Tom Walker has excelled in building and leading startup accelerator Rev1 Ventures—among other talents.
Long before he was recruited by TechColumbus to rework the company, Tom Walker had been founder of an organization, a graduate with a BS in aerospace/mechanical engineering, a self-taught blues guitarist and a writer—a jack of all trades, yet seemingly proficient in each.
Where he has ended up professionally may seem a strange deviation from his engineering degree and initial career path—NASA—“Some of it was planned and some of it wasn't, like all of our careers,” Walker says.
His course veered from NASA to Battelle in Oklahoma, where he was a business development manager. It was propulsion for his subsequent positions and current role as CEO of the startup accelerator and venture capital fund now known as Rev1 Ventures. Six years into Battelle in Oklahoma, Walker pursued an MBA at Oklahoma City University—something he'd known he'd eventually do since engineering school—and has never really looked back.
“After a few years (at Battelle), I realized what I was doing was building business plans and looking at markets to enter new products and innovations into the marketplace,” he says. “That experience with Battelle and working with new innovations really lit a fire in wanting to work more with entrepreneurs and innovators in the startup space.”
Walker's undergraduate degree is still useful, though, he says. On a macro scale, engineering is about solving problems, and “that helps in all walks of life.” On a micro scale, his engineering background translates directly in his work with budding entrepreneurs at Rev1 because it helps him understand a wide array of science and tech startup concepts.
“In our business, working with high-growth companies, working with entrepreneurs who are innovators, they may have PhDs in a particular science field or on the other end of the spectrum, software IT innovators. … My background gave me a basis to pull all the parts together and understand enough to help them move forward.”
Rev1 Ventures is truly Walker's baby, a new company, not just a rebranding of TechColumbus; but it is not his first. In 1998 Walker left Battelle to found i2E together with a team in Oklahoma. A private not-for-profit corporation that helps commercialize innovator technologies, i2E is now one of the largest of its kind in that part of the country, he says. Along with i2E, Walker became involved with the Angel Capital Association and helped start other seed and angel funds. “(I) had a lot of success in that part of the country,” he says.
Walker also discovered that he enjoyed writing during this time—especially about topics that help entrepreneurs—when he was asked to write a column for The Oklahoman daily newspaper, which turned into a commitment lasting several years.
‘That got me into this mode of a creative outlet I didn't realize I had,” he says. “I enjoy blogging, I've authored a book. I don't think I've done as much writing this past year as I have in the past because we've been so busy deploying some new funds and services, but it's something I enjoy doing. I'll do more in the future.”
While at i2E, Walker was recruited by the TechColumbus board of directors to perform a “capital-T transformational change” on the organization, and by extension, the region. The vision for Rev1 was “something that was solely focused on starting new companies here in the region,” says Walker. “Some people view it as a name change, but it was really a restart. It was a new company so we could have a new and specific mission.” Now, Rev1 Ventures calls itself “the most active venture fund in the Great Lakes region,” and generates $1.2 billion in capital.
Geoff Chatas, senior vice president for business and finance and chief financial officer at Ohio State University, and also manager of its Technology Commercialization Office—a place where faculty members can work on monetizing their business ideas—was part of the recruiting board. He has been a board member at TechColumbus and now Rev1 Ventures for eight years. He says the board's wish-list vision for a new leader was that it be someone with creative ideas about company formation and growth in Columbus.
“When we went out and looked, we were really impressed with what Tom had done in Oklahoma,” Chatas says. “The way he had built teams of great people, the way he brought thoughts around investment as well as helping the companies; he is also a leader in starting up funds and other investment vehicles. When we looked at the landscape, we said he's got everything—and results, by the way.”
Chatas says he kept Ohio State in mind as he was weighing in on new leadership as well, since faculty members had good ideas they needed help getting to the marketplace. Now, 60 startups have come out of Ohio State in the past few years, a number of which worked with Rev1.
“To be honest, he's turned (Rev1 Ventures) into a real vibe, a real hub,” he adds. He credits Walker with a leadership style that is well-grounded, and says Walker is able to connect with employees, board members and others with amazing humility.
Coming in to revolutionize the company has been both challenging and gratifying for Walker.
“All together we've had a lot of accomplishments and achieved some great things for the region, as have the startups we've worked with,” he says. “That's been really rewarding.”
He adds, “I've been really fortunate—this community is unbelievably collaborative. We've been able to bring … corporations along with us to help us do what we do. Building all of those networks and resources and services for the startups has been pretty exciting.”
Walker knows how often the word “collaborative” gets thrown around as a descriptor for Columbus, but he'll say it anyway.
“Columbus has a lot of the key raw ingredients. We have a terrific corporate base. We read about it, we all talk about it in town—maybe so much that we take it for granted, but it's really tremendous and it's diversified, so we're not beholden to any one industry here in our region. A lot of positive things come from that. We have the growth in our economy, the stable job base—all of these things that we read about and are part of our everyday life. Those are the ingredients for a great startup ecosystem.”
He has his own appropriately Midwestern term to describe the way corporations work with smaller companies to reach a common goal—the “backyard effect.”
“(Entrepreneurs) come, and they're drinking from the same water that our corporate base is, so they're liable to build innovations that impact those big companies here, which means we can get our first customers here, we can get our mentors here, we can get all the resources that are needed to help launch those companies.”
And outside corporate partnerships are what keep Rev1 in business. Its partnerships are proudly displayed in its lobby. When Walker began in 2012, there were around seven partnerships. Now, there are more than 50.
On the inside, says Walker, the most important aspect ofRev1, and the best part about being its leader, is a good team.
“You can't have success if you don't have a great team of people,” he says. “My role has been to help build the company, identify that talent and work with them, so my favorite days are when I'm interacting with the team or getting to observe what they're achieving.”
In short, Walker recognizes that Columbus provides intrinsic nourishment for startups. He'd know, since he grows them.
But there are challenges, too, mostly having to do with the endless need for resources and the “capital gap” Walker says exists in the Midwest.
“There's two sides of every coin, aren't there? … We talk about it a lot, and we've been very successful in raising seed capital—about $85 million of capital in management since 2014—and that's all early-stage capital, but that next stage is really difficult. Now our companies are growing and we see the success they're having, but they need to raise another round of capital and maybe that capital is not here. That's really difficult.”
It's something that seems to be less and less available. Walker says that two years ago Rev1 Ventures' portfolio raised capital from 22 different states. This year, investments came from only 12. In response, Walker and his team do constant evangelism to attract more resources to Columbus.
Even though Walker spends much of his time thinking about how to make Columbus a bigger and bigger hub for startups, he hasn't spent all, or even most, of his life in central Ohio. He was born in Oklahoma, grew up south of Houston, then moved back to Oklahoma as a high school senior, where he stayed until his move to Columbus. He has a slight twang to prove it.
“I'm sure my friends in Oklahoma will read this—I really like Columbus,” he says. “It's been a very good transition for me. It's a great-sized city, there's a lot to do, a lot of restaurants.”
He even likes the weather.
“I think the weather here is actually really good, but it's interesting, people in the Midwest feel opposite. For me, three of four seasons are the best weather I've experienced. I spend a lot more time outside here and I really enjoy that,” he says. He adds that in Columbus there is no real threat of a tornado, which has bested him before with the destruction of his house in Oklahoma in 1999.
Besides outdoor activities like fly fishing—which he sometimes does with Chatas—and golfing, Walker has a penchant for music, especially blues. There is music coming from Walker's office pretty much all the time. He says he picked up acoustic guitar by ear while in engineering school when he should have been studying. He aspires to the likes of BB King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn—but he's humble.
“I'm a struggling musician, a closet musician. …You've not heard me play. I won't say I do it very well. We have a colleague here, Parker McDonald, he's a professional musician. I've played with him a few times and we've learned that I keep time a little bit different than he does. I'm ad hoc, he's right on. It has to do with when you change music chords and all that. But old Delta blues music that I learned, they just change chords when they wanted to change chords. That's how I learned—sometimes I change, sometimes I don't.”
Walker believes in the importance of going with the flow in business as well, knowing that even as Columbus is “on a roll,” refusing to consider potential crises is dangerous.
“Do you have a piggy bank? Save capital—those kinds of things for those days so you can continue to innovate when (times are hard). A colleague in town uses the analogy of, tides are high right now, but tides recede, so where are you going to be when the tide recedes? Can you survive on the beach?”
So far, Walker certainly has, weathering market cycles and 9/11 as a business leader. “Those are all experiences you learn from and grow from and help navigate your future.”
In Columbus, a lowered tide isn't even on the horizon for startup growth. Walker says the past three years have been exciting. Besides what Rev1 brings to the table, he says the number of resources available now for new businesses is unprecedented, with what organizations like Drive Capital and NCT Ventures are throwing down for startups.
“There are more parties at the table working to help startups. … For us, we're going to continue to grow in the areas that are having the most impact on creating companies and jobs here.”
An example is Rev1's recent launch of State Auto Labs, which Walker says is an innovative program that assesses disruptive technologies that can positively impact State Auto's insurance business, and then invests.
“That's an outgrowth of our expertise here,” he says. “I see us doing more of that kind of work, because that brings more innovators and more capital to our region. I see us staying really focused and continuing to build those kinds of resources.”
Chloe Teasley is an editorial assistant.