Start-Up Programs Find Niche –

[SBNICHE] Sally Ryan for The Wall Street Journal

Above, Kate Coxworth, who runs fashion house Kate Boggiano LLC, participated in the Chicago Fashion Incubator in 2008. The program helped launch her business.

Some business incubators—programs designed to support early-stage companies—are going niche, specializing in industries like fashion, food and design, to focus on entrepreneurs in emerging fields or areas that require expensive resources to get started.

Business incubators have traditionally supported start-ups in a mix of industries like health care, energy and telecom, in some cases welcoming just one business per sector at a time to avoid competition. But in recent years, a handful of newer programs have taken a different approach, as the young ventures they help nurture are in the same industry.

Of the roughly 1,200 business incubators in the U.S. today, about 5% fit into the niche category, says Tracy Kitts, chief operating officer of the National Business Incubation Association. While that’s only up from 3% in 2006—the last time the Athens, Ohio, nonprofit collected such data—there is now a greater variety of niche incubators than in the past, when just about all catered to technology start-ups.

Incubators in general are typically nonprofits funded by economic-development groups, government entities and academic institutions. Most offer start-ups commercial space for below-market lease rates, plus free mentoring, educational workshops, administrative support and services in areas such as accounting, law and media relations. These programs typically accept participants for no more than five years.

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