tech powerhouse in Ohio.
One of YBI's biggest boosters is Gov. Bob Taft, who's visited the incubator three times.
"Governor Taft is very impressed with the incubator and the technology developed there," said Julie Michael Smith, the governor's regional development representative. "The governor's office is supportive and pleased with the incubator's results. It's important to maintain the jobs created at the incubator in the area."
In cooperation with the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp., YBI plans to build a $5.2 million, 25,000-square-foot free-standing facility, Youngstown Technology Center, west of the incubator.
The CIC plans to demolish the five buildings immediately west of the incubator with an expected opening date of late 2006.
Turning Technologies and Softek Software have signed letters of intent to move to the new facility.
"We don't want our companies leaving the incubator and then moving out of the city," Cossler said.
Through federal and state grants, $4.2 million has been raised, and an application to the federal Economic Development Agency was submitted for the remaining $1 million.
Cossler says downtown Youngstown has the potential for significant further growth for tech-based businesses.
A number of upstart companies are interested in coming to the incubator, he said, but the building is at full capacity.