Colo. tech accelerator picks OTR for convention

Posted at 8:01 AM, Jan 20, 2016

The international business accelerator company Techstars on Tuesday morning formally announced that it would hold its annual gathering of alumni, FounderCon, in Over-the-Rhine this fall.

For Cincinnati, this means hundreds of very smart entrepreneurs from all over the world will visit the city from Oct. 20-22, bringing with them dollars to spend at local businesses and also opportunities for local startups to make connections with like-minded people.

How did conservative Cincinnati land such a plum?

For one thing, the city isn’t so stodgy as its reputation. “We are cooler than we think,” Cincinnati Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini said in announcing FounderCon 2016 at a news conference in the Over-the-Rhine offices of Cintrifuse, a nonprofit whose goal is to make the city the premier destination in the Midwest for startups.

“We think it’s time to admit that and be proud of that and announce it to the rest of the nation,” Castellini told the audience of about 100 entrepreneurs and well-wishers. “For all of you here that are local, we are cool!” he exclaimed, to a round of applause and cheers.

Castellini helped welcome Techstars because the Reds successfully showcased the city last summer when Cincinnati hosted the Major League All-Star game. He presented John Hill, network catalyst for Techstars, with a Reds jersey with “FounderCon” on it.

Along with network event coordinator Jacqueline Hughes, Hill will organize FounderCon 2016 for Techstars. After the news conference, Hughes said they fell in love with Cincinnati when Wendy Lea, Cintrifuse’s chief executive, took them on a tour in October.

“There’s a unique character here,” he said. “It has an old city vibe we really like.”

As it did last year in Boulder, Colo., Techstars wants to spread FounderCon’s workshops and meetings throughout a neighborhood rather than confine them to a single hotel. Over-the-Rhine had exactly the footprint they were looking for, Hill said, with so many venues within walking distance of one another.

A second answer to the “why Cincinnati” question is the longstanding friendship between Lea and Techstars founder David Cohen, whom she met in 2003 when she lived in Boulder. At that time, Cohen was imagining a business accelerator for Boulder, but since then Boulder-based Techstars has created accelerators in 22 other cities.

Lea said she gave many talks to participants in the Boulder accelerator program and remains a mentor for the program. “I try to help them in any way I can based on my experience,” she said.

In February 2015, shortly after Lea became Cintrifuse CEO, the nonprofit’s $57 million for-profit investment fund announced that its sixth investment would be in Techstars’ for-profit investment fund, which invests mostly in companies that have graduated from Techstars accelerators. Lea declined to say how large the investment was, except that it was a seven-figure one.

Among the companies in which Techstars’ fund has invested is Mason-based ConnXus, a supplier diversity platform that enables large companies to ensure they are spending their money according to their diversity plans, Lea said.

She attended FounderCon for the first time last year, she said, and decided to ask Cohen if he would consider bringing it to Cincinnati. He required a lot of selling, she said, but it’s easy to sell the city now.

“We have Over-the-Rhine, we have an emerging startup community, we have the support of our large organizations,” she said. “It’s all right here in front of us.”

Based on the 750 that attended last year’s FounderCon, Hughes estimated that about 1,000 will attend this year’s edition. The event grows every year as more founders graduate from the company’s accelerator program, she said. There are now 2,000 alumni from 750 different startups, Hill said.

Aside from the economic impact of all that spending, Hughes expects the event to open business opportunities for local entrepreneurs, as well as Techstars alumni. Last year, for example, large companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook sent representatives looking for startups to partner with, she said.

Other opportunities for the city may come from Techstars alumni, some of whom have offices all over the world and are always looking for places where they can open new offices, Hughes said. Plus, local startups will benefit from getting to know successful Techstars entrepreneurs.

As Lea said during the news conference, after asking entrepreneurs building tech-based startups to raise their hands, “We want you to see more people like you in our streets, in our coffee shops, but also learning like you how to build and scale tech-based companies…. When I reached out to these guys,” she said, indicating the Techstars representatives, “who was on my mind was you.”