Open, smart, sharing, connected: The cybersecurity and analytics startup created through a one-of-a-kind partnership among seven local blue-chip companies has grown into a brag-worthy example of open tech sharing among giants.

The adage used to describe the region’s business philosophy, the Columbus Way, may be getting overused for some. But they’ve got to admit that the Columbus Collaboratory, a tech company forged through the unprecedented partnership of (and millions of dollars from) seven of Central Ohio’s largest corporations, is an anomaly of collaboration. The fellowship runs so deep that the seven companies and the Collaboratory are bound by an eight-way master service agreement ensuring that some of the biggest hindrances to agility—countless discussions about intellectual property and contracting between teams of corporate lawyers—are nil.

“That doesn’t happen,” says Ben Blanquera, the Collaboratory’s charismatic client-facing vice president.

The tech startup, which operates in a building on Battelle’s sprawling King Avenue campus near the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, has been funded by the seven—AEP, Battelle, Cardinal Health, Huntington, L Brands, Nationwide and OhioHealth—for the past six years with a total of $40.25 million. The investors are recipients of Collaboratory cybersecurity and analytics services and are also guinea pigs for potential services and innovations, making everything move more quickly. But since its inception, the Collaboratory’s mission and scope have changed from merely serving the seven investors to becoming a company that can sell its services to the broader business community.

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The Collaboratory’s 36 employees help about 21 customers, which it began to accrue roughly two years ago. A 2020 goal is to have 30 customers by the end of the year. It expects to grow over 100 percent. One of its largest accomplishments to date is the recent rollout of a first product the company is calling the Vulnerability Management Solution, a software and service that helps companies protect themselves in a more effective way. This is one of its most exciting achievements to date. The Collaboratory also expanded outside of Central Ohio, serving companies in cities including Chicago and Cincinnati. It will keep expanding in 2020 with a focus on the surrounding states in the Ohio Valley region. 

“About six years ago, several local CIOs said, ‘You know, perhaps we could innovate better together,’ ” says Blanquera, who is also the founder of meetup group TechLife Columbus. “And so, fundamentally, the big aspiration is, if we collaborate, can we accelerate innovation for ourselves in some areas that matter?”

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Ground zero for the idea was a friendship between chief information officers at Cardinal Health and Nationwide, explains One Columbus CEO Kenny McDonald, who sits on the Collaboratory board. The vision was to create a tech provider that could work for Columbus’ largest companies, rather than them continuing to use national providers. It was meant to be a tool for bringing talent to Columbus and elevating its tech capabilities, and it was expected to offer a return on investment for the seven companies with an agreement that they would receive services free of additional cost—all with the intention from the seven companies to collaborate more and share in a safe space. McDonald says it’s especially beneficial to learn from a company that is in a different industry and therefore has a different perspective. “It helps them to not only do things, but it helps them to sometimes not do things,” he says. “And through not doing things they save money and time and effort in their own company.”

The breadth of thinking among a group of people from diverse industries is invaluable, says Doug Lingrel, chief administrative officer for Delaware-based Greif, a Collaboratory customer. “I don’t think they would have been successful if they hadn’t done that,” he says.

“Columbus [or] not Columbus, data scientists and experienced talented cyber professionals are probably the two most rare technologist positions, the most difficult to fill in the country,” says Greg Tacchetti, chief information officer for State Auto Insurance, which was the Collaboratory’s first customer beyond the seven investor companies. “Their original [vision] that was the genesis for the startup was, I will have the panache, if you will, in the marketplace ... of being a startup. A lot of younger people coming out of school would rather not work for a brand and say they’re doing the startup thing.”

Blanquera says finding talent to power the Collaboratory hasn’t been difficult—in fact, the Collaboratory itself doesn’t really do the looking—people come to it. “What you find is the folks who want to be really good, they want to be around other people who are really good, and they want to be pushed and challenged. We have a very intellectually stimulating and rigorous environment here. Most of our folks have pretty advanced degrees, and they suffer no fools.”

Eventually, the other five investors joined founders Cardinal Health and Nationwide, and the Collaboratory began with each company going in with $4 million. “The idea mushroomed from there,” says McDonald. 

Michael Krouse, OhioHealth senior vice president and chief strategy and transformation officer and the Collaboratory’s board chair, notes that the Collaboratory’s first iteration is an interesting model on its own. However, three and a half years in, the investor companies decided it would benefit the region more for the Collaboratory to sell its services to the broader community. “We all agreed to pony up with an additional [$1.75 million each] to give them the opportunity to wean off of just worrying about providing no-cost value services back to the founders and instead generate revenue,” Krouse says. Going forward, the Collaboratory is expected to be funded entirely by its growing customer base.

“We did wake up and realize, well wait a minute, if our fundamental goal is to grow for the community, to be a truly attractive place [for talent] and hire more and more people and create a longstanding company that’s just growing and growing for the Columbus community, and put Columbus on the map for cyber and analytics—you can’t put restrictions on the company to say, well, all you’re focusing on is providing return value for the seven members. It limits your growth,” Krouse says.

In 2017, the Collaboratory entered a commercialization phase where its main goal is to sell to the market. “We want our companies to be the most competitive in the world,” says McDonald. “The first and best thing that they could do for the Columbus region is to be a great company and be leaders in their industry. If they’re doing that, they’re more sustainable. They’re investing more; they’re creating jobs on a consistent basis.

“Like most things, it’s a long way from where we started,” he says. “Like 100 times better than the original idea.”

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On Matt Wald’s first day of work at the Collaboratory in March 2016, the CEO walked into an office where half the lights were working and the only other soul in the place was a contractor. 

Wald was approached to apply for the position while he was working remotely for a Silicon Valley cloud communications company. At first, he didn’t pay much attention to the offer. Then he did some research and realized he really couldn’t find another organization like the Collaboratory. He decided he wanted to try it because it had never been done before. “It seemed hard,” he says. “I have this propensity for tackling things that for some reason are very difficult to do.”

“We had several candidates that were attracted to the idea of starting up a business,” says Krouse. “You needed the entrepreneurial spirit—somebody that understood how to build a business from scratch. We also knew at the time, even then, that cyber was an area that was really high on our radar screen. Matt kind of came out on top.”

Wald had his work cut out for him. 

“I had a blank sheet of paper, and basically had to take what was an aspiration and some cool furniture and pretty paint on the walls, and turn it into a company,” he says.

He had two objectives. First, he had to make sure the founding member companies were able to derive the value they had intended for themselves through the Collaboratory. Second, he was tasked with building a company that would be an economically viable regional asset and not a mere project, with work in cybersecurity, data analytics and artificial intelligence—areas for companies that often present big challenges and risks, and therefore, big rewards. A central focus from the beginning has been elevating Columbus, along with the other parties involved, as well as a conviction that the Collaboratory needed to become a place that solves real problems, not just a research institute.

Putting together a business plan was tedious. Wald had to be sure not to veer off course by making a think tank or nonprofit of the fledgling startup, but he also had to steer clear of making the Collaboratory into a purely commercial company to avoid alienating the seven investors. “It was kind of like being on a ship and you’re sailing out into the ocean, and you’re not sure when you’re going to hit land,” he says. “But as the journey unfolded, we put together a team of folks and we got the board to kind of row in the boat with us. As we learned more, we changed course. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing—we’ve been moving left and right in our course, and as we learn more we try to incorporate what we know rapidly into refining our plan.”

For the first three years of the Collaboratory’s existence, it spent its time developing a set of services and then offering them to the seven investor companies. It took special care to discover real pain points the companies had and build solutions to fix those, rather than guessing at potential problems to fix. All services and products are heavily tested.

“I knew that we were going to need to build a technology company and one that could, as a young company, accommodate the need to build up skill in the companies that invested in us,” says Wald. “At the same time, we were building up our own capability. These companies are very large, very sophisticated, and they don’t necessarily need somebody coming in the front door and delivering a bunch of things that they need to go buy. They need to be worked with collaboratively—we have to build trust. I mean, we’ve spent years building trust.”

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Understanding the nitty-gritty of what the tech startup does can be difficult. Blanquera says the Collaboratory isn’t focused on silver bullets, but rather on providing practical, much-needed solutions to common problems. Beyond the vulnerability management solution and other products yet to be offered, the Collaboratory offers security assessments and threat intelligence—a knowledge of how hackers enter and move around. It also offers solutions using artificial intelligence and data analytics.

“This is just another example of good, old-fashioned Midwest blocking and tackling tools,” he says. “Is it sexy? No, but if you don’t have it, are you screwed? Yes.”

Before the Collaboratory can begin to suggest services to a company, an assessment determines how well-fortified the company’s systems and servers are to those who may be looking for cracks to slip into, or it assesses how best to solve a data quandary. Greif, a global industrial manufacturing company based in Delaware, hired the Collaboratory to evaluate and fortify its cybersecurity defenses. Lingrel says those at the Collaboratory took time to understand Greif’s company and the work it does, since a manufacturing company functions a bit differently than a financial institution, for example. Now, the Collaboratory monitors Greif’s security periodically and makes recommendations. “We went with the Columbus Collaboratory because there are a lot of very large companies that do things within this space, but they’re costly and they’re not as agile,” says Lingrel.

State Auto became a customer even before the Collaboratory was trying to scale in cybersecurity. “It’s a real asset to the community,” says Tacchetti. “Even right now, we do a lot of threat intelligence and active monitoring, and with all this craziness in Iran, we’re seeing a lot more activity coming from Iran at the U.S. and so our whole community is watching that.”

In addition to security monitoring, for most of 2019, the Collaboratory has been working on a proof of concept for State Auto that involves using data to “tease out some relationships in the marketplace for different client attributes.” 

Pelotonia has received help from the Collaboratory on various data analytics projects for about a year and half, all pro bono. Nick Denby, Pelotonia’s chief financial officer, says the nonprofit doesn’t have the capital to hire its own data scientists and analysts, so he is grateful to the Collaboratory for taking on the work free of charge. 

The first project the Collaboratory tackled was the creation of a rider retention tool that would discover which riders should receive the brunt of its marketing. “We want to raise as much as we can and spend the least amount that we can to do so,” says Denby.” One of the big ways to keep costs down for any charitable event is to increase retention.” 

Now, Pelotonia uses the tool to direct most of its marketing efforts to those 60 percent to 70 percent likely to ride again. It markets a little bit to riders 90 percent likely and doesn’t focus efforts on the only 10 percent likely. The Collaboratory also created a tool to help Pelotonia have a more accurate count on its donor number by pinpointing records from the same person with two different email addresses listed. 

Most recently, Pelotonia saw a decrease in riders from 2018 to 2019. Although those at the nonprofit had ideas about why they thought that could be, they asked Collaboratory Director of Data Science Katie Sasso to help them figure out why without sharing their thoughts. After a few months, the Collaboratory’s data science team came back with insights that included the suspicions but also revealed much more. “It was extraordinary,” says Denby. Blanquera says in the coming years the Collaboratory will continue to help nonprofits this way.

The Collaboratory recently celebrated the rollout of its Vulnerability Management Solution with a launch party at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing. Although it had already been providing services to companies, VMS is a different kind of offering. All companies have many weaknesses across their digital footprints that hackers can exploit to get in—like doors left ajar. VMS identifies the ones most likely to let them in, including everything from apps to internal systems. Without a way to identify the weaknesses to focus on, companies are left guessing or wasting a bunch of time trying to find them all. Blanquera describes it as whack-a-mole because it is impossible to eradicate every vulnerability. “If you break into a house, if you get in one place and if the doors are open in the house once you’re in, you can move all over,” says Blanquera.

“Here we’re able to apply threat intelligence and risk thinking to a very traditional process and improve the effectiveness of the process, and therefore the ROI,” says Wald.

“These companies have so many systems to keep track of, and it’s a moving target, because every time you add a device, you add another thing for them to manage. Everything has got an IP address, and that keeps expanding what they call their digital footprint. What we do is we help them use technology to prioritize the things that are going to have the biggest bang for the buck,” Wald says.

A series of other products will roll out in the next couple of years, says Blanquera.

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All of this forward movement isn’t just good for the Collaboratory, the seven investor companies and the growing customer list, or even just for attracting talent. It’s good for Columbus (as it was meant to be) in a number of ways.

“One of the things that I will tell you that’s been most fascinating to me about Columbus coming from not being a Midwesterner or from the city—relative to every other city I’ve lived in, the [Columbus] community in general and the IT community specifically, is extremely collaborative,” says Tacchetti.

Beyond the open, sharing nature of the seven companies’ agreement, the Collaboratory’s employees are involved in a long list of technology meetups and other groups. Blanquera’s TechLife Columbus, which he started with wife Sandy Blanquera, is one example, but the Collaboratory is also involved in some way with R-Ladies, GDG Columbus , Women In Analytics, Central Ohio Infosec Summit, CIO Tomorrow Conference, Smart Columbus Operating System’s technical and sustainability committees and CyberOhio. 

“We have connected many of the people together in this region who may not have necessarily known one another before,” says Wald. “We’ve created an ecosystem of lasting networks that I really think is an asset. It’s not tangible—it’s difficult to, say, put it on a balance sheet somewhere, but I really think it’s very, very real. It really shows up in relationships.”

McDonald says the Collaboratory is one of the gems in Columbus’ crown that he shows people as he is pitching the city or giving a tour to representatives from another community. They come tour the city to see the Columbus Way in action. People really are surprised by the level of collaboration it took among business leaders to create the startup. Beyond collaboration, “it is an example of the sophisticated technology that’s being deployed here,” says McDonald. “The entity itself is an office that we might take a client to, to see the kind of things that the staff itself is executing, which leads to bigger conversations. We’ve taken plenty of companies through there and Matt Wald and Ben Blanquera … have been extraordinarily helpful in helping us position and sell the market.”

And among Columbus’ large companies, including the seven, involvement with the Collaboratory has created deeper closeness, greater dialogue and more collaboration. It is not uncommon for one to call the other and ask for advice or compare notes.

“No one company is ever going to be able to protect themselves,” says Tacchetti. “Having a moat from which we are all working together behind helps us all be stronger. I think that’s unusual. The Collaboratory plays a really vital part in pulling that community together.”

Chloe Teasley is the former staff writer for Columbus CEO.