A decade ago, something happened in the Buckeye State: the Ohio Third Frontier began awarding funding grants. One of those went to a startup, TechGrowth Ohio, to increase revenue growth and capital investments in tech-based businesses within a 20-county area of southeastern Ohio, anchored by Ohio University (OU).
Today, TechGrowth Ohio, founded as part of Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, and its thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem help feed a red-hot state. “The impact TechGrowth Ohio has made on the region and state is significant and growing,” Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis said. “By leveraging multiple funding sources, including state capital, with the resources, partnerships, and talent of Ohio University, the Voinovich School’s been able to make real progress in activating statewide public-private partnerships in economic development.”
Between 2016 and 2017, the volume of postings on emerging technology sectors such as Internet of Things, smart cities, unmanned aerial vehicles, AI, blockchain, augmented reality, and virtual reality jumped by 50 percent.
“Southeast Ohio really needed an entity to help expand investment in technology innovation and companies in our area. We needed to focus on bringing three things to tech-based startups – services, capital, and talent. That’s what we’re all about, every day,” Executive Director Lynn Gellermann said.
TechGrowth Ohio connects clients to growth grants, pre-seed investments, access to angel investors for follow-on capital, and venture capital. They also infuse tech companies with services and support from expertise in sales, marketing, inventory production, and management, to providing mentorship on how to run and grow a businesses from an esteemed team of Executives-in-Residence.
“They are the real strength of our model,” Gellermann said. “We bring in experienced, seasoned pros from different sectors and parts of the state and country to help startups and offer insight in their particular sector. In southeast Ohio, we provide a lot of coaching, mentoring and team-building support.”
According to Gellermann, a secret to TechGrowth Ohio’s success is the sprawling partnership it anchors. “We were a catalyst for Ohio University to create their Center for Entrepreneurship with its founding partners, the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and the College of Business,” Gellerman explained. “It now provides both a major and certificate in entrepreneurship. Ohio University also had a leadership role in starting the I-Corps@Ohio program, which works with virtually all higher education and research institutions in the state to help commercialize their research. From this also came the Ohio Innovation Fund.”
Unpacking this ecosystem, the OU Center for Entrepreneurship was named Outstanding Emerging Program in 2015 by the U.S. Association of Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship. More than 2,000 entrepreneurs have engaged with TechGrowth Ohio, with 547 receiving operational assistance and 92 companies receiving financial support.
Ohio Third Frontier has awarded more than $1.6 billion in grants. The Ohio Innovation Fund, an early-stage venture fund focused on best-of-the-best startups across the state, has closed a dozen deals since opening in 2016. All combined, OU has generated nearly $2.5 billion in economic development since 2012 through programs and activities housed at its Voinovich School.
Gellermann has enjoyed a sweet reward: watching these ideas come to life. He points to Global Cooling, manufacturer of Stirling Ultracold, as an example of TechGrowth Ohio’s ability to assist and drive any tech niche. “They needed to learn how to make their products and get them to market, to put a manufacturing process in place,” he recalled. “They had to build and develop a workforce from scratch. They had to put into place supply chain, distribution, inventory management and a company culture to be successful.”
A decade later, Global Cooling has offices in Athens, Columbus and outside Lexington, KY, and has jumped from ten to more than 100 employees. It enjoys “a growth trajectory reflective of a company that has created considerable enterprise value,” Gellermann said. “If you look at these hurdles, you think, ‘No way. The odds are stacked.’ Given what we know today, would we make that leap?’” He paused, then chuckled. “Probably. This is a high-risk operation at times.”