minority biomedical entrepreneurs teach and learn at first national conference in Cleveland
Bert Gray hasn’t let his minority background stand in the way of his business goals. “As my father used to say, you don’t look up at Mount Everest and expect an easy climb,” says the 30-year veteran of entrepreneurial technology companies.
Along his path to success, Gray has endured many challenges – “There’s a list of 100 things you shouldn’t do and I probably did 99 of them,” he says with a laugh – yet his faith in his idea and business model carried him through these rough times.
“In this economic state, I believe fresh and innovative ideas have no color,” adds the Cleveland area resident. “If anyone is able to bring technology to the table that will offer investors the potential to make 10 or more times their investment in three to seven years, they will be accepted, funded, and extolled as a genius.”
Gray took Direct Notify Alert Systems, a low-cost accident notification and roadside assistance system that can be installed in a vehicle in a few minutes, to a $40 million exit in 40 months. “We were so disruptive that they bought us.”
He now directs his business acumen toward Wellness Integrated Network
, a web-based mobile application based in Boardman that helps users track and sustain their daily diet and nutrition requirements based on health problems.
Darlene Darby Baldwin found a different route to success. A double minority – African-American and female – she ran a group home that cared for 16 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Then one day she met a sales director of a national chemical company who encouraged her to start her own business.
“There were virtually no minorities, no women in the sales arena of laboratory research,” recalls Baldwin, who founded Midtown Scientific
in 2003 to sell medical laboratory equipment and has since expanded to health care consulting. “He mentored me and just slow walked me through the scientific world.”
Optimism, faith in one’s own ideas and finding strong, well-connected mentors were among the factors that helped these two entrepreneurs become successful. Unfortunately, too few minority entrepreneurs are experiencing the same kind of success in the biomedical industry in Ohio and nationally.
Minorities represents less than five percent of the growing biomedical industry workforce, and a fraction of that number have become entrepreneurs. Seeking to address the issue of underrepresentation and increase the competitiveness of minorities within the overall industry, two entrepreneurial organizations are hosting the first ever Minority Biomedical Entrepreneurship Conference
The event, which takes place May 21st
at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Cleveland, aims to help minority professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, students and industry leaders to network, collaborate and share ideas.
The issue of underrepresentation is a critical one not just for minorities in Ohio, but also for the state’s overall competitiveness and ability to create new jobs in high-growth industries. Biomedical jobs are expected to grow nationally by 14 percent over the next five years, according to the national research company IBIS World. What great ideas and innovative, new companies might be unleashed by fostering higher levels of entrepreneurship in minority communities?
Johnathan Holifield is co-founder of the America21 Project
, a minority innovation and competitiveness initiative which is cosponsoring the conference along with BioEnterprise, a biomedical business accelerator. “African Americans and Latinos comprise about one-third of the American population, yet account for only 3.2 percent of the growth of domestic product,” he says. “In Northeast Ohio, African Americans account for 20 percent of the population but only 2 percent of our region’s growth product. We need more hands on deck.”
The conference will offer panel discussions on the topics of starting a biomedical venture, finding investors, strengthening the pipeline for minority biomedical entrepreneurship, and encouraging more minority college grads who have science backgrounds to employ their degrees to launch new businesses.
The America21 Project seeks to encourage economic development in minority communities through education, access to capital and high growth entrepreneurship. Holifield says that the conference represents a breakthrough opportunity for Cleveland and Ohio to take leadership in this area.
“I hold that Ohio will be a first mover in the national arena,” says Holifield. “The breakthrough came in 2003 with the passage and adoption of the Third Frontier
legislation.” The conference builds on the 10-year growth of high-tech industries throughout the state by addressing the issue of underrepresentation.
A former professional football player, Holifield asks, “What if the leading research universities, many of which are also our nation’s sports powers, invested the same kind of vigor in the development of science prospects as they do in athletic prospects?” So far, he doesn’t see much of this kind of commitment.
Yet at the high school level, Holifield points to STEM
schools that teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A group of juniors from the five STEM schools in Cleveland will attend the conference to interact with panelists and ask questions. These students will also attend the Pitch session, during which minority-led companies will pitch to investors and the audience.
The hope is that in five years these students will become the next generation of biomedical entrepreneurs who are starting companies in Cleveland and Ohio.
Holifield says, “The MBEC is designed as a catalytic first step in building deeper connections between African Americans and Latinos, particularly in Northeast Ohio, but also in the state and, in the long term, the nation. Globally, the broadly defined biomedical field will be a global economic driver for a very long time.”
No matter what your background might be, grit and determination are essential to success, says Baldwin. Faced with the need to change her business model, she refused to say, “I wish I hadda, I wish I coulda, I wish I woulda.” Instead, she went back to basics and reinvented herself. “I rethought my business plan.”
The entrepreneurial community in Cleveland and throughout Ohio is looking for a few more minority biomedical entrepreneurs like Baldwin and Gray. Their hope is that by connecting more minority students and graduates to opportunities in such growing industries, the result will be shared success and greater equity for all.
Photos - Bob Perkoski
Photos 1-3 - Darlene Darby Baldwin, President and CEO at Midtown Scientific.
Photo 4 - Bert Gray of Wellness Integrated Network. Photo Submitted.
Photos 5-8 - Johnathan Holifield, co-founder of the America21 Project.