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November 17. 2012 8:27PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: abi gets smaller for bigger play and with new focus


 

If you've driven by Lili Fine Rugs & Furniture and have been thinking about stopping because you saw that "Moving Sale in Progress" banner, you're too late. There's something else going on inside that storefront at 844 Elm St. in downtown Manchester.

Sure, you'll see some funky office furniture, but the new chairs and desks are not for sale, and the fresh carpet and hardwood flooring are just part of the decor. If you stick around for awhile though, you might meet someone willing to sell you a stake in the next game-changing technology.

Welcome to the abi Innovation Hub's new headquarters. Jamie Coughlin, its young CEO, is rebooting the not-for-profit's mission by moving into smaller digs, getting out of the landlord business and focusing on high-tech companies.

At its former home on South Commercial Street in the Millyard, abi had more than 15,000 square feet of space and rented out offices to fledgling companies, operating as a traditional business incubator. At its new downtown home - nearly two-thirds smaller - abi is betting an open floor-plan concept that offers users work stations and meeting rooms for a monthly fee will provide a more fertile environment for entrepreneurism.

"The thing about space is that it's a point of aggregating like-minded people," says Coughlin, 32. "What good is that if people are going into a private office, close their door and don't leave and engage with each other? Creating a floor plan that is more open and transparent creates that collaboration."

And for Coughlin and the new abi, those like-minded people are those who share a passion for technology.

"Part of the change is that the old abi focused more on traditional small business: landscapers, bookkeepers and a little bit of tech. And there are great organizations that have always taken care of that - the Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Center," he says. "My personal interest, and I think some people have bought into this vision, is what about this start-up business ecosystem that is happening in places like Cambridge, New York, Silicon Valley - why not New Hampshire?"

About 30 people have signed on to pay $150 a month to be abi members, which grants them 24/7 access to the work space and the chance to connect with venture capital and business sponsors, which include Dyn, Borealis Ventures, Battery Ventures and Single Digits Inc. Coughlin also has attracted sponsorship for a start-up accelerator program from Citizens Bank and Public Service Company of New Hampshire that will involve recruiting start-up teams to spend time at abi.

"We're really trying to make it more about being a voice for this ecosystem, something that is for all of New Hampshire," says Coughlin, who took over at abi two years ago. He shares the workload with one employee, who will now work part time under the new configuration.

Shortly before noon on Thursday, the abi was fairly quiet, and the scene was what you'd expect from a business that was still enmeshed in the aftermath of moving, with boxes scattered around the big open area and chairs and desks not quite lined up yet. Over time, Coughlin hopes the former home of McQuade's clothing store will become a magnet for tech entrepreneurs statewide, whether they sign on to develop their companies there or just connect with the group to become part of its ecosystem.

Gerard Murphy, cofounder of Mosaic Storage Systems, a company launched in December 2011 that offers server storage for digital images, was among the handful of entrepreneurs adjusting to the new work space. He spent part of the morning doing a video chat via Google Plus.

"We wouldn't be here without the abi," said Murphy, 32, whose company made the transition from abi's Millyard locale. "It's been a great resource for us, even better now that I can talk to people."

On the other side of the room, Mike Desmond was working on InspectCheck, a 2-month-old company that is developing a mobile application that will enable inspectors of affordable housing projects to do their work using tablet devices. Desmond said he felt a bit isolated at the old abi.

"It was a great view of the river, and it allowed us to focus on what we were trying to do and got us out of the house, but this is much, much better. I like being downtown," said Desmond, 41, who added he's also been tempted to go out more. "I'm spending a lot on food in restaurants, and I'm probably going to gain weight again."

While Manchester is the abi's base of operations, Coughlin is spending time traveling the state to connect with other tech communities. He recently made trips to Conway and Hanover to spread the word about his group's new direction. While New Hampshire's rugged individualism may help fuel entrepreneurism, it also can impede collaboration, he says.

"What happens in New Hampshire is we have these silos - Manchester, Seacoast, the Upper Valley - and we're not talking to each other," Coughlin says. "When it comes to creating a statewide brand, I want to put forth the effort to make that happen."


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Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.


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