Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY
- = Sustainable Economy Initiatives = -

Thousand Oaks Environmental Business Cluster

The Thousand Oaks Environmental Business Cluster (TOEBC) is a nonprofit alliance created to assist environmental start-ups by providing inexpensive space, furnishings and management services in a collaborative setting, based in the town of Thousand Oaks, just west of Los Angeles.

Origins and Development

The initial impulse for TOEBC came from the market response department of GTE, the local telephone utility, who were interested in the future telecommunications needs of high tech entrepreneurs and companies. They worked with the City of Thousand Oaks, Southern California Edison and a consultant to raise $120,000 in seed capital to open the facility. GTE donated a building for the first two years, along with computers, internet access and video teleconferencing equipment, while the City of Thousand Oaks and GTE donated furniture. After a year of planning and fundraising, TOEBC opened in November 1995 with six tenants. At that time it was only the second environmental business incubator of its kind in North America; by 1997 there were at least five in operation, including units in San Jose, Bakersfield and Chula Vista (California) and Portland (Maine).

Aims and Objectives

TOEBC was created in order to minimize the costs associated with starting a business, to improve the chances for success, and to increase the linkages between emerging environmental companies and established businesses, universities and professionals in the field. The cluster seeks to create synergy between the different start-ups, and to maximize the opportunity for financing and strategic partnerships with more established corporations. TOEBC's mission is to grow environmental ideas into businesses, promoting sustainable development and environmental efficiency at the local and international level, while creating jobs and expanding the tax base in the city of Thousand Oaks, and developing economic strength through collaborative synergy among the entrepreneurs.

Activities

The cluster is designed to house approximately fifteen business start-ups, producing a variety of products and services focused on emerging environmental technologies. The businesses rent 110 - 600 sq ft of fully furnished office space on a month-to-month basis, at very reasonable rates. Start-ups applying to join must have a business plan, or be in the early stages of operation. Space is also available for expansion, but once a company is successful, it is expected that it will move out. The cluster's staff provide business advice, assistance, referrals, business development seminars, mixers and networking events, and access to a wide range of environmental and business resources. The businesses also benefit from shared conference rooms, video teleconferencing facilities, a shared kitchen and reception area, shared Internet Library, copier and fax facilities, group health insurance plans, and shared exhibition space at industry conferences. The start-ups also have access to a wide range of resources and connections from the cluster's sponsoring organizations, and from agencies, firms and universities in the Southern California area. They include companies engaged in recycling and waste reduction consultancy, environmentally sensitive cleaners for the pharmaceutical and electronic industries, environmental education and public outreach, eco-suite hotel rooms, environmental investigation, energy efficiency, natural gas vehicle conversions, paperless office management systems, the construction of recycled paper mills, fuel cell power systems, environmental pest control and beneficial agricultural fungi.

Structure

The TOEBC project is currently managed by EcoTelesis International. Its staff consists of one full-time administrator and a part-time executive director. The TOEBC alliance is a public-private sector partnership project involving GTE, the City of Thousand Oaks, Southern California Edison, the James Irvine Foundation, Lucent Technologies, Arthur Andersen, and Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon. The alliance consists of partners, sponsors and contributors who receive recognition in various forms. Partners and sponsors sit on the Advisory Board, where they have the opportunity to propose new tenants and review applications. The cluster also benefits from a number of influential endorsees, including the California Business Incubation Network, the California Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Trade and Commerce, Ventura County Economic Development Association, the Naval Facilities Service Center, the World Trade Center Association and the Ventura County Council on Economic Vitality.

Finance

The cluster's 11,000 square foot building was donated to TOEBC for the first two years by GTE, one of the cluster's partners. Many local businesses support the cluster as contributors and donors, including Rockwell International and First Interstate Bank. The core services of the cluster are included in the rent paid by the startups, while user fees are charged for some additional services such as video teleconferencing, fax and copier, to cover costs. Local companies also assist the cluster in non-financial ways, such as giving seminars, sponsoring an MBA intern, becoming a startup mentor, matchmaking between startups and potential investors, and including entrepreneurs in company trade shows. In order to open its doors, TOEBC raised seed capital of $120,000. It is funded by utilities and private businesses to the tune of $90,000, and by the city of Thousand Oaks which contributed $30,000 in the hope that companies that succeed would set up shop within the city. It currently operates at 70% to 80% financial self-sufficiency through the collection of fees for rents and services.

Problems

The business incubation concept is still new enough that few potential sponsors understand it, which means that convincing them to contribute can be difficult. When they set out, the TOEBC management did not realize how much they would need to educate people on what an incubator was, or just how many people they would need to take to lunch. The ideal building would have been twice the size, with space for light manufacturing to suit the development needs of the environmental sector. Focussing on the incubation of similar businesses in a particular sector of the environmental market so as to maximize collaboration and market effectiveness has been a sound move, but it has also revealed the need to change focus so as to stay ahead of regional economic cycles and demographic changes.

Performance

Since opening in November 1995, the number of businesses operating in the cluster has risen to 12, employing 40 people in all, with a new start-up arriving every 2 months. The typical entrepreneur is male and over 50, an ex-aerospace worker with a high-tech background who left the industry with the ending of the cold war. They are, in effect, 'the peace dividend'. The press coverage which the cluster has generated for its tenants and sponsors has far exceeded expectations, and they have welcomed government and business representatives from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Morocco, Zimbabwe, British Columbia and Australia. Mutually beneficial relationships have been developed with U.S. Department of Trade and Commerce representatives, hosting Export Small Business Development Center workshops, internship programs with Pepperdine University and Pierce College, and a technology transfer co-operative research and development agreement with Point Mugu Naval Services. The Internet Library has been most useful, enabling entrepreneurs to research the documentation to back up their emerging technologies and use email to stay in touch with partners in Morocco and South Korea.

The cluster's entrepreneurs are making much more progress than was expected. Green Suites International is now implementing Eco-Suites in hotels and resorts world-wide with energy and water efficient products and technologies, bringing the added benefit of monetary savings to top-rated resorts from New York to Hawaii, including Yosemite and two other National Parks. America Hualong is working with the Solid Waste Management Department on their proposal to develop a Ventura County plant that will recycle the 8,000 tons of plastic which is used annually as agricultural sheeting for strawberry growing. Naturam is implementing chemical-free sustainable agriculture systems in California's Sonoma and Napa Wine Country, San Joaquin Valley, and in Ventura County, and has contracts with the government of Morocco to implement drought-tolerant and biological agriculture systems through a joint venture. Energy 2000 is collaborating on maintenance contracts with The Gas Company, and forming a joint venture with South Korea to implement the installation of fuel cell power systems throughout California and South Korea. ElectroTag is developing an electronic supermarket shelf price system. Troxel Hughes & Associates travel across the U.S. to maintain their environmental liability investigations. The incubator period is estimated at 24 - 36 months before a business leaves the nest and moves on.

TOEBC's collaborative synergy has proven its value on several occasions. When EcoTelesis International was gathering solid waste data for a client, they were able to turn to fellow tenant and computer experts VR-One to develop the specific kind of database required. When Naturam was establishing its joint venture in Morocco to produce sustainable agricultural systems, they represented other tenants in the incubator as well, and were able to secure a parallel contract for EPTC's non-toxic insecticide, which added depth to their own line of products while speeding up EPTC's import capabilities in Morocco.

Future

TOEBC's initial goals have all been accomplished. Explorations are now underway to educate and build a network of 'angel investors', who can help fund the expansion and growth of the incubating businesses. The cluster will continue to turn environmental ideas into businesses, creating jobs and expanding the tax base in Thousand Oaks, while developing economic strength through collaboration, and adding value to the community by bringing in services and creating an entrepreneurial environment.

For further information contact :

Yu-Yue Widrig, Executive Director
Thousand Oaks Environmental Business Cluster
241 Lombard Street, Suite #1
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360, USA

Tel (805) 446-6411
Fax (805) 446-6409

Email: doeffling@toebc.org (David Oeffling, Administrator)


Written by Guy Dauncey for The Planning Exchange, Glasgow, Scotland.

guydauncey@earthfuture.com

 SUMMARY

The Thousand Oaks Environmental Business Cluster is an incubator for environmental start-ups that was established in the city of Thousand Oaks, Ventura County, Southern California in November 1995. After a year of operation, it has 12 start-ups employing 40 people, which are engaged in a wide range of environmental activities ranging from sustainable agricultural systems to eco-hotel suites. The cluster supports its start-ups by providing low-cost furnished office space with access to communications and research facilities, worldwide marketing and media coverage, the services of a wide range of resources from TOEBC's many sponsors and endorsees, and by encouraging positive synergy between the various start-ups. The cluster was founded by a public-private sector partnership consisting of local businesses, government and foundations, and is located in office space donated by one of its founders. It is also assisted by a large network of influential organizations in the region. After its first 12 months of operation, the success of the cluster's business tenants and the degree of interest from the media and from governments and businesses overseas has far exceeded expectations.