Business matchmakers: Customer Connections links startups with large companies

CINCINNATI -- When Eric Weissmann, marketing director for Cincinnati business startup advocate Cintrifuse, wants to illustrate how the nonprofit’s Customer Connections program works, he often talks about ConnXus, a Mason startup that helps large companies find diverse suppliers to do business with.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center was having some issues with its spending with minority-owned suppliers, Weissmann said.

"It dawned on us that they needed to be introduced to Rod (Robinson, founder of ConnXus)," Weissmann said.

That introduction led to Children’s doing business with ConnXus, Weissmann said, and also eventually helped ConnXus get business with Procter & Gamble.

Robinson credited Customer Connections with giving him more business and with cementing his P&G connection.

“We are like a matchmaker,” said Katie Austing, who’s officially an Ernst & Young employee but works full-time with Customer Connections at Cintrifuse’s offices in Over-the-Rhine’s Union Hall.

“The main goal of Customer Connections is to catalyze a tech-based economy by solving relevant (large company) business problems from the local community,” said Naashom Marx, director of Customer Connections.

To that end, Customer Connections asks each of the 70 or so large companies it works with regularly to designate one of its employees as an “innovation champion” -- a liaison between the company and the startup community.

In each large company, an “executive sponsor,” someone with the power of the purse who can spend money on startups, is also identified.

The idea is that if large companies, which Cintrifuse calls BigCos, need a problem solved, their innovation champion can ask Cintrifuse about local startups that could help. That, in turn, helps startups by giving them business.

Thanks to Customer Connections, 84.51, the data analytics arm of The Kroger Co., has pilot programs going with several local startups, said 84.51 startup liaison Tony Blankemeyer.

“(Cintrifuse does) a great job filtering down the most relevant ones,” he said.

Through the program, 84.51 has also hosted dozens of meetings with other startups in the Cintrifuse portfolio, Blankemeyer said, which have helped 84.51 learn where various industries are heading.

“It’s a great source of thought leadership and expertise,” he said.

Customer Connections also finds value in getting startups together with BigCos and hosts events such as the roundtable on data security it hosted in March.

A challenge in putting the two together is the clash of cultures, Austing said, with BigCos slow to make decisions and used to long-term projects, but startups being much nimbler.

It helps to get BigCo officials out of their element and into Union Hall, Marx said. There, she said, a BigCo official might learn that the fellow he sees in a T-shirt and hoodie isn’t a homeless person, but an entrepreneur who just raised $3 million for his company.

“You get those random interactions here” that lead to greater things, Austing said.

Cintrifuse measures the success of Customer Connections by the number of pilot programs that BigCos do with local startups. The goal for this year is 40, Austing said, and 19 had been started by the end of June.

The most money spent on a pilot program to date has been about $50,000, Weissmann said. Others have cost as little as $10,000.

It’s hard to say how much business the program has created, he said, as many pilots are still in early stages, and the program has only been in existence since late 2013.

Customer Connections is partnering with REDI Cincinnati and P&G to get companies from Israel, some of which participated in the data security roundtable, to work in pilot programs with Cincinnati companies as well, Marx said.

Those companies have a strong desire “to grow internationally and have a soft landing in the United States,” Weissmann said.

“Why not Cincinnati, where we have a strong Jewish community, and a BigCo network that could support them?” he asked.

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