6 emerging Columbus companies to know—and what they do, in simple terms

Tim Feran
For Columbus CEO
Columbus CEO cover September 2021

It’s been one heck of a ride over the past few years for six Columbus startups that are using technology to provide remedies for business problems both old and new.

All of them have followed the simple advice to entrepreneurs in creating their businesses: “Find the pain.”

Whether it’s creating robots that can learn to work as welders, or answering the need for manufacturing gene therapy products, or simplifying healthcare paperwork or providing cheaper and easier ways to get loans, insurance policies and retail merchandise returns, all six companies have found a niche and are growing rapidly.

Venture capital firms have taken notice and are lining up to pump money into these six companies to fuel further growth, with the lowest total investment at $75.5 million and the highest at a whopping $902 million.

That should ease a lot of pain.

Columbus' venture capital scene:A primer to funds based here.

Here are the Emerging Six, in no particular order:

Loop Returns CEO Jonathan Poma and the Loop Returns office space photographed on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

Loop Returns

797 N. Wall St., Columbus 43215

LoopReturns.com

Founded: 2016

Business: A software company that handles the costly and inefficient process of retail/e-commerce returns.

Top officer: CEO Jonathan Poma

Employees July 2021: 92

Projected employees by July 2022: 180

Projected 2021 revenue: Would not disclose

Investment to date: $76 million, from CRV venture capital firm, e-commerce company Shopify, venture capital firms Renegade Partners, FirstMark Capital,  Peterson Ventures, Lerer Hippeau and Ridge Ventures private equity firm.

Late July 2021 valuation: $340 million

The dirty little secret of online retail is that roughly 30 percent of merchandise is returned — which can mean a huge chunk of money for tight-margin retailers. Customers aren’t thrilled with the hassle either, and studies indicate that difficult returns are the main reason shoppers leave retail websites without buying.

Loop Returns was created to ease that pain.

“We believe that post-purchase is the next frontier of commerce,” says CEO and co-founder Jonathan Poma. “The post-purchase journey is where brands and customers will build relationships with one another, and it’s where we’re focused — on love after purchase.”

What problem is this company trying to solve? Returning merchandise is costly and difficult for both customers and online companies.

Who are its customers? Nearly 800 companies that sell merchandise online, especially retailers on Shopify.

How does it make money? Loop charges the online companies for its services.

How fast is this company growing? The company has grown in the past couple years to 92 employees from 20, to serving 700 online businesses from 200, and to more than $100 million in returns processed from $26 million. As the company says, “Over the last 12 months, annual recurring revenue tripled, employee and customer count doubled. Over the next 12 months, annual recurring revenue will double again.”

What’s the story of its founding? Poma was working at an agency and consulting with a big Shopify brand to help them with returns and exchanges. He partnered with longtime friend Corbett Morgan to start Loop Returns.

What’s the story behind its name? The company describes “the complete loop” as customers finding an online company easily, loving all its products every time and coming back again and again. But the loop breaks because customers don’t always order the right versions of the products. Loop Returns aims to keep those customers happy and restore the complete loop.

What will this company look like in one year? Five years? 10 years? The company’s 36-month vision is, “Innovating between the return and the refund, Loop will build a multi-billion dollar ecommerce infrastructure business by 2024.” And, it says, “first thing’s first, Loop will be a 200-plus person, remote-first organization, building the market leading, exchange-first returns platform for Shopify’s best brands.”

CEO Andy Lonsberry at Path Robotics' Brewery District facility, which is expanding.

Path Robotics

528 Maier Place, Columbus 43215

Path-Robotics.com

Founded: 2014

Business description: Path produces autonomous welding robots that use proprietary artificial intelligence and computer algorithms.

Top officers: CEO Andy Lonsberry, Chief Technology Officer Alex Lonsberry

Employees July 2021: 103

Projected employees by July 2022: 160

Projected 2021 revenue: $27 million

Investment to date: $171 million from New York City investment firm Tiger Global, Silicon Valley Bank, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Lemnos Labs, Columbus venture capital firm Drive Capital and New York City venture capital firm Addition Capital.

Late July 2021 valuation: N/A

Not everyone welcomes our new robot overlords, but manufacturers in need of welders just might — or at least the autonomous welding robots from Path Robotics.

While working on their doctorates at Case Western Reserve University, brothers Andy and Alex Lonsberry developed the “world’s first truly autonomous robotic welding system,” that identifies what needs to be welded, welds it and learns along the way.

The welding robots are hardly there to replace humans, though. In fact, the robots are an elegant answer to a growing shortage of human welders. And, thanks to the proprietary technology the Lonsberry brothers developed, their robots will be able to learn how to do other tasks in addition to welding.

What problem is this company trying to solve? A shortage of skilled welders, which the American Welding Society predicts could reach 400,000 by 2024.

Who are its customers? Manufacturing companies in need of welders.

How does it make money? Path sells its autonomous robots to industries that want to automate their manufacturing plants.

How fast is this company growing? The company started 2020 with 20 employees, is currently at just over 100 and plans to be over 200 in a few years. It is rushing to fill an unmet need in the manufacturing industry and has added a second manufacturing space in Columbus.

What’s the story of its founding? While working on their doctorates at Case Western Reserve University, the Lonsberry brothers developed the “world’s first truly autonomous robotic welding system,” that identifies what needs to be welded, welds it and learns along the way.

What’s the story behind its name? In the world of robotics, “path-planning” is what robots do to find a collision-free way of going from one place to another, something that humans do with ease. So “Path Robotics” is the appropriate name for a company that builds robots that can accomplish on their own a physical task like welding.

What will this company look like in one year? Five years? 10 years? Path sees growth beyond welding. “Most robots merely repeat what they are told, with no ability to improve themselves. The future of manufacturing hinges on highly capable, flexible robotics,” CEO Andrew Lonsberry said in a statement. “Robots that can truly see and learn.”

Lower.com CEO Dan Snyder speaks during an event the day the new Columbus Crew stadium was christened Lower.com Field in June. In back are team co-owner Dee Haslam and Crew exec Stephen Lyons.

Lower.com

8131 Smiths Mill Road

New Albany 43054

Lower.com

Founded: 2014

Business: A digital one-stop shop for homebuyers and homeowners, allowing customers to save for a home, find a real estate agent, get a mortgage, refinance an existing mortgage and obtain home insurance.

Top officer: Dan Snyder, co-founder/CEO

Employees July 2021: 1,700

Projected employees by July 2022: 2,500

Projected 2021 revenue: $450 million

Investment to date: $100 million, led by California-based venture capital firm Accel.

Late July 2021 valuation: N/A

The power of technology is behind the startling growth of “the best-kept secret in town,” Lower.com.

The online service for prospective home-buyers provides just about anything that a home buyer needs, even connecting shoppers with real estate agents.

“Anything that allows a home buyer to obtain a home for less money and more easily, we want to offer,” company co-founder and CEO Dan Snyder told The Dispatch in June.

“Our mission is to help people who want to build wealth through homeownership,” he says.

The result: In a little more than two years, the company received more than 140,000 loan applications and funded more than $16.5 billion in loans.

What problem is this company trying to solve? Lower seeks to offer a comprehensive online service for prospective homebuyers who aren’t sure where to begin and don’t understand how the process works.

Who are its customers? Anyone thinking about buying a home.

How does it make money? Closing fees associated with one of the lines of business, such as insurance premiums.

How fast is this company growing? Very quickly. Doubling profits year over year, and growing its workforce from 750 in July 2020 to more than 1,700 with 1,000 of them based locally in the former Bob Evans headquarters in New Albany.

What’s the story of its founding? Snyder saw the success of SoFi and Rocket Mortgage, two fast-growing web companies, and together with four co-founders — Mike Baynes, Grayson Hanes, Chris Miller and Robert Tyson — started the company as mortgage company Homeside Financial, adding the Lower brand four years later.

What’s the story behind its name? Lower’s name was meant to be a simple, easy-to-remember brand that represents what the company does — provide its services at a lower cost and with lower barriers in the process than traditional companies.

What will this company look like in one year? Five years? 10 years? The company has been profitable since the beginning, doubling its revenue every year and has grown large enough to go public. But Snyder plans to grow it more before doing so. Eventually, “Our goal is to be No. 1 lender in the country,” he told The Dispatch in June.

Forge Biologics opened its gene therapy facility last year in Grove City.

Forge Biologics

3900 Gantz Road, Grove City 43123

ForgeBiologics.com

Founded: 2020

Business: Forge manufactures gene therapy products that it develops as well as for clients.

Top officer: Timothy Miller is co-founder, president & CEO.

Employees July 2021: 110

Projected employees by July 2022: 200

Projected 2021 revenue: $15 million

Investment to date: $160 million, from Boston-based Perceptive Xontogeny Venture Fund, Boston-based RA Capital Management, New York-based Perceptive Advisors, Columbus-based Drive Capital, Chicago-based Surveyor Capital, New York-based Octagon Capital and London-based Marshall Wace.

Late July 2021 valuation: N/A

One of the many issues that the coronavirus pandemic brought into sharp focus is the lack of medical manufacturing capability in the United States. So the entrepreneurial phrase “find the pain” is quite literal in the case of Forge Biologics.

“Our driving force is to get gene therapies to patients suffering with rare disease as quickly as possible,” says Tim Miller, co-founder, president and CEO.

In the year since it launched, the Grove City gene therapy company has ramped up at eye-popping speed, opening a custom-designed manufacturing and therapeutics development facility. Investors at home and on both coasts have been impressed: In April, Forge raised $120 million in series B financing, the largest such round in Ohio’s history.

More:Primer on venture capital funding.

What problem is this company trying to solve? “The unmet need for gene therapy manufacturing not just in the country, but in the world,” CEO Miller told The Dispatch in April.

Who are its customers? Scientists, physicians, biotech and pharma companies and patient groups.

How does it make money? The company manufactures gene therapies for clients and develops its own products as well.

How fast is this company growing? Forge started with three co-founders a year ago. This year it has more than 100 employees and will double that in 18 months. In April, the company closed the largest Series B fundraise in Ohio history.

What’s the story of its founding? The company was initially conceived solely as a contract manufacturer, but executives realized they could use revenue from manufacturing to develop new gene therapies.

What’s the story behind its name? Like a mill that put raw material into a forge and creates steel, the company takes ideas and manufactures or “forges” them into real products. The company’s custom-designed, 175,000 square foot facility — “The Hearth” — is a similar play on words.

What will this company look like in one year? Five years? 10 years? In a year, Forge expects to be in the top five from a capacity standpoint of gene therapy manufacturers in the world, and is poised in the next few years to become the largest manufacturer of its kind in the world.

Dustin Schwab of Olive added a new sign about washing your hands as the company began renovating its Downtown Columbus headquarters to accommodate a flexible workforce.

Olive AI

99 E. Main St., Columbus 43215

OliveAI.com

Founded: 2012

Business: Olive AI uses computerized artificial intelligence to connect various parts of the healthcare system, so that patients and office workers don’t have to keep filling out the same forms over and over. It is “the de facto payments company for healthcare,” one venture fund executive said.

Top officer: CEO Sean Lane

Employees July 2021: 800

Projected employees by July 2022: More than 1,600

Projected 2021 revenue: $110 million

Investment to date: $902 million from various venture funds including Tiger Global Management, Vista Equity Partners, Base10 Partners Advancement Initiative, Alphabet’s GV, Sequoia Capital, Dragoneer Investment Group, Transformation Partners, General Catalyst and Drive Capital.

Late July 2021 valuation: $4 billion

Anyone who has gone to a medical facility for treatment knows this fact all too well: The biggest pain (other than the illness itself, of course) is filling out form after form, many of which ask for the same information.

“Healthcare doesn’t have the internet,” CEO Sean Lane says. “The systems aren’t connected and they don’t talk to each other and the software doesn’t talk to each other.”

Computer technology was invented to eliminate exactly that kind of problem, and Olive AI is the company that is applying the latest and greatest in computer tech — artificial intelligence — to cut out all that duplicative paperwork.

There’s genius in that simple answer to a grinding problem, and investors realize it. Olive AI was valued most recently at $4 billion.

What problem is this company trying to solve? The time- and labor-consuming task of repetitive paper work that sometimes results in data and billing errors, and denial of coverage, among other issues.

Who are its customers? More than 600 hospitals, as well as insurance companies and health plans.

How does it make money? Health systems and insurance companies pay an annual fee to use this “internet of healthcare.”

How fast is this company growing? Very quickly. The company was valued at $1.5 billion in 2020 and has more than doubled that valuation.

What’s the story of its founding? “When I entered healthcare a decade ago, it felt like a broken record of grumbling in panels and fireside chats,” Lane says in a statement. “The problem is healthcare technology companies. … As an industry, we weren’t putting our resources to work to solve the hard technology problems in the same way every other industry had done.”

What’s the story behind its name? “We decided … that we wanted to create an artificial intelligence, which means we wanted it to be difficult to distinguish from a human… so we picked a person’s name,” Lane told The Dispatch in July.

What will this company look like in one year? Five years? 10 years? Lane expects to not only double Olive’s workforce in a year, but eventually to become a publicly traded company.

Steve Lekas founded Branch Insurance in Columbus after using data to determine it was the market he was seeking. He moved his family here and launched the company.

Branch Insurance

20 E. Broad St., 12th floor

Columbus 43215

OurBranch.com

Founded: 2017, launched in 2019

Business: Branch’s technology is able to offer customers a firm quote for bundled home and auto insurance within seconds using just a few pieces of information.

Top officer: Steve Lekas, co-founder and CEO

Employees July 2021: 100

Projected employees by July 2022: 200-250

Growth: Revenue is up 1,000 percent over the past 12 months

Investment to date: $82.5 million, from venture funds including London-based Anthemis Group, New York-based Greycroft, and HSCM Bermuda, the reinsurance arm of Stamford, Connecticut-based Hudson Structured Capital Management.

Late July 2021 valuation: N/A

Big insurance companies spend a lot of money on advertising. Geico, one of the biggest, spent $1.6 billion on advertising in 2019 alone. But Steve Lekas, co-founder and CEO of Branch Insurance, believes that the industry is changing so rapidly that, “10 years from now, you’ll never see another insurance commercial. It’s structurally too expensive.”

After all, if a company is spending that much on ads, that means insurance premiums have to be higher to cover the cost.

Branch uses technology “to distribute insurance the most logical way, and as a result, be meaningfully less expensive,” Lekas says. So, when people buy a house or a car, as they complete the purchase they can get insurance without filling out endless forms.

Branch also uses its powers for good, not just profit, by operating a nonprofit, SafetyNest, “to bring the uninsured driver rate to zero.”

What problem is this company trying to solve? Lengthy forms and long phone calls with insurance agents that discourage customers from getting policies. “More grandly, our mission is to make insurance less expensive and more people insured as a result,” Lekas says.

Who are its customers? Anyone who wants home, renter or car insurance.

How does it make money? Like any insurance company, from customers paying premiums.

How fast is this company growing? The company started the year with 35 employees and now has around 100.

What’s the story of its founding? Lekas, the youngest person ever to be promoted to director level in the history of Allstate, was talking with tech entrepreneur Joseph Emison, later co-founder and chief technology officer at Branch, and they realized that the technology existed to allow insurance companies to assess risk—and serve customers more efficiently and more cheaply—in seconds rather than hours.

What’s the story behind its name? Originally just a placeholder, Branch is a metaphor for the way the insurance company covers clients and is growing naturally. It also is named “after a lost part of insurance history,” Lekas said, in which a home insurer in the mid-1700s decided it couldn’t insure someone with trees around their house because early firefighters couldn’t get past the branches to put out a blaze.

What will this company look like in one year? Five years? 10 years? “We have all of the foundational assets to eventually be one of the biggest companies in this space,” Lekas says.

Tim Feran is a freelance writer.