The Washington Post

Editor’s note:

Back in the dot-com boom days, the region seemed awash in tech-themed networking fests and breakfast clubs, all attempts to nurture a budding technology and telecommunications community.

And it mostly worked.

For a spell, we were on the move, pulled along by the jet stream of letter-named rocket shots, such as MCI, AOL and PSINet.

One of the founding fathers of that movement was a guy named Mario Morino, who made a fortune on an early software services giant called Legent Corp. Morino was constantly up to something. In the late ’90s, he created the Morino Institute to foster entre­pre­neur­ship and innovation. In 2000, he co-founded Venture Philanthropy Partners to bring money and some of the Internet mojo to worthy causes.

Morino eventually decamped to the Cleveland area, but I was reminded of his legacy as I read this week’s cover story on the region’s continuing efforts to create some sort of entre­pre­neur­ship infrastructure to propel nonprofits and socially minded start-ups to success.

It can be easy to dismiss these efforts as just deja vu all over again. The difference now is we’re not just talking about the wealthy engaging in this quest to do good, but regular folks who have good ideas. Just drop by a crowdfunding site, such as Kickstarter, to sample this new entrepreneurial spirit, rising up from the bottom.

As the number of people interested in such pursuits grows, so it seems does the number of outfits wanting to help “accelerate” these start-ups — so many that Sramana Mitra, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded her own global incubator, recently wondered aloud in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review whether we are experiencing an “incubator bubble.”

She was talking about business incubators mostly, but her conclusions are apt for other forms as well. Too many focus just on providing cheap or free real estate and measure success based on whether a start-up gets funding, she wrote.

What they need is mentoring.

“Two things determine whether a business can get off the ground successfully and sustainably: a validated market opportunity with customers willing to pay for a product or a service; and a product or service that addresses such an opportunity. The only incubators I consider ‘real’ are the ones that help entrepreneurs achieve these two goals.”

Incubators capable of delivering that kind of advice and assistance are worth watching.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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