Bringing their talents to Ohio: entrepreneurs flock to the Buckeye State
Ohio is ever mindful about polishing its rusty image. Stereotypes depict the state as either home to a wilting manufacturing sector or a vast expanse of farmland. In reality, a strengthening startup ecosystem is attracting a bevy of exciting new companies to the Buckeye state.
With the glimmering and tech-sexy beacons of the coasts beckoning, the question "Why Ohio?" becomes part of the conversation. Paul Allen, launch leader for the business development program, Bizdom
, has some answers. Allen helped draw four high-tech startups to Northeast Ohio from the coasts, with another two companies set to arrive this summer.
These ventures came to Cleveland to work with the nonprofit accelerator created by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Bizdom, which recently moved to a 7,000-square-foot office in downtown Cleveland, provides entrepreneurs with funding in exchange for an equity stake in their companies. Businesses also receive free training and mentorship throughout the program, as well as additional support like follow-on funding or subsidized office space.
"In Cleveland, you can be a big fish in a smaller pond," says Allen. "And you can meet the area's (business) players quickly. People are very welcoming to the talent that moves here."
That goes for the rest of the state as well, Allen notes. Most every region in Ohio has a tech-friendly incubator ready to offer critical resources to industrious entrepreneurs. On a larger scale, fresh enterprises can also receive pre-seed funding from programs like Ohio’s New Entrepreneur Fund
"There's a general sense of optimism returning since the 2008 crash," says Allen. "People are looking at Ohio much more favorably."
There are still some missing elements, of course. Raising capital for new ventures is still challenging, and the state needs a stronger core of been-there-done-that capitalists to usher in the next wave of companies, Allen says. However, the companies that have moved to Ohio are pleased to slap a fresh coat of paint on the state's business reputation.
Happy in a new Ohio home
When Nic Davis moved his medical device startup to Dayton from his hometown of Shelbyville, Indiana, the journey wasn't far, at least in terms of mileage. However, Davis, president and CEO of Davis Medical
, had never before lived away from home, making the relocation an enormous leap from both a mental and business standpoint.
Davis, 32, is happy he decided to make the jump. Now housed within The Entrepreneurs Center (TEC),
a technology business incubator in Dayton, his company is building a suite of medical devices designed to decrease the risk of catheter-related bloodstream infections.
The company owner and former nurse has an almost tragically intimate knowledge of his technology. Before launching the company in 2008, Davis nearly died from an infection caused by an unclean catheter. His invention is made to repel contaminants by delivering antiseptics continuously once it is placed on the catheter. "We're still identifying our final design," says Davis. "We hope to be in hospitals by the first quarter of next year."
Uprooting his family was a difficult choice made easier by some much-needed funding from The Dayton Development Coalition (DDC),
the region’s economic development and advocacy organization. "I was scared to do the move, but I needed capital and had a good device," says Davis. "I thought I'd try it."
Davis also considered Michigan, Kentucky and Arkansas as potential headquarters, but those states do not boast Ohio's flourishing medical sectors, he says. Now that he's entrenched in Dayton's entrepreneurial community, he couldn't be much happier. The state's business culture, Davis found, is far less compartmentalized and cliquish compared to what he encountered back home. "It's like a brotherhood," he says. "The people here want to bond and help (new businesses) out as much as possible."
Wrangling new money is challenging, as is finding top-notch medical talent willing to stay in-state after graduating from college. Regardless, Davis is optimistic about the future. "I'm still meeting people," he says. "There's someone out there for me, I just haven't met them yet."
On the road to Cincinnati
James Fisher and his wife Tatiana have always liked to take road trips, with one caveat. They used Google Maps and a whole host of guidebooks, but could never find an all-in-one resource enabling them to personalize their travels.
That changed with Roadtrippers
, an iPhone app and web service designed by the couple. The site allows users to plan and save trips, combining practical matters like maps, turn-by-turn directions and to-the-dollar fuel consumption with user-chosen points of interest in more than 80 categories. If you're into stock car racing, for example, the app will find all the best racetracks on the way to your destination.
"There's no more need to use several websites and guidebooks," says Fisher, 32, whose mobile app released in November.
The service is a work in progress, but Fisher is confident he's chosen the right home base to tweak his technology. Roadtrippers is run out of a renovated brewery in a suburb of Cincinnati.
The United Kingdom-born app creator worked in real estate before coming to Ohio in August 2012 by way of Savannah, Georgia. He and his wife were drawn to Cincinnati by The Brandery
, a brand-oriented business accelerator. With a keen focus on consumer marketing, that incubator appealed more to the couple than other more tech-heavy accelerators.
Upon their move, the entrepreneurial duo received a crash course in how business is done in the U.S. Unlike Europe, bureaucracy in Ohio is minimal, and the openness of the Cincinnati business community gave them a huge boost. The Brandery, meanwhile, helped the fledgling company build a robust base of investors. "People here are willing to connect you to different networks," Fisher says. "Sharing info is a really big plus."
Roadtrippers has experienced fast growth. It now has nine employees, with website traffic doubling since launch. Fisher expects upwards of half a million travel-planners will be visiting the site monthly by summer's end.
The young app-maker believes Ohio needs more investors to pitch in funding, but the road he and his wife took to Cincinnati has been a satisfying journey thus far. "All I see around me is opportunity," he says.
Hungry for business
It can be tough for students searching for online courses to lay out a degree path. Simply comparing the quality of online resources is less than fun, which is why Bruce Bolton launched CourseBuffet
The free online catalog lists more than 500 online courses from various providers. Each class is assigned a difficulty level (Economics 100, for example) in order to help students plan a long range path of progression from introductory to more advanced material.
"That's not something you can automatically do," says Bolton of other comparable websites.
The Seattle-area native now lives in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland after being recruited by Bizdom in February. The program allowed Bolton to choose Cleveland or Detroit. He landed on Ohio's North Coast after finding programmers who matched up with CourseBuffet's tech template. The seed funding and office space garnered from Bizdom didn't hurt, either. "Cleveland has office space, university talent and great cost of living," Bolton says. "I could have gone to the Bay Area, but the cost is three or four times what I'm paying here."
It's only been a few months, but Bolton already feels a kinship with Cleveland's startup sector. "There's a mentality that we're all in it together," says the 34-year-old. "It's definitely been working for us."
Although these new entrepreneurs only recently sowed their seeds in the Buckeye State, they are positive the soil here is fertile enough for their ventures to take root.
"I tell everyone back home how awesome Ohio is," says medical supplier Davis. "I wouldn't evangelize something I didn't believe in."