Did you hear the one about the two rocket scientists who went into farming? Sorry, there’s no punch line. And, by the way, it’s no joke.
Trellis––a wireless communications company that helps farmers determine their watering needs, and was started by the aerospace brainiacs in question––is an early byproduct of Prototype Prime, a startup incubator in Peachtree Corners that facilitates entrepreneurs and their startups in making their dreams come true.
What’s an incubator? Simply put, it’s a safe environment where someone with an idea, no matter how “out there” it may be, gets encouragement, mentoring, and even legal help on their way to hatching the tech world’s next big thing.
Opened in October of 2016 in partnership with Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center and funded by the city, Prototype Prime has been as flexible as an eight-inch floppy disc in helping startups. Their open-spaced building in Technology Park provides conference rooms, hot desks, dedicated desks, a podcast studio, an event space, and free coffee. And they’re expanding. But even more than the ubiquitous robot art on the walls that stimulates creativity, Prototype Prime offers a sense of community.
“It’s that serendipity of bouncing ideas off other folks,” says Prototype Prime’s executive director, Sanjay Parekh, who as an entrepreneur himself, also provides mentoring to his teams, including the concept of “failing fast.”
“You don’t want to do something and then realize it’s a failure three or four years from now,” says Parekh, “You want to fail very quickly and understand if this is going to work or not…because if it’s not, you want to move on to something else.”
To avoid failure, fast or otherwise, Prototype Prime is there to help entrepreneurs give wings to their dreams.
“We used to be in the second bedroom of my midtown condo,” said Trellis co-founder Adam Snow, standing amid 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe and other equipment that only a farmer––or rocket scientist––could love. “This space here was the big selling point.”
Whereas many other incubators are pristine software-only settings, Prototype Prime offered Adam and his partner, Liz Buchen, a large work space with 3-D printers, electronic test equipment, and, as Adam put it, “the space to be dirty.”
“The city is trying to create an environment that helps startups,” says Mike Mason, the mayor of Peachtree Corners and a mover behind Prototype Prime. “(Peachtree Corners) is a startup itself and we’re looking at things differently.”
Though Prototype Prime is as nurturing as a mother hen, it’s not a totally altruistic venture.
“Eighty percent of the startups that incubated in an area stay in the area. When they leave here, they find office space nearby,” says Mason.
And there’s the bottom line. Prototype Prime is an engine for economic development, powering young entrepreneurs on their way up.
“I’m not a big fan of incentives we pay companies to move around,” says Parekh. “In terms of economic development it doesn’t do much. We’re just stealing from our fellow Americans. But what the city is doing here, and what we’re doing here, creating new jobs, that makes sense.”
Parekh is a serial entrepreneur who has a seemingly endless cache of ideas stored in his brain, ideas he’s not afraid to share. That’s something rare in business: transparency among potential competitors.
“These guys tell each other stuff!” says an amazed Mason, a former corporate America CFO and Prototype Prime’s most influential advocate.
For Technology Park, this is a back to the future moment. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was primarily hardware like modems that were coming out of this 500-acre office park off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Now it’s hardware and software and dreams of businesses that can grow exponentially on the strength of a dream. That’s the idea behind their motto: Dream it, build it, scale it.
There are challenges to being an entrepreneur and Prototype Prime helps walk their teams through them. But Sanjay Parekh has perspective. The Founding Fathers, he says, were creating a startup too.
“Their downside was if they failed they would’ve been caught and tried and executed for treason. Whereas if you do a startup nowadays and you fail––well, go get a job.”
With all the work they put into helping entrepreneurs, Prototype Prime is banking that it won’t come to that.