A New Kind of Start-Up Organization for a New Kind of Lansing

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A business incubator with an unconventional corporate structure is out to build local tech companies in the Michigan's capital.

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On a quiet, leafy street in Lansing, Michigan, just off one of the town's main drags, we found The Center for New Enterprise Opportunity (NEO for short), a new start-up incubator in Lansing. Bootstrapped for $10,000 with the help of local builder Kincaid Henry Building Group and the Ingham County Land Bank, their recently renovated building is home to 18 companies that NEO hopes mature into sustainable companies that stick around the city. 

After all, that is what Tom Stewart, one of the managing partners of NEO and our main tour guide, did. He's a local guy who really wants to help the community he was raised in. Let's just say that helping the city of Menlo Park is not what is on the minds of most Silicon Valley tech types. 

That's why NEO incorporated as an unconventional organization type, the L3C, or low-profit corporation. L3Cs can only exist in Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming. Practically, they provide the legal structure for companies to accept some donations from foundations tax-free, while also making some money. More conceptually, L3Cs are a legal vehicle for officially enshrining social good into a corporation's charter. It's fair to say that they are at the cutting edge of socially responsible business practices.

Ideas and entrepreneurs from Chicago to Pittsburgh
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It's an impressively forward-looking approach to making Lansing better. Despite its role as the state capital and the presence of Michigan State University next door in East Lansing, Lansing proper has had a falling population since about 1970, though not nearly as precipitously as Detroit to the east. Though the outflow of people has slowed, the city continues to struggle with an image problem.

What is most impressive about NEO is the long view its founders take. They want to build businesses that are going to last, not to line their pockets, but to build their city. 

And man, if you're a Bay Area resident, you can't help but see the possibilities of the town. Right near a major research university, you can buy a fixer-upper for less than $15,000. Yes, you read that correctly. Not $1,500,000 or even $150,000, but $15,000. I'm pretty sure that's about three months of rent in the Mission these days. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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