TechColumbus First Connect program links entrepreneurs with big customers

Mary Yost

John Sydnor is a matchmaker, and the marriages he creates are an entrepreneur's dream.

"We are helping to extend the entrepreneurial ecosystem," says Sydnor, TechColumbus senior vice president, venture acceleration and strategic initiatives. "No one else in the country does it the way we do," he maintains.

Startups have to go through a vetting process with TechColumbus, but when they get to the First Connect Network that Sydnor facilitates, they are ready to be fast-tracked with companies that can help them land their first big customers or greatly extend their customer base.

First Connect is a program that helps meet the Columbus Region's economic development goals by giving entrepreneurs coveted access to the right people in the right Columbus Region companies to give new products and services a big boost toward success.

"Every city needs that unifying point of contact," says William Dunlevy, Battelle vice president and general manager for consumer, industrial and medical. He says Sydnor and First Connect are "putting people together-on the phone, in the room."

Dunlevy has witnessed the work of First Connect both as a member of one of five steering committees Sydnor uses and also from the perspective of being on the board of a Battelle spinout, the Healthcare Colloquium, an organization focused on improving care for heart failure patients.

"This is new for Battelle to do a spinout and a round of fundraising," Dunlevy says. Discussions now underway between the Colloquium and several central Ohio venture capital firms "would not have been possible" without the efforts of Sydnor and First Connect, Dunlevy says.

To get to the First Connect Network, entrepreneurs must first apply for help to TechColumbus, work with its venture advisors and successfully complete its Concept Academy. The academy helps entrepreneurs answer the threshold question of, "If I build it, will they buy it?" Sydnor says.

The TechColumbus vetting process also helps determine how coachable entrepreneurs are as various services are provided to help them get their businesses ready for investment. Some companies going through the Concept Academy learn they have not thought through their business model enough, and they self-select themselves out to conduct additional research, Sydnor says.

Having entrepreneurs work with TechColumbus advisors and go through the Concept Academy is what Sydnor calls a "de-risking process" that "puts fully vetted firms in front of our internal investment committee."

Once startups are ready for First Connect, Sydnor determines which of his five steering committees is best-suited for the entrepreneurs' needs. The committees generally meet monthly, usually being exposed to two early-stage startups per meeting, Sydnor says. "The companies presenting are the cream of the crop," he says.

The First Connect steering committees include one focused on enterprise software, a biomedical committee, one centered on retail and data analytics and two healthcare committees-one specific to Westerville and the other connected with the Central Ohio Hospital Council.

In addition to the committee meetings, Sydnor says he also takes clients to one-on-one meetings with corporate partners.

Rich Langdale, managing partner with NCT Ventures and a self-described entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist, says he is "very pleased" with the success of First Connect and Sydnor.

One of the challenges for startups is that "big companies want to do business with big companies," Langdale says. First Connect helps entrepreneurs secure early funding that enables them to service larger customers "so when a commitment gets made, they're more confident it's going to happen," Langdale says.

Sydnor uses various strategic impact metrics to validate the effectiveness of First Connect, including contracts issued, advisor relationships developed, pathways available to investment capital, opportunities identified to do joint ventures and expert advice provided from corporate partners at substantial savings to entrepreneurs. With all five measures, the program has been very successful, he says.

First Connect is "a great program. The connections that come out of it are fastastic," says Matt Reid, president of Clarivoy and co-founder of TV Analytics. The Columbus-based startup measures the impact of television advertising. It had some national clients but was not well-known locally, Reid says. First Connect helped Clarivoy reach local decision-makers quickly and obtain a significant new client.

"It was just a great way to get in front of people," Reid says.

Local hospitals have a broad range of interests that could be beneficial to entrepreneurs, and the challenge is getting the right hospital contacts in a meeting with the right startups, says Jeff Klingler, president of the Central Ohio Hospital Council.

Klingler says he and Sydnor have learned how to work together in advance of committee meetings to make sure the right people are at the table. "Things are really coming together," Klingler says, with a startup called ProteoSense that is creating a hand-held device with a rapid diagnostic sensor to detect infectious diseases. The technology has the capability to produce results in a few minutes, rather than the few days it might take to receive results from a lab, Klingler says.

Klingler rounded up hospitals' infection prevention directors to meet with ProteoSense, which had originally targeted the food service industry but now is working on a healthcare application based on hospitals' input. "There is a lot of enthusiasm from the hospital systems; they want to continue working with the company and advise them," Klingler says.

Mary Yost is the editor.