The big room seems fitting for the big ideas inside.
Since July, five local entrepreneurs have bounced around ideas — and basketballs — in a 9,500-square-foot Old Market warehouse-turned-office at 11th and Leavenworth Streets as part of a new nonprofit incubator called the Halo Institute.
The high ceilings and lack of cubicles and interior walls allow ideas to flow, grow and intermingle. The mini basketball court and walls painted in wipe-board paint help, too. Successful business owners, CEOs and professors drop by to lend advice.
“Being able to see these people build their dreams is exciting,” said Jim Esch, a two-time congressional candidate who helped form the Halo Institute.
The idea originated last January with Nick Hudson, a successful entrepreneur and British transplant.
He was living in New York City and working in business development for Boots, the United Kingdom's largest beauty retailer and the developer of brands like Sephora, when he decided to start his own company in 2005. He relocated to Omaha and fell in love with the city.
His Excelsior Beauty company develops beauty products, and his Nomad Lounge, a hip nightclub at 1013 Jones St., holds events promoting entrepreneurs, social networking and creativity.
“I really came to realize ... there needed to be a separate space and separate entity to support creativity,” he said.
Hudson called Anne York, director of entrepreneurship programs at Creighton University, and he learned that the university was looking to give entrepreneurial students the same opportunities.
Hudson also tapped Esch, one of the first friends he made upon arriving in Omaha.
Esch had just lost his second general election bid to unseat Rep. Lee Terry and was exploring his options for the future. Seeing someone of Hudson's caliber interested in Omaha entrepreneurship validated the abundance of untapped talent here, something Esch said he took for granted.
Hudson hired Esch in March as a temporary consultant. Esch spent the next several months researching incubators in other cities and existing support for entrepreneurs locally.
“We didn't want to reinvent the wheel,” Esch said, “and we certainly didn't want to step on anyone's toes.”
They said they found that people here had a lot of great ideas, but not a lot of great business plans. Although investors exist for businesses once they're up and running, there is a lack of resources for entrepreneurs wanting to develop and pitch ideas to potential financial backers, they said.
In late March, Roger Fransecky joined the team. He moved to Omaha from New York City about seven years ago with his wife, Nancy Foreman, a former Miss Nebraska. Foreman died unexpectedly of a split aorta in August 2008.
Fransecky said her death and his age, 69, led to a desire to contribute to the community, so he accepted the invitation to serve as chairman of the Halo Institute's management board
Fransecky, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, has worked as a clinical psychologist, professor, CEO and professional consultant. His consulting company, the Apogee Group, works with Fortune 100 companies, said Fransecky, who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur.”
“Two threads run through everything — I am passionate about ideas and translating them to the broadest possible audience,” he said.
“Our notion here is to get good people together and get them what they need when they need it. We're trying to link great people together and leverage our knowledge.”
Although he has donated start-up money to the nonprofit group, his main contribution is guidance and advice to Esch, Hudson and individual entrepreneurs, Fransecky said.
“I've gotten really touched by the aspirations of these young people.”
The Halo Institute selected five entrepreneurs this summer to work in the space. They include Fluff Your Stuff, a low-cost interior design firm wanting to franchise nationally; Verdis Group, a consulting group to help organizations make “green” decisions; and Habitwise, a company that creates healthy habits through such methods as reminder bracelets for eating nutritiously.
Sam Bhatia, a physician in the pathology department at Creighton University, runs Guru Instruments from the space. The company develops medical devices such as ergonomic grips for scalpels.
After following the advice of the Halo Institute mentors, his net profit grew 10 times over projections, Bhatia said.
“I needed a cost-effective way to have an office, an identity, a place to breed creativity,” he said.
The Halo Institute board will select about five entrepreneurs each quarter in three focus areas — medical, green technology and social media. Board members will review the entrepreneurs' progress quarterly. There is no deadline for leaving, but each person probably will stay six to nine months.
Esch and Hudson also formed a for-profit limited liability corporation, Halo Creative Capital, which they see as a consultancy for the same businesses but in later stages. The LLC signed the lease for the Old Market space, formerly home to the Alliance Group, and pays up-front costs for running the space. The Halo Institute pays the LLC a management fee.
Esch and Hudson said the nonprofit group was not set up to feed the for-profit business. The nonprofit organization is their focus for now, they said.
The Halo Institute is structured through its ethics policy and board of directors so that the entrepreneurs don't feel pressured to hire the LLC later, Esch and Hudson said. The nonprofit board has nine members, and the LLC representative has only one vote.
Other board members include Anthony Hendrickson, dean of Creighton's business school, and a representative of UNeMed, the University of Nebraska Medical Center's technology licensing arm.
“Nobody's going to make any money off the nonprofit,” Esch said. “Over time, we'll understand how the for-profit works.”
Fransecky, chairman of the Halo Institute's board, said the organization is “driven by positive intent” — to help entrepreneurs in the earliest stages.
“If anybody gets rich, I hope it's the people with these ideas,” he said.
Bhatia said just a few months' time at the Halo Institute has helped his business, which has secured orders from a medical wholesaler for thousands of units.
“The experience here has just been amazing,” he said. “It's really helped me focus on what my core business is.”
Contact the writer: