Upward mobility: Incubator taps into innovation, racing industry

An employee of Techmor, housed at First Turn Innovations, works on EV batteries. /Doug Coats

CORNELIUS – In a region rich with professionals holding racing backgrounds, there’s a home to harness those skills to build new, innovative companies.

First Turn Innovations is a business incubator with a half-dozen executives with roots in NASCAR. Since opening in October in the former Carolina Rapids space on Treynorth Drive, it allows entrepreneurs to bring ideas to life via access to industry-specific development resources like engineers, patent attorneys and networks.

The ideas don’t have to be racing or car-related, says co-founder Jeff Schultz, but FTI encourages those who have ideas tied to the incubator’s three pillars: mobility, manufacturing and measurement. Co-founder Kevin Mahl is the president and CEO of Champion Tire down the street, giving the organization instant ties to racing.

“It’s an interesting time to say we have people potentially looking for new jobs, new ideas,” Schultz said. “So we built an incubator to support that. That’s another piece to the puzzle. We provide an outlook for companies to employ people who were with race teams. it would be a technician or engineer with an idea; our mission is to help support and build companies.”

Schultz founded a company, Phase, based at FTI. It uses 3-D printing to manufacture microfluidic devices, or test tubes that simulate a true biological environment.

Backed by a National Institute of Health grant, Phase is one of about 10 businesses currently utilizing FTI’s space.

“Our goal is to help people understand … when starting businesses, there’s a lot of obstacles and hurdles, but you got to get in the game,” Schultz said.

FTI is one of the two branches partnering with Launch LKN. The organization provides mentors who often were executives to the region’s burgeoning entrepreneurs. While Davidson College’s Hurt Hub attracts more social and educational innovation, FTI provides technical guidance.

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First Turn founders, Jeff Schultz, left, and Kevin Mahl. /Courtesy Craig Bakstad/First Turn Innovations

But the incubator wants to do much more than help the individual business; it’s about growing the lake area as a whole.

“Davidson has the student-focused, community focused, not really the resources for the hardware things,” Schultz said. “We’re very complementary. It’s a great ecosystem.”

One of FTI’s early success stories is SUP-V, a paddleboard rental company using a similar model as bike sharing. Founder Joel Poindexter already has installed a paddleboard kiosk at a Lake Norman motel to rent by the half-hour.

Another company, Wrapsat, places licensed college logos on satellite dishes. So far, the schools include Davidson, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Clemson and South Carolina.

For Schultz, the incubator isn’t about hitting the jackpot with one company, but seeing success from a number that come through. He believes the lake area is a prime spot to do just that.

“Everybody is talking about these unicorns, with billion-dollar evaluations, but if we can build a bunch of successful businesses that grow and make the area attractive for the next business that wants to start, the next companies will want to come here,” he said. “It’s an attractive place to grow and live.”

The next wave of business owners have to start somewhere, and Schultz hopes they choose FTI.

“You’ve got to put your shoes on and go on that first jog if you’re going to run a marathon,” he said. “Five years from now, if we can point to 10 companies that employ a few hundred people in the area, that’s success.”

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