Opportunity Machine, a new business accelerator spearheaded by LEDA and LITE, hopes to enable the next generation of technology-inspired entrepreneurs. By Nathan Stubbs

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Opportunity Machine Executive Director Bob Miller and steering committee chairman Tom Cox
When Tom Cox started Golfballs.com, one of the first e-commerce businesses in the state, in 1995, the Le Triomphe club manager was thrust into a whole new world of business management; finding the right marketing strategy and raising capital for a young Internet startup required a whole new education. “I didn’t know anything about raising money from investors,” Cox recalls, “so I had to learn about it. [Knowing that] may have saved me years on the learning curve.”

Fifteen years later, Cox and a band of like-minded city business leaders are hoping to share their know how and connections with the next generation of local technology-inspired entrepreneurs. The Lafayette Economic Development Authority is set to announce the launch of Opportunity Machine, an organization set up to serve as both an incubator and resource clearing house for growing tech-oriented businesses in the community. Cox, the immediate past chairman at LEDA, credits his predecessors on the board — like fellow tech entrepreneur Max Hoyt ­— with sharing in the vision for Opportunity Machine. Much of the discussion focused on how other tech business accelerators, such as TechBA in Austin and the Houston Technology Center, are at the forefront of business growth in other leading communities.

“There was a confluence of conversation,” says LEDA President Gregg Gothreaux, “about small business development, incubation and acceleration, and so we decided that we ought to launch something like [Opportunity Machine] during Tom’s year as chairman.”

Technically, the project did get under way last year, unofficially called The Accelerator. Cox outlined the concept at a One Web Day conference in September 2009. Shortly thereafter, the city announced that California special effects firm Pixel Magic would become the first tenant in the new tech business accelerator housed at Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise. “We weren’t quite ready [to launch],” Gothreaux says, “but there was an opportunity [with Pixel Magic], so we needed to make it happen.” Opportunity Machine is designed to incubate and grow existing small businesses as well as help lure new tech companies to the area.

Pixel Magic, whose lease will be up for renewal at the end of the year, is seen as an anchor tenant. In addition, Opportunity Machine has since added four other resident members to the approximately 6,000 square feet of office space it leases at LITE. They include Henry Safety Technologies LLC, a medical telemetry company; virtualization and software service firm Rader Solutions; medical information exchange software company Global eSolutions Group; and Fiber Corps, a fiber broadband advocacy nonprofit. All members receive free rent, telecommunications including 100 megabyte Internet service, part time interns and assistance with renting LITE’s theater or other venues for special projects or events. Gothreaux says Opportunity Machine has room for several more resident members at LITE. However, he contends the project is not necessarily limited by space. “First of all, as space may become available in LITE, we’d be interested in it, and we think it’s a great use because we’re interested in [Opportunity Machine tenants] using LITE’s service and LITE’s venues. And then, we’re not going to limit our location to just the LITE. We have the whole community.”

LEDA has ponied up the seed money for the initiative, which Gothreaux says totals approximately $250,000. Gothreaux stresses that Opportunity Machine does not plan to duplicate any services already being offered in Lafayette from other business organizations, many of whom have signed on as partners in the new incubator. UL Dean of Business Joby John and Small Business Development Center Director Mark Galyean are both members of Opportunity Machine’s steering committee, as are Gothreaux and Cox. Schumacher Group Chief Information Officer Doug Menefee, local attorney and technology enthusiast Clay Allen and an unfilled appointee from LITE (likely to be filled by LITE’s next CEO) round out the board.

Both John and Galyean plan to be actively involved in helping recruit businesses into Opportunity Machine from the university. The UL Small Business Development Center will also work with Opportunity Machine applicants in helping them refine their business plans and presentations. Galyean is planning two startup business “bootcamps” beginning in February, which will partly serve to filter the most promising businesses into Opportunity Machine.

Gothreaux sees the partnership reaping fruits outside of just the incubator program. “The ultimate goal is set up a pipeline that is so rich that you end up attracting people from all over and filling up every office space in every building with entrepreneurs,” he says.

Opportunity Machine itself is being headed up by Executive Director Bob Miller. A veteran of three tech startups who recently moved back to Louisiana from Silicon Valley, Miller says he was immediately impressed by how much buy-in Opportunity Machine had garnered from across the community. “The reason I took this job is because everybody was at the table saying the same things,” he says. “And it was all these organizations. You get that many people focused on getting something done and they’re all shaking their head yes at the same time, it’s actually a possibility. In fact it’s a probability.”

Miller, whose office is at LEDA, will triage incoming applicants for the program, offering advice or referrals to help them refine their presentation. When they’re ready, businesses will make a presentation to the Opportunity Machine steering committee for acceptance into the program. Miller says that before becoming a resident member, all businesses must show themselves to be self-sufficient for one year. Once in, Opportunity Machine plans to help connect all its members — both resident and nonresident — with investors and other partners who can help them grow. “The key for us is creating an environment where people can share ideas,” Miller says. “Right now, we’re just fanning the flames. Eventually, it’ll just take on a life of its own.”

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