Ataia Medical is a fledgling company that was born out of a senior design project in 2017 by Hebron native Amy Foertsch and some of her classmates at Georgia Tech.
A doctor in Atlanta had pitched a problem he regularly encountered in his practice to Amy and her team of fellow students at a conference of young entrepreneurs. The doctor was often unable to communicate with his patients who, because of serious respiratory problems, were being treated with non-invasive ventilation, a therapy that requires a breathing mask over the face. And since the mask was essential for breathing, it was difficult for patients to talk.
To solve his problem, Amy and her team developed a product called Speax that allows patients to communicate using a speaker device attached to the outside of the mask.
With the product in hand, the next step was to find a test site for it to gather data about how it works and get real-world experience with it.
With her Northern Kentucky connections, Amy found help through Blue North, a new project to assist entrepreneurs. Blue North is a project of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the region’s economic development organization.
Blue North’s small but growing staff has a mission to help build a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region to help startups and small businesses find the connections, mentors, and funding they need to succeed.
“We’ve really been looking at the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati metro area because there are so many hospitals, and patients in the area have so much choice,” Foertsch says. “Blue North helped us find connections at a couple of area hospitals.”
The Ataia team is currently negotiating what she describes a “a very significant deal” to pilot the Speax product at an area health care system.
It’s the type of connecting work that is crucial to the success of startups and what Blue North was created to do, says Brit Fitzpatrick, Tri-ED’s director of entrepreneurship and innovation and the leader of Blue North.
“Blue North is the home for Tri-ED’s entrepreneurship and innovation services,” she says. “We’re a connector and an anchor for the entrepreneur community.”
The program was started last year and the first few months were spent establishing an identity and mission for the group, staffing it and making connections. Covington creative agency BLDG helped develop the name and brand, touching on Kentucky’s nickname as the Bluegrass State and on Northern Kentucky’s position as the northernmost community in the state.
This year, Fitzpatrick and Blue North are moving full speed into executing their vision. “We’re standing up events and programs so we can do stuff on behalf of entrepreneurs and get them plugged into resources,” she says.
With a staff of only two full-timers and one contract employee, Fitzpatrick has connected with other organizations to help accomplish the work, including the city of Covington, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Northern Kentucky University, REDI Cincinnati, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and others.
“It’s an ecosystem,” she says. “In order to move the needle when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation, you have to build out a community that has these different nodes.”
Blue North regularly hosts “office hours” for entrepreneurs. In the last quarter of 2018, she met with about 30 entrepreneurs from Northern Kentucky and beyond to let them know about resources that are available.
“We can book them any day of the week,” she says. “We meet with them and get a sense of their top three needs. We walk them through business models all the way to vetting them for investor connections.”
Fitzpatrick is planning to soon launch a “fireside chat” program to help activate the entrepreneurship community and provide a gathering place for those who support it. It will be held in Covington at different locations.
Blue North’s work is partly supported by a $750,000 RISE grant from the state of Kentucky that was awarded to the NKY Entrepreneurship Council, a group that Tri-ED helped form and which also includes NKU, Aviatra Accelerators, Cintrifuse, Gateway Community & Technical College, Square1, and UpTech.
Blue North’s work is not limited to the three main counties of Boone, Kenton, and Campbell. It works with businesses in eight counties, including Owen, Carroll, Grant, Pendleton, and Gallatin.
It is partnering with the Owen County Chamber of Commerce to bring a national program called CO.Starters to the county beginning in early March.
The program is designed to support small business owners in rural communities with a nine-week program that helps local entrepreneurs further develop their ideas, assess their business models, and determine next steps through real-time feedback from business leaders in the region.
“It allows us to provide mom-and-pop community businesses with entrepreneurship education in a county that currently doesn’t have that type of program,” Fitzpatrick says.
For example, one Owen County business owner sells high-quality handmade cutting boards. The program may help him with the expertise and tools to broaden his market through selling online.
“We can bridge the gap from a technology standpoint between our more locally grown businesses and our high-growth startups,” he says.
Blue North operates out of a repurposed industrial space in Covington called The Warehouse, which is owned by SIDIS, an investment company based in Colorado that operates in Northern Kentucky.
From there, the Blue North staff wants to build “an innovation district.”
“An important part of our role is to build density,” Fitzpatrick says. “So we have startups, we have service providers, all related to innovation.”
She sees the work as essential to creating and sustaining a healthy economy in the region.
“We’ve seen even through recession that those early-stage companies are the job creators,” Fitzpatrick says. “If we’re talking about the next stage of growth for Northern Kentucky, entrepreneurship has to be part of the conversation.”
Blue North's Brit Fitzpatrick, left, works with the program's community manager, Abby Ober, at Blue North headquarters, The Warehouse at Sidis in Covington. Joe Simon