HUNTINGTON - The Marshall University Visual Arts Center in downtown Huntington is adding one more thing that is being created inside its walls - small businesses.

On Tuesday, the university announced the creation of the Brad D. Smith Business Incubator, a partnership between Marshall's Brad D. Smith Schools of Business and Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI).

Named for Brad Smith, a Marshall alumnus and benefactor who serves as executive board chairman of Intuit and chairman of Nordstrom, the goal of the incubator is to offer mentorship and support to early-stage startups.

Entrepreneurs will be able to apply for a space in the business incubator to help them cultivate new ideas aimed at growing the local and regional economy.

The facility will give entrepreneurs access to Marshall's "innovation ecosystems," including subject matter experts and student interns. The incubator also will provide tenants with office space, storage and access to conference rooms.

"The No. 1 predictor of success is perseverance," Smith said. "If you want perseverance, come to the place that has had to reinvent itself and rise from the ashes. We've done that. Today is an opportunity for us to take this talent, this passion, this willingness to train, this ability to get up and dust ourselves off and match it up with the best practices others have proven. If you put that together, we can become the startup state."

Marshall President Jerome Gilbert said this is what a university on the rise looks like.

"We are enriching the lives of our students, our faculty and our staff, and we are making a difference in this community," Gilbert said. "(Smith's) support of our university deepens the ties in our communities and is changing the way our students see the world. As you know, education is more than just learning in the classroom, and many times our students' interactions with leaders like Brad Smith are more stimulating than what they would find in a textbook."

Gilbert said free space will be given to the grand champions of the inaugural West Virginia Innovation and Business Model Competition hosted earlier this month on campus. The winning project, Millions for Medicine, is a lottery jackpot system to reduce medical debt.

Kelly Leonard, a member of the winning team, said the incubator space will be a big help as they continue to work on their idea. She said it had been hard to find space on campus to collaborate.

"It will be nice because people will be able to see what we are doing, come in and offer feedback and get insight into our project," Leonard said. "For the future, it's really inspiring innovation."

The university toured a successful business incubator in Birmingham, Alabama, said John Maher, vice president of research at Marshall. Maher said he believes the incubator will drive economic development in Huntington.

West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Ed Gaunch said the incubator aligns with his priorities at the state level - fostering innovation and entrepreneurs, plus education that looks to the future.

"I've learned, mostly which I already knew, at least 75 or 80 percent of the employees in West Virginia are employed by businesses with 50 employees or less," Gaunch said. "A much higher percentage than that of new businesses that are formed are small businesses. They come from institutions and organizations like this incubator. I see it every day."

The incubator will be located on the first floor and in the basement of the Visual Arts Center, filling a space left by MacKenzie Dow Furniture and the Barnes Agency. It will be renovated by Huntington's Edward Tucker Architects.

The first phase of renovations aims to be complete by August.

Applications for incubator space will be available in early June.

To learn more about the Brad D. Smith Business Incubator, visit www.marshall.edu/incubator, call 304-696-6273 or email incubator@marshall.edu.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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