Ikove Capital going after 'huge undeveloped potential' in Midwest

Cynthia Bent Findlay
Ikove Capital principals Rodolfo Bellesi, left, and Flavio Lobato.

A pair of Brazilian high school buddies is poised to make a difference in the Ohio tech scene. Ikove Capital, founded in 2014, operates more like a business foundry than a traditional venture capital fund. Over the past few years, it has generated a stable of promising tech firms out of research done at Central Ohio research institutions—and also helped push some $70 million of investment into them.

“Our model is a little different—we call it venture development,” says Flavio Lobato, principal, managing partner and co-founder of Ikove. Lobato says he was lured to Ikove, and the Columbus region, by longtime friend Rodolfo Bellesi. Bellesi, who earned a master’s degree in engineering from Ohio State University, was back in Columbus in 2014 and visited with Robert Lee, former chair of OSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Bellesi has a varied background, including stints at Teradyne in Boston and in real estate development in Brazil, and a yen for technology and entrepreneurship. A conversation with Lee brought up the need for a bridge between a flow of research at Ohio State and access to venture capital.

Bellesi called on Lobato, who developed deep ties to global capital during a career at such firms as Liongate Capital, where he served as executive director, Goldman Sachs and other companies around the world and in the U.S.

Lobato says when he and Bellesi saw the huge undeveloped potential lurking at Midwestern research institutions like Ohio State, they knew their course immediately.

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“There is such a well to be mined,” he says. “There is $70 billion invested in basic research through universities in the United States, of that 20 to 25 percent is invested in the Midwest, but less than 3 percent of venture dollars are invested in the region. Less than 1 percent of VC money is involved in early stage commercialization. We have an incredible amount of stuff sitting at research institutions.”

Ikove does a lot of the heavy lifting that founders traditionally do—identifying early stakeholders, assembling or fleshing out an executive team, helping structure market strategy, legal and accounting groundwork, even website and product design.

“They are doing a lot of what I’d call the grunt work that later-stage venture firms don’t want to do,” says Lindsay Karas Stencel, a partner with NCT Ventures. “There need to be parties in the ecosystem to fill in that gap and it is hard to do. I’m glad that someone is doing it.”

Often, Ikove’s role is to find the market problem that a new technology can solve even before the researchers do. Ikove’s first foray into venture development was Nikola Labs, a wireless power technology company spawned by research from Chi-Chih Chen at OSU’s electroscience lab.

Will Zell, CEO at Nikola, connected with Bellesi and Lobato in late summer 2014 just as they were beginning work on the model for Ikove. Zell knew Chen’s research had giant potential but wasn’t yet getting traction on funding—or a market strategy. Ikove’s nascent team helped Zell and Chen pivot their ideas to their current focus on wireless sensors for manufacturing. The company is now in rapid growth mode, with 30 customers already, including several in France. Zell projects the company should double in size within the next year and potentially employ hundreds here in Central Ohio within the next two to three years.

Then, there was the funding. Zell says Ikove’s network of global investors dove into Nikola with both feet. The company has raised just under $10 million from capital based around the world, Zell says.

On its way to a near-term goal of $1 billion in equity value, Ikove has built a portfolio of nine other young companies in the STEM, biotech and agritech industries, including tissue engineering company ParaGen Technologies and its stable of four medical device companies that hope to revolutionize wound care, orthopedic, peripheral vascular and hernia care.

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.

1330 Kinnear Road, Suite 200, Columbus 43212

Business: Venture capital firm nurturing early-stage companies born of Midwestern university research, especially at Ohio State University.

Founded: 2014

Invested to date: $70 million

Portfolio companies: 14

Employees: 25

Ikove Capital