| Follow Us:


Tech startups greening Ohio's economic landscape

Julian Miller of LearnMetrics, Cincinnati.
Julian Miller of LearnMetrics, Cincinnati. - Submitted
A decade ago, Ohio's technology startup scene was a wasteland with hardly a bloom or bush dotting the landscape. Today, thanks to the combined efforts of fertile young minds and state leadership willing to cultivate them, the once barren ground is now green with new growth and promise of further development.

Ohio's tech start-up sector "is a thousand percent stronger than it was five years ago," says Paul Allen,  launch leader for business development program, Bizdom.

Instead of fleeing to the coasts, entrepreneurs are developing breakthrough technologies in the Buckeye State. This sea change is in large part due to the pre-seed funding these high-tech go-getters are receiving from programs like Ohio’s New Entrepreneur Fund.

Then there's the entrepreneur-friendly efforts taking place statewide by tech accelerators including 10-xelerator (Columbus), The Brandery (Cincinnati) and Shaker LaunchHouse (Cleveland). Cleveland alone is set to launch 40 tech start-ups thanks to the work of business incubators, notes Allen.

"Ohio has done a remarkable job in early-stage support," he says.  

However, mining exceptional ideas for commercially viable technology startups cannot be a short-term solution. "Planting seeds is great, but the return won't be in five years," says the Bizdom director. "The state has to stick with it."

Just who are these industrious entrepreneurs helping Ohio's economic garden grow? HiVelocity gathered a handful of tech-savvy businessfolks tending their patch of land in the state's big "3C" cities. Their ventures are at different stages of development, but all would like to put roots down in Ohio.

Stay tuned: Next month, we'll profile top entrepreneurs in other cities in Ohio.

Cincinnati's Next-Generation Leaders
Julian Miller, 31
Chief Executive Officer, LearnMetrics
Founded 2012

What it does: LearnMetrics is a data hub that gives a 360-degree profile on a student, with information including grades, attendance and demographics, creating an easily researched intersection point for teachers.

Getting started: A former high school teacher, Miller had many frustrating moments juggling different systems to find info on an individual student. "None of these platforms were communicating with each other," says Miller. "Our system catches data that would pass the eye of the teacher."

A Brandery "graduate," LearnMetrics is Miller's  first tech start-up . The software is currently in closed beta, with stress-testing taking place at 150 schools nationwide.

The future: Familiarity with the education industry has been invaluable for Miller's first foray into the tech start-up sector. "I know what drives (school system) purchasing decisions," he says.   

In five years, the company CEO wants LearnMetrics to be the go-to student data aggregator not just for high school, but in the realms of higher education as well. "Giving students individual attention by hand is impossible," says Miller. "I learned that the hard way."
Rodney Williams, 29
CEO, Lisnr
Founded 2012

What it does: Whether sitting at home nodding to your preferred jam or rocking out at a concert, listening to music is a passive experience.  Williams seeks to change that with Lisnr, a mobile application and software platform that allows music fans to unlock exclusive content from their favorite artists.

Phones equipped with Lisnr will get special features like backstage videos, unreleased tracks and merchandise discounts. "If you listen to an entire album, you'll get different content," says Williams. "Or an artist could be on stage and ask (the crowd) what song he should play. The choices would pop up on your phone."

Getting started: In August 2012, the Baltimore native left a job at Procter & Gamble to focus on the tech startup. Lisnr recently completed its seed round with help from musicians who believed in the product.

The explosion of digital music has altered the industry, as more people are buying single tracks instead of entire albums, Williams notes. This means artists need to find other ways to "share their story," and that's where Lisnr stepped up to the mic, he says.

The future: The free downloadable app will launch in March for iPhone and Android. Williams hopes to have a lineup of 10 to 20 musicians using the service when it takes the stage.

Candace Klein  
CEO, SoMoLend
Founded 2011

What it does: What can be done when the nonprofit you created isn't helping as many people as you hoped? Build a business that takes up the slack, of course. Klein's SoMoLend (a name abridged from “Social Mobile Lend”) connects business borrowers seeking loans with investors through a secure platform. Using a crowdfunding model, SoMoLend allows friends, family and accredited investors to lend to small businesses like salons and gyms.

"We teach these businesses to fish," Klein says.

Getting started: The born-and-bred Cincinnatian's micro-lending organization Bad Girl Ventures had been funding dozens of women-owned businesses, but also turning away thousands of women. This discrepancy inspired Klein to launch SoMoLend. Fundraising kicked off in 2011 with a beta available in May 2012.  The business now has thousands of borrowers and 43 lenders in tow.

"We're on version 2.0 of our software and fully operational in 50 states,"  says Klein.

The future: In recent months, Klein traveled to Washington, D.C. to convince the powers-that-be to move forward regarding crowdfunding regulations. Meanwhile, SoMoLend will offer additional services, including a mobile application.

"Growth has been great so far," Klein says. "This is a very unique service."
Central Ohio's Disruptors and Innovators

Derek Brown,
CEO, Acceptd
Founded 2011

What it does: Acceptd is a centralized, one-stop site for theater, music and dance departments to manage application portfolios. Applicants can upload audition videos to Acceptd's private site, which is then accessed by the student's school of choice. The site currently serves 140 university programs, music camps and training programs both domestically and abroad.

Getting started: Brown and company co-founder Don Hunter recognized the need for enrollment pre-screening when talking to arts program officials frustrated by unqualified students making it to the interview stage. Some schools asked for audition DVDs, but that required access to production equipment as well as additional time from screeners.

Still, Acceptd, an offshoot of the 10-xelerator business boot camp, exists more to lift the burden from students than school officials. "It's the student piece that drives us," says Brown. "They now have opportunities they normally wouldn't have access to."

The future: Acceptd is currently finishing off its funding while also readying a recruitment piece that will allow schools to search for students, as long as that student has a profile on the site.
Ross Kayuha, 54
CEO, Nanofiber Solutions
Founded 2009

What it does: Regenerative medicine may sound like the fancy of an aspiring sci-fi novelist, but Nanofiber Solutions is making the process a reality by mimicking body tissues on which researches can grow cells. The company builds these three-dimensional "scaffold" structures using nanotechnology - the manipulation of materials at the submicroscopic level.

Kayuha points to a patient with a cancerous windpipe who received a transplant of a trachea grown from his own stem cells on a platform made by Nanofiber Solutions.

"The 'scaffold' is like a piece of tissue paper that can match the surgical properties needed for the organ," he says.  

Getting started: The cell-growing company spun off from Ohio State in 2009 from the doctoral research of founders Jed Johnson and John Lannutti. Spurring  Nanofiber's development further was a TechGenesis grant from accelerator TechColumbus.

The future: Clinical trials for surgical procedures using Nanofiber technology will take years. The company has other products in the pipeline, including a modified flask that helps stem cells grow.

"The expertise and skill here is unique," says Kayuha. "Application of the technology is based on our team's ability to solve different needs."
Cuyler Hunter, 31
Luke Friedman, 31
Founders, UFunded
Founded 2012

What it does: Crowdfunding has been in the news due to congressional stewing over the right of small companies to sell stock and other securities over the Internet directly to the public. UFunded is moving the crowdfunding platform into the university space, allowing students, alumni and faculty to showcase their ideas to their college of choice.

Built-in social media tools let hopeful entrepreneurs share their campaign and funding details with alumni, who in turn can give money or advice to the campaigner. Short North pop-up boutique Pursuit is one retailer that found success through UFunded's platform.

"They raised $6,100 as well as awareness for the company," says Hunter, of Beachwood.

Getting started: UFunded founders Hunter and Friedman met at Ohio State while pursuing their master's in business. Washington's hem-hawing over crowdfunding piqued their interest, and they viewed alumni affinity as a potentially untapped market.

"There are these big universities with large alumni bases - crowdfunding wasn't being utilized to bring them together," Friedman says.

The future: The duo is keeping its eyes on the nation's capital to see which way the crowdfunding wind blows. Even with "big boy" crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo out there, the niche business owners are certain they can compete.

"It's a good time to be in the market," says Friedman.
Cleveland's Entrepreneurs Lead the Way

Lissette Rivera,
CEO, SafeCare
Founded 2012

What it does: This monitoring agency of healthcare workers does continuous background checks on industry employees against an extensive collection of public records.

Getting started: Rivera came up with the idea from a combination of professional and personal experience. The Chicago native has served as a lobbyist in the healthcare industry. The problems in the industry hit home when Rivera was searching for an in-home caregiver for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis.

"The (online) tools to find someone aren't sufficient," says Rivera. "The databases don't talk to each other."

The future: The consolidated database SafeCare offers is being used by four nursing home chains and 10 individual facilities. A second iteration of SafeCare's software will launch before the end of 2013.

"We've been very marketable," says Rivera.
Jason Nemeth, 34
CEO, InStoreFinance
Founded 2010

What it does: InStoreFinance lives by its name. The downtown Cleveland-based start-up provide software programs allowing retail stores to finance customers directly. Through the service's online payment portal, a retailer can accept payments from customers who require financing for "big ticket" purchases, says Lorain resident Nemeth. This helps stores increase sales and manage consumer finance options.

Getting started: Nemeth's mother owned a pet supply shop where customers had trouble affording expensive items like aquariums. Once he found a solution for her store, Nemeth realized many other retail stores needed the same service.
"The goal is $50,000 to $250,000 in added sales" for each of InStoreFinance's 35 stores, says Nemeth.

The future: Now that it has a working product, the next step is formulating a go-to-market strategy, reports Nemeth. "We look at Rent-A-Center and other large chains spending millions of dollars on call centers," he says. "We provide the same service in a box."
Mike Belsito, 31
Co-founder, eFuneral
Founded 2011

What it does: An age-old business has moved online. eFuneral carries a growing subscriber base of funeral homes, which provide price quotes and resources for those planning a service for a loved one.

"It's about empowering people to make more informed choices," says Belsito, a North Royalton native and Case Western Reserve University graduate.

Getting started: The idea for eFuneral was borne through tragedy. Belsito's cousin died suddenly, and when making funeral arrangements he realized there was nowhere to comprehensively search which funeral home to use. Belsito and co-founded Bryan Chaikin launched their beta in February 2012.

"Funerals are so expensive," Belsito says.  "We thought there had to be a better way of planning for one."

The future: If growth is any indication, the need for eFuneral certainly exists. The company has expanded to 11 markets and has backing from hospice organizations and nursing associations. "We're getting the word out to as many funeral planners as possible," says Belsito. "We want to stay top of mind."

Share this page