James J. Hill Reference Library to launch business incubator

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2010 - 9:05 PM

The Internet has forced the historic St. Paul institution to seek new sources of revenue.

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The James J. Hill Reference Library is a landmark in downtown St. Paul. It was built by the legendary founder of the Great Northern Railway.

St. Paul's historic James J. Hill Reference Library said Wednesday that it plans to open an incubator to help entrepreneurs next summer.

The library will turn 10,000 square feet of office and floor space into working areas for growth companies and related service providers and also offer training programs online, said Tom Triplett, director of strategy development.

The library will allocate $2 million of its $14.5 million endowment to launch the project.

"It's an extraordinary opportunity for the state and region, [to bring] together the resources of the Hill Library with our founder's entrepreneurial legacy and help grow businesses," Triplett said.

The library's board gave its approval last Thursday to move forward with the incubator, but has not yet decided on its area of focus, Triplett said. The next step will be to seek partners, from academic to entrepreneurial organizations, and finalize those relationships in February.

The decision to open an incubator comes at a time when the library is trying to find new ways to increase revenue. The speediness of Internet adoption has made it challenging for the historic library to compete and charge for research services.

To make matters worse, the library's endowment shrank by 23 percent during the recession.

The nonprofit library, which was built by railroad tycoon James J. Hill as a gift to the city of St. Paul, opened in 1921 and once drew 200 to 300 visitors a day. It became a center for business, technology and science research.

Dan Carr, CEO of the Collaborative, an organization that links entrepreneurs with investors, said he believes the librarians can provide "a unique advantage" to the incubator by helping companies do market research and intellectual property searches.

"I think anything that can help start-ups get to the finish line a little bit easier makes some sense," Carr said.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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