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Brain gain: Keeping fresh talent on home turf

 NiOTap™ - Smartphone App Controlled Beer Tap System by iOTOS
NiOTap™ - Smartphone App Controlled Beer Tap System by iOTOS
Far too often, Ohio has been on the losing end of the age-old story of youth leaving for greener pastures. CEOs for Cities has quantified the benefits of keeping talent on home turf. Their "Talent Dividend" relates per capita income to higher education with clear results: The more educated brain power a region has, the more income it will garner -- to the tune of  $856 in annual per capita income for each additional percentage point in the area's share of college graduates.

By increasing the number of college graduates in Columbus by one percentage point of its population, $1.3 billion would be generated in personal incomes or revenue. That's like attracting a billion dollar company to this region.
 
Keeping college educated talent within Ohio's borders includes benefits that extend beyond the bottom line, which is not lost on Ohio's business leaders, entrepeneurial organizations and public officials. To that end, myriad programs are succeeding in keeping graduates inside the Buckeye State. Call it brain gain.
 
From Miami with love
 
Libre Clothing began as the brainchild of four Miami University seniors in 2009. The group was tasked with formulating a business plan for a competition at the school's Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. The concept was at once simple and personal: create clothing for patients undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis that would keep them warm and comfortable during treatments and facilitate easy access to med ports with hidden zippers. The students got the idea from watching their own loved ones' health struggles -- including co-founder Megan Stengal's mother Teresa, who was undergoing dialysis.
 
The response was staggering.
 
"While we were conducting the research for our class," says Mandy Eckman, Libre Co-Founder and Vice President of Sales, "we did patient surveys. We were constantly in clinics and hospitals. People would literally pull out their checkbooks and try to buy sweaters from us."
 
The Libre team won the competition, which did not include a big cash prize, but something even more important.
 
"The real value was in the network we had built," reports Eckman, citing the competition panel judges.
 
When graduation rolled around and the time for job searching began, Eckman, Stengal and the company's other founders Tess Schuster and Bethany Skaff opted to take the opportunity they'd already nurtured. The team dove in headfirst, choosing Columbus over Louisville, Kentucky as a home base for Libre LLC. Of course they wanted to stay close to friends, family and their university contacts, but Ohio's concentration of health, cancer and treatment centers also played into the equation. The state's small business centers, specifically the Ohio Small Business Development Center Network (Ohio SBDC) and TechColumbus also figured into the decision to keep things close to home.
 
"They (SBDC) helped us secure our first SBA (Small Business Administration) loan to really get off the ground and running," says Eckman, citing a program Columbus State Community College runs in conjunction with SBDC. "They helped us with our business plan. That was a very intensive process. We were constantly working with them to make sure we were solving everything."
 
Libre sold nearly 550 garments in 2010. That number rose to more than 1,700 in 2012. Sales span across the globe, but are mostly in the United States and Canada. Ironically, the team relishes the day when customers no longer need their product.
 
"She doesn't need our clothing anymore," says Eckman of Stengal's mother, who is no longer in treatment, "which we always say is a good thing."
 
An entrepreneurial reunion, buckeye-style
 
What does it take to get two highly educated and talented Ohio natives to reunite in-state and kick off what the Northeast Ohio Software Association calls 2013's "Most Promising Startup" company? A single email.
 
After graduating from Hiram College in 2005 and working in software and website development, Art Geigel still wanted more. He was pursuing a law degree at Cleveland Marshall when he started corresponding with his old hometown friend from Aurora, Ohio, Christopher Armenio, who was working in Pittsburgh in the robotics industry. Armenio had a pet project on the side and had even developed a prototype: one that facilitated wireless control of devices.
 
Geigel, less than enthused with his prospects in law, recalls when his old friend told him about the hobby project. "He said, 'Art, I'm working on this fun project, would you like to be involved?' It sounded great. I said, 'Absolutely.'" The idea was based on a device that would enable people to control things such as coffee pots or garage doors with their smart phones.
 
Then a newsletter from LaunchHouse landed in Geigel's inbox with a call for applicants for a fledgling business accelerator program courtesy of Ohio's ONE Fund. The duo applied and was one of 10 selected startups to receive $25,000 in seed money and inclusion in a three-month accelerator program full up with connections galore to mentors, investors and an array of business professionals. Geigel put his law degree on hold to immerse himself in the project; Armenio moved back to Ohio to do the same; and iOTOS (Internet of Things Operating System) was born.
 
"That was the kick we needed," says Geigel of LaunchHouse's inaugural 2012 accelerator program.
 
Since then, iOTOS has taken on two more full time professionals and is courting major Cleveland based companies as well as nationally recognized names such as Mr. Coffee with their tiny NIO, the interface chip that allows smart phones and gadgets to communicate.
 
"All told," says Geigel, "between LaunchHouse and our two other investors we've raised $130,000." The company is looking for office space in downtown Cleveland.
 
Networks: daisy chains all the way home
 
Suprasanna Mishra and Steve Gacka might still be in college, but their entrepreneurial careers are well underway with jaw-dropping results. And it's all happening inside Ohio's borders courtesy of a welcoming business community and an array of in-state resources that cater to their professional and personal needs.
 
Mishra and fellow OSU undergrad Dustin Studer founded CapStory, a new social networking platform that puts privacy first, allowing users to create unique groups called "capsules" they access with any cell phone with text capacity. A capsule can share content, but keep it just between members.
 
"Ask anyone that's around my age," says Mishra, "and they will tell you they're getting sick of Facebook, simply because the privacy isn't there."
 
They pitched the idea to CincyTech, which funded CapStory to the tune of $100,000 last year. The boon was no fluke, but a deliberate daisy chain that goes all the way back to Mishra's high school days when he interned for Metro Innovation, which has ties to Cincinnati Innovates. Mishra followed that yellow brick road and ended up with winning $10,000 to develop StageShark, a concert connection platform.
 
"That grant was actually tied in with CincyTech," says Mishra. "I met some people there and I kept in touch with them. The next summer they asked if I wanted to intern for them." That internship turned into a solid mentoring relationship, which eventually grew into a six-figure investment.
 
Got network?
 
Indeed, Ohio does and Mishra's story is proof positive that Ohio's is teeming with opportunity, provided you've got the energy and savvy to introduce yourself into it and ultimately become a part of it. But there's another benefit to staying in Ohio.
 
"I'm pretty young and I can't afford an apartment that would cost three or four grand a month out on the coast," says the OSU junior. "In Ohio, it’s actually pretty affordable to eat, live, and do fun things with your friends, which leads you to be able to do other things with business."
 
Gacka couldn't agree more.
 
"It's insanely cheap to start up here versus going out to California or any major startup city," he says. "Most of your time and money are going to be spent managing being in that location. In Ohio, the location effort kind of gets out of your way and it's really nice to focus on spending money on growing your business and finding the right people. I think that's a huge win."
 
Similar to Mishra, Gacka's position as Developer with the hot crowdfunding company Fundable came by way of Ohio's startup network. In 2011, Gacka was part of a team that started the marketing platform Rewardster with a $20,000 investment from the 10-xelerator program at Ohio State's Fisher College of Business. With the money came "all the mentorship you could ever need," says Gacka. "They connect you with everybody in the Columbus startup community."
 
That's how he met Fundable founders Eric Corl and Will Schroter. Hence, when Rewardster began to fizzle, Gacka had some top-notch connections in his pocket. Now he's part of an Ohio based company that's growing before his eyes, with some 10,000 companies contacting Fundable and sister venture startups.co every month.
 
"We seeing our initial few months of hard work starting to pay off," says Gacka, adding that one company garnered $1.25 million in crowdsourced investments and another collected $435,000—nearly twice its initial goal. "We're starting to see those sort of things happen every week now, which is so incredibly exciting."
 
Surely those numbers are wonderful to behold, but Gacka has something more valuable, albeit not quite as quantifiable: an allegiance to his home state.
 
"Some of my friends in the startup community want go out to California or New York or Boston," he says. "They want a more mature market. I think that’s great and that fits for certain types of companies. I'd rather double down and stay and help build the community as much as possible."
 
"I love Ohio," he says. "I don't see myself leaving any time soon."

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