Rob Watson directs Kendall’s Business Incubator. After earning his MBA in Marketing, Rob worked for nine years in marketing and product management for the entertainment, music and medical technology industries. Rob joined the Kendall faculty in 2012 and won the Kendall College Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2014. He contributes significantly to Kendall through teaching, course development, training, and mentoring of both students and colleagues.
Kendall: What is a business incubator, anyway?
Rob Watson: You can think of an incubator as a type of business that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their own businesses. Kendall’s Business Incubator teaches students a new and scientific way to solve problems, and it provides structure and methodology around entrepreneurship.
K: Who uses Kendall’s Business Incubator, and for what purposes?
RW: Anyone who is a member of the Kendall family—students, faculty, staff and alumni—can use the Incubator. The Incubator provides physical space for working and holding meetings. It connects students with professional expertise and other resources within the Chicago food and beverage community. The Incubator also provides capital financing for doing everything from creating prototypes to incorporating and launching a business.
K: What is the Incubator workspace like?
RW: The workspace is a classroom that has been transformed into a creative space. Think of it as study hall for entrepreneurs. We use it for holding one-on-one coaching sessions, filming promotional videos, hosting business plan competition meetings, and running workshops.
K: Incubators are popping up at colleges across the country. What makes Kendall’s unique?
RW: The expertise we have in the building! Whereas most incubators are public facing, we want to concentrate on our own talent. So our program is only for the Kendall community. Also, we’ve narrowed our focus to the culinary arts, hospitality, sustainability, small retail operations and similarly aligned businesses, which makes us unique. Most incubators focus on the sciences, like software or bioengineering. Our Incubator makes Kendall a school of choice for entrepreneurs.
K: Why was it important for Kendall to develop the Incubator?
RW: I believe that all colleges have a responsibility to foster entrepreneurship because small businesses stimulate the country’s economy. With so many entrepreneurial students at Kendall, it’s our mission to provide the skills, mentorship, capital and preparation those students need to launch a business. We hope to grow and enhance the entrepreneurial spirit of our students, faculty, staff and alumni by creating a Kendall ecosystem within the Chicago small business community.
K: Since the Incubator’s launch in Fall 2016, how has our community responded?
RW: I asked students and faculty to come to me if they had an idea—and they have been knocking my door down. I had no idea what I was getting myself into!
Students aren’t looking to start just any business. They know what they want to do—but they lack the experience and expertise to begin. Through our industry partners, The Hatchery and FamilyFarmed, we connect our students to the professional community and to resources to figure out how to get started, launch, or keep going.
K: How do they get started?
RW: Well, say a student wants to create and market a barbecue sauce. The first step is market research. What’s out there now? And what are the prices? You have to look before you leap and understand what makes your product unique. Next, it’s all about understanding your business model and choosing to move forward with your product.
Launching the Incubator has shown me, again and again, the depth of experience we have at Kendall. If you’re considering a food business, no matter what your niche is, we have an expert who can help you get started. Expert coaching is built into our model.
K: Once students have incubated their idea, what happens?
RW: After the student has completed a substantial amount of research on their business, our industry partners get involved. Our entrepreneurs are paired with leaders at The Hatchery and FamilyFarmed, and when they are ready to prototype their products, they pitch their ideas to the partner. If their ideas are accepted, the partner helps commercialize the business concept by offering guidance on intellectual property laws, prototyping, product testing and validation, financing, licensing, supply chain issues, marketing, social media, and more.
We also emphasize information sharing. The goal is to create a community of entrepreneurs who support one another, share their contacts and resources, and help fuel one another’s ventures. This is what I mean by “ecosystem.” In the long term, we hope that alumni who have gone through this program will return to contribute to the program as speakers and mentors. We have a unique opportunity in Chicago, and I look forward to seeing all the fruit this program bears.
K: What about students who don’t want to own a business—is the Incubator useful to them?
RW: Even if you aren’t an entrepreneur, you’re an “intrapreneur,” which means you still have to understand all the moving parts of the business and how they integrate. The skillset is no different. You need to understand cash flow, how to manage people and how to create awareness about your business. We’ll give you those really important skills and help you learn to build a business from scratch—and to manage it holistically.