JumpStart drives Cleveland’s innovation economy to new heights

Ray Leach was 34 years old when he found himself at a crossroads.

It was 2000, and he’d already built an impressive resume — he started two companies, which he sold, then created two more companies, all in the technology space.

“I really wanted to get more involved in the investing side as opposed to getting up every day and working on the exact same kinds of issues in one company,” Leach says.

The University of Akron graduate headed to MIT to be part of its prestigious Sloan Fellows Program. He got his MBA and had a chance to connect to a more global network. While he was at MIT, however, the world changed dramatically: The dot-com crash, the fall of Enron, 9/11 — it all happened during that time.

Things were also changing in Cleveland. A group called Cleveland Tomorrow — now known as the Greater Cleveland Partnership — got together with the Cleveland Foundation and a handful of other philanthropic entities to talk about how they could support young tech companies. These leaders were determined to address the region’s declining economy, the loss of jobs and the lack of significant new entrepreneurial growth.

The group felt Leach had the talent and the skill set to take a prominent role in getting things turned around, even if he didn’t realize it right away.

“I had never connected the dots between how leadership in a business setting can be incredibly relevant to leadership in a community or economic development,” Leach says.

“I really enjoy not just intellectual complexities, but also social complexity. As I began to learn more about what the leaders in the community wanted to do, I recognized public, private, philanthropic, startups — all different industries. I began to put the pieces together that maybe this would be something that I’d enjoy and get a lot out of. I ended up being selected as a kind of thought leader.”

JumpStart was formed in 2003 by Case Western Reserve University and an organization called NorTech. Its mission would be to boost Northeast Ohio’s economic competitiveness by supporting the creation of new companies and new jobs. In 2004, Leach, got to work.

“JumpStart has had a handful of significant evolutions over the last 13 or 14 years,” Leach says. “But at the end of the day, the charitable purpose has remained the same. It’s about relieving the burdens of government and creating economic opportunities for folks who live in Northeast Ohio. The way we do that work has expanded, but the core of unlocking the potential of diverse and ambitious entrepreneurs remains central to our work.”

Fulfilling needs and desires

The primary goal of JumpStart is to help these diverse and ambitious entrepreneurs across the entire spectrum of business.

“So not only tech startups, but also microenterprises and small companies, and even some small and medium-sized companies that maybe aren’t growing as quickly as they think they can grow or could grow,” Leach says.

The other piece to this puzzle — perhaps one of the things that drove Leach to be so intrigued about the potential of this opportunity — is the role that community growth can play in the evolution of a region’s economy.

“If Greater Cleveland is going to thrive, it’s going to thrive because all our communities are thriving, not just University Circle, not just things going on at NASA, not just things going on in corporate Cleveland, but the poorest neighborhoods — the individuals in our community who haven’t had all the opportunities that we’d like to see them have,” Leach says. “JumpStart has now fully embraced this idea.”

One of Leach’s partners in this effort is Cathy Belk, JumpStart’s president. As director of innovation at American Greetings, she led the team that developed, launched and managed a product that became an $80 million business.

“We’re really here to fulfill the needs and desires of the entrepreneurs and of the community,” Belk says. “As opportunities arise, we make choices because we see who else thinks it is an important priority. So we’re never picking things on our own. We’re seeking the input of all of our different stakeholders to say: Is this important? Is this going to help this greater innovation economy grow in Northeast Ohio?”

Belk is working on the concept of bringing youth from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, particularly those who are not college bound, and connecting them to some of the growing companies JumpStart is working with, or other area companies.

“Those kinds of pathways haven’t occurred before because it’s not something that people are always looking for,” Belk says. “We know the companies. Now we’re connected in the right way to the schools, and it’s been really rewarding and exciting to see how those connections are easy to make, if you’ve got somebody who’s really focused on doing that.”

She’s also looking to create more opportunities for women to invest in companies. Belk says women often have trouble raising as much money as their companies need.

“They’re growing smaller companies as a result,” she says. “There are many women who might be interested in investing in companies. So trying to find those women who are interested and connecting them to some of the companies and the entrepreneurs, particularly the female entrepreneurs who we know, is an example of how we’re bringing a really inclusive approach to the work that we’re doing.”

JumpStart works hard to focus its efforts on businesses and initiatives that fit its overall mission. There are some great programs out there that have a lot of value, but don’t fit with what JumpStart does.

“As JumpStart has grown and evolved, we’re getting more and more opportunities to engage,” Leach says. “On the one hand, that’s a sign of respect and the importance people place on JumpStart. But on the other hand, the opportunity does not always fit with what we were built to do. For anything that we get involved in, we need to be able to very quickly and clearly see, here is the direct impact to a diverse and ambitious entrepreneur.

“With the Cleveland Metropolitan School District internships, we are helping students who are looking for internship opportunities connect to diverse and ambitious entrepreneurs. Diverse and ambitious entrepreneurs need talent. When we’re helping the 17-year-old who’s got these welding skills or hospitality skills or nursing skills, we are helping a diverse and ambitious entrepreneur.”

A tremendous impact

Potential is a word that resonates quite deeply with Leach as he approaches his work each day. The opportunity to interact with individuals and organizations who are trying to do great things is a never-ending source of fuel for his efforts.

“When I meet an entrepreneur, or I meet a leader in the community and they’re trying to advance their own business, or trying to advance their own mission,” Leach says, “what I find incredibly rewarding is knitting together the pieces and parts — the knowledge, the relationships, the collaborations — that can help those individuals or organizations dramatically advance their progress.”

One of the keys to JumpStart’s success has been Leach’s leadership. He pushes stakeholders and everyone involved with the organization to find opportunities in every challenge and not get bogged down in overthinking every situation.

“In the early days, there was a lot of chicken-or-egg kind of conversation,” Leach says. “We are where we are because we don’t have this, and we don’t have that, and until we get this, we’re never going to get that. Well, just jump in, and let’s work on the chickens and the eggs. Let’s not try to figure out what’s going to lead to the other. Let’s be thoughtful, let’s be focused — but let’s start working on those things.”

Philanthropic organizations play a key role in enabling JumpStart’s work. The support of organizations like the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the Fund for Our Economic Future, the Cleveland Foundation and the Burton D. Morgan Foundation have been crucial.

“The wealth that has been captured in our foundations that has a focus on economic development, as well as the state of Ohio, which has played a huge role, that’s been about 80 percent of our funding up to now,” Leach says.

“One of the things we are very much working on is how can we add other actors in the innovation space and in the economic growth space to that incredibly powerful collaboration that already exists.”

Last summer, the KeyBank Foundation announced it had awarded JumpStart Inc. a four-year, $24 million grant to fuel the KeyBank Business Boost & Build Program, powered by JumpStart in communities across Ohio and upstate New York.

The initiative is designed to stimulate economic growth and workforce development by fostering small business success. The grant represents the KeyBank Foundation’s single largest philanthropic commitment to date, at more than six times the size of any past gift.

The goals of the program are to accelerate the growth of more than 2,500 small businesses and microenterprises — the majority of which will be women or minority-owned businesses, as well as accelerate the growth of more than 2,000 tech startup and scaleup companies.

In addition, the program seeks to create a minimum of 5,350 jobs, provide support for participation in the tech economy by meeting business needs or enabling workforce training for 1,000 individuals and connecting 800 individuals to open job opportunities.

The final piece is to prepare more than 1,000 students to enter the workforce after graduating high school.

“This is a game-changing corporate partnership,” Leach says. “JumpStart’s never had anything like that before, which is certainly adding fuel to the fire. On the one hand, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made. On the other hand, we’ve got a long way to go. Not only does JumpStart have a long way to go, but we do as a community. But, we’re energized by the progress we’ve been able to make to date.”

And in many ways, its progress has been substantial. For example:
  Companies assisted by JumpStart and its partners have gone on to generate more than $4.5 billion in cumulative economic impact for the state of Ohio from 2010-2016.
  To date, JumpStart has invested more than $43 million in more than 100 portfolio companies from three separate active venture capital funds.
  Since its inception, more than 30 percent of the companies JumpStart has served have been owned/led by female or minority entrepreneurs and more than 45 percent of the investment capital that has been deployed has gone to companies with diverse ownership/leadership.
  JumpStart was an early investor in CoverMyMeds LLC, which was founded in 2008. In addition to funding, JumpStart simultaneously provided the technical assistance and connections necessary to maximize the huge potential of its business. In January 2017, the company was acquired by the McKesson Corp. for upwards of $1.1 billion, making CoverMyMeds Ohio’s first tech startup “unicorn.”

Turning challenges into opportunities

Even with a substantial list of accomplishments and his optimistic disposition, Leach doesn’t gloss over challenges. Cleveland has been playing catchup with other cities and regions when it comes to developing a targeted approach to support business innovation.

“The Research Triangle in North Carolina began in the 1960s,” Leach says. “Pittsburgh’s renaissance started in the ’80s. Cleveland really began to focus on this in the early 2000s. Depending on what community we’re comparing ourselves against, we’re anywhere from 10 to 40 years behind in terms of this collective, collaborative strategy.

“One of things that’s incredibly unusual is Cleveland’s focus on diversity and inclusion. There aren’t cities — there aren’t organizations like JumpStart and our partners that have as much energy, momentum and focus on that. That will be a clear differentiator for us.”

Ohio Third Frontier was established in 2002 by Gov. Bob Taft as a 10-year, $1.6 billion program to make Ohio a leader in new research and high-paying jobs.

The program has continued through three separate administrations and has lent, granted and vested more than $2 billion across the entire state. JumpStart administers Ohio Third Frontier technology bond funds for Northeast Ohio, which included the support of CoverMyMeds.

“JumpStart has been a significant beneficiary,” Leach says. “It’s not only the 12 entities that we currently help to fund through Third Frontier money today, but there’s another dozen major Northeast Ohio initiatives or organizations that have gotten significant funding from Third Frontier. That money will run out in the next handful of years.”

Leach says anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of the work being done in the ecosystem JumpStart has helped create is  funded through Ohio Third Frontier.

“That going away would have a significant dampening effect to the progress that Ohio has made to date,” he says.

“Not just in Cleveland, but across the entire state. If we are going to compete for the Ubers and the corporations coming to the Columbuses and the Pittsburghs, because of the research institutions and the civic, philanthropic and corporate collaborations, we need to continue to up our game. Yes, we’re competing with China. But we’re also competing with these other communities.”

Belk is confident that solutions will be found and the future will continue to be bright for Ohio.

“It’s going to take the participation of everybody so that we can achieve our full potential as a community,” Belk says.

“We have all the assets here. We have the leaders. We have the early-in individuals. We have the strategic philanthropy. We’ve got all the things that we need to achieve. But we need everybody who is interested in getting involved to come to the table.”

Leach echoes Belk’s sentiment that the work continues and more people will need to offer their time, their talent and their ingenuity in order for the region to reach its full potential.

He also wants to be clear, however, about JumpStart’s purpose, which still tends to elude some in the region.

“When someone comes through JumpStart and they hear what we do, they’re like, ‘Wow! I had no idea that this is really what you do,’” Leach says. “We’re interested in what is the thing you’re trying to solve for your business that can advance the economic prosperity of Northeast Ohio. How can we leverage who we know, what we know and what we’ve done to enable you to be successful? If we can enable you to be successful, we’ll all be successful.”