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Brush Factory takes pitch idea to reality with new "bff" furniture line

Brush Factory, an emerging high-end furniture manufacturer and winner of 2015’s ArtWorks Big Pitch competition, has launched its first ready-made furniture line, “bff.” The new line was the idea co-owners Rosie Kovacs and Hayes Shanesy pitched in the competition, and thanks to the funding they won, as well as the mentorship and networking provided in the process, the idea has now become reality.
“We’ve really wanted to do this for a long time, and when this came up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity,” Kovacs says. “It just seemed like a really great way that anyone could have something of ours in their house. Custom is often intimidating to people.”
Custom furniture has been Brush Factory’s bread and butter for several years, but the new line opens the company up to expanding audiences, who might have no idea where to start with custom-designed furniture. That doesn’t mean the new tables and chairs will lose any of their signature Brush Factory quality — each piece in the new is made to order, so there remain opportunities for customization and personalization for buyers.
In fact, personal connections are the name of the game. The line’s name stands for “Brush Factory furniture” but also plays off the common abbreviation of “best friend forever.” Kovacs and Shanesy have named individual bff collection pieces after their own friends.
“Naming them after our real life bff’s felt authentic and like a great way to get inspiration for new pieces,” Kovacs says. “If you have friend Peter, you might conjure up you’re own mental image of what the tables personality might be.”
Kovacs and Shanesy hope this personal but timeless style will make their work accessible to a whole new audience, which is exactly what they set out to do with the Big Pitch competition. It’s also what ArtWorks set out to do with the competition as well.
“The main focus of a program like Big Pitch is that we want to help local creative entrepreneurs take their business to the next level,” says Shailah Maynard, director of ArtWorks’ Creative Enterprise Division. “Brush Factory’s new line is the perfect example of how the combination of mentorship, guidance from a U.S. Bank Small Business Specialist and access to business grants can all be used to positively expand and grow a business.”
As the fruits of last year’s competition continue to blossom, a new season is just starting up. ArtWorks is taking applications for the 2016 Big Pitch competition through June 30.

Inventor's Council awards prizes to members trying to bring their inventions to life

The Inventor’s Council of Cincinnati recently held its third annual First Filament Awards, a competition for members to be judged by experts and to receive cash prizes to fund development costs of their inventions.
The awards are just one way that ICC provides support for its member inventors. The Council also invites experts as monthly speakers and provides networking opportunities, offers classes in patents and trademarking and hosts one-on-one mentoring with board members.
For co-founder Jackie Diaz, one of the most important resources ICC provides is the community and support from other inventors. She’s been active in local inventors’ groups for nearly 25 years, since launching her first invention, the Culinique Surprise Inside baking pan, in 1991.
“As I started to look at commercialization, I got to thinking, ‘Maybe there’s help locally,’” Diaz says.
That led her first to the Cincinnati Inventor’s Club and, when that group disbanded, to a Cincinnati spinoff of the Inventor’s Council of Dayton founded by George Pierce.
“Unfortunately, in 2004 George found the management of the ICC, as well as several other satellite organizations in surrounding cities, to be taking too much of his time and had to call a halt,” Diaz says. “As the only board member interested in moving forward at the time, I recruited a President and she and I co-founded the current 501c3 organization.”
Diaz also helped found the First Filament Awards three years ago.
“I wanted to create a program that would help get our members out of the garage and onto the freeway, not only for their own benefit but for the sake of the community at large,” she says.
The awards ($1,000, $750 and $500 for the three finalists) are designed to make it possible for the winners to commercialize their ideas. This year’s winners were Joseph Collins for a child safety product for door jambs, Geoff Saylors for a construction tool that makes finding studs easier when on a ladder and Tom Hortel and Mike Mullens for a new and improved way of cleaning stains from rugs and carpets.
First Filament competition participants must be members of the Inventor’s Council of Cincinnati. Diaz stresses that the group is always looking to expand its membership and provide training and a support forum to more area inventors.

Startup Weekend focuses on social entrepreneurship via United Way partnership

Startup Weekend Cincinnati returns May 20-22 with a special edition focusing on social entrepreneurship in partnership with the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
“The United Way came to us in December and proposed working with Startup Weekend to engage the community in coming up with creative solutions to problems affecting the region,” says Julia Chick, content partnership manager at Ahalogy and a member of the Startup Weekend Cincinnati organizing team.
United Way launched its Bold Goals initiative in 2011, directing resources toward making significant improvements in education, income and health for area residents by 2020.
“In 2014, we took a step back to see how we were doing in making progress against those goals,” says Mike Baker, United Way’s director of community impact. “Although we were making progress, it was incremental. So we looked at what we could do to accelerate the pace of change in the community and encourage innovation in the social sector.
“One of the things we could do was expand the circle of people focused on the issues we care most about, particularly by connecting with the corporate sectors and startup community. Startup Weekend is a really great opportunity to get to know the people in the startup community and to attract their minds and resources to issues around education, income and health.”
Startup Weekend: Social Edition will work much like other startup weekends and hackathons, with a key difference — the event’s focus is creating a business or product that solves a social problem. On the Startup Weekend website, the organizers have included an explanation of social entrepreneurship as well as some “idea starters” related to the Bold Goals issues.
“The weekend itself is open to any ideas or creative solutions that attendees bring,” Chick says. “We worked with the United Way to come up with some thought starters to give examples of the problems facing the region. The idea is not to limit participants but to jump-start them.”
Mentors and coaches from the social enterprise sector will be around throughout the weekend to make sure the ideas that teams pursue really will address a particular issue. Their guidance will be reinforced by Saturday morning speakers Keri Dooley Stephens and Keith Romer from The Garage Group, who will talk about consumer validation.
Anyone can participate in Startup Weekend: Social Edition as long as they register before the program starts at 6 p.m. on Friday. The event is being hosted at the 84.51° headquarters downtown.
“There is great energy around a startup weekend,” Baker says. “It’s a really awesome way to get involved in the community, meet other people who care about the same issues you do and potentially solve big hairy issues. We’re looking for people who are willing to bring their creativity and ask the ‘why not’ questions: Why not try this? Why not move forward?”
Startup Weekend will provide food and beverages for the participants throughout the weekend to ensure teams can focus on developing their ideas. Everyone is encouraged to bring his or her own laptop and iPad and any other materials they’ll need in their work process.
“There are a lot of passionate people out there who may have some creative solutions to the problems United Way is addressing,” Chick says. “By bringing people together, we can collaborate to make Cincinnati an even greater place.”
Those unable to participate in the entire weekend can register for the free Demo Day event at 5 p.m. Sunday, when teams will pitch their ideas to the judges. The winning team will receive pro-bono consulting services from FlyWheel Cincinnati to help develop and implement their idea.
“I think Startup Weekend will be a great opportunity for people to experience the hustle and fast-paced creativity, problem solving and adjusting on the fly that goes into a startup, while connecting with and making improvements against the important issues so many of us care about in the community,” Baker says. “It will be both meaningful and fun for everyone participating.”

UC School of IT awarded exclusive national designation for cybersecurity program

The University of Cincinnati’s Information Technology School was recently designated by the National Security Administration and Department for Homeland Security as a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CDE), a title awarded to just nine U.S. universities so far. The designation will last until 2021, and in addition to prestige it gives UC’s IT program access to special funding and grants open only to schools with CAE-CDE designation.
The exclusive designation is impressive, especially considering that cybersecurity is still a new program at UC’s School of IT.
“The Cybersecurity specialty (track) accepted its first class of 40 students in the fall of 2014,” School Head and Associate Professor Hazem Said says. “A year later, more than 100 students are selecting cybersecurity as their technical track.”
Said explains that several factors set the UC program apart from many other cybersecurity courses of study. Grounded in the university’s school of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services, the program supplements the technical skills necessary for cybersecurity expertise with contextual knowledge of business and other disciplines.
The program provides a variety of opportunities for personalization and project-based learning and requires co-ops for on-the-job experience. The program also aims to develop interpersonal skills, most notably communication, with three writing classes required of cybersecurity students and oral presentations wound throughout the curriculum. The goal is for students to be able to communicate the value and concepts of cybersecurity work to a variety of audiences, both with and without technical expertise.
“For the students, this designation significantly increases the value of their degree,” Said says. “The CAE-CDE designation opens experiential experiences in highly advanced and critical functions of the government and the private sector.”
While the term “cybersecurity” might bring up images of the NSA and hacking nuclear programs, UC’s graduates have many more opportunities than just government or military jobs. Said and his colleague ChengCheng Li, Assistant Professor in the School of IT, explain that thanks to the proliferation of digital data cybersecurity impacts all of us every day.
“The data we care about are being digitized,” Said says. “The more we put it on the digital network, the more it becomes not only important but also political. The ’90s were all about efficiency. There’s a lot of work now coming after the fact but also to set up the future.”
Since data is something we all use, more and more companies, from the startup level to Fortune 500, will be interested in hiring cybersecurity analysts in the near future to make sure their data networks are secure, defend them from attacks and gather the data necessary to prosecute attackers if necessary.
“Cybersecurity is becoming more and more important, cybersecurity nationally and cybersecurity locally,” Li says. “We will need more of a cybersecurity workforce in the next decade.”

Feasty app appeals to local food fans, shoots for national recognition

Like many of you, my smartphone is constantly blinking different colors, telling me to check on my email, my text messages or a Facebook event I’m still on the fence about attending. For the last week, however, those little blinking lights have been making me hungry.
That’s because about a week ago, after Ocean Accelerator’s second annual Demo Day, I downloaded the new Cincinnati-based app Feasty. I now get a reminder twice a day to check deals in my area, with mouthwatering pictures attached of free frites with a sandwich from Taste of Belgium or $3 off Gomez Salsa’s turtles.
According to founder Anthony Breen, a Xavier University graduate and serial entrepreneur, the app is designed to connect people passionate about eating food to those passionate about creating it. Put another way, it’s designed to help the relatable circular conversation of “Where do you want to eat?” (Closely followed by, “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?”)
“I’m not someone who uses apps for everything,” Breen says. “I usually err on the side of not using apps, but it seemed like no one had perfected the restaurants app.”
Breen points out that most consumers know the choices generally available to them and what appeals to them at area restaurants. What they need is an incentive, and Feasty allows restaurant managers to provide that incentive in real time by posting limited-time (one to two hour) deals in order to fill seats.
Feasty is an easy sell for restaurant-goers, but there’s another layer to the app than the images fed to consumers on the front end.
It’s this back end layer that Feasty is constantly working to improve through data and innovation, and as a result the company recently won the right to compete in the 2016 PYMNTS/Alexa Tech Challenge. The competition challenges 13 companies across the nation to use Alexa, Amazon’s voice activated assistant, to solve a problem related to the payments and commerce system.
For the five-week challenge, Feasty has joined forces with Zipscene, the local company that “brings data to dining” in order to aid restaurant marketers understand consumer behavior. Together, Feasty and Zipscene will be working on a solution Breen says will simplify the complex decision of where to eat.
While working on the project, they’re up against some pretty big competitors. The 13 companies competing include Visa, Discover and Western Union.
“I think we’re the smallest combined group,” Breen says. “I think it shows that if you have a lot of passion and create a product that speaks to people, you can compete.”
Even after the challenge, Breen says Feasty and Zipcene will continue to work together to improve the app’s current format. As they continue that innovation, they’re also eyeing expansion to Dayton and Columbus, a logical next step for the current Cincinnati-centric app.
“A week before (Ocean’s) Demo Day, we decided to expand throughout Greater Cincinnati,” Breen says, explaining that before that the app had focused solely on five key neighborhoods. “For us, it’s very easy to scale.”

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.
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