Written by Robert Leitch
The team at Athens’ TechGROWTH Ohio will be the first to tell you that one of the biggest challenges to building a strong entrepreneurial community is perception.
“People didn’t used to think of southeast Ohio as the home of organizations dedicated to innovation,” said John Glazer, director of TechGROWTH Ohio. “There was no access to capital in the region, there were no angel funds. We’ve worked hard to build TechGROWTH from the ground up.”
In the years since TechGROWTH Ohio was founded, the entrepreneurial community in southeast Ohio has grown rapidly. The organization proactively goes into communities across the region to find new entrepreneurs.
“What TechGROWTH has done is create an entrepreneurial community in southeast Ohio,” said Neill Lane, CEO of Global Cooling, a manufacturer of ultra-low-temperature freezers. “Everyone in the community pushes to see companies turn into success stories. Support like that is part of the reason we’re going to be able to expand to 100 employees in the near future, all based in our Athens facility.”
The key to creating this community was funding and supporting companies that other entrepreneurs in the region could identify with. An early, key success in building this foundation was GhostBlind, a company that uses mirrors to make hunting blinds. GhostBlind’s success provided a reference point for many people considering starting their own businesses in the Athens area.
“GhostBlind started as just a couple of guys in a back room who created a very innovative hunting line,” said Glazer. “We were able to take them from their kitchen table to a board room. They went from taking two days to assemble a blind, to two assembly lines and two shifts of manufacturing per day. Their products are now sold in Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s across the country.”
“It was important for us to be certain we were making the right moves, and TechGROWTH helped give us that confidence,” said Chet Burdette, co-founder of GhostBlind.
TechGROWTH Ohio is the southeast regional partner of Ohio Third Frontier, and is sponsored by a university, making it unique in the state. The organization is housed at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, and is distinct because of the rural population it serves and the amount of time it spends with early stage companies.
“We grow our startups into investment readiness and investment worthiness, and that can take some time. We try to get a slow ‘yes’ instead of a quick ‘no,’ which allows our companies to mature,” said Glazer.
The TechGROWTH Ohio team holds pitch competitions throughout the region, open to everyone from PhD students at Ohio University to local members of small communities looking to improve different aspects of their hometowns.
“We’re using these competitions to build a community of entrepreneurship with the hope that valid technology ventures will emerge,” said Faith Knutsen, associate director of operations at TechGROWTH Ohio. “We go to these communities and highlight a problem in their area and ask residents to develop solutions.”
“We never would have been able to host pitch competitions three or four years ago,” said Glazer. “Only now is the credibility of our program and the examples of successful companies really opening these doors in the community.”
Above all, TechGROWTH Ohio’s core mission is to help startups and entrepreneurs find their place in the market, secure funding for validation and build a strong company at a pace that sets them up for the greatest chance of success.
“Our company really benefitted from the support of TechGROWTH in our formative years,” said Geoff Greenfield, president of Third Sun Solar, which designs solar panel systems. “They helped us not only refine our business model, but expand our vision. Having the input of real entrepreneurs who had rapidly scaled businesses and faced the real challenges of running a company was critical.”
TechGROWTH Ohio company founders include faculty researchers at Ohio University and students in the Ohio University Center for Entrepreneurship. The Center for Entrepreneurship connection ensures a new class of bright students with big ideas each fall.
“The students who work with TechGROWTH may try to start a company while they’re in school, or they may wait until after,” said Lynn Gellermann, executive director of TechGROWTH Ohio. “The point is that we teach them the skills they need to hopefully succeed.”
TechGROWTH Ohio is a key part of Ohio University’s innovation strategy, which is pushing the university beyond the borders of southeast Ohio. With Ohio University connections in the Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton areas, TechGROWTH Ohio is poised to do more work statewide and partner with other Ohio Third Frontier regional programs.
“We are encouraging our entrepreneurs to actively engage in thinking bigger than southeast Ohio,” said Gellermann. “We are a key component of this state and have no shortage of fresh ideas. We’re excited to see the next generation of entrepreneurs get their start right here in the Athens area.”