University City

Ben Craig Center turns 25

The Ben Craig Center was itself a startup 25 years ago when it opened to help small businesses get off the ground and stay in orbit.

Keeping the nonprofit business incubator afloat is just as important for Charlotte's economy today, as the region attempts to diversify and rely less on a few big businesses for jobs.

In the years ahead, the next corporate giant might be born at 8701 Mallard Creek Road, the Ben Craig Center's home at University Research Park.

"The way that we can have the greatest impact on the Charlotte economic health is by helping to start and grow companies that sell their products or services beyond the Charlotte region," said Paul Wetenhall, the center's president.

Towering success stories have happened before at the center, which was founded in 1986 in a 27,000-square-foot building on North Tryon Street as a partnership between the Charlotte business community and UNC Charlotte.

University faculty, researchers, students and others who have developed products and services can get mentoring and support from local business leaders as tenants in the center's 50,000-square-foot market-rate office building.

The center moved to the research park in 1990. A year later, Michael Feldman, a UNC Charlotte professor, launched Digital Optics Company there and built a business selling a component for cellphone cameras.

By the time the company was acquired by Tessera Technologies for nearly $60 million in 2006, it had 140 employees.

Most of the center's tenants grew more modestly, typically from having perhaps one worker to an average of four employees.

Looking ahead, Wetenhall expects to continue bringing in five or six new tenants each year, most within their first five years of operation. Many likely are technology or business services companies.

The center's board also wants to reach outside the building to support entrepreneurs throughout the region. That could include getting more bankers, lawyers and other business people to share their expertise with small-business owners, as is common at the center.

Another goal is to find ways to bring the region's entrepreneurs together to learn, as tenants do at the center.

"What's real clear is the long-term health of the Charlotte region means we have to have a more balanced economy that is less dependent on a few large financial services businesses," Wetenhall said.

"The entrepreneurial sector is critical to diversifying the economy for future growth."