What is a Business Incubator?

What is a Business Incubator?

What does a startup need to survive and thrive? Start-ups often need access to regular capital, a range of structural resources and professional mentoring in order to survive. Finding all of those tools in one place is incredibly difficult.

That’s why more and more startups are turning to business incubators for support.

What is a Business Incubator?

Business incubators are organizations that offer startups shared operation space. In doing so, entrepreneurs enjoy a collaborative work environment with invaluable mentoring and networking opportunities, funding support and shared equipment. In short, they offer fledgling young companies a warm, safe place to grow and prosper.

Incubators have been around for quite a while, but the concept only began to gain traction in the 1980s after an influx of higher education institutions decided to launch school-affiliated business incubators in order to offer students better employment prospects.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, the sound reasoning behind the founding of those university incubators has led to the creation of thousands of new, diverse incubators across the globe.

Most of America’s top incubators are industry-specific. For example, the Houston Technology Center specializes in supporting energy start-ups, the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives in Worcester focuses on biotechnology and The Incubator in Chicago centers on technology companies.

That being said, there are plenty of non-industry-specific business incubators, too. Incubators like The Research Park at the University of Illinois and the MGE Innovation Center in Madison, Wisconsin are recognized as two of America’s top incubators because they place emphasis on what they’re able to offer tenants – rather than who it is they’re offering those resources to.

What is a Business Incubator?

What Does a Business Incubator Offer?

Because the vast majority of startups lack the experience and networks required in order to grow, business incubators seek to offer entrepreneurs a range of essential resources and skills development programs.

Every business incubator is different, but the vast majority provide companies with marketing assistance, market research and analytics tools, access to accounting professionals, access to loan facilities or grant programs and legal advice.

Bearing in mind that a huge number of incubators continue to enjoy affiliation with area colleges and universities, tenants can also typically expect some sort of access to higher education resources – perks normally include discounted access courses or library access.

Incubators also run loads of workshops on all the basics like business etiquette, management, presentations and pitches.

What is the Goal of a Business Incubator?

Simply put, the goal of a business incubator is help your startup succeed. Most incubators are non-profit organizations that select tenants on a non-competitive basis. They receive their funding from government or lottery grants, donations and rent you pay as a tenant.

They provide both virtual and on-site tactical support if and when you need it, and they gauge success based upon the success of their tenants.

Incubators have plenty of hybrid cousins, like accelerators, that are far more intensive and profit-driven – but as cheesy as it may sound, incubators are genuinely there to help.

What is a Business Incubator?

What are the Benefits of a Business Incubator?

Based on the typical offerings, the implications for a startup taking up residence at a business incubator are clear. Unrivalled access to funding, mentors, skills development programs and a collaborative work environment can make a world of difference to your success. There are less obvious benefits, though.

Unlike accelerators, incubators don’t put a time stamp on their support programs. That means you aren’t bullied into growing too quickly, and are free to scale and expand at your own pace.

Likewise, business incubators don’t ask for equity in your company in return to access for resources. That means you reap all the benefits without having to hand over a piece of your company in the process.


  • Access to Capital: Incubators often provide funding opportunities or connect startups with potential investors.
  • Mentorship: Guidance from experienced entrepreneurs and industry experts can help navigate the challenges of starting a business.
  • Networking Opportunities: Being part of an incubator community opens doors to valuable connections with peers, partners, and customers.
  • Shared Resources: Startups benefit from shared office spaces, equipment, and administrative services, reducing operational costs.
  • Market Exposure: Incubators may offer platforms for startups to showcase their products or services to a broader audience.

What are the Drawbacks of a Business Incubator?

Incubators do have a couple of drawbacks, too. Because most incubators are non-profit organizations, they generally can’t offer you the sort of access to capital you might enjoy from an accelerator or wooing an angel investor.

Furthermore, business incubators aren’t quite as intensive as accelerators – which means the support you receive from an incubator will be a bit more ad hoc and spaced out.

An incubator is a place your company will generally live and grow for years on end, and so if you want instant results, an incubator might not be for you.

Yet by and large, incubators are invaluable safe havens that the vast majority of start-ups should seek to benefit from.

Incubators aren’t for everyone, but they’re definitely worth checking out. Remember to do your homework, though. Just like any other organization, no two incubators are alike, and some are undeniably better than others.


  • Competitive Entry: Securing a spot in a reputable incubator can be highly competitive.
  • Adaptation to Shared Spaces: Some startups may find it challenging to adapt to the collaborative, open-plan environments of incubators.
  • Meeting Expectations: Incubators have expectations and milestones that startups must strive to meet, which can add pressure.
  • Dilution of Focus: With access to broad networks and events, startups risk becoming overwhelmed and losing focus on their core objectives.

What is a Business Incubator?

The Importance of Business Incubators for Startup Growth

Business incubators are vital for startup growth, providing a nurturing environment that fosters innovation and accelerates development. They offer a unique blend of resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities tailored to early-stage companies.

By bridging the gap between idea and execution, incubators ensure startups have a solid foundation for success. They help entrepreneurs refine their business models, connect with potential investors, and gain insights into effective market strategies.

This support system is instrumental in transforming innovative ideas into viable businesses capable of thriving in competitive markets.

Choosing the Right Business Incubator

Selecting the right business incubator for your startup is a crucial decision that can significantly impact your company’s growth and success.

With numerous incubators available, each offering a unique set of resources and support, it’s essential to make an informed choice. Here’s what you should consider when choosing a business incubator:

  • Alignment with Your Industry: Determine if the incubator specializes in your industry or sector. Industry-specific incubators may provide tailored resources and networks relevant to your business.
  • Resource Offerings: Evaluate the resources offered by the incubator. Look for incubators that provide mentoring, networking opportunities, funding support, shared equipment, marketing assistance, and access to professionals like accountants and lawyers.
  • Educational Opportunities: Check if the incubator offers educational programs or workshops on topics essential for startups, such as business etiquette, management, presentations, and pitching skills.
  • Access to Capital: While most incubators are non-profit organizations, inquire about their connections to potential sources of funding, grants, or investment opportunities. Consider whether the incubator can help you secure the necessary capital for growth.
  • Support Duration: Understand the duration of support the incubator offers. Some incubators have fixed timelines, while others provide ongoing support without pressuring startups to scale too quickly.
  • Equity Requirements: Determine whether the incubator asks for equity in your company in exchange for its resources. Some incubators offer their services without taking a stake in your business, allowing you to retain full ownership.
  • Location: Consider the physical location of the incubator. Proximity to other startups, business networks, and potential partners can be advantageous.
  • Success Track Record: Research the track record of the incubator and its past tenants. Look for success stories and testimonials from entrepreneurs who have benefited from the incubator’s support.
  • Application Process: Understand the application process, selection criteria, and any fees associated with joining the incubator. Ensure you meet the eligibility requirements.
  • Community and Culture: Assess the incubator’s community and culture. A supportive and collaborative environment can foster innovation and growth.
  • Long-Term Vision: Consider the long-term vision of the incubator and how it aligns with your startup’s goals. Some incubators may focus on short-term results, while others prioritize long-term sustainability.
Alignment with Your IndustryDetermine if the incubator specializes in your industry, providing tailored resources and networks.
Resource OfferingsEvaluate the range of resources offered, including mentoring, networking, funding, and shared equipment.
Educational OpportunitiesCheck for educational programs and workshops that enhance your startup's skills and knowledge.
Access to CapitalInquire about connections to funding sources and grants to support your startup's financial needs.
Support DurationUnderstand the duration of support, whether it's fixed or ongoing, and align it with your growth pace.
Equity RequirementsDetermine if the incubator requires equity in exchange for resources or if it allows full ownership.
LocationConsider the physical location's proximity to potential partners, networks, and startup communities.
Success Track RecordResearch past tenant success stories and testimonials to gauge the incubator's effectiveness.
Application ProcessUnderstand the application process, criteria, and associated fees, ensuring you meet eligibility requirements.
Community and CultureAssess the incubator's culture and community for a supportive and collaborative environment.
Long-Term VisionConsider the incubator's long-term vision and alignment with your startup's growth and sustainability goals.

What is a Business Incubator?

Navigating the Business Incubator Application Process

Applying to a business incubator is a pivotal step for startups seeking support and resources. However, the application process can vary from one incubator to another and may require careful preparation. Here’s a guide on how to navigate the business incubator application process effectively:

  • Research Extensively: Start by researching different incubators in your area or within your industry. Understand their mission, offerings, success stories, and application requirements. Create a list of incubators that align with your startup’s goals.
  • Evaluate Eligibility: Review the eligibility criteria for each incubator. Ensure that your startup meets the necessary qualifications, such as stage of development, industry focus, and location.
  • Craft a Compelling Application: Most incubators will require you to submit an application that outlines your business idea, team, market potential, and why you seek incubator support. Be concise, clear, and compelling in your application.
  • Prepare a Solid Business Plan: Many incubators will ask for a detailed business plan. Invest time in creating a well-structured plan that highlights your startup’s vision, mission, market analysis, financial projections, and growth strategy.
  • Highlight Your Team: Emphasize your team’s qualifications and expertise. Showcase how your collective skills and experience position you for success.
  • Prepare for Interviews: If your application is shortlisted, you may be invited for an interview. Practice answering questions about your startup, its market, and your goals. Be prepared to demonstrate your passion and commitment.
  • Network and Seek Recommendations: Building connections in the startup community can be invaluable. Seek recommendations from mentors, advisors, or other entrepreneurs who have worked with the incubator or have relevant connections.
  • Be Open to Feedback: Incubators may provide feedback during the application process. Be open to constructive criticism and use it to improve your application and business plan.
  • Review the Terms: If you receive an offer from an incubator, carefully review the terms and conditions, including any equity or rent requirements. Seek legal advice if necessary to ensure you fully understand the agreement.
  • Stay Persistent: Competition for incubator spots can be fierce. If you don’t secure a spot in your preferred incubator, don’t be discouraged. Keep refining your business plan and seeking other opportunities for support.
  • Maintain Flexibility: Keep in mind that not all startups may benefit equally from an incubator. Assess whether the incubator’s resources and support align with your current needs and future growth plans.
Research ExtensivelyResearch and identify potential business incubators that align with your startup's goals.
Evaluate EligibilityReview the eligibility criteria for each incubator to ensure your startup meets the qualifications.
Craft a Compelling ApplicationPrepare a concise, clear, and compelling application outlining your business idea and goals.
Prepare a Solid Business PlanCreate a detailed business plan that includes your startup's vision, market analysis, and financial projections.
Highlight Your TeamShowcase the qualifications and expertise of your team members in the application.
Prepare for InterviewsPractice interview responses and be ready to demonstrate your commitment and passion for your startup.
Network and Seek RecommendationsBuild connections and seek recommendations from mentors or advisors within the startup community.
Be Open to FeedbackBe receptive to feedback provided by incubators and use it to improve your application and plans.
Review the TermsCarefully review the terms and conditions of any offers from incubators, including equity or rent requirements.
Stay PersistentMaintain persistence if you don't secure a spot immediately, continuing to refine your business plan and seek support elsewhere.
Maintain FlexibilityAssess whether the incubator's resources align with your startup's needs and growth plans.

How to Leverage Business Incubator Resources for Maximum Impact

To make the most out of a business incubator, startups should actively engage with the community, participate in events and workshops, and seek constant feedback from mentors.

Setting specific, measurable goals for the incubation period can help track progress and ensure the startup is moving in the right direction.

Collaboration with other startups in the incubator can lead to new insights and potential partnerships. Additionally, maintaining open communication with the incubator staff can help tailor the support to the startup’s evolving needs.

Future Trends in Business Incubation

The future of business incubation is likely to see an increase in virtual incubators, catering to remote startups and offering digital resources and online mentorship.

Specialized incubators focusing on niche markets or specific technologies such as AI, blockchain, and clean tech are also becoming more prevalent. Furthermore, there’s a growing emphasis on social entrepreneurship, with incubators supporting startups that aim to solve societal challenges.

These trends indicate a broadening scope of incubation services, making them accessible to a more diverse range of startups and aligning with global technological and social advancements.

Business Incubator Concept Photo via Shutterstock

Nash Riggins Nash Riggins is a Staff Writer for Small Business Trends and an American journalist based in central Scotland. Nash covers industry studies, emerging trends and general business developments. His writing background includes The Huffington Post, World Finance and GuruFocus. His website is NashRiggins.com.