Unlocking our Future with Collaborative Urgency

On February 15th, 2023, I had the honor to represent Cintrifuse as the Keynote speaker at the annual Alloy Economic Development Achievement Awards. The energy in the room was contagious, and I left feeling inspired by our collective ecosystem. The words I had to say during my time speaking to the room were as relevant to that group as they are to our ecosystem, so I’d like to share out our vision for the region, a vision we will achieve collaboratively, with our broader audience base. Dive in, get inspired, and get in touch with our team to plug into the fantastic work our ecosystem is doing. 

Thank you for the invitation to speak today. 

 Congratulations to the Alloy Economic Development Achievement Awards’ winners.  

Pat Longo, we’re thrilled to have you on the Cintrifuse Board. Antony, Jeremy, and the rest of the Alloy Team – you’ve been fanatic partners and collaborators.  Thank you! 

I’m also thrilled to have members of the Cintrifuse team here, as so much of what I’ll highlight sources from their amazing work… Donna Zaring, Kate Hursh-Wogenstahl, Emma O’Dell, and others. 

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and say hello to County Commissioner Alicia Reece.   You probably don’t know this, but Alicia was an early supporter of local tech startups…as far back as 2001. 

She attended the launch press conference for my first startup, PlanetFeedback.com, and helped the company secure one of our first local pilots.   

As an entrepreneur, you never forget your first advocates. 

Let me add that we’re all inspired by your ambition to make Hamilton County the #1 Small Business Country in America.  Bold thinking like that is precisely what we need!  Thank you, Commissioner Reece.

Today, I’d like to cover three key insights from our work as a catalyst for the StartupCincy ecosystem.  

  1. Although we have many reasons to be proud of our ecosystem, our work is not finished. 
  2. Regions that work together WIN TOGETHER! 
  3. Together, we must seize the “once in a generation” federal innovation funding opportunity with urgency and focus. 

About Cintrifuse

A quick word about Cintrifuse.  Our Mission is to make Cincinnati the #1 startup hub in the Midwest and a top innovation center in the country. We have three major priorities: 

  1. Attract more capital and talent to our innovation ecosystem
  2. Sharpen focus on startups with potential to be the next P&G or Kroger
  3. Helping our corporations innovate right here in Greater Cincinnati  

We also believe that a concentration of talent, technology, and capital in key areas can drive real advantage. This is why we’re focused on areas like sustainability, supply chain, fintech and diversity.  

Like Alloy we provide a range of services to entrepreneurs at all stages of their growth.  We own and run 40,000 square foot Union Hall in OTR that provides a community-based co-working experience and serves as an innovation hub for our region. 

We activate our network of stakeholders to support corporate innovation and invigorate the StartupCIncy flywheel. And we manage two strategic “Fund of Funds” that invest in over 20 of the top venture capital firms in the world, including several here locally. 

Personally, I’m lucky to have this job, and I’m deeply motivated by the thrill of helping our region achieve its full potential.  I’m a native Californian who stumbled into Cincinnati by way of P&G.  

When I decided to launch a startup, I looked around and concluded this is the very best place to do it!

And here’s a crazy twist:  when we merged our company after the DotCom crash with another tech firm to increase our odds of success, where do you suppose it was based?  Right here in Sharonville! 

In fact, that “under the radar” company, Intelliseek – led by my friend Mahendra Vora — had some of the best search and “Natural Language Processing” tech in the country! 

And so I’ve always understood the potential – so much so that when I was asked to consider returning here after spending eight years in Switzerland leading Digital for Nestle, I jumped at the chance.  

And here we are!   But this leads me to my first critical point.  

Although we have reasons to be proud of our ecosystem, we’re not where we need to be. 

If you check out our latest blog entry on Cintrifuse.com, you’ll see I’ve highlighted five “don’t blink” tech trends we can’t ignore:  AI everywhere, Connected Health, Regenerative Ag Tech, The Greening of IoT, and “Games (Not Hype) Propel the Metaverse.

The tech future is coming at us incredibly fast. 

Who would have believed that in less than eight weeks, an artificial intelligence capability – ChatGPT – would hit 100 million users…or lure $10 Billion in investment… or inspire a whole new class of entrepreneurs?

We’re all doing great work, but the goal line keeps moving.  Yes, Intel’s coming to Ohio, but other regions are getting crazy competitive in preparing for the future. We must be “eyes wide open” about this reality. 

Dealroom recently released a comprehensive study of 200 cities worldwide that looked at investment, innovation, talent, and outcomes.  Cincinnati is right smack in the middle at 105.  

Now the good news is that we rank 37 worldwide in patents, thanks to our universities and research institutions. We also rank a respectable 79 as a “Science Cluster.”  But we’re barely on the radar in other areas, including producing Unicorns.  

The biggest “aha” is its “Rising Star” index which looks at cities benefiting from the globalization of venture capital and distributed teams.  Toronto is the only North American city in the top 20.

Notably, the few US Cities earning “Rising Star” status are investing heavily in green tech!   And you see this in other high-growth cities across the world from Germany to Latin America.   

Days ago, in response to recent US legislation, the European Union announced a “Green Deal Industrial Plan” to accelerate Europe’s net-zero & climate neutrality ambition.  This includes streamlining bureaucracy, accelerating investment and funding for clean-tech and all things green.  

Importantly, the plan calls for green skilling as they estimate between 35% and 40% of all jobs will be affected by the green transition. 


Regional McKinsey Assessment 

All of this is to say that cities and regions across the globe are moving at breakneck speed to keep up with the pace and opportunity of technology, from AI to climate-tech.  Are we? 

McKinsey recently completed a ten-year assessment of the Cincinnati startup ecosystem.  They looked at startup ecosystems all over the country and conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with major stakeholders in our region.  Questions addressed included::  

  • How can we attract people with track records of working in hyper-growth environments?
  • How do we increase ecosystem collaboration?  
  • How can we achieve velocity through focus?   Can we build innovation clusters? 
  • How do we encourage more entrepreneurship in the region?  

The findings were motivating and confirmed much of what we suspected: 

  • First, we lag peer cities in terms of VC engagement and investment.  Last year our region pulled about $625 million venture capital for local startups, a respectable amount, but not enough to be a leader. Statewide, Ohio is pulling about 1% of the $200+ Billion in venture capital raised annually.  
  • McKinsey also concluded our region needs a much stronger capital continuum from seed to growth. Growth capital, in particular, helps startups expand into new markets and launch new products. We’ve made progress here – consider eGateway Capital – but we need more. 
  • The report put a welcome attention on “Cluster Focus” and we were pleased they concluded that sustainability, supply chain, fintech, and health were pathways to differentiation and fast-growth. 
  • McKinsey also took a hard look at Cintrifuse and recommended specific action steps.  Much of this centered around diving greater local impact via our fund capital and investments.   We also need to work smarter in opening doors to our BigCos for startup pilots.  And we must ensure our pool of startups are tackling the innovation and business challenges our BigCos need. 
  • Lastly, McKinsey also highlighted opportunities to create a smarter “front door” to the ecosystem and suggested we can do a better job mapping the entrepreneurial journey.  

Which leads me to my next critical point. 


Regions that Work Together Win Together!

You can’t have a smarter ecosystem “front door” without collaboration.  Without it, we lose…full stop!  

Here I’m pleased to report that we’re making tremendous progress.  We have real momentum, and newfound collaboration between Cintrifuse, Alloy, and other key ecosystem players like those at the StartupCincy table… are setting a high bar for the rest of the region. 

A “collaboration” mindset sees the success of others as central to one’s own success.  

  • For example, WE can’t win if the University of Cincinnati’s 1819 Innovation Hub, Digital Futures Building, and new Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Ryan Hays isn’t wildly successful. 
  • We can’t win if we’re not doing everything to ensure the Miami University’s “College at Elm” Entrepreneurial Center opening tomorrow is filled to capacity – all the time!  

We can’t win if we think in silos, zip-codes or zero-sum equations.  

The Brent Spence bridge is a great example of what can happen when we embrace collaboration – now after decades of work by so many committed individuals to make it a reality – finally getting the investment required to restore its role as a critical artery in our Great Supply Way. 

Indeed, what’s happening in Northern Kentucky is inseparable from our future.  We need to work collaboratively with the airport, Covington, NKU, Blue North, and others to unlock our full potential. 


StartupCincy Ecosystem

Nowhere is this spirit of collaboration more evident than through StartupCincy, an ecosystem coordinated by Cintrifuse across 30+ entrepreneurial ecosystem players including Alloy. 

  • This year’s StartupCincy Week was wildly successful due to deep collaboration among so many important stakeholders – Alloy, Blue North, CincyTech, Cintrifuse, ECDI, Endeavor, Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub, Product Refinery, REDI, and Reversed Out Creative – among others. 
  • Collectively, they brought Cincinnati a vibrant week of programming grounded in community and ongoing partnership that allowed us to reach over 1000 attendees through 35 events.  

This work doesn’t stop at the end of one week –  these organizations and so many others support startup success in our region all year round – StartupCincy truly is for the community, by the community. 

I encourage you to learn more about these organizations, upcoming events, programs and resources  via the Knowledge Hub and Resource Compass at StartupCincy.com.  

Collaboration not only comes via big events and online hubs but also in how we serve startups at different stages of the journey.  

  • For example, Cintrifuse supports over 120 tech startups at various stages. 
  • CincyTech is the go-to resource for Health Tech.  
  • And Alloy plays a critical role, through programs like GrowthX, that help startups scale faster 

Green Charge

Another example of collaboration is our work on an initiative called “Green Charge.”  This is a coalition of StartupCincy stakeholders, including Alloy, Cintrifuse, Flywheel, University of Cincinnati, and MadTree.who have come together with urgency and a “shared value mindset around sustainability innovation.  And we  are driving real action.  

We’re also bringing startup methods to the City of Cincinnati via “Hackathons.”  Now what is that? 

Imagine a powerful burst of innovation around a specific challenge. 

In April, we’ll host with the City a week-long hack to address the epic challenge of recycling – an area plagued with lack of access, contamination, supply chain issues, and plain old simple bad habits.

Leveraging startup ingenuity, we’re going to take that on BIG TIME!   But the special magic here is we’re bringing the “work together, win-together” principle front and center.  We’re bringing EVERYONE together – startups, corporate leaders, civic leaders, data geeks and more to tackle this issue. 

And when we’re done, we expect to launch or nurture green startups and prepare them for corporate partnership and pilot programs.  

I love this example because EVERYBODY is coming together.  This is our strength.  

Which leads me to my final point.  


Working together, we must seize the “once in a generation” federal innovation funding opportunity with urgency and focus. 

The US is embarking on an unprecedented tech-based industrial policy aligned with our regional priorities. This is a “once in a generation” opportunity to transform our region.   

Over $1 trillion in new and/or competitive federal funding will be allocated to innovation, sustainability, workforce, and infrastructure. Nearly $300 billion requires private sector leadership, participation, and co-investment.  Ten to twenty innovation districts will split $10 billion in “startup” funds. 

One of my favorite ecosystem thinkers, Bruce Katz, author of The New Localism, notes that even a cursory view of the Inflation Reduction Ac (IRA), shows the “far-reaching effects of what amounts to a multi-pronged transformation of entire sectors of our economy.”

“We should expect transformative changes in the nature and location of the energy we use, the buildings we occupy, the consumer products we buy, the infrastructure we depend upon, the materials we employ and the very means of mobility and design of our communities.”

Katz also reminds us that place-based Innovation Districts will more important than ever: 

“We should expect a flourishing of these places over this decade, fueled by a mix of market dynamics, institutional investment and government attention,” he notes. 

What’s clear is that paralleled rewards are accruing to regions who move with “cluster focus” and a sense of urgency to boost US competitiveness. 

I daresay OUR LEGACY as business, government, and community leaders will be disproportionately shaped by how we act and lead RIGHT NOW!  This keeps me up at night…in a good way! 

We do have encouraging tailwinds.  

  • One is chip technology and manufacturing, powered by Intel’s huge investment in Ohio.   This will bring the largest and most sustainable chip manufacturing plant in the world to our backyard. ‘’
  •  ‘One of our most successful startups, 80-Acres Farms, is a global leader in automated, AI-driven “farm to fork” sustainable food supply chains.  They are even exporting their software to Europe. 
  • Another important tailwind is FinTech — which is bigger than digital banking. FinTech is an environmental AND social sustainability play set to change the way future generations bank and handle their financial assets.
  • Yet another tailwind being created by pioneers like Candice Brackeen and Lightship Capital  — the opportunity to make Cincinnati one of the most welcoming regions in the nation for diverse founders. A closer examination of the recent innovation acts reveals exceptional and unprecedented incentives for inclusivity. We know we have more work to do here, and now is the time to set a clear intention to do so. 

The Year Ahead

I’d like to close by returning Bruce Katz, author of “The New Localism.”

He notes five market dynamics — manufacturing, climate, innovation, place, and procurement… “…represent the beginning of a profoundly different economy, the contours of which are only starting to take form and shape.”

But will we reap the rewards of this movement?

We can’t take anything for granted.  The world is moving at light speed and there’s nothing short of a “Green Sputnik” movement taking place across the globe on sustainability. 

Moments like this — and tailwinds like these — don’t last forever. Opportunities open up, but they can close as fast as they open. Now is the time to lean in together, take action, pick up speed. 

The landscape of winners and losers is being reshuffled in ways that would have been hard to imagine two years ago. Let’s make the most of it!  Let’s convert our “collaboration super-power” into a bold, step change outcome.   Thank you!