First Customer helps companies bring products to market

Under a new program, Columbus2020 and TechColumbus are working together to connect early stage biomedical and information technology businesses with established companies that might be interested in buying their products.

The First Customer Initiative allows goods that seem useful and valuable based on early feedback to be purchased and consumed, all while allowing the vendor to observe the product in use so necessary modifications can occur locally and quickly with a “friendly” customer.

First Customer was inspired by Wayne Poll’s experiences trying to bring a new product to market at his company Minimally Invasive Devices Inc. The surgeon-turned-entrepreneur says he felt “trapped in a corner” upon discovering that local hospitals wanted to see clinical proof or learn who else was using the product, and more distant hospitals wanted to know if the product was being used in Columbus.

“TechColumbus was integral in assisting Poll through the process and Columbus2020 became involved several months ago as we were brainstorming ways to optimize the entrepreneurial environment in the Columbus region,” says Kenny McDonald, CEO of Columbus 2020.

“Launching a startup isn’t easy and scaling it is often more difficult, but we don’t want smart and talented entrepreneurs to be discouraged by the process of navigating things like funding, trademarks and, ultimately, bringing a useful product to market,” he says. “No one in the region wants valuable products, like those from Minimally Invasive Devices, to go unnoticed.”

First Customer is in its early stages, but more than 30 Columbus-based companies have engaged with the program to date.

AKOTA Technologies LLC, launched in March, is one of those companies. Its software tool, AKOTA, helps analysts and researchers manage information overload by allowing them develop a personal rating system for a collection of documents based on what is relevant to the task at hand and to the analyst who is reading those documents.

“AKOTA uses human-like reasoning and relies on the thought process of the analyst, not a standardized generic process,” says Victoria Loewengart, partner and co-founder of AKOTA Technologies. “The processing of the interpretative rules within AKOTA is provided by KEEL Technology from Compsim.”

Loewengart became aware of First Customer after receiving an e-mail from Greg Pugh, director of IT commercialization at TechColumbus, encouraging her to participate.

“He provided some forms for the program, which were additionally very helpful for my business to structure and organize our business plan,” she says. “Once the forms were filled, AKOTA Technologies was selected to give a presentation to Columbus CIOs.”

On behalf of First Customer, Parker MacDonnell, principal at Columbus-based Invergarry Partners, prepared and coached Loewengart for the presentation.

“The most important lesson that I learned from this experience was that I was targeting a wrong customer!” she says. “I am grateful to the First Customer program, and to Parker, that I was able to learn it much sooner than I would have otherwise.”

The meeting with the CIOs helped AKOTA Technologies land a trial engagement with “a major Columbus healthcare organization,” she adds.

Cultivating homegrown, successful startups will put Columbus on the map in terms of an ideal place to do business, which will ultimately attract the best and the brightest entrepreneurs from coast to coast who are looking for a home base for their companies, McDonald says.

Along those lines, Loewengart says several friends and colleagues in different states are impressed that a program like First Customer exists in Central Ohio, adding that it may be one of the important deciding factors for small businesses to relocate here.

Ideal First Customer participants are entrepreneurs who have a product that is ready to be sold and has undergone beta testing and/or FDA approval, but have hit a speed bump trying to bring that product to a buyer.

“But one important thing to remember is even if a business isn’t ready for a first customer, by engaging through TechColumbus, it can receive counsel and assistance to help it through other stages of the entrepreneurial process,” McDonald says.

To learn more about First Customer, visit