Last year, in April, Doug Weintraub stood in front of a crowd of a few hundred people in Akron’s historic B.F. Goodrich building on South Main Street as the newly appointed CEO of Bounce Innovation Hub, an organization representing the city’s newest push to create “jobs of the future.”
“Akron has always been a hub of innovation and ingenuity,” said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan via press release in August 2017, “and my innovation-based economic development strategy is designed to harness the incredible talent we already have in Akron and attract new talent by creating a one-stop shop for innovation and entrepreneurship.”
And with that, Bounce was born.
In that April crowd were some of the people Weintraub had met as he traveled the area introducing himself and learning about the surrounding community. Through those conversations, the entrepreneur, investor and founding member of Cleveland’s venture development organization Jumpstart Inc. discovered people with pent-up demand for ideas and opportunities, people who were hopeful for Akron’s economic future and people eager for a success story.
But business incubators and accelerators are not new to Akron. Bounce’s generational predecessors include the Akron Industrial Incubator, which became the Akron Global Business Accelerator, and Bits and Atoms. While the AGBA was productive, the latter was just a blip on the city’s entrepreneurial timeline. Sitting in the driver’s seat of Akron’s newest economic development vehicle, it’s up to Weintraub to determine which path Bounce will take.
As head of Bounce, Weintraub, is in a difficult position. He’s got investors to please — the taxpaying citizens of Ohio, Summit County and Akron, and a city political administration hoping to spur local business growth — and metrics to meet. But none of the entities working within the bricks-and-mortar of Bounce, entities that ultimately drive those metrics, is under Weintraub’s control. So how will he achieve results?
“Our goal is to help these companies grow — build them, be supportive of them, but actually graduate them,” he says. “This is not a place that everybody stays forever.”
Among the metrics being used to grade the performance of Bounce are the jobs that companies residing in the accelerator create, their sales, the volume of new tenants that comes in, occupancy levels, the number of programs that Bounce offers and more.
The companies that take residency at Bounce have standardized reporting requirements every six months. To help them get on track to meet their goals, resident companies meet with Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR), Weintraub-appointed staffers who aid companies as they get their footing in the market. That could mean helping them with prototypes, raising capital, building a board, sales and marketing, etc.
Weintraub sought EIRs who have been in the field, have built businesses, have experience in a particular industry or an area such as enterprise sales or family business, or have built a software product or a medical device from scratch.
“Everybody here has to be in the shoes of the entrepreneur,” Weintraub says. “They should be able to go into that business, roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
To evaluate where to place the responsibility for the successes or failures of these disparate teams, Weintraub leans on the EIRs and holds weekly meetings with the staffers who support intake, the entrepreneurship program and the accelerator programs.
“They’re pushing the entrepreneurs every day now. And that wasn’t happening before,” he says. “Their doors were closed, and they were running their own show. Now they’re accountable to somebody else. When you’re accountable to somebody else, if you’re not performing, you feel bad. So in between meetings, if you’re not answering the requests of the last meeting, you’re falling behind.”
Weintraub understands that the runway of each venture may be longer or shorter depending on the business, and that each has particular needs, which means every company requires its own metrics. Balancing the weighted metrics of the different companies with what Bounce needs to accomplish is a tough exercise, and Bounce residents who fail to keep up with the metrics can be asked to leave.
“It’s hard, but it’s for the right reasons,” he says. “And I don’t think anybody has ever argued about it. They know it’s time. I think people feel they have overstayed their welcome. We’ve had discussions with companies that should have been farther along in the process. And we hope that we can support them to get them to that point.”
Today, there are some 50 companies in the building, up from 40 when Weintraub took his position last March, and a staff of 12, up from just one at the start. And, importantly, he’s seeing change.
“I’m seeing the doors flying wide open and I’m seeing the entrepreneurs awaken to the competition among themselves, among other companies,” Weintraub says. “I see companies that, because we’re starting to have all these conversations and discussions about the companies, they’re looking to do things differently, kind of like a reset or restart. That means the companies are thinking about how to grow and how to add capital, which means they’re listening to the EIRs, which means they’re starting to gain traction with capital. And that, to me, says we’re starting to hit on all cylinders because now the companies have awoken.”
Another part of helping its resident companies find success is fostering relationships with existing companies outside of Bounce. Some of that work will happen in the building’s common area on the philosophically critical — in terms of Weintraub’s vision for the accelerator — first floor, a place where people can come together, talk without an agenda and network.
A liaison on staff will work to connect companies to Bounce’s entrepreneurial residents. Weintraub says Bounce is also fielding requests from companies asking to use space in the building as a resource for innovation.
Bounce is also, tangentially, working another angle to support area early stage companies. In December, it announced the formation of Fusion Fund, a $20 million, for-profit venture capital fund aimed at growing companies in and around Ohio. Along with partners Acquire Investments and JumpStart, the fund offers seed and early-stage investment for companies located within a four-hour radius of Akron, with preference given to those located in the Akron area. Funding is anticipated to range from $250,000 to $1 million per investment.
To help manage and market the fund, Bounce was awarded a federal seed fund grant for $300,000. It is currently looking to raise additional capital, both private and institutional, setting its sights on a goal of $20 million.
“We’re not responsible for the Fusion Fund, but the impetus behind the Fusion Fund is capital,” says Weintraub, who represents Bounce on the fund’s investment committee.
At the time of the interview, Weintraub said the fund hadn’t made any investments, but the committee was engaged in a number of ongoing discussions.
When Bounce is full steam ahead, he says the accelerator will be fighting to figure out how to find room for tenants. Companies will be graduating into independence, its programming menu will be robust and the event and maker spaces will be buzzing.
“I hope that we have expanded to take on another building to be able to house companies,” Weintraub says. “I hope that this model works and it grows and that it’s communitywide. We can expand maybe to the nontech world to help grow jobs in Akron and support the community. If we’ve accomplished that, then I think we hit on all cylinders.”
» Accountability is critical to success.
» Open doors to facilitate connections.
» Create a space where the seeds of innovation can germinate.