During my visit to Cincinnati earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting key people from Cintrifuse and a few of the regional accelerators. The website says Cintrifuse is "Where Dreamers, Disruptors and Doers Connect" because "the world needs innovation. Entrepreneurs, BigCos and Tech Funds need each other. An active network ensures they can connect. And at the heart of that network is Cintrifuse."
At Cintrifuse, I met with Wendy Lea, who has been CEO since 2014, and Eric Weissmann, director of Marketing. Lea is "an accomplished Silicon Valley executive with deep experience in marketing, sales, and customer experience."
Lea said, "Cintrifuse was born to answer this question: What will it take to create a thriving startup ecosystem in Cincinnati? Cintrifuse is a not-for-profit public/private partnership that exists to build a sustainable tech-based economy for the Greater Cincinnati region. Our purpose is to advocate for entrepreneurs leading high-growth tech startups– attracting, inspiring, and supporting them on their journey. The goal of Cintrifuse is to lower starting costs of business, especially businesses with the potential for high growth and that are disruptive technology. The Cincinnati Business Committee wanted to see how they could be relevant and formed Cintrifuse in partnership with the City of Cincinnati and EY. They wanted their kids to be able to come back to Cincinnati. The Cintrifuse Syndicate Fund is at $57 million and invests in VC firms outside of the region with the understanding they (VCs) create a regional engagement plan. There’s no stipulation that they invest in Cincinnati startups, but just be involved in the ecosystem. This includes reviewing deals, participating in events, and meeting our Limited Partners (LPs) most of whom they would love to meet with anyway - Procter & Gamble, Kroger, the University of Cincinnati, etc."
She said, "We own and manage a 38,000 sq. ft. building in the economic area known as "Over the Rhine." We got the building mortgage free, but put $17 million into improving the building. We opened in 2012. We provide services to 285 members companies – advisory services (such as mentoring and office hours), connections to talent, funding, and customers, as well as operating co-working space in downtown Cincinnati. We are part accelerator, part incubator, and part co-working space to move a company to the next 'Lily pad.’”
Lea added, "The 'headroom' at Cintrifuse is wide. There is a strong appetite for new technology, new ideas, and disruption. Cintrifuse is a census taker – 300 startups are on our database across industries. We have brought in $160 million into the region for their startups, and we give them lots of exposure to VCs. One of our success stories is Everything But the House, which started in Cincinnati. They just raised $41 million, and Cintrifuse made the introduction to their investors."
She explained, "Cincinnati has more Fortune 500 companies than anywhere else outside of San Francisco Bay area, so we created a Customer Connections program to share information between large companies and small companies. Our Customer Connections program is taking 15 startups to Israel to present ‘innovation briefs.’"
She would like to see Cintrifuse expand all over the world similar to TechStars in Boulder, Colo., which she was involved with when she lived in Boulder. She said, "Tech Star is the largest global network in the world with 28 centers, and their graduates have created 800 companies. Cintrifuse hosted their reunion of graduates called FounderCon in the fall of 2016."
The next day, I met Jordan Vogel, now vice president of Talent Initiatives with the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, who worked for Cintrifuse for three years as director of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. He gave me more background information on Cintrifuse, saying, "It was created by Cincinnati Business Committee, composed of the top 30 CEOs in the region and the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, composed of about 100 CEOs of somewhat smaller companies. When Chiquita left, the leaders became concerned and asked ‘What does the future look like? What should it be?’ They decided they needed to promote the next P&Gs of the world. Entrepreneurship was the key. They commissioned McKinsey & Company to conduct a comprehensive study on what would make the Greater Cincinnati region more attractive to startup entrepreneurs and outside investment. The study revealed the region’s strengths and gaps. Cintrifuse was formed to leverage the strengths and fill in the gaps. There are four universities in the region, but there was no path to commercializing technologies being developed."
He added, "Funding was needed, so they created a fund of funds. They raised $78 million of which $57 million went into a syndicate fund. To be part of the syndicate, venture capitalists had to commit to take a look at startups and be committed to engage with two to four trips per year to the region to meet with entrepreneurs. The purpose was to create a food chain."
A Vibrant Startup Ecosystem
According to its StartupCincy Resources page, "Cincinnati lays claim to one of the most vibrant startup ecosystems between the coasts." Home to The Brandery, one of the nation’s Top 10 accelerators; HCDC, the #1 incubator in the State of Ohio; CincyTech, one of the Midwest’s leading seed-stage investors; Queen City Angels, a private, seed-stage venture capital investor ranked #2 in the nation; four universities committed to innovation; and now the country’s only faith-based accelerator – there is a ton of innovation activity in this town!"
The Cintrifuse webpage lists the following accelerators as collaborative partners:
- ArtWorks CO.STARTERS (formerly SpringBoard) "is a nine-week business development program that helps aspiring and seasoned entrepreneurs examine assumptions and turn business ideas into action."
- Bad Girl Ventures "is an educational and micro-finance organization dedicated to inspiring and supporting women entrepreneurs in all the key elements of their business."
- The Brandery "is a seed stage startup accelerator ranked as one of the top programs in the United States. It runs a 4-month program in Cincinnati, Ohio, focused on turning your great idea into a successful brand driven startup."
- First Batch ”It is a five-month accelerator that is the first business accelerator in the nation to focus on scaling physical product companies using local manufacturing. Cincinnati's long history as a center for consumer products, branding, and manufacturing make it THE place for growing a business creating and selling tangible goods."
- MORTAR was started by three minority community members in the downtown area called “Over the Rhine.” "It is called 'Mortar' because people are the mortar between the bricks of the buildings and the founders believe that the neighborhood’s residents have the potential to create booming enterprises – just footsteps from their homes."
- Minority Business Accelerator – "its mission is to help accelerate the development of sizable minority business enterprises and to strengthen and expand the regional minority entrepreneurial community. It works with companies under $1 million in revenue to connect them with large companies who want to diversify their supply chain."
- Ocean is a faith-based "accelerator for startup growth by focusing on the purpose that drives founders…and their companies."
- UpTech "is designed to attract and accelerate entrepreneurs who have the next big idea to make the world a better place. Its mission is to create an informatics industry in Northern Kentucky. It is especially well suited to support entrepreneurs who benefit from our partnership with the NKU College of Informatics."
It lists the following incubators in the Cincinnati region, which also collaborate with Cintrifuse:
- bioLOGIC is a life sciences incubator.
- Hamilton Mill "is a Southwestern Ohio small business incubator for green, clean, water, digital and advanced manufacturing technologies. Conveniently located between Cincinnati and Dayton in the original pioneer town of Hamilton, Ohio."
- Hamilton County Development Center (HCDC) "is a nationally recognized startup incubator in Southwest Ohio that helps entrepreneurs launch successful innovative businesses. It just spun off an accelerator called Pipeline for water product development."
- The Northern Kentucky ezone (NKY ezone) – "It works collaboratively with several organizations that provide funding assistance to fast-growth, high-tech companies. Its team will work with you in assembling the necessary information, plans, and presentations to apply for these opportunities."
Over dinner at Cintrifuse, I met with the heads of three of the accelerators, Matt Anthony and John Spencer with First Batch and JB Woodruff with Uptech. Two entrepreneurs also joined us for dinner, Konrad Billetz, CEO of Frameri, and Paul Powers, CEO of Zoozler LLC and Physna LLC. Frameri makes the world's first interchangeable prescription frame and lens system. Billetz was previously part of the Brandery four month accelerator program in 2013. He said, "We got $20,000 as part of the program, and then we did an Indiegogo crowdfunding and got about $100K to get into full production. We were on Shark Tank in 2015, but we turned down the deal we were offered. We found a lens manufacturer in Dallas, TX, but still do some production in-house.
Powers said, "Physna is a member of Cintrifuse. I started Physna in December 2015, and we are developing software that will lead the revolution in 3D printing. I am also the CEO of Zoozler LLC that is about two years old. Zoozler is a tech development company (including websites, apps, digital marketing and media) and has an initiative for local startups requiring help in tech development."
I connected with Matt Anthony by phone after I returned from my trip to find out more about First Batch. Anthony said, "I founded the accelerator in 2013 to overcome the gap between a well made early prototype and being able to make the first batch of product at manufacturing scale. Over the next four years we grew the program to educate and connect entrepreneurs to overcome the additional hurdles to scale, including legal, marketing, distribution, and more. We’re unique nationally in that we’ve focused on utilizing the strength of our local manufacturers, which tied with the heritage in physical consumer products and branding make for a perfect set of resources to grow new physical product companies. We operate out of a 10,000 sq. ft. maker space on the fourth floor of a former brewery, located in the ‘Over the Rhine’ area. The program itself is five months of rigorous learning from regional experts, product testing, development, one-on-one mentorship, and $10,000 in funding to get into actual production. Companies must all come in with a working prototype and an understanding of their business to really get the most of the five short months. Some of our companies have been making their product for years and are looking to expand their production beyond themselves. The goal of the program is to get the companies into the first stage of production and actually selling products in order to set them up for future growth and funding.”
For example, one of their companies, Textile House, used the funding to make a couple hundred garments for their fall fashion line. They already raised an additional round of funding through a Kiva micro loan to bring their spring line to market in early 2017.
He added, "We started out with two companies in 2013, four in 2014, five in 2015, and six this year. We started this year in June and our 2016 class just culminated in a Demo Day on November 9th. We try to check in with graduates to continue to ensure growth, and about half of the companies each year choose to stay on as members of the maker space.”
When I asked him to describe how their program works, he said, "After an open application, our companies are selected through a series of interviews that end in a final juried selection. Once the program starts our cohort meets as a group twice a week, and one-on-one at least once, often with speakers, manufacturer visits, branding support, and other individual consultation sprinkled in between. We start the week on Monday mornings reviewing business concepts and readings, ranging from learning more about the types of entrepreneurial personalities via E-Myth, and later how to start prototyping and quickly testing product ideas via Lean Startup and marketing channels via Traction. We are primarily funded through grants and donations of time and materials, and don’t currently take an equity position in our companies. We look to help grow companies by connecting to resources down the line from ECDI, Queen City Angels, Cintrifuse, even other accelerators.”
With so many accelerators and incubator programs to nurture startup companies, Cincinnati is off to a good start to achieve its goal of re-industrializing the Cincinnati region. Other cities in the United States that were formerly major industrial centers would do well to follow the example of Cincinnati in setting a goal of re-industrializing their city to create more higher paying jobs and restore prosperity.