three toledo entrepreneurs worth watching
It's been said that, with the exception of a handful of bars and restaurants, the sidewalks in downtown Toledo all but roll up on a given Friday night.
Yet while a weekend here might be enough to convince you that the city's best days are behind it, the city's young tech entrepreneurs disagree.
Entrepreneurs like Gene Powell of Spoke
and Seed Coworking
, Bruce Larsen of Nextronex
and Will Lucas of Classbag
have aims to remake Toledo as a hub for innovation, sustainability and creativity. And they’re backing their convictions with creativity and money.
By making investments in Toledo’s nascent tech scene, they claim they're attracting other young, job-creating entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that fund startups. By locating their businesses downtown, they intend to bring new life to the urban core and create a vibrancy that will lure other startups.
Time will tell if they're right. Yet if they can attract a critical mass of other entrepreneurs, there's hope that The Glass City can slowly transition from a traditional manufacturing economy to a more diversified, tech-based economy.
Who knows? Friday nights in downtown Toledo might even get a little more interesting. Here's a look at three Toledo entrepreneurs worth watching.
Will Lucas – Classbag
Will Lucas, 32, is a born and raised Toledoan proud to continue calling the Glass City his home. “Overall, the city’s been good to me.” Yet what's unusual is not simply that Lucas put down roots here, but that he founded two companies.
The first is a lifestyle resource platform called Classbag
. “Based on your profile, the site will recommend classes available at nearby institutions, web courses, books, websites, web articles and events that speak directly to helping you get to the next level in your desired education, career and interests,” Lucas explains.
The idea was built out of his own frustration with his university’s web platform for class discovery. “The process to find classes that speak to my interests and not only the requisites, for me, was a much larger challenge than it should be.”
Lucas gives credit for getting his business off the ground to his own expertise in front-end web development as well as friends who helped him out along the way.
But perhaps most importantly, Rocket Ventures
– an entrepreneurial support organization and venture capital resource that serves Northwest Ohio -- accepted his idea into their pre-seed venture capital funding program this past April.
“They’ve been helpful with business development and some funding,” says Lucas, who now employs two other Toledoans and has subcontractors across the country.
Gene Powell – Spoke, Seed Coworking
Lucas isn’t alone in singing the praises of Toledo reinventing its economy. Startup guru Gene Powell also believes the city's best days are ahead, and he's proving it by creating Seed Coworking, a new collaborative work space for entrepreneurs.
Who wouldn't want to work in a 2,100 square foot, 19th
century wheelbarrow factory transformed into a stylish, modern work space? Located in downtown's St. Clair Village, Powell calls Seed Coworking Toledo’s “creative culture epicenter.”
The community-driven enterprise offers a professional work environment, including a kitchen, lounge, desks, locker room and high-speed wi-fi to independent contractors and small companies with less than five people. Members pay a no-contract monthly fee of $175 to belong to the community.
Perhaps even more beneficial is access to Seed Coworking events, continuing education and other business opportunities. The group, which recently welcomed its 20th member, includes among its cadre of solo-preneurs an intellectual property attorney, web development companies and several designers.
“[These are] twenty people who are regularly coming downtown, supporting the tax base and spending money at local businesses," says Powell.
Bruce Larsen – Nextronex
Bruce Larsen is a Toledo transplant who is working to advance the new energy economy with Netronex. Larsen moved here from Chicago to be a part of founder James Olzak’s vision of turning Toledo into a solar energy hub. He’s stayed for the past 20 years because of the “excellent talent and dedication of our workforce.”
Nextronex supplies equipment to the non-residential and utility scale solar market. “Specifically, the company builds and markets a unique inverter and power conversion system that produces substantially more energy from a solar array than competitive technology,” Larsen explains with practiced ease.
Founded in 2010, the company was initially supported by private investments from Olzak and Intellectual Properties Dynamics, a private investment group that's owned by a selection of well-known physicians and surgeons in the area.
“After initial designs were completed, the company began raising capital through preferred stock,” he says. “Today, our shareholders include the Rocket Fund, University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises and other private investors.”
Slowly but surely, the pieces are falling into place. For Nextronex, that means becoming a trailblazer in the energy economy. Today, all of the ingredients necessary to generate solar power (solar panels, racking systems and balance of system components) are made for in Ohio and are ready for purchase. “We have had a tremendous amount of support from the Ohio market,” boasts Larsen.
Changing the Mentality
While innovators like Powell, Lucas and Larsen certainly give Toledoans cause for hope, it would be dishonest to characterize Toledo as out of the woods. The city still faces tremendous obstacles, including an 8.5 percent unemployment rate and a college attainment rate of 27.3 percent (the national average is 34.2 percent).
“Changing our mentality is probably the biggest challenge we face," says Lucas of Toledo's workforce. "The tech space is one that largely requires entrepreneurial thought."
Toledo also needs to do a better job in retaining young talent, he says. “There are still too many young people leaving the region ... Our future is bright if we can work together to keep our talent and inventions in our hometown."
Of course, creating jobs that will keep young people here is easier said that done. “There’s a lot of money in the Midwest, but it’s locked up in private accounts,” Powell laments. “We need more tech-savvy private equity firms that can unlock those dollars and funnel them into smart, creative, sustainable projects.”
To address these issues, Seed is offering mentoring and educational programs that teach young entrepreneurs how to be more successful. On the capital side, the group is "making connections with area venture capitalists and private equity firms, so we can match them to the talent under our roof," says Powell.
As far as attracting young professionals, Powell says that the region's amenities are simply under the radar. “We have an excellent quality of life that’s extremely affordable. We have access to amazing museums, cuisine, universities, research centers, recreation – you name it and it’s all within a one-hour radius.”
And Friday night in Toledo? Given that the young professionals launching startups here are increasingly drawn to vibrant urban areas, it can only get better. For those individuals who might be interested in seeing Toledo's burgeoning tech economy firsthand, Powell invites them to check out two upcoming events.
"I’d like to extend an invitation to StartUp Weekend on September 14th and TEDxToledo on September 20th,” says Powell, describing a pair of events that are meant to inspire, educate and empower. “We’re going to knock your socks off.”