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New wave of Cincinnati entrepreneurs introduced at three events last week


Cincinnati startup accelerators are churning out entrepreneur graduates left and right, and last week was a testament to the depth and diversity of the local startup community. In this single week, three very different programs showcased the innovators they support with three very different events.
 
 
Mortar Pitch Night

Mortar started the week off by hosting Pitch Night at the Drinkery OTR April 26. The accelerator focuses on supporting minority entrepreneurs in Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills, neighborhoods going through rapid growth. This pitch night gave Mortar’s fourth class a chance to share with the public the business plans they’d developed over the course of the nine-week program in OTR and compete with each other for cash prizes to help their initiatives along.
 
“There was a lot of community support and love at our fourth installment of ‘Life’s a Pitch,’” Mortar co-founder Allen Woods says. “After calculating all of the votes from the audience, the top three students will go on to a final tournament-style pitch competition at the end of the 2016.”
 
Those top three pitches were an ice cream stand in Walnut Hills called Green Man Twist; iCleanology, a commercial cleaning service for bars and restaurants in Over-the-Rhine; and Just Hire Me, a platform for neighbors to employ teenagers in their own community. The three companies demonstrate the range of the 60 entrepreneurs who have been through Mortar’s program so far.
 
Mortar continues to grow and change as the program mentors these businesses. Gearing up for its fifth class, Woods announced a partnership with Indigo Hippo, a “creative reuse” art supplies thrift store and visual art gallery, to host an even more specialized program in Walnut Hills focusing on creative and artistic enterprises. It will also be Mortar’s first class exclusively for women entrepreneurs.
 
“We’re excited to reach more creatives and to integrate creative ways of learning into the curriculum,” Indigo Hippo founder Alisha Budkie says. “We’re also looking forward to addressing the entrepreneur as a whole. As the business world recognizes and shares the importance of emotional and social skills, we wanted to add these elements to the coursework.”
 
“Honestly, our progress has been beyond our wildest dreams,” Woods says. “We never expected to be able to accomplish so much so soon.”
 
Mortar will celebrate its two-year anniversary May 12 with a Bacchanalian Society wine tasting fundraiser at Cincinnati Museum Center.
 
 
Ocean Demo Day

Ocean is unique in its use of faith as a lens in the accelerator concept, developing not only participants’ business ideas but also their individual character and spiritual well-being.
 
“We’re developing the next generation of godly men and women who will have an impact on society,” co-founder Tim Brunk said in a video introduction at the April 28 Demo Day event at Crossroads in Oakley. “Ocean is seeing the hope we have for the next generation of business leaders.”
 
This philosophy included a Demo Day keynote speaker — Don Lothrop, former Managing Partner at Delphi Ventures — on the intersection of business and faith, creating a different approach to business as “God’s workmanship.”
 
Ocean is only in its second year but managed to attract participants in this class from all over the country and the globe, including two from London.
 
The ideas pitched by Ocean participants ranged from We Love Work, which uses psychometric testing to match companies with job candidates based on values, to Spatial, using data from social media platforms to describe the feel of a place on maps, to Feasty, which connects restaurants with customers via real-time deals on food.
 
The pitches were heard not only by community members and family but networks and angel investors brought in by the Ocean team to support the participants.
 
 
People’s Liberty Signing Day

The week culminated April 29 with the Signing Day event held at People’s Liberty in Over-the-Rhine, where the program announced its third round of project grants. Grantees got a chance to meet one another and the People’s Liberty staff for the first time as they signed their grant contracts.
 
The Haile/U.S. Bank/Johnson Foundation-funded program unveiled another diverse class of project grantees for its next round of $10,000 projects. They include ideas like “Who They Is,” a program designed by Jasmine C. Humphries to engage Avondale students by designing a park in their community, and pop-up sound installation events dreamed up by Ladyfest Cincinnati organizer Rachelle Caplan that will combine high-tech sound platforms with rare global instruments for peer-to-peer musical sharing.
 
The signing event also included opportunities for new grantees and experienced People’s Liberty alumni to network and support each other.
 
After the public signing day event, grantees were brought downstairs for a more intimate orientation into the People’s Liberty “family.” Sitting around a yellow table inspired by the one Carol Ann and Ralph Haile had in their kitchen, the newest grantees heard the story of those philanthropists and of People’s Liberty — both the bank founded by the Hailes and the “philanthropic lab” that would eventually bear its name — as told by CEO Eric Avner.
 
This sense of community was present in all of these programs, working together to build and diversify a true startup ecosystem and community in Greater Cincinnati.
 

The art of intractive technology sprouts at Cincinnati Art Museum

 
The Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) might be 135 years old, but the organization embraces technology as an innovative way to engage visitors.
 
In 2013, CAM joined the Google Cultural Institute, offering a virtual walk through of the museum and access to digital versions works of art.
 
“We’re also using Google to put together small online exhibitions,” says Emily Holtrop, Director of Learning and Interpretation. “For the opening of Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt in June, we are creating an online exhibit of other cats you can see at the museum. We hope to create more of these smaller web-based exhibits using themes that bring together objects from the permanent collection that would not usually be seen together.”
 
The success of these initial online efforts led to other opportunities to use technology to enhance the visitor experience. Last year, CAM started offering docent-led iPad tours of the Schmidlapp Wing, where many of the iconic pieces in the museum’s collection are displayed.
 
“Docents are able to use iPads to share additional content that supports the conversation,” Holtrop says. “For example, looking at our Robert S. Duncanson painting ‘Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River,’ a docent is able to use the iPad to pull up a photograph of what John Bryant State Park looks like today. Or they’re able to show other Gainsborough portraits and compare them to ours. The iPad doesn’t replace looking at the object, it supports the looking and the conversation around the art.”
 
The iPads are also allowing docents to incorporate multimedia on their tours. Tours of the current 30 Americans exhibition may include listening to a piece of music by Charlie Bird Parker while viewing a painting of Parker by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
 
In October, CAM made a commitment to incorporate technology into the museum experience with the opening of its new Antiquities Gallery, which included two touch tables created by Paperplane Creative and Clifton Labs.
 
“The touch tables let us show the objects in the gallery as what they were, items from daily life,” Holtrop says. “They’re only considered art today because they’re displayed in a museum. They really are things like makeup compacts, vases and containers for storing wine. Now we can show visitors how these pieces were used.”
 
The touch tables offer multiple views of each object on display, fun facts and how it was acquired by the museum. An interactive map and timeline will show where the object was created as well as other objects in the gallery that were made around the same time.
 
In addition to providing layers of information, the touch tables also include games related to the objects. Visitors can make a virtual vase or mummy, and other games explore languages and religions of the ancient world.
 
At the end of April, CAM launched two new touchpad interactive features. Leave Your Impression in the Impressionist gallery encourages visitors to try their hand at “painting” part of a work by Renoir, Monet or Sisley. Context and Discovery lets visitors explore six 20th Century American masterpieces in greater detail, including additional information on the artists and the works.
 
CAM also continues to incorporate analog interactive features in the galleries. Visitors to the Asian art galleries can touch actual brushes, and 30 Americans has a feedback wall asking visitors to comment on pieces in the exhibition.
 
“We could have used technology to ask people how they felt about a particular object,” Holtrop says. “But being able to see everyone else’s responses is so much more impactful and creates conversations.”
 
CAM also participated in the Arts x Tech hackathon last month with a challenge that would allow people to pre-plan their visit and to create their own gallery of favorites from the museum collection.
 
“We aren’t going to use technology just because its flashy and fun, if it doesn’t get the message across,” Holtrop says. “Emerging technology in museums is great. But we’re surrounded by screens all the time, and that can interfere with what we’re looking at, so it’s about finding the balance between having too many screens or using screens as support. We want to encourage people to come into the museum and enjoy looking at art while extending their museum experience beyond their visit.”
 

First Batch seeks next batch of manufacturing entrepreneurs for accelerator class


Local business accelerator First Batch is recruiting the next group of entrepreneurs for its 20-week manufacturing-focused mentorship and acceleration program. This is First Batch’s fourth year offering the program, which will help as many as eight startups ready to scale up product production.
 
First Batch is unique in Cincinnati because it’s the only accelerator in the area — and the country — to focus on new companies that manufacture physical products rather than tech, app development, food, retail or creativity startups.
 
According to founder and program director Matt Anthony, First Batch is accepting applications from businesses with creative ideas they’ve been able to transform into a prototype or small batch production and are ready to increase production through Cincinnati’s local manufacturing resources. Application deadline for the next class is May 6.
 
“We’re looking for people with innovative product ideas,” Anthony says. “They also need to have a solid market reason as to why this has to be produced at scale.”
 
Each accepted business will receive up to $10,000 in funding, space in the Losantiville Design Collective, guidance from the First Batch team, mentorship from industry experts and two months of free legal services from UC’s College of Law.
 
“At the end of our program, the goal is that an organizations will not only be producing product but selling it in some capacity,” First Batch board member John Spencer says.
 
In addition to the hands-on assistance bringing their products or prototypes into scaled production, this year’s companies will also participate in weekly classes on business management — not a completely new addition to the program but one that’s taking a new form. First Batch will expand the Co.Starters curriculum it’s used in the past to address the unique needs of companies manufacturing physical products.
 
“There’s always been a business class component,” Anthony says, “but we wanted to structure it specifically toward physical products.”
 
“Physical products are very different from other products and services,” Spencer adds, “so they require a specific set of skills and expertise.”
 
The expanded business program is one way First Batch is incorporating new ideas with feedback from alumni to hone its specialized acceleration program. As in previous years, 2016 will see First Batch working with companies at various stages in their development and helping them reach their goals.
 
These companies may look like Ohio Valley Beard Supply, a First Batch alum that’s gone from selling beard care products at local vendors and craft fairs to being sold in over 70 Fresh Thyme Markets nationally. Or they may look like Mortal Skis, which entered First Batch with a prototype for skis designed for non-ideal Midwestern snow conditions and has now sold nearly 75 pairs of its first production line, well beyond its goal of 50 pairs.
 
Or the new cohort of companies might look completely different. It all depends on the creative entrepreneurs who apply to First Batch’s program by the extended May 6 deadline and are chosen for the June-October class.
 

CincyTech Fund IV raises over $30 million to spark growth in Cincinnati's startup economy


CincyTech, which invests in local technology and science startups, just closed its fourth and largest fund at $30.75 million, more than its three previous funds combined.
 
Investors in the fund span Cincinnati’s science, philanthropy and business communities and are buttressed by a $10 million two-to-one matching loan from Ohio Third Frontier, the state initiative investing in startups to stimulate growth in Ohio’s economy. CincyTech, which aims to spark development and growth in the local economy by investing in high-potential startups, was a natural fit for the program.
 
CincyTech will use Fund IV to invest in approximately 25 companies over the next three years. Going by CincyTech’s track record, however, the fund’s benefits likely will exceed $30.75 million by attracting other funds and investors to promising Cincinnati companies, which in turn will generate economic growth and new high-paying jobs across the city.
 
“We invest in companies that we believe will become attractive to sustainable investment,” CincyTech President and CEO Bob Coy says. “Most of the companies we invest in at first may employ two to four people. They’re starting from scratch.”
 
With the help of CincyTech investment, many of those companies are able to expand and employ more people, often in the annual salary range of $75,000 to $80,000. CincyTech has created more than 800 jobs by investing in success stories like Ahalogy, Roadtrippers, LISNR and Assurex Health, and Coy points to this track record as one of the reasons the organization was able to raise such a large sum for its fourth fund.
 
“The first three funds have been performing well, and I think the investors in Fund IV based their decisions on that performance,” he says.
 
CincyTech is looking to continue that trend with the new companies it supports over the next three years. Most will likely come from the software/technology and bioscience sectors, which Coy says have a great deal of potential and innovation right now.
 

Cincy Next helps young professionals under 30 connect with each other and the region


Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber announced 43 members of its third Cincy Next class earlier this month.

Based around a personal and professional development curriculum, the eight-month program targets early career young professionals working at for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations as well as entrepreneurs. Class members live and work across the Cincinnati region, and nearly half are transplants to the area.
 
“When you come to Cincinnati, there is access to the things you want to do and the people you want to meet that is absent in larger cities,” says Julie Bernzott, senior manager of the Chamber’s Harnessing Young Professional Energy (HYPE) programs. “You can start a business, get really involved in the community and really make a difference here. And for our size we have great amenities and great cost of living.
 
“Toward the end of the program we explore how class members can get more involved with the community. We usually have ArtsWave and United Way come to talk about their board training programs. And we encourage the class to think about how they can apply the skills they’ve been working on both inside and outside of work.”
 
Cincinnati was recently included in Forbes’ ranking of the top 20 U.S. cities for young professionals, making programs like Cincy Next and C-Change (for those ages 30-40 with 10 or more years of experience) important to attract and retain “creative class” professionals.
 
“As we considered developing a new young professional program, we held focus groups with employers to find out what was needed,” Bernzott says. “The feedback we received was that employers could teach the skills for a position but needed resources to help their employees with soft skills, like emotional intelligence, handling difficult conversations, public speaking and etiquette. Cincy Next focuses on developing the skills that we hope will help them accelerate at a faster rate in their career.”
 
Cincy Next targets professionals under age 30 with eight or fewer years of experience in the hopes of helping them not only further their careers but also build a network of contacts and a connection to the region that will convince them to make Cincinnati their long-term home.
 
“There are young professional leadership programs in many markets,” Bernzott says. “But I’m not aware of any market that’s doing two leadership programs in the way that we are. We took a wide demographic, post-college to age 40, and developed two programs that target different sets of needs. Cincinnati has robust offerings for young professionals, not just the Chamber programs but the YWCA Rising Stars, the Urban League leadership program and others. We’re fortunate to have a wealth of resources in that area.”
 
As Cincy Next continues to develop, the Chamber hopes to reach further into the entrepreneurial community to broaden the range of program participants and to provide networking and awareness-building that’s invaluable when starting a business or career.
 
“Cincy Next and C-Change require a significant time commitment,” Bernzott says. “It’s been difficult to get entrepreneurs involved, not because they’re not interested but because they’re so focused on growing their business.”
 
The costs associated with the program can also be challenging for entrepreneurs and nonprofit employees. The Chamber does offer partial grants for candidates with financial need.
 
Applications for the fourth class of Cincy Next will open in November and for the 12th class of C-Change in July.
 

Xavier conference takes deep dive into local & national co-op movement


Xavier University hosts a conference April 21-22 on “The Cooperative Economy: Building a Sustainable Future” to bring together national experts and local practitioners in the cooperative movement.
 
Xavier has become increasingly interested in the co-op movement in Cincinnati over the past year or so. Much of this interest has been sparked by involvement with Community Blend Coffee, a two-year-old employee-owned co-op just down Montgomery Road from the university in Evanston.
 
That involvement led Xavier to the idea of a three-part exploration of co-ops with the help of local players in the co-op movement like Interfaith Business Builders, which helped Community Blend get started, and Cincinnati Union Cooperative Institute. This week’s conference is the second part of that series.
 
“This is largely in response to what we see as a growing movement of co-ops around Cincinnati,” says organizer Gabe Gottlieb, professor of philosophy and Director of the Ethics/Religion and Society program at Xavier. “Because of the nature of co-ops, they tend to have values, like a concern for workers and the environment, that are in line with what we do at Xavier, so it was a natural fit for us to develop an educational program around co-ops.”
 
The conference will bring together academics and practitioners, including two keynote speakers. The first keynote will be given by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a professor at John Jay College who’s written a book on the history of African-American co-op movements. Nembhard will also present a workshop on economic justice, co-ops and criminal justice.
 
The second keynote will be given by Melissa Hoover, a national expert in the co-op movement who has worked with organizations like the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops and the Democracy at Work Institute. Her address will focus on the state of the co-op movement nationally.
 
The rest of the conference’s workshops and panels will explore topics ranging from the basic “What is a co-op?” and “How do I start a co-op?” to more complicated topics like funding models and fiscal sustainability. The conference is geared to the Xavier University community but also free and open to the public, and Gottlieb says it will be perfect for those already involved in the co-op movement as well as for someone who might have thought of starting a co-op but wants to learn more first.
 
“What I think is really interesting about co-ops is that they offer not a supplement to businesses or even nonprofits that you already see,” Gottlieb says, “but offer alternatives to those models that are often underexplored and can meet the needs of a community in a different way.”
 
Gottlieb feels the conference has the potential to really push the co-op movement in Cincinnati forward by allowing individuals to learn more about co-ops and by helping co-ops find more opportunities to work together. The title “Co-operative Economies” reflects a theme of co-ops working together, creating economic impact from their shared reach and success.
 
Registration for the conference remains open until Thursday’s session begin.
 

St. X grads design unique language-learning platform, launch Kickstarter campaign


A team of four college students launched a Kickstarter campaign this week for a personalized language-learning platform, Lingohop, that combines cutting-edge technology with the newest discoveries in linguistic research. The new app is the brainchild of three first-year college students from Cincinnati and a PhD candidate in linguistics and promises to allow users to begin conversing in their new language “on day one.”
 
Three of the co-founders graduated from St. Xavier High School only last year: President and CEO Michael Ashley, Vice President Tsavo Knott and Chief Product Officer DJ Hammett. They first got the idea for an app while in high school together.
 
Ashley and Hammett were self-proclaimed “language nerds” who committed to learning languages together. They’d practice by learning words and phrases that applied to their lives so they could speak to each other in Spanish, for example, in the hallways. Their friend Knott also had an affinity for language stemming from his dual Dutch citizenship, and he also brought tech expertise into the group.
 
Using their method, Ashley and Hammett have tested “fluent” in four and five languages, respectively. But it wasn’t until they enrolled in college — Ashley at Ohio State University, Knott at Miami University and Hammett at Washington University — that they learned the technique they stumbled upon in high school aligned with the latest research in linguistics.

Ashley met Ohio State PhD candidate Ramón Padilla-Reyes, who has spent seven years researching how people learn languages. So Padilla-Reyes joined the team and the four started working together on Lingohop, an app and platform that uses those newest research-informed linguistic techniques to teach language with a focus on conversation and personalization.
 
“You don’t have to spend years studying language,” Ashley says. “We’re deceived that learning a language is this big scary monster. When you come on (Lingohop), we actually ask you what your needs are and we mold everything you experience to be immediately applicable to your needs.”
 
The app is organized into four-minute lessons organized around questions learners might encounter based on their expressed needs. For example, someone learning for basic tourism might explore “Where is the museum?” while someone who will be traveling for business might learn professional introductions.
 
In addition to this “language for a specific purpose” methodology, the app integrates visual cues and text to provide an immersive experience that addresses different styles of learning.
 
The design team has combined the linguistic techniques with software development and startup principles like agile development and lean startup methodology to design a new experience. They’re also using smart technology to help users understand how they learn best, sort of like the way Fitbit tracks activity, goals and successes. The platform will have an embedded intelligence system to give users suggestions for when to take lessons based on their efficiency.
 
“It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds,” Knott says. “With the technology today, it’s readily available.”
 
The team is beginning to make the app available now via the Kickstarter campaign, allowing contributors to pre-order it for discounted rates. Lingohop will have a different model than a free app or an expensive CD/DVD set — even its pricing is personalized depending on a user’s needs. Different options will be available for month-long, year-long and lifetime access to the platform.
 
Kickstarter contributors will have an option to help with the app’s beta testing. The campaign is attempting to raise $25,000 through May 29, and if it’s successful the team will use this summer to refine the platform build-out to anticipate a full launch date in the fall.
 

Aitken to discuss using data to build strong customer relationships at Goering Center event


The Goering Center for Family & Private Business dives into data at its April 20 Luncheon Series event, “The Data Revolution” with 84.51 CEO Stuart Aitken.
 
Affiliated with the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business, the Goering Center provides educational programs and resources to help family-owned and private businesses grow and network. Aitken’s 84.51 collects and mines customer data to inform business decisions and build strong customer relationships, issues important to businesses of all sizes.
 
“I’ve had the good fortune to work for many great companies and to really understand how basic business principals apply to big companies or brands just as well as they do to small companies,” Aitken says. “From a data and loyalty perspective, focusing on the customer is something that any size business can employ. It’s more a matter of what’s relevant to your customers and how, as a small business owner, you can inspire loyalty through the service you provide.
 
“The customer should be at the center of everything — knowing your customers as individuals, not based on generalities or demographics.”
 
The constant collection of data today can raise questions for businesses and customers about how much is enough.
 
“It’s not really about the quantity of the data as it is about the quality of the data,” Aitken says. “Looking at data over time actually helps us to be more personal with our customer outreach. We can understand what’s changing in their lives and that what may have been relevant a year ago may not necessarily be relevant today. Our customers provide feedback that they appreciate that level of personalization and that we understand how to reach them at the right time with the right message with the right channel.”
 
Aitken’s customer-centric approach to data has applications not only for product development but also for the marketing community.
 
“Since Procter & Gamble was established in Cincinnati nearly 150 years ago, Cincinnati has been recognized as a branding hub,” he says. “We have some of the largest and most well-known marketers right here — P&G, Kroger and Macy’s as well as world-class creative firms and academic institutions like UC’s DAAP — that produce creative and technology talents influencing brands and businesses everywhere.”
 
84.51 is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fortune 500 company Kroger, and the firm is also invested in the Cincinnati entrepreneurial community through its startup-in-residence program. Aitken’s extensive experience working with established and new companies and how both categories collect and use data should generate an interesting and informative presentation.
 
The Goering Center Luncheon Series is open to the public, though reservations are required. The programs take place monthly with guest speakers on trending business topics. Upcoming events feature discussions on the economic and lending environment, attracting and retaining talent and business risks.

Family and private businesses are also able to join the Goering Center as Core Members for access to additional training, education and development programs.

“The Data Revolution” will be held 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. April 20 at the Sharonville Convention Center. Admission is $39 for Goering Center members and $99 for nonmembers. Register here.
 

Travel Notes startup acquired by Silicon Valley firm, stays rooted in Cincinnati


Any good business provides a solution to a problem, and that’s exactly what Hudson Chilton wanted to do when he co-founded Travel Notes.
 
“One of the problems to improve the travel experience for cardholders is making sure their credit cards aren’t declined when traveling, both domestically and internationally,” Chilton says.
 
He’d learned of this industry-wide problem while working for Fifth Third Bank. He eventually quit his job there in Fall 2013 to work full-time on solving the problem.
 
He enrolled in UpTech’s third accelerator class to launch a startup business around his solution, which he called Travel Notes. That’s when the idea really began to take flight.
 
“I give a ton of credit to UpTech for putting together an amazing program,” Chilton says. “If your company needs a connection with someone, someone in the network of UpTech was always willing to make that connection, which really accelerated the growth of Travel Notes.”
 
Those connections helped take the business to the next level.
 
In particular, about a year ago, Chilton started collaborating with Germany- and Silicon Valley-based company Refund.me, which helps travelers secure compensation for cancelled flights to and from the European Union. That partnership recently turned into an opportunity for Chilton to become part of the Refund.me team, and the company acquired Travel Notes.
 
“This acquisition really doesn’t mark the end of Travel Notes,” Chilton says. “It marks the opportunity to accelerate.”
 
Although the acquisition by a large international company is exciting, Chilton won’t be hopping on a plane to move to Silicon Valley any time soon. He’ll continue to work out of Cincinnati.
 
“I’m equally likely to be successful in Cincinnati as in Silicon Valley, if not more successful,” he says. “I can put in as much work and get as many connections here as anywhere else in the world. It didn’t make sense to uproot and start over.”
 

Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired launches re-brand of social enterprise


What do binder clips and services for blind and low-vision individuals have in common? You can find out on April 14 at the re-branding launch event for VIE Ability.
 
Formerly CincySight, VIE Ability is the social enterprise venture of the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CABVI). It’s an office supplies company that employs blind and severely low-vision individuals and brings in revenue to help fund the rest of CABVI’s services.
 
Like any company, VIE Ability aims to be the best in its field, focusing on providing excellent customer service like including free shipping and making the company competitive for customers. At the same time, it looks to make a small dent in the 65 percent unemployment rate for blind and low-vision individuals.
 
Amy Scrivner, Director of Development and Community Relations for CABVI, points out that most of VIE Ability’s five employees lost their vision in adulthood, when they were already well into careers. For many, that event also means losing their jobs.
 
“While five employees may not seem like a lot, it’s really huge for those individuals,” Scrivner says. “This is a way for us to chip away at that appalling statistic and give people really meaningful work.”
 
VIE Ability provides an example for other businesses of how easy and effective it can be to employ blind and low-vision people. Scrivner says that accommodations to help people work are often simpler and cheaper than employers realize.
 
CABVI debuted its social enterprise in 2013 and has been working ever since to grow the business. The organization started providing supplies to a handful of nonprofits and now enjoys more than 100 business customers.
 
“As we looked at that next stage of growth opportunity, we decided it was time to re-brand,” Scrivner says. “We feel like we’ve achieved that next stage of growth, that we’re ready to make that big splash.”
 
The new name and look were designed by marketing experts from Brandwright and Brandimage Cincinnati with close ties to CABVI. The new name plays on the idea of offering viable office supplies solutions for customers and the ability of the low-vision employees to provide excellent services.
 
The rebranding also marks a new phase of development for the social enterprise. VIE Ability plans to continue expanding its customer base in order to increase the number of employees, with hopes of adding paid job training to the permanent employment program.
 
The 5-8 p.m. event on April 14 at Braxton Brewing in Covington will be a casual, enjoyable way to meet CABVI staff and VIE Ability employees. The event is open to the public with some food provided and a portion of drink sales going to CABVI.
 

Hamilton Mill workshop offers free tools to help build customer-focused businesses


Hamilton Mill hosts a free two-day workshop, Building Better Business Models, led by UK-based entrepreneur Tom Strodtbeck on April 14-15. The program will offer tools to help new businesses to start out with a strong footing while providing existing organizations methods to identify services and products most valuable to their customers.
 
Strodtbeck, who grew up in Hamilton and attended Ohio University, worked with the National Business Incubation Association on business development and training before relocating to Liverpool in 2009. Using his experience working with entrepreneurs and startups, Strodtbeck developed a customer-centric business model, synthesizing the work of Steve Blank, Alexander Osterwalder and Eric Reis into a responsive and nimble business tool.
 
“The basic idea is that products and services, whether you’re a new company or an established one, should be led by customer information and data rather than your own knowledge base and passions,” Strodtbeck says. “The customers, if you approach them correctly, will tell you everything you need to know for your product or service.”
 
Developing a business, service or product takes a significant allocation of money and time, yet the traditional business plan focuses on assumptions made by the business about customer preferences and desires. Strodtbeck shifts the emphasis to uncovering what the potential customer actually wants.
 
“These ideas have been out there since Blank’s 2002 book Four Steps to the Epiphany,” Strodtbeck says. “The framework made sense, but what entrepreneurs struggled with was the approach — what questions to ask customers, how to ask them, what to expect and how to get over the fear that people aren’t going to like your idea.”
 
During the workshops, participants will learn how to use the Business Model Canvas developed by Osterwalder, an agile and useful planning tool that maps out the ways businesses try to create value for their customers.
 
“The Business Model Canvas is the tool to get the guesses about your product or service on the table,” Strodtbeck says. “Then you can start going to customers and find out if your guesses are actually true.”
 
Involving the customer earlier in the development of a product or service limits the amount of risk taken on by a business or organization. The idea of pre-testing concepts directly with the consumer is central to the Lean Startup movement championed by Reis. A customer-led development cycle allows organizations to reduce their exposure to failure while focusing on creating viable products.
 
“With Lean Startup methods, you build just enough of a product to let people use it and tell you what they like, don’t like and what they want to do with it,” Strodtbeck says. “Then you build features into the product that reflect customer feedback. So you build, measure feedback, learn and then start the process over again until you get to the product that you want.”
 
Strodtbeck emphasizes that the Building Better Business Models workshop will be interactive and hands on, providing resources to any company or organization looking to create new value, including nonprofits.
 
Hamilton Mill’s free workshop is scheduled for 8:45 a.m.-4 p.m. April 14-15 at the Fitton Center in Hamilton. Space is limited and pre-registration is required.
 

This weekend's Tidal hackathon could be the start of a beautiful tech/arts relationship


Cincinnati’s tech innovation ecosystem collides this weekend with its robust arts community to devise new solutions for some of the region’s largest arts organizations.
 
Tidal: Art x Tech Challenge is a problem-solving hackathon that brings together different sectors of the community to innovate with others and come up with solutions to improve how arts organizations connect with their audiences.
 
The April 8-10 event is organized by ArtsWave, Cintrifuse and Fifth Third Bank with the help of Cincinnati’s startup community.
 
“This is a great collaboration, the whole thing,” says Hillary Copsey, Director of Communications and Marketing at ArtsWave. “Tidal is a synthesis and a showcase of all the exciting things happening in Greater Cincinnati right now. All the stuff that is good right now in our region, Tidal is connected to it in some way.”
 
Even the origins of the event come from the crossover between the innovation and arts communities. One of the main organizers, Chris Ostoich, has been active in the Cincinnati startup community as an entrepreneur himself — his company Lisnr in fact was born in a hackathon — and serves on ArtsWave’s Board of Directors.
 
For Ostoich, Tidal is not only a way to bring together these two worlds but a venue for the tech community to give back to and get involved in arts in Cincinnati. The hackathon allows innovators to participate in a different way from monetary donations, meaning it can engage on a deeper level than simple philanthropy and it can involve individuals who can’t always contribute fiscally.
 
“It was a question of ‘where do my skills fit in?’” says Ostoich of his time on the ArtsWave board. “I felt like nobody in my circle was hearing about ArtsWave or these arts organizations. I’m of the mindset that if you want to engage people in Generation X and following, you have to give them opportunities to contribute. They want to feel like they had a hand in building something.”
 
So Tidal does just that by giving technologists, product developers, marketers, designers and anyone with a problem-solving skillset a chance to contribute to building solutions to real challenges Cincinnati arts organizations face.
 
 
Hackathon agenda
 
Beginning Friday night, teams of innovators will come together to solve eight challenges identified by local arts organizations. The challenges include creating digital interactive lobby experiences, connecting theatregoers with each other, allowing people to follow Cincinnati artists around the world and much more.
 
Tidal is still taking RSVPs for participants. More than 200 individuals have signed up so far, with event capacity set at 300. Once the challenges are presented Friday evening, participants will be able to self-select into teams based on the challenges they want to work on. Teams will work in Cintrifuse’s Union Hall space in Over-the-Rhine on Saturday and Sunday.
 
On Sunday afternoon, each team will present its solution and one team will be named the winner. Tidal will provide prizes to the winning teams as well as arts performances for participants like the band Multimagic on Friday night.
 
The teams will also have the help and guidance of volunteers and coaches from Fifth Third Bank throughout the weekend. According to Sid Deloatch, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, the company sees Tidal as a new way to express its longstanding support of the arts and make use of its tech expertise as the bank transitions to a primarily technology-based company.
 
“This is a unique gathering of interests,” Deloatch says. “We thought we could help, we wanted to help and we felt we could give back to this community.”
 
Organizers are excited to see what new ideas and solutions come out of this weekend’s work. They hope the hackathon is the debut of an annual event.
 
“I love being first,” Ostoich says. “I would love if, five years from now, we can say, ‘This is the community where arts and tech collide with one another.’ Nobody else owns that. We absolutely have a right to do that based on our history and our momentum in this space.
 
“I’m thinking, five years from now, can we expand on the work that’s happened? What I love about these sort of events is that you never know what’s going to come out the other end.”
 

Xavier University's student-run TEDx to explore unexpected sides of deception


TEDxXavierUniversity will hold its fifth annual TEDx event April 14 on Xavier’s campus.
 
The event is a TED-licensed, independently organized TEDx event very much like TEDx Cincinnati. The biggest difference is that this event is completely organized and run by Xavier students who are now under the umbrella of the recently formed Innovation Society student club.
 
The biggest focus for this year’s TEDx group was coming up with its intriguing theme: Decoding Deception.
 
“We spent about four months working on coming up with the theme,” says member Margaret Rodriguez. “We really wanted to find a theme that would be interesting not only to Xavier students but to the greater Cincinnati community.”
 
They chose an exploration of how deception might have positive or necessary uses in daily life and then took applications to come up with a diverse, dynamic group of speakers.
 
“We encouraged the speakers to we chose this year to look at deception from their own perspective,” Rodriguez says.
 
The speakers will be emceed by Mary Curan-Hackett of Xavier’s Center for Innovation. According to Rodriguez, Curan-Hackett was open-minded about the theme and helped speakers think about deception in positive and unexpected ways.
 
Speakers include Amber Hunt, Cincinnati Enquirer investigative reporter, who will explore how people can be deceiving without meaning to be and how as a journalist she tries to find objectivity in that subjective or unintentional deception. Other speakers are from Xavier University and the wider Cincinnati community, with diverse backgrounds in corporate, nonprofit and other worlds.
 
And that’s exactly the point. The event is meant not only to stand alone but to spark dialogue and conversation among audience members.
 
The TEDx student group has focused on building a large and diverse audience with Xavier students, working to advertise on campus and make the event as accessible and appealing as possible to the student body. Tickets are available online.
 
“It’s worth coming just to experience the atmosphere,” Rodriguez says. “It’s exciting to watch something like this. Decoding Deception is only two words, but it’s really taken on a life of its own.”
 

Downtown Cincinnati is on display (and a model) for Midwest Urban District Forum


Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) hosts the Midwest Urban District Forum April 6-8, the first time the conference been held here. The theme is “Progress 360,” which makes Cincinnati a fitting host city, according to DCI’s Mindy Rosen.
 
“The idea is to look at the city holistically,” says Rosen, Senior Vice President of Communications and Strategic Initiatives. “We believe what is going on in Cincinnati is relevant. We have had progress on all fronts, including our retail efforts, the arts scene and financing development. We want to share those stories with other cities.”
 
The conference, part of the International Downtown Association, begins on Wednesday evening with an optional walking tour and a Cincinnati Reds game. Conference sessions run all day Thursday at venues across downtown including the Taft Center, the Contemporary Arts Center, 84.51, Chamber of Commerce offices and the Backstage Event Center above Nicholson’s. Conference attendees are encouraged to walk between sessions.
 
“We want to have people out and about,” Rosen says. “We really hope they get a wonderful flavor of downtown Cincinnati.”
 
That flavor will include a progressive dinner with stops at Prime 47, Nicholson’s and the Palm Court as well as a Friday breakfast gathering for attendees to “Goetta Jump Start” on their departure day.
 
Speakers at the Midwest Urban District Forum represent local and national organizations. The session topics and presenters were selected by the conference steering committee led by DCI and representing downtown management organizations from across Ohio.
 
The meat of the conference takes place on Thursday with a day-long schedule of “master talks” and breakout sessions. Subjects range from financing development and attracting retail to working with local artists on creative placemaking initiatives in business districts.
 
The program begins with a presentation by LPK Creative Director Bryan Goodpaster on the future of cities. He is part of LPK’s division that monitors and anticipates consumer trends.
 
The closing “master talk” will feature Dave Palm, Senior Vice President of Operations at 84.51, and David Brecount of US Digital Partners. Their presentation will consider how data collected by restaurants, retail establishments and businesses can be shared, compared and interpreted to better understand customers and grow audiences.
 
“We were very deliberate to get a variety of speakers, and at the same time we wanted to tap in to some of our local experts,” Rosen says. “I am really excited about Dave Palm’s presentation. I think it’s going to be a really cool session on using data to determine the health of your downtown.”
 
The keynote speaker, author David Giffels, might be considered a little outside of the box for a conference on downtown development. But his book, The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, explores the challenges and rebirth of formerly industrial cities like Akron, his hometown.
 
Cincinnati will be welcoming attendees from Detroit, Pittsburgh, Ft. Wayne, Indianapolis and cities across Ohio as well as from Hamilton and Covington. Although geared for the staff of downtown management organizations, the conference is open to anyone with an interest in urban growth and revitalization.
 
Conference registration is available online.
 

Cintrifuse names new Director of Syndicate Fund, looks to increase investment in local startups


Cintrifuse has named long-time team member Sarah Anderson as Director of its Syndicate Fund, the “fund of funds” designed to generate venture capital and resources for the Cincinnati startup ecosystem.
 
The for-profit fund is one of three major branches of nonprofit Cintrifuse’s work to support the startup and innovation ecosystem in Cincinnati in unique ways. The other two are services provided to entrepreneurs and the Union Hall building that houses Cintrifuse, The Brandery, CincyTech, multiple co-working startups and other related organizations like Flywheel Cincinnati.
 
The $57-million Syndicate Fund was founded by the Cincinnati Business Committee in 2012 to invest in other funds instead of investing directly in startup ventures and made its first investment in 2013. Cintrifuse searches out funds around the country that believe in Cincinnati’s innovation ecosystem and are likely to invest in it, with the hope that when those funds do invest in local startups they’ll attract other investors into the mix.
 
This “syndication effect” is where the fund gets its name, Anderson says.
 
“We’re really looking for that ‘needle in a haystack’ fund that can provide strong returns in the region,” she says. “We are looking at funds that can really be building companies.”
 
In addition to the financial performance any investor expects, Cintrifuse uses its Syndicate Fund to build regional engagement of funds and a “return on innovation” for its backing limited partners — large local companies like Kroger and Procter & Gamble — that can also benefit from all the innovation coming from small startups and entrepreneurs.
 
To foster this kind of innovation and growth here, the Syndicate Fund adds a few twists.
 
Anderson says the best and most effective funds want “no strings attached” to their investments, so the Syndicate Fund chose not to require funds to re-invest in Cincinnati. Instead, she actively works with funds to develop relationships and make sure investors share Cintrifuse’s commitment to innovation across Greater Cincinnati.
 
Anderson also takes a hands-on approach to fostering and connecting with funds that fit Cintrifuse’s mission. Although the Syndicate Fund has invested in just 13 funds nationally, it has a network of 250 partners with which it actively engages. Cintrifuse has been able to bring a 7:1 return on its investments back to Cincinnati so far, and Anderson is looking to make sure that ratio gets even better going forward.
 
The Syndicate Fund will be finishing up Fund I around the end of this year and is already looking toward its next second round, Fund II. Anderson says that there will be tweaks and improvements based on what she and her staff learned in the first round, just as the Cincinnati entrepreneurship ecosystem is always learning and growing.
 
“There’s really not another model that we’ve been able to find like Cintrifuse,” she says.
 
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