The Sandy Springs Innovation Center is celebrating the “graduation” of its first homegrown startup company and marking its first birthday with a better sense of its small-business mission.

The space got off to a slow start, but after more than a year of planning, it officially opened in October 2017. Now, it’s planning a major reconfiguration with new furniture and new employees, said Dan Giannini, a volunteer leading the center, on a recent visit.

“The center now has proven its concept,” Giannini said. “Our next step is to grow.”

Helium Services founders Terrence Jackson, left, and Joe Norton. (Evelyn Andrews)

The center planned a Sept. 27 “graduation ceremony” for the business that is moving out, Helium Services, a website, mobile app and software development company that has grown from two founders to around 10 employees.

“I think they should continue to focus on connecting companies,” said Joe Norton, one of the company founders. “I think one of the most important paths to success here is connecting people like us to the business community in Sandy Springs.”

The center, located at 1000 Abernathy Road in the Northpark office complex, is a nonprofit spun out of the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce with major funding from the Sandy Springs Development Authority and Comcast. The center is a small version of larger business “incubators” it was modeled after, such as Atlanta Tech Village and the Alpharetta Innovation Center.

The space started off with $75,000 from the Sandy Springs Development Authority, with $25,000 of those funds spent on constructing a patio that delayed the opening and is now empty. Comcast funds operating costs in exchange for branding the space. Northpark owner Cousins Properties is offering reduced rent and other assistance.

The goal of the reconfiguration of the space is to provide more room for small businesses, Giannini said.

“We thought about the purpose of the center, which is to create available desk space for new people who want to start businesses,” he said.

The changes include a reconfiguration of the main space from an open area with standalone tables to more cubicles. The center plans to hire a receptionist who will sit at a front desk and an event planner to provide more networking opportunities, he said.

The patio furniture was removed after being blown around in the wind, but there are plans to replace it, Giannini said. He’ll wait to get input from the next tenants, but it will likely be some sort of picnic tables, he said.

Prices for renting space, which include a private office, dedicated desks or “hot” desks as options, may change, but are not yet nailed down, Giannini said.

Warrior Alliance staff members Alexandria Carvalho, left, and Olivia Garrison. (Evelyn Andrews)

The Innovation Center started off as an unclear idea to help local small business and advertise Sandy Springs, but has grown into something similar to the coworking model that has rapidly expanded nationwide, including with many in the perimeter area.

However, Giannini pushed back against calling it a coworking space and said the center can’t and is not trying to compete with those businesses, which provide desks or offices in a similar model but typically on a larger scale.

“Once a company reaches a certain stage, [the center] really can’t support that company and is not intended to support that company,” he said.

The center filled up its previous lower amount of desk space without any promotion, but now they plan to run an awareness campaign, begin social media marketing and rebrand the website, he said.

They also plan to work with local schools to plan an entrepreneurial competition that will likely include posing a business question or problem and having students come up with the best answer, Giannini said.

The two tenants remaining in the center are She Sparks, a marketing and brand strategy agency, and The Warrior Alliance, a veteran services group.

She Sparks was founded by Clarissa J. Sparks, who remains its only full-time employee. It works mostly with female entrepreneurs to help them shape their businesses and get exposure, as well as businesses in the healthcare and education industries, she said.

She Sparks founder Clarissa J. Sparks. (Evelyn Andrews)

She started the business in her living room before deciding she needed a permanent location in March. The center provides a place to host her workshops and meet with clients rather than hopping between coffee shops, she said.

“The trend is toward coworking spaces, and to have a community that offers programming and to help entrepreneurial growth is going to be great,” Sparks said.

As the center begins to reorient and Helium’s business grows bigger, the business plans to move into Industrious Perimeter, a branch of the nationwide coworking chain, where it will have more space. The founders, Norton and Terrence Jackson, credit the Chamber with being the driving force behind Helium coming to, and staying in, Sandy Springs.

“I can’t say enough about how helpful Tom was in getting us plugged into the Sandy Springs ecosystem,” Norton said of Tom Mahaffey, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

Without the center, Helium, like many technology companies, would likely having chosen a space in Midtown or Buckhead, Norton said.

Olivia Garrison, an employee at the Warrior Alliance, said she enjoyed the “innovative” atmosphere and being able to talk to the other startups in the center. The month-to-month contracts and ability to rent more desks or offices also allow for growth, she said.

“It changes and moves as your company changes and moves,” Garrison said.

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