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WESLACO, RGV – Laurie Simmons, manager of the new UTRGV Center of Innovation and Commercialization (CIC), says the new center is striving to become the entrepreneurial hub of the region.

Simmons said the 20,000-square-foot facility will provide the necessary resources for supporting the growth and success of startup companies and entrepreneurs. It will also be home to the Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship (VCOBE) PhD program.

The CIC features incubator and co-working space, access to 3D printers and scanners as well as professional services such as accounting and marketing.

During a beam signing ceremony, Jan. 10, Dr. Mark Kroll, dean of the Robert C. Vackar College of Business & Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), spoke of a young entrepreneur who had won seed money from UTRGV’s legacy school, the University of Texas Pan-American (UTPA) and planned to relocate to Austin because he believed that was where he could find the capital for a startup business.

“If we are successful here, those people will not go to Austin anymore,” Kroll said, to applause from the VIPs in the audience.

Among those present for the beam signing were UTRGV President Guy Bailey, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., state Rep. Armando Martinez, U.S. Economic Development Administration regional director Jorge Ayala, Weslaco Mayor David Suarez, Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes, and Weslaco Economic Development Corporation President Joe Olivarez.

Angel Network

One way local entrepreneurs can get capital is through one of UTRGV’s and the CIC’s affiliates, the Rio Grande Valley Angel Network (RGVAN).

“Our hope is that as companies go through our program at the [CIC], we will prepare them well enough to have a platform to pitch for capital,” Simmons said.

The CIC will not only open their doors and services to the community, but to entrepreneurs across the border by implementing a program called Soft Landing. This will allow entrepreneurs and startups from across the border to learn and prepare for business in the United States.

“I don’t look at [the border] as a challenge. I look at it as an advantage,” Simmons said. “There’s a river diving the two [nations], but it’s really one region … and there’s great talent over there. We hope to bring entrepreneurs from South America in hopes that they might like to land here and let the University [as well as the CIC] help them move forward in their endeavors to the United States.”

About the CIC

In program notes for the beam signing ceremony, Simmons penned a few paragraphs about the CIC. She wrote:

Centrally located in the City of Weslaco, UTRGV Center for Innovation and Commercialization (CIC) will transform the Rio Grande Valley by serving as the regional entrepreneurial hub and catalyst for economic growth. By providing the necessary resources and support systems to the community, the CIC will help to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurial companies and successful scalable enterprises that have the potential to reach national and/or international markets.

The CIC will work to help create an entrepreneurial eco-system that cultivates the formation of such enterprises, and provides an array of business support resources and services including:

  •  Co-working and Desk Space and Lounge Seating
  •  Conference Room/Team Breakout Room
  •  Classrooms
  •  Makers Space with 3D printers, 3D scanners, and Prototype Tools
  •  Incubation Offices and Suites
  •  Mentoring/Coaching/Educational Opportunities
  •  Professional Services (Accounting. legal, Marketing, etc.)

The state-of-the-art facility will also house the smartest and brightest entrepreneurial talent in the region, and become the new home to the Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship (VCOBE) PhD program.

Two of UTRGV’s core priorities are expanding educational opportunities and fostering community engagement. The Center for Innovation and Commercialization, a new business incubator in Weslaco, allows UTRGV to achieve both of those goals, as it establishes a footprint in the middle of the Rio Grande Valley, and provides more opportunities for students, faculty, and staff.

Simmons said the CIC plans to open its doors towards the end of August 2018.

Origins of the CIC

In 2014, Simmons worked out of the Office of the Texas Governor for the Emerging Technology Fund. At that time, there were seven centers for innovation and commercialization around the state and part of Simmons’ responsibility was to help startup companies prepare a pitch for the Emerging Technology Fund and help them find access to capital.

“[However], this was not a project Governor Abbott wanted to proceed with,” Simmons said. “Dr. Kroll and I spoke extensively about taking that Center for Innovation and Commercialization that we were doing with the State and moving it into the University.”

Simmons has benchmarked several other incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces around the country to see what would work best for the CIC. She says they are taking best practices from several other private and public universities to establish their own programs.

Joey Treviño is business development director for South Texas for Raba Kistner Developments. His work takes him around the Rio Grande Valley, Corpus Christi and Mexico.  Prior to working for Raba Kistner he was executive director of Weslaco Economic Development Corporation.

“This is a dream come true,” Treviño told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“I started working on this project when I got to the EDC in 2014. I was tasked by the City Commission and the EDC to bring UTRGV to Weslaco. Unfortunately, it was not the administration building we were aiming for at the time but we had this 16,000-square foot piece of property next to the EDC and City Hall. Over a bar napkin, Laurie Simmons and I drew up plans which led to the CIC.”

Treviño said Dr. Kroll and President Bailey joined the conversations.

“The ball started rolling and we hired an architect, the late Meg Jorn, who we miss dearly. She started doing some concepts for us. We got an EDA grant for $1.4 million, to match what the EDC had. It really is a dream come true.”

Asked if the CIC may turn out to be a better catch for Weslaco than UTRGV’s administration building, Treviño said: “Definitely. This can be a game changer. The research we did showed that some universities around the state have initiated this type of innovation center and industrial parks have grown out of these programs.”

Treviño added: “I am very proud because a key to economic development is nurturing our entrepreneurial spirit. When you look at the expansion of Texas A&M’s engineering program in Weslaco, it is clear the Mid Valley is going to be a hub for entrepreneurs.”

Tribute to Meg Jorn

Meg Jorn

In the UTRGV program for the beam signing ceremony, a tribute was included for the late Meg Jorn, of Megamorphosis Architecture & Interior Design. It read: “Meg’s tireless devotion to projects that exceed expectation remains evident in this visionary collaboration between Weslaco and UTRGV. Her optimism and persistence are mirrored by the mission of the Center for Innovation and Commercialization. Today, the words, “beam signing ceremony” serves to describe the occasion, and the indelible impression of Meg’s legacy.”

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