News Column

Hamilton business incubator rethinks strategy

August 14, 2014

By Chelsey Levingston, Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio

Aug. 14--A series of changes made within the last year hope to re-energize the former BizTech Center.

The nonprofit is now armed with a new mission -- to accelerate the growth of young companies with ideas for creating "highly commercializable products," and in particular, companies in the advanced manufacturing, clean technology and software sectors.

Additionally, the Hamilton center has been renamed The Hamilton Mill, new performance measures are in place and there's a new board chair at the helm. Chairman Rahul Bawa's background is steeped with technology and start-up know-how including job stints at IBM, United Airlines and Fifth Third Bancorp. Presently, Bawa, of West Chester Twp., is volunteering his mentoring and other services at The Mill; is chief operating officer of Blue Chip Venture Co. in Cincinnati; chief executive officer of eMerge Health Solutions in Cincinnati; and is founder and chief executive officer of consulting firm PowerIT Solutions LLC.

Bawa explained in this interview why fostering entrepreneurship is key to long-term economic development in Butler County.

Q: Let's start with changes at The Mill and why we're making them.

A: "The Mill's been in existence since 2003 as BizTech. It did a good job of being an incubator and providing office space and some counseling to start-ups.

"...As you look at entrepreneurship and look at what really kind of drives an economy from a small company start-up perspective, what you need is companies that are going scale, that are not necessarily just one- or two-person companies, but that leverage technology to really grow.

"...There's a lot of focus in revitalizing the city. They looked at BizTech and said, 'okay, well it's working, but can we take it to the next level?' "

"The way I got involved was I was active and I'm still active in the Cincinnati entrepreneur world, so representatives from the city, Chris Lawson and Antony Seppi specifically, spent months I think just coming down to Cincinnati to learn. I would run into them at a variety of events and consistently... They asked me for a variety of meetings and then they talked about where The Mill was and I gave them some advice about where I though it needed to go.

"The first step for me was the governance and the board. The reason for that is unless you've got a strong, active board really pushing and laying vision, then you're not going to get there.

"...So what I ended up kind of giving them some advice on, is get some people who are experienced in various areas of the entrepreneur world to join your board, not really expecting I would be joining the board.

"...Then late last year they asked if I would join the board. In October I joined the board. There were about three or four new board members. One of the first things we did was said 'what are we trying to be?'

"...My opinion is...the (incubators) that succeed are the ones that are focused. You can't be willing to take anybody and everybody and do everything because you're never going to do it well and that was one of the big shifts in change was changing focus."

Q: What are the targets?

A: "The target companies fall in one of three categories: it's either clean tech, advanced manufacturing or software.

"...The way we got there was really looking at what does Hamilton have that can be leveraged to provide mentoring and help to companies?

"The reason for the change was let's get the focus. Now once you've got the focus, you need to attract the right companies. Once you attract the right companies, give them the right mentorship and advice and support, then they'll grow, creating jobs and fostering economic development."

Q: How are we recruiting these companies and how are we finding those mentoring services for these very high-tech companies?

A: "What's really helped us in terms of getting companies is forming a lot of relationships locally, so we're partners with Cintrifuse, which is sort of the hub of entrepreneurship in Cincinnati. We're a partner of Confluence, which is the water sector.

"We're partners with CincyTech... (and) Greater Cincinnati Venture Association.

"We formed a lot of partnerships in the sense of we're the only clean tech and advanced manufacturing incubator.

"...it's a very different focus than what The Brandery does. Brandery is much more consumer focused, consumer branding.

"UpTech is more informatics, which is more on the software side. But there's really nobody doing clean tech, or water or advanced manufacturing, certainly not in Southwest Ohio.

"What's happened is the word's getting out 'oh, if this is what your idea is, Hamilton's the place to be.'

"As far as mentorship, we've taken it in stages. One, I'm mentoring. Four hours a week, I'm at The Mill.

"...Our vice chair, Josh Asbury, who's the vp of sales for Liferay, has a great sales and marketing background, so Josh is mentoring as well.

"We have mentors now from Miami University in Oxford from their manufacturing and engineering division. We have relationships with Butler Tech, because they do a lot of manufacturing education.

"We're broadening that circle and so we have a concerted focus on developing that list of mentors in various different areas. So we've got financial mentors, sort of business mentors, technology mentors, sales and marketing, manufacturing."

Q: What would you say would be the end goal of all these changes at The Mill?

A: "The end goal is really to create an entrepreneurial sort of ecosystem in Hamilton and in Butler County where's it's focused on getting the right support systems for entrepreneurs, helping to develop companies and growing them in the region which will result in job creation, revenue, etc.

"The Mill is one step in Hamilton's big picture, but if you look even broader than that, to me, The Mill can help these companies get to succeed, because depending on what metric you read, 75 percent of start-ups fail.

"...Our vision is really to create a manufacturing sort of, call it a R&D lab for manufacturing where people can do first-run production, they can do some tests, they can do hands-on manufacturing at The Mill."

Q: What's the relationship with Middletown at all in The Mill's future?

A: "The Mill is not limited to just Hamilton. The reason for the name is because it puts a place with it and it sort of fosters what the history of Hamilton and the region is. Middletown's a key partner in that Middletown supports the (Small Business Development Center), the city provides funds for the SBDC as far as matching funds, as does The Mill. There's a counselor that goes to Middletown, helps every week and provides mentoring there.

"Really for us there's no requirement that when a company graduates The Mill to stay in Hamilton... They can go anywhere.

"We want The Mill to become a regional incubator, not just a Hamilton incubator, so we've been very clear from the beginning that it's not just a Hamilton item. The reason we're forming relationships across the region is entrepreneurs who have ideas go a lot of different places, so the more of those connections you can make, the more that funnels in.

"...What we want to do is have a sort of regional center of expertise in these focused areas and then as companies grow, they'll go wherever, but it's going to help the region."

Q: What's the benefit to the average person of a successful Hamilton Mill?

A: "The benefit... is really the growth of the economy locally, so more companies resulting in more jobs resulting in more capital, tax dollars going back into the city and letting the city actually do more to support its residents.

"As you get more companies in an area, you're going to get more restaurants, coffee shops, all the other things.

"...Over time, it reverses the outflow of people and now you've got more people coming into the city, which revitalizes it."

Q: Anything else you want people to know?

A: "We need help in two ways from everybody. One is areas that they think they can mentor. There are a lot of skills, a lot of people who have expertise, whether they've worked in corporate America for a while, whether they're retired, whether they're an executive, whether they're on an assembly line... We'd love for them to get involved.

"The second is there are more entrepreneurs out there than you realize. There are a lot of people who know people who have ideas.

"Guess what? There's a resource locally to help them."

___

(c)2014 the Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio)

Visit the Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio) at www.journal-news.com

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Source: Hamilton Journal News (OH)


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