Growing plants requires water, sunlight and nutrients. The formula for growing startup businesses is a bit more complicated and individualized, but there are some common needs: office space, state-of-the-art equipment and professional coaching, to name a few. Since its founding in 1983, the OHIO Innovation Center has provided these and more resources to over 300 businesses, generating a combined $66.6 million in economic output—not in its 40-year history, but in 2022 alone.
Like an incubator that keeps baby chicks warm and secure, the Center is a “safe space” for budding tech businesses during their challenging first years, says Director Stacy Strauss. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, about 50% of new businesses fail within the first five years. That figure goes down to 15% among businesses that engage with an incubator like the Innovation Center, Strauss says.
Businesses that successfully outgrow the Innovation Center are wins not just for the Center, but Southeast Ohio as a whole. That’s exactly what Wilfred Konneker envisioned when he helped establish the Center to draw high-tech industries like biotechnology, telecommunications and robotics to the region.
In the future, Strauss wants to extend the Center’s services to more mature businesses as the region and state continue to grow. The Athens County Port Authority Board last year broke ground on a 60,000-square-foot building in The Plains, which Strauss believes will provide much-needed retail space for companies ready to strike out on their own.
Intel’s landmark investment of $20 billion in the state will also bring new opportunities. “There’s going to be a big, big push for Ohio continuing to be the home for a lot of tech, and that should really trickle down to the Innovation Center as well,” Strauss says.
Ohio Today spoke with three entrepreneurs about how the Innovation Center helped support their businesses; read on to see what they had to say.
Michelle Greenfield, Third Sun Solar
Innovation Center client, 2004–2012
After establishing Third Sun Solar in 2000, Michelle Greenfield, MA ’94, and her husband, Geoff, MA ’94, ran the solar power business out of their home for three years, which made it nearly impossible to expand. “We didn’t have the cash flow or the confidence to just start renting our own place,” Michelle says. “We were actually exploring leaving Athens.”
Within months of renting a small office in the Center in 2004, the Greenfields hired one employee, then two more. Eight years later, Third Sun Solar “had kind of taken over the first-floor wing” of the Center, Michelle says, and employed about 30 people, including several alumni of OHIO and the nearby Hocking College.
Without the Center, that growth “would’ve looked really different,” she notes. “It would’ve either been slower growth, or maybe moving out of the city or out of the county and growing somewhere else. So it was just a really good fit for us at the time that we needed it.”
Third Sun Solar rented office and warehouse space from the Center until 2012, when the Greenfields moved into their own building on West Union Street. In 2022, the company was acquired by Kokosing, and Geoff became director of solar strategy for Third Sun Kokosing Solar.
“In the early 2000s, solar was not very prevalent,” Michelle says. Today, “the industry is maturing. There are large, national players now.”
Shiyong Wu, ASAKE Biotechnologies
Innovation Center client, 2021–present
It’s no secret that academia is a rich breeding ground for innovation, but how can faculty turn their ideas and technology breakthroughs into marketable products? That’s the problem Shiyong Wu set out to solve with ASAKE Biotechnologies.
“They cannot get money to put them into the market,” says Wu, an OHIO professor of chemistry and biochemistry who also leads OHIO’s Edison Biotechnology Institute.
Most U.S. government funding for such endeavors, referred to as translational research, is reserved for for-profit businesses, “so for faculty to get this money, they have to start a company,” Wu says. “But most faculty, they’re so busy. … And often, they don’t know the rules.”
So, in addition to conducting their own therapeutics research, Wu and his ASAKE co-founders submit grant proposals in collaboration with OHIO faculty for their translational research projects—tasks he says would be impossible if ASAKE operated independently.
“Without the Innovation Center, I cannot have this company,” he notes. “The lab space and specialty equipment, that’s very important. For a new startup, it’s very hard to buy things. We have no money to buy new capital equipment, but [the Center has] all the necessary capital, equipment and the storage.” These resources have already proved their worth: Earlier this year, ASAKE received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund ongoing research into a novel compound that could potentially reverse the progression of Type 1 diabetes.
JD Kittle, Molecular Technologies Laboratories
Innovation Center client, 2012–2019
When JD Kittle, BS ’80, left his career in biotechnology in 2011 to become an OHIO assistant professor of chemistry, he was also on the lookout for his next entrepreneurial endeavor. With the Center’s help, he co-founded Molecular Technologies Laboratories in 2012 to provide contract research services to clients.
“Having a place to do meetings, having the resources in the laboratories and equipment” gave MTL an air of professionalism, Kittle says. And the Center’s professional coaching services allow startups to “put a 360-degree plan around what you’re doing: marketing, sales, product development, manufacturing finance.”
One of MTL’s research projects led Kittle to his current role: chief science officer of CytoSPAR, a startup developing a new method of testing bacterial resistance to antibodies. CytoSPAR is a client of InfinixBio, which was formed in 2019 by the merger of MTL with another biotech company. InfinixBio is still based at the Center and has another location in Columbus.
Kittle says his experience is just one example of how the Center has nurtured the growing biotech industry in Southeast Ohio. “Before, biotech was restricted to a few key areas,” he says. “[Now,] the power of biotech is being experienced by different communities across the country. And I’m glad that Athens is able not only to partake but play an important role in what is the reindustrialization of the United States.”
Main image caption: Innovation Center Director Stacy Strauss stands in front of the Center. She calls it a "safe space" for fledgling tech businesses to grow and spread their wings. Photo by Ben Wirtz Siegel, BSVC '02