appalachian innovation: ohio university's innovation center builds next-gen entrepreneurs
On a typical day at The Ohio University Innovation Center, a tapestry of next-generation entrepreneurs are busy creating Ohio's fastest growing companies.
New energy startups are working to develop innovative technologies, laboring in their own offices or shared lab space with high-tech equipment.
Digital media company creators work odd hours, arriving mid-day and staying well past midnight to make their entrepreneurial dreams come true.
The ever-changing roster of about 25 startups spread throughout 36,500 square feet is a testament to Southeast Ohio innovation and one of the reasons Ohio University ranked fourth on Forbes’
list of universities that turn research into revenue in 2008.
The fact that the Innovation Center is located off of the so-called "beaten track" in Southeast Ohio -- where the population suffers from some of the highest poverty rates in the State of Ohio -- makes its work that much more interesting and important.
Yet what Athens lacks in big city amenities it makes up for in community. The sense that “we’re all in this together” is prevalent throughout conversations with locals working to mend Appalachian poverty by creating new industries, jobs and wealth.
That’s the guiding principle of the Ohio University Innovation Center -- to encourage and support new ideas for entrepreneurship, create new companies and opportunities and keep talent in the region.
Goldmine of Technology
Jennifer Simon, Director of the Innovation Center, credits the organization’s founding in the early 80’s to Will Konneker, a member of the Ohio University Foundation Board and former mentor for many of the Center’s businesses. “He saw some of the poverty in the area and realized we’re sitting on this goldmine of technology,” explains Simon. “His goal was to create jobs and wealth, and we’ve maintained that mission.”
The creation of the Innovation Center was like any other startup – it was a risk. Investors started small and continued working to create a movement of entrepreneurship and innovation. “It just takes that one spark plug to get things going,” is a favorite mantra at the core of the Innovation Center. Simon credits Konneker and former OU President Charles Ping as “spark plugs” for the Center, along with John Glazer and Lynn Gellermann of TechGROWTH Ohio
Another one of those spark plugs was John Kopchick, who created the drug Somavert as a researcher at Ohio University. The royalties from the drug helped to support a number of Ohio University’s research and commercialization efforts, and Kopchick's research was instrumental in achieving recognition from Forbes
Talking to Simon, it’s clear there are more than a handful of innovators finding success through the Innovation Center. After all, there’s no shortage of next generation innovators at nearby institutions like the Voinovich School
, a multidisciplinary school at OU promoting entrepreneurship, innovation and development of the region’s economy.
Innovation Center graduates are creating success in Southeast Ohio by expanding on their original business models, establishing new relationships and discovering new opportunities. Three graduates, Ted Gilfert, Chris Keesey and Dan Krivicich, recently shared their success stories with hiVelocity.
Athens Technical Specialists, Inc.
(ATSI) launched in the mid-80’s as a designer of traffic technician equipment. Yet founders Jim and Sara Gilfert soon grew out of their basement. That's when they contacted Konneker at the Innovation Center and moved into the Center’s original location at One President Street in 1987. Gilfert still credits Konneker as a company mentor, along with Dave Allen and Linda Clark, who succeeded Konneker as Directors of the Innovation Center.
Ted Gilfert joined ATSI at the Innovation Center in 1992 as the company’s sixth employee, bringing with him a background as an engineering consultant and commercial salesman. “The company had a lock on our tiny niche of test instruments for the traffic signal technicians,” Gilfert recalls. He sought to grow their brand recognition by making allied products to sell to their market.
In 1998, ATSI broke ground on its own facility one mile west of town. They moved into the new space one year later. “Our gross revenue in 1999 was around $800,000. At that time, we officially graduated from the OU Innovation Center,” boasts Gilfert, adding ATSI’s current gross revenue exceeds $3 million.
In all, it’s clear to Gilfert that the Innovation Center played an instrumental role in ATSI’s success. The space was important, but so were mentors who understood the business. “The IC staff down the hall also had access to samples of Distributor Agreements, Non-Disclosure Agreements, Employee Policies, and much more."
Today, ATSI employs 15 people and is working on the next generation of solar powered wireless security cameras for both small business and homeowners.
The Innovation Center isn’t intended to be an entrepreneur's end destination but a launch pad to create something new. That was the case for Chris Keesey, founder of a consulting business under his own name, who currently leads a nationwide team with the Performance Development group at LexisNexis.
Keesey was first introduced to the Innovation Center while working as a Project Manager at Ohio University. "I was very impressed with the facilities and the collection of creative people who were working out of the Center," he says.
In 2005, Keesey launched his consultancy. He moved into the Innovation Center in 2009 to focus on helping companies and organizations better utilize technology to increase workforce performance. “I worked with companies who were doing more traditional, classroom or online page-turner style instruction. I helped them move their training and learning into environments based on simulations and gaming, and utilized technological environments ranging from 3D to video to collaborative social media to support these more engaging learning structures.”
Keesey praises the Innovation Center for helping him to navigate the waters of the 21st
century economy. “I grew in overall business acumen. Additionally, my knowledge of networks of support for startups and small businesses exploded.” He also found inspiration in being around other creative and innovative people.
That inspiration sometimes arrived at strange times. Keesey recalls several overnights to make tight deadlines with periodic 10-minute naps on the floor.
“The funny thing is there were others in the building doing the same!” he says. Some might find the self-discipline agonizing, but Keesey found it rewarding.
Dan Krivicich launched Electronic Vision
(EV), an online learning system for colleges, just two years after the Innovation Center was created. “We immediately applied and were accepted as a tenant at the Innovation Center,” he recalls.
“EV received office space, phone services and an address to work from” along with mentoring, training and access to services like marketing. “We took advantage of these services and I believe they are a big part of why EV exists today.”
In 1987, business was booming and Electronic Vision became the first graduate of the Innovation Center. The company has expressed its gratitude to the Center by remaining committed to the ongoing development of the Southeast Ohio area.
“We rented space in Athens, hired several people and expanded our services in nursing and healthcare,” says Krivicich. EV currently employs seven people, but has given work to over 100 people between the sister companies since forming in 1987.
Today, Krivicich and his staff are completely online. “We also work regularly with area businesses [including Ohio University], making their websites or advertising and promotional products. We've been able to use our knowledge of media and web development to help improve the web presence and overall image of a company.”
Krivicich continues, "We hope to continue to build on the foundation that the Innovation Center provided us 25 years ago and develop new and innovative products that will benefit more and more nursing and healthcare students.”