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WESST graduates firms, expands services

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The WESST Enterprise Center in Downtown Albuquerque just graduated its first four companies since opening its business incubator in 2009, a milestone the center has been striving for since day one.

“The goal has always been to get startups in, grow them and then graduate them,” WESST Executive Director Agnes Noonan said. “These companies all moved into the incubator in its first year of operation. Now, they’re relocating to within a 10-mile radius of our facility, which means they will continue to create jobs in the local community as they grow.”

WESST held a graduation ceremony for the companies, which included a medical-billing and practice-management firm, a roof-repair business, and two information-technology and consulting companies.

WESST's new digital media studio offers stadium-style seating to accommodate up to 60 people for distance learning and other events.  (Courtesy of WESST)

WESST’s new digital media studio offers stadium-style seating to accommodate up to 60 people for distance learning and other events. (Courtesy of WESST)

The ceremony, at the end of June, offered an opportunity to reflect on the incubator’s achievements over five years of operation, Noonan said. That includes incubation of 23 new local companies to date, which together have created more than 500 jobs.

Taking risks

“Thank God for entrepreneurs,” Noonan said “It’s still a challenging economy, but people are willing and ready to take a risk to start a new business, and that’s something WESST can help with. It’s a lot of intense work, but through the incubation process, we try to ensure that businesses are able to survive and thrive well into the future.”

The launch of WESST’s $10.4 million, 37,000-square-foot incubator in early 2009 was a natural next step for WESST, which for 25 years has been offering comprehensive mentoring, training, technical assistance and low-cost micro-lending services to thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs.

Those services are all an integral part of the incubation process for companies accepted into the Downtown facility, where resource-strapped startups gain access to high-tech office space and infrastructure at minimal cost. That includes everything from phones and high-speed Internet access to receptionist services and conference and meeting rooms with audio-visual equipment.

In addition, firms have a broad program of on-site business workshops, seminars and networking events to choose from, along with individual assistance in a range of specialties, such as advertising, accounting, finance and marketing.

Growing slowly

The incubation process usually takes two to three years, sometimes more, to build a solid base for sustainability and growth. Before moving out, graduating companies carefully review all aspects of their business with WESST mentors to make sure they’re ready.

“They take you through a graduation checklist,” said Louis Zaina, CEO of the graduating roof-repair firm RoofCare, which moved into the center in 2009. “We met monthly with our mentor team over the last couple of years to assess our preparedness in everything from cash flow to human resources.”

RoofCare grew from just five employees when it moved into WESST to 33 today. It now has local offices in Las Cruces and Santa Fe as well.

Taken together, the four graduating businesses have created 325 jobs to date, said WESST Managing Director Russell Combs. Their departure from WESST will free up space for more firms at the incubator, where 13 existing firms continue to operate.

And as WESST prepares to bring in more companies, new incubator services will become available through WESST’s recently built digital media center. The 1,000-square-foot studio was constructed as part of a $1 million upgrade to the incubator financed with grants from private sources and from federal, state and local government.

New media center

The facility, completed in February and scheduled to open this fall, will allow companies to produce everything from films and animation to still photos and Web-based art. WESST also will use it for distance learning programs in connection with its five other local offices around the state.

Combs said the studio will help grow companies in the emerging digital-media industry.

“It lets us branch out into new high-tech areas,” he said. “We’re still analyzing the studio’s capacity before fully opening for business, but as part of the testing process, we already had companies do two short films here, plus a still-photo advertising project.”

Meanwhile, WESST also plans to open a new co-working space in the fall that can accommodate up to 15 people.

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