by Noor Hindi
From the outside, the old Hamlin Steel building could be mistaken for any other abandoned factory or warehouse in Akron. The vibrant red brick it used to bear has diminished over time into a white and pink hue. Standing on Exchange St., it’s a faint nod to a time when manufacturing jobs were plenty in Akron. But that’s all misleading.
The entrance is tucked away on Water St., disguising from view the surprisingly hip and modern interior. Fresh orange and gray paint preps newcomers for the vibrance of the innovative work happening inside, where highly-skilled employees get downtime to enjoy weekly yoga classes and their own in-house coffee shop.
A trio of companies — Wastebits, Echogen Power Systems and Segmint — anchor more than just this building. They represent a glimpse of what several here think should be the city’s future.
“The company culture here is super refreshing and very different,” says David Patterson, key accounts manager for Wastebits, an Akron-based waste management software company. “We do so much collaborating, it’s incredible.”
Wastebits cofounder Raymond Lewis says his startup is succeeding now but that launching in Akron wasn’t easy.
“Wastebits maintains a pretty avid stance that we did not find a lot of help, and it was very challenging,” Lewis says. “It was very difficult to get connected to the resources.”
Although Lewis found help through The University of Akron Research Foundation, he wants the City of Akron government to develop and foster an environment where aspiring entrepreneurs can bring their ideas to the table and find the right resources to help launch their businesses.
Turns out, Akron Mayor Daniel Horrigan feels the same way.
The pivot to becoming an entrepreneur-friendly city began Thursday with a presentation by consultant David Zipper, who founded 1776, a start-up incubator in Washington, D.C., and came to Akron asking questions of area stakeholders. He was tasked by Horrigan to provide a path towards providing the kinds of resources that would help start-ups flourish.
As Zipper collected information and made recommendations, Horrigan put his team to work on a new vision, which includes the Akron Growth Council and involved reevaluating long-standing programs like the Akron Global Business Accelerator (AGBA) and proposed efforts like Bits & Atoms.
The result is the launch of BOUNCE, an innovation hub that will be housed at 526 South Main St., effectively absorbing AGBA and becoming the umbrella for both the Bit Factory as well as the City’s business accelerator and incubator services. Under the mayor’s plan, the first floor will get a facelift while they make room for new equipment, like gene splitters, 3-D printers and other makerspace components.
BOUNCE also involves previously announced projects like Bits & Atoms, an on-campus coffee shop and coworking space. However, in the mayor’s eyes, this isn’t a rebranding effort but rather a philosophical shift in the City’s approach to and programming for start-ups and entrepreneurships.
It fits into Horrigan’s drive to increase the local population because city officials consider BOUNCE an opportunity to give recent university grads more reason to stay in Akron.
“We want young entrepreneurs to stay here and create businesses and throw out ideas and curate with universities and existing companies,” Horrigan says.
But while AGBA focused largely on supporting entrepreneurs as they develop their ideas, BOUNCE is centered around attracting, developing, retaining and connecting the talent it takes to help those start-ups grow.
So if you want to be part of a start-up environment instead of having to actually run a start-up, the City wants you to find a home at BOUNCE, where you could work alongside University of Akron researchers and professionals from the area’s Fortune 500 companies.
“This is [Horrigan’s] effort to say, ‘Let’s do something bold and see where it takes us.’,” says Deputy Chief of Staff Annie McFadden.
The mayor’s vision is so bold the city
is saying no to has asked to restructure a $2.5 million grant for Bits & Atoms from the US Economic Development Administration, even though doing so seems like a request likely to be denied, because following the original requirements involved will distract from the new mission. BOUNCE will still take advantage of a $2 million grant from the State of Ohio.
“I think this is a really exciting thing for Akron,” says Adele Roth, Deputy Planning Director for Economic Development. “You don’t get that many opportunities to take something and shake it all up.”
The city thinks this gambit might also lure entrepreneurs with established companies, like Chris Nickless, CEO of Vlipsy, a video clip search engine soundboard start-up that allows people to communicate with each other through gifs with sound.
“I believe there is talent in the area that is underserved” Nickless, who is currently at Techstars in Atlanta, says. “And that’s where I’m very bullish on the idea that we can do it too, but there’s a couple of ingredients that are missing.”
Nickless is from Canton but he wants to settle in Akron. First, it’ll have to become more like Ponce City Market, a complex built around a revitalized former Sears distribution facility in Atlanta where the Techstars program is located. People from all around the city enjoy more than a dozen restaurants, several stores, galleries and bars, and even a rooftop amusement park. That energy draws talent to it, which has helped his product develop faster than ever before.
But that’s also why he’s on an “absolute mission” to transform Northeast Ohio into the type of tech hub he’s used to seeing in other parts of the US.
“I think there’s a culture and an overall understanding of tech people in this area that I don’t necessarily feel [in Akron],” says Nickless. “Every time you hit a hurdle, you’re not sitting down as a team and trying to figure out a problem for multiple days, you’re able to survey and find an expert really quickly. That is the beauty of a shared space.”
Many aspiring entrepreneurs are looking for a place to collaborate, as well as a place with programming and physical resources for launching a startup. Nickless says he hasn’t found that blend of work and play in Akron yet.
Worse, centers like Ponce City Market, which offer office space, food and drink options, entertainment and networking, actively pull entrepreneurs away from Akron.
Addressing this need is what attracted Horrigan to the model D.C.’s 1776 uses. That’s where he met Zipper, selling him on Akron’s potential about eight months ago.
“Right now, from what I can see, there’s a lot of silos in Akron,” says Zipper. “Not a lot of places like a 1776 where a lot of different entrepreneurs and companies and other leaders would come together and have an open innovation environment where new ideas can percolate.”
Zipper thinks that the disadvantages of not having an innovation center are huge. He says the community loses out on a lot of neat ideas when there’s “no central front door” for innovation, and knowledge is not being recycled into the next generation. It also means missing out on opportunities with all of the large corporations here, like Goodyear, Bridgestone and GOJO.
“It’s to Akron’s benefit if you have researchers in those companies interacting with graduate students at The University of Akron, interacting with people who are retired executives doing research in polymers and creating differing kinds of programming to bring in more seasoned executives to support tomorrow’s entrepreneurs,” Zipper says.
The Mayor’s Chief of Staff James Hardy says the success of BOUNCE will be measured through the number of mentors working with startups, the number of office hours held with entrepreneurs, the number of events happening within the building and the total number of people coming through the doors each month.
Don’t expect to see the full details for BOUNCE yet. That’s because city officials are taking the next phase of the project to area businesses, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders to help shape exactly how it will work.
“All of the studies we’ve done have shown that we have a lot of nodes of activity, but they’re not connected,” Horrigan says. “If this hub is successful, it puts it all in one place.”
The mayor’s opened the door. Now it’s the business community’s turn to take it to another level.