The Idea Greenhouse in Durham began simply enough: Entrepreneur Tom Elliott was irritated about the status quo.Elliott, a University of New Hampshire graduate who moved back to the area a few years ago, didn't take long to come to this conclusion that the university town needed a community venue for entrepreneurs and creative types. It would be a place not only to share office space, but business ideas, energy and potential success."On the one hand, you had this exciting area enhanced by the University of New Hampshire," Elliott said. "But it was the least developed and underwhelming downtown you can imagine. It was underperforming."Elliott envisioned a low-cost office alternative that would allow people to get out of their house and work in an environment of "creative collisioning," as he called it. He figured he wasn't alone. He had shared office space a few times before in New Hampshire and Vermont and saw the Durham area ripe with entrepreneurial zeal, but it was one in which individuals worked in isolation at home.The Idea Greenhouse wouldn't be an incubator in a formal sense, but it could become something different and effective in spurring economic development and job creation, reasoned Elliott."We knew that there existed a wide range of Seacoast locals engaged in the entrepreneurial and/or creative process who belong to the 'creative class' and 'knowledge worker' ranks," Elliott said. "We needed a place to grow great ideas."After conducting a collaborative survey of neighbors, UNH and town officials and local business leaders, Elliott took the plunge and formed an LLC to lease space in June 2010. Then he held an open house last summer to gauge interest, and he discovered there was plenty of it.By November, Elliott had signed on his first important client, the UNH Office for Research Partnerships and Commercialization. Following a major renovation project on the fourth-floor space on Jenkins Court, the Idea Greenhouse held an opening celebration in late March. Since then, the 2,400-square-foot facility has been near to full capacity with a wide range of members who have a variety of space and pricing options."We designed Idea Greenhouse to be an open platform for many different types of needs," said Elliott, whose goal is to eventually turn the Idea Greenhouse into a nonprofit. The concept of a co-working space, event center and collaborative creative environment has been funded and supported by 20 members, including 10 so-called "Founding Life Members."'Ecosystem of innovation'Elliott said he was able to launch the Idea Greenhouse so quickly because of the quick involvement by UNH, which rented 30 percent of the space.The UNH "partnership helped provide the Idea Greenhouse with much of the financial support we need to get off the ground, while at the same time adding an impressive group of innovators to interact with our other members," Elliott said.Jan Nisbet, senior vice provost for research at UNH, called the partnership "a great example of thinking outside the box. We want to promote the intellectual property of the UNH community as well as foster partnerships between UNH and the business communities in Durham, in New Hampshire, northern New England, the nation and the world. This is another opportunity for UNH to contribute to job creation in the state."Marc Sedam, a former biotech executive who last year became executive director of the university's Office for Research Partnerships and Commercialization, said the goal of the Idea Greenhouse partnership was to make informal creative space available for UNH entrepreneurs and offer an "ecosystem of innovation."In particular, it would be a small but important avenue to get professors and researchers out of their academic office to focus on their ideas - and boost UNH's commercialization efforts."This partnership was one of my first priorities when I joined the university," Sedam said.He described the space on Jenkins Court as "a creative commons," where researchers don't have to worry about using official university time and resources before knowing whether an idea will succeed."One of the issues on a university campus is when and how faculty and students can use university space for efforts not traditionally academic in nature," Sedam explained. "Our partnership with the Idea Greenhouse instantly overcomes this confusion by creating informal space for people to try out new ideas and be surrounded by other innovators. Their ideas might fail, and that's OK. But we hope many will try, catch the entrepreneurial spirit, and be willing to crystallize their ideas into a workable plan, license UNH technology, and take the jump and start a new company."'Germination of ideas'Michael Clark, a Web marketing consultant, isn't affiliated with UNH but signed up to be one of the first Idea Greenhouse tenants. He has worked from home for more than seven years, and he wanted to get out of the house and work in a creative environment."I can do this (my work) from the coffee shop or home, often one place or the other," said Clark, who rents a cubicle. "It was an interesting and affordable opportunity to get out of the house and away from all those distractions. I now have a professional setting, and my time is dedicated to work."Elliott said he aims to keep the Idea Greenhouse a beehive of activity. There are weekly events and frequent presentations that provide a meeting ground for members and local innovators to connect and learn from each other, he said. Events have included an exhibit by Durham artist Alexandra Bakman and presentations on how to find the right intern and financing a startup through "crowdfunding."The Idea Greenhouse also has raised its public profile through initiatives such as "Cash for Gadgets," in conjunction with the electronic recycling company TradePort of Somersworth.Elliott says the Idea Greenhouse isn't for everyone. People who need to spend most of the day on the phone, in a private office or who aren't looking for a collaborative experience probably won't be a good fit. But he believes as it establishes its identity and reputation, the Idea Greenhouse can become an economic development hot spot - especially when combined with UNH's emphasis on commercialization and the building of the new business school a short walk away.Clark said he has felt revived by working at the Greenhouse and has made contacts with fellow members that have led to business partnerships."The Greenhouse is really what its name suggests - a place where creative types can do their own work and interact with each other," he said. "You participate in the germination of ideas, and I see some seedlings of businesses starting to grow."You can find out more about the Idea Greenhouse at ideagreenhouse.biz.
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This article appears in the October 21 2011 issue of New Hampshire Business Review