Innovation Spotlight: Endeavor Forward is helping startups thrive

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

When he was a fifth-grader in a sleepy town near Dayton, Luke Westerman had one of his first entrepreneurial successes: his mom bought him grape Bubble Yum gum, and when he brought it to school all his classmates wanted some. The next day his mom bought him another pack and Westerman charged his classmates a quarter per piece. Eventually, his desk became a candy store.

Now, Westerman, chairman and CEO of venture capital group Soloman Global Holdings, hopes to promote that same entrepreneurial spirit with a new startup incubator: Endeavor Forward. The incubator is owned by Soloman and was founded by Westerman.

"Like most VC shops, we were only investing in companies that had been around for a year or two, with established revenue history. And as we took a step back about 18 months ago, we looked at Columbus in particular and the startup scene here in Columbus. We realized, it's actually quite robust," Westerman says.

In Endeavor Forward, Westerman and his team have a goal. "I'm making this up but 10 in a hundred (startups) get to this point, and you've got three or four shops competing over those 10 of a hundred. What if we moved the needle over here? Instead of 10 getting to this point, what if we could create something that would allow 30 out of a hundred to get to the point? That's good for all VC, it's good for our VC, which is part of the intention of this, and more than anything we became very passionate about it."

The incubator has an extensive vetting process laid out on its website, complete with the number of days or weeks a presumptive entrepreneur will need to get through the process. Following an online submission, candidates go through reviews and may be invited to make pitches.

Once in, the six-month Endeavor Forward incubator becomes the big brother, says Managing Director Ryan Retcher. Companies use office space at Endeavor's headquarters in the Chase building in Downtown Columbus. "We really approach it as, they're family," he says. Startups receive packages that help them with budget plans, valuation, company websites, branding, sales strategy, and marketing.

The incubator engages with the companies on a daily basis, a key difference from other incubators, Westerman says. "When an entrepreneur gets punched in the face on a daily basis, which is what happens… they need someone to step in front of the fist."

One thing they don't get is money.

"If you made a top 10 list of things that startups have to do right, money is number 10. You've got to have nine other things humming along… before you even consider raising money," Westerman says.

The incubator also hopes to soon offer free public sessions where experts will offer advice to would-be entrepreneurs. The program is appropriately named "First Ascent."

One company that went through Endeavor Forward is certainly prospering. Chicago native Demetrius Curry founded College Ease two and a half years ago and now it has been described as a for colleges and students. Students enter personal information and colleges use the service to find the students they feel will fit in. Already the company has formed partnerships with technology education companies Blackboard and Canvas, and is expanding to 13 countries.

Curry credits Endeavor Forward with helping College Ease grow. "They provide the entire brain trust. In the beginning stages, that's crucial for a company. It's like hiring consultants without having to pay them."

College Ease may not be the only business growing. The future for Endeavor Forward may expand its scope to other underserved cities, such as Westerman's hometown of Dayton. "(Midwestern seconday cities) have a lot of great raw ingredients there. They could use some support at the earlier stage," he says.

Kevin Kidder is a freelance writer.

Endeavor Forward

100 E. Broad St., 16th Floor,

Columbus 43215

Business: Endeavor Forward is a Columbus-based startup incubator that is owned by Soloman Global Holdings. It provides entrepreneurs with guidance and support to promote their early-stage companies.

Employees: 12 + 11 advisory board members

Owner: Executive Chairman Luke Westerman, who is also chairman and CEO of parent company Soloman Global Holdings