Is Columbus Emerging as Part of a New Startup Belt?

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This past Friday, over breakfast of Hot Chicken Takeover chicken and waffles at the North Market, leaders from across Columbus came together to join America Online Co-Founder Steve Case and Hillbilly Elegy author and new Columbus resident, J.D. Vance. Right off the bat we learned why Columbus was selected as one of the five cities for Case’s “Rise of the Rest” road tour, due in major part to our three P’s, “partnerships, policy, and perseverance.”

The five-city Rise of the Rest bus tour was created by Case and Revolution, his D.C.-based venture capital firm. Case cited the rise of startup communities like Columbus that are “creating a new Startup Belt.” Over HCT and Ma’s Sweet Tea, Dr. Bill Lafayette emphasized why Columbus is ripe for an increase in venture capital activity, citing “Columbus has 20 years of growth that has seen 7 percent increase in a labor force [conducive to startup growth] and that is two times the national average.”

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After this brainy breakfast, Case and 20 other community and business leaders piled onto the Rise tour bus for visits and an afternoon of community discussion at NCT Ventures, Jeni’s Ice Cream, Rev1, the Idea Foundry in Franklinton, and the Reeb Avenue Community Center on the ever-growing South Side.

At Reeb Avenue, a community development center focused on education, job training, and local job growth, the topic of conversation during the Q&A panel was corporate innovation with Case, Vance and The Startup Way author Eric Reis sharing the stage.

What was exceptional about this visit was to see the “Columbus Way” in effect as members of the Columbus Partnership, including Reeb Avenue co-founders Jane Grote Abell and Tammy Crane, who proudly showed off their national model for community development. Witnessing the collision of venture capital and economic development experts in a community development facility demonstrated the ease at which Columbus can bring C-suite expertise into neighborhoods that have largely been left behind.

Afterwards, the bus headed to the Idea Foundry where CEO Alex Bandar called for creating a “national library system for makers.” This attitude of sharing expertise to further collaboration was echoed by Vance, who challenged people to seek new passion in startups or makerspaces, “being the fifth employee of something you believe in passionately is just as exciting as being the first.”

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Acknowledging our 500 lb. gorilla – that Ohio received less than 1 percent of national venture capital dollars in 2016 (for comparison, California received 50 percent) – the impact of organizations like VentureOhio, led by CEO Falon Donohue, has played an undeniable part in increasing venture activity. Of note, VentureOhio recently reported a 46 percent increase in VC activity the past two years.

“With big wins like Smart Cities and CoverMyMeds, our region is broadcasting strong signals to the coasts. Every month more investors arrive in Ohio and see first-hand our vibrant ecosystem. More and more end up becoming investors in high-growth startups,” Donohue said, adding, “In 2016 alone, 117 out-of-state investors invested in Ohio startups.”

Case can count himself among those out-of-state investors in 2017. The tour included a pitch event where local companies showcased the city’s startup development. Each demonstrated exciting promise in their own right, as eight businesses made their pitch late Friday afternoon at the Columbus Library for a chance to receive a $100,000 capital investment by Revolution. SafeChain, a local startup that “eliminates fraud and inefficiency in real estate transactions using blockchain,” was the Columbus winner, with CEO Tony Franco celebrating expanded opportunity through Rise of the Rest’s investment. (Presented on one of those cool extra-large checks, no less!)

While the tour group visited the NCT Ventures office, Calvin Cooper, senior director at NCT, was asked by Case what has changed in the Columbus community. Echoing a theme heard often throughout the day, Cooper credited the “Columbus Way” (our public-private partnerships), emphasizing the Ohio Tech Angels fund, and strong relations between The Ohio State University’s Business Builder Club, and our diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem. Notably, the Club is now in its 16th year with more than 150 active student members.

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The impact of Friday’s Rise tour was the inescapable reality of the brain drain from those graduating from OSU and leaving Columbus despite the enormous opportunities available with dozens of exciting and disruptive companies here in Columbus. Our challenge is to take advantage of the low-hanging fruit our entrepreneurial ecosystem provides us by and through our dynamic public-private partnerships.

In his book The Third Wave, Case posits that the third age of the internet and a new economy is already upon us. In sum, our companies and governments must innovate or fall behind our peers. What that afternoon provided by Rise of the Rest laid clear was that not all economic opportunity should be limited to just a few.

We must continue to tackle the problem evinced by Case, “ideas and creativity are broadly distributed. Opportunity is not.” This is evidenced that in 2016, nationally only 10 percent of venture-capital went to women-owned businesses. Sadly, only 1 percent (!!!) of VC went to African American-owned startups.

I continue to believe that Columbus possesses the necessary ingredients and demands to create new collaborations that build upon our existing partnerships between the public and private sectors. It is upon us to recognize as those assembled for Rise of the Rest did – that our greatest asset in Columbus is our people. As a community, we must continue to create networks to further capital and intellectual investment in each other. Case was right when he stated “Columbus has the right ingredients to turn a brain drain into a boomerang.”

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It’s therefore a fitting sentiment one individual I spoke to during the Library finale suggested Columbus should continue to focus itself by being more “impact driven with our small business and startup development,” for when we do so we will continue to tell the story of ourselves – a City of Opportunity.

Upon closing the day, Case highlighted the fact that America itself was a startup, “we revolutionized agriculture, industry, and technology!” Takeaway: Our economic future demands we continue to pursue an inclusive economic exercise for all.

My afternoon with Rise of the Rest impressed upon me that Columbus must continue to innovate itself further into a community that cultivates a purpose-driven economy. The question? How can we further channel what we are best at to accelerate this momentum in a way that serves many?

Over the course of the last year I have sought to develop a new opportunity for our startups and small business so that Columbus may continue to lean into the future and never stop imagining what we can do when we work together. Last Friday served to validate that the time for additional action is upon us. We have the ingredients.

Columbus was lucky to have Rise of the Rest visit, for the subsequent conversations served to further catalyze the development of a critical network density to turn these correct visions for our startup community into a reality.

All photos by Ryan Schick. 

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