Getting a boost

Incubator helps startups gain traction

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Fairfax County has more than 35,000 businesses, and most of them are small. The business of the Mason Enterprise Center (MEC) is to make that number of small businesses bigger.

The Small Business Administration reports that more than half of all business startups fail in the first five years, and MEC tries to keep would-be business owners from adding to that statistic. The fledgling enterprises in its program are given free research and information services and administrative support. They also have opportunities for networking, mentoring and counseling, and office space is available at attractive rates.

“We cover the full life cycle of business development and then graduate them out into the community,” says MEC Executive Director Keith B. Segerson. “Eighty-four percent meet or exceed the goals that have been agreed upon, usually after two to three years.”

The center, which is based on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University, has five business incubators in Northern Virginia, the most recent of which opened in Warrenton this spring.
MEC also recently added a global gateway program aimed at attracting small and medium-size foreign entrepreneurs to Virginia and plans to open an “I” hub on the GMU campus later this summer. This center for innovation will provide a space where young entrepreneurs can be creative. It will have “a very Silicon Valley look,” Segerson says.  MEC is one of the largest university-based economic development enterprises in the country, and it is funded by the federal government, the commonwealth and the localities in which it operates.

MediaForce PR, a provider of marketing campaigns for the government and nonprofits, is an MEC graduate. It began in 2005 as a virtual client of the center, then took an office at the GMU facility. When the company graduated from the center in 2011, it had expanded to 11 offices there.

“Part of the value they offer entrepreneurs is the infrastructure and relationship building,” says company President Robert Gaudian. Not having to invest right away in equipment and administrative personnel also was a huge plus, and the office space provided “at a low price point was critical.”

Gaudian’s company, which has grown to 12 full-time and several part-time employees, had more than $2 million in revenue last year. It moved out of the center about two years ago, but it didn’t go far — its offices in Fairfax City are just two blocks from MEC.

Visionary Consulting Partners, founded in 2008, is still in residence at the enterprise center. Its focus is in the management of chronic disease initiatives and programs.

“Every aspect of our business was vetted through the leaders at the institute,” says Chief Operating Officer Michael D. Thornton. “They put us through our paces, gave us our homework. When we are considering a proposal on a bid, they take a look and challenge us.”

Fairfax County has the largest percentage of minority-owned firms in Virginia. With the help of MEC, Visionary Consulting, headed by Thornton’s wife, Eleanor, an African-American woman veteran, has been able to leverage its minority-owned status to land direct, or no competition, government contracts. Last year, the company had about $675,000 in revenue. This year, thanks to landing three contracts in February, that figure will explode to $12 million.

Despite that jolt of success, the Thorntons have no plans to leave MEC.  “It’s always good business to have a board of advisers,” Michael Thornton says. “We will stay as long as they will have us.”

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