Columbus startups attract national attention from AOL cofounder.

It wasn't the hot chicken and waffles that drew a crowd to North Market's second-floor restaurant on a recent Friday morning, although the business and community leaders there seemed to appreciate the rare breakfast hours at Hot Chicken Takeover.

The attraction was the chance to show off Columbus's corporate and community support for the startup community and to welcome AOL Cofounder and billionaire investor Steve Case and his Rise of the Rest road trip as it toured Columbus in search of worthy investment prospects. The day ended with Case, his partner and author J.D. Vance, and four other judges selecting fintech startup SafeChain from eight pitch competitors for a $100,000 prize.

Those welcoming Case at the breakfast kickoff included Jeff Wilkins, founder of Columbus-based CompuServe, which AOL bought in 1998. Case hailed Wilkins as one of his early business “heroes.”

CompuServe “was a great company” that pioneered what Case calls the “First Wave” of the internet—the decade it took to get people online. Now Case's quest is promoting widespread and creative connectivity of “The Third Wave,” also the title of his new book, as a rich environment for entrepreneurs to mine.

Columbus Partnership Executive Director Alex Fischer and many of his members took part in the Oct. 13 breakfast, talking up Columbus and its entrepreneurial energy. “We understand the corporate community can be the fuel,” Fischer told the crowd.

Case, now chairman and CEO of Revolution, has been leading Rise of the Rest tours since 2012, visiting five cities in five days and investing $500,000 in local startups during each tour. More than $4 million has been invested across 26 cities as Case acts on his conviction that plenty of entrepreneurial talent lies between the US coasts.

Tony Franco, cofounder and CEO of SafeChain, attributes the VC win to his team's strong tech talent and “huge ambitious vision” for the company, which protects title changes with secure verification of client identities and bank accounts.

“Technology is basically a facilitator of change. When you think about creating a really, really big company and having a deep impact, you have to look at the fact that technology can revolutionize,” Franco says.

As more venture capitalists follow Case's lead and look between the coasts for investment opportunities, “Midwest entrepreneurs are going to be uniquely positioned to take advantage of a low cost of living and capital from anywhere,” Franco says.

After getting a psychology degree from Capital University in 2009 but before he got the entrepreneurial bug, Franco spent some time as a professional poker player in Las Vegas. He's not bluffing as he says, “The vision of SafeChain is to take a piece of every real estate transaction across the country forever.”