Mentors provide feedback and advice for new founders
Starting a business can be a difficult process that requires equal parts tenacity, networking and plain luck. Entrepreneurs are often tossed into the startup machine and told, “here’s your money, figure it out.” However, several Ohio resources are setting out to change a founder’s journey. By crafting a network of mentorship through their Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) initiative, CincyTech, a partner of Ohio Third Frontier, is giving business owners and innovators access to business-savvy insights. Instead of going alone, those seeking advice are matched with some of Cincinnati’s biggest startup names. We talked with Damon Ragusa, CEO of Abre.io and Robert Beech, executive chairman and co-founder of Eccrine Systems and asked them how EIRs can help navigate the startup experience.
How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
Damon Ragusa: I had started a consulting company in 2000, and at the same time moved to Cincinnati to be closer to some of my big customers. It was then that I was introduced to CincyTech and they were very helpful when I was thinking about how to move forward with my first venture-backed software company. They ended up becoming an investor and ultimately, we exited that company. After that, I became an Entrepreneur in Residence and started spending more time with the team and the companies they were evaluating. This is where I began to understand more of what was happening in southwest Ohio and the marketplace around technology companies.
Robert Beech: I originally trained as a medical technologist. In the early 1980s, I started programming personal computers related to healthcare informatics, particularly around laboratory tests. That became the genesis of the first company I founded, Digineer. That company went on for 16 years. When I left the company, I got involved in Intrexon Corporation. When I exited that company in 2012, I came back and got involved as an EIR at CincyTech. That led to me and my co-founder Jason Heikenfeld starting Eccrine Systems.
Why did you want to become a mentor?
RB: In the early ’80s, you had to be nuts to be an entrepreneur. You’re supposed to be a middle manager in a big company. After I got over my fear of failure, I became enamored with the startup “battle,” and loved taking new technologies into the future. Helping other entrepreneurs is my way of giving back to the community and letting them know that fear is okay, you just have to push past it with the right resources. And I’m here to connect them to those resources.
DR: I think there are a lot of people who want to give advice to startups, but it’s important to get advice from the right people like a network of other entrepreneurs. Instead of having to find help yourself, or maybe turn to just the people you know (friends or family), with the EIR initiative you can reach out to people who have “been there, done that” so to speak. It’s part of my DNA to help other organizations acquire knowledge and use my experience to make that process a little bit more risk-free. Because CincyTech wanted me in the room, I gladly raised my hand.
Why has the EIR initiative been so beneficial for startups in Cincinnati?
RB: The companies that need the most attention from experienced mentors and analysts are actually the very early stage companies, not the late-stage companies. Those of us who have gone through the process of taking, for example, technologies to commercial licensing, know the challenges associated with innovation. You have to build teams, you have to deal with regulatory matters—it’s a very complex process. As mentor to other entrepreneurs who are looking to raise money, it’s often important to help them understand that they may be missing key dimensions of what it takes for their technology to be investor-worthy.
What’s your advice for someone who’s just getting started and is looking to plug into the startup scene?
DR: I urge people to think most about the timing and what they really need to advance the business. I always think of early-stage companies in time chunks. What do I need to get done over a period of time? What do I need in order to take on this next chunk of work, so I can get to where I want to be most efficiently? A lot of times younger entrepreneurs think, “Oh, I have to raise capital,” and that’s the goal. That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be building the business and taking the opportunity to talk to experienced entrepreneurs, particularly in the space they’re operating in. No one entrepreneur has the total experience, just talk to as many people as you can to get a feel for starting your own business.
RB: A lot of people romance the cover of Forbes. My advice to them is that in order to be on the cover of Forbes, you have to learn not to want it. You have to focus on more than the end result: the potential exit or upside. You have to love the battle, the journey and embrace the moment-to-moment challenges. Being wrong is a big part of it, because nobody’s smart enough to know it all; you can’t. Really start to ask yourself if you’re going to love the journey, because it’s hard.
Damon Ragusa is the CEO of Abre.io, an open-source education software platform that simplifies managing and distributing web-based software to staff, students and parents.
Robert Beech is the executive chairman and co-founder of Eccrine Systems, a startup pioneering pharma eccrinology, a field of precision medicine that is focused on providing personal drug response profiles derived from biomarker levels excreted in sweat.