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UpTech's new interim director raises the bar


UpTech announced the end of an era last month, when longtime Program Director Amanda Greenwell stepped down from her multi-functional role at the Covington-based accelerator.
 
Greenwell saw 22 companies pass through the program since its founding in 2013, with nearly $1.5 million in startup investment. The program produced several companies that have already seen significant success, including Tixers, Citilogics and Hello Parent.
 
Replacing Greenwell is JB Woodruff, commercialization director at ezone and UpTech's first Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Before stepping in as interim director, Woodruff met with each of the UpTech startups for one hour per week to act as a mentor and guide through the business development process. As a resource for everything from graphic design, branding and marketing to web development and business strategy, he was chief motivator for these growing companies.
 
His new title, however, allows the Cincinnati native to do much more than motivate.
 
"We're looking for a bigger push to solidify the informatics element (of UpTech) and create a niche for ourselves," Woodruff says.
 
To do so, he hopes to re-establish a standing relationship with NKU's College of Applied Informatics and plans to provide mentors for the new class of startups by creating partnerships with area corporations. He'd also like to expand the accelerator's reach beyond Northern Kentucky.
 
"We want to have roots in Kentucky, but we also recognize that you have to become a national player to be a successful accelerator," Woodruff says.
 
To meet that goal, UpTech is currently recruiting its fourth class from across the country and the world. The accelerator received 77 applications from all over the U.S. as well as Chile, Thailand, Spain and Italy. They've narrowed down the pool to 16 or 17 startups with the goal of keeping 10 or fewer.
 
"We're looking for investable companies, ones that have the right team in place," Woodruff says. "We're also striving for a full house to really get the vibe going."
 
Woodruff hopes to use his new position to address two primary shortcomings he saw in past UpTech classes: time commitment and skill sets.
 
"In order to make a startup work, a 100 percent time commitment has to be made," he says. "In the past, a lot of our founders were working other jobs and the commitment was not really there. We want folks basically living at UpTech so that they can do everything in their power to drive success in their business."
 
The key to finding that drive is necessity, Woodruff says. When choosing UpTech's fourth class over the next month, the selection team will look for a full-time commitment from at least one team member.
 
Woodruff is also concerned with a lack of technical skills. In the past, UpTech didn't require that a startup have a team member with tech skills, instead depending on help from NKU's Applied Informatics students. Woodruff is now pushing to make tech skills a hard requirement for admission into the UpTech program.
 
"We want to help build the students' skills, not depend on them," he says.
 
Once selected, this year's class of startups will have access to multiple mentorship opportunities. Investors like Brad Zapp of Connetic Ventures already have weekly appointments with UpTech startups. UpTech alumni who still use the Pike Street workspace will also be available to offer their unfiltered advice.
 
Applications for UpTech's fourth class closed on June 21. Woodruff estimates that final selections will be announced in mid- to late August. 
 

Original Thought Required encourages young talent, creates community


Over-the-Rhine business owner James Marable sees his limited edition retail shop, Original Thought Required (OTR), as much more than a store.
 
Marable has had an enterprising spirit since he was a child, but with a background in marketing, advertising and graphic design he’s a creator as much as an entrepreneur. In fact, Original Thought Required grew out of Marable’s own T-shirt line, aTYPICAL sOLE, influenced by the originality of sneaker culture.
 
“The ethos behind that T-shirt line was really about being yourself,” Marable says, “about being unique and having that sneaker or piece of clothing that really speaks to you, that’s not what people are typically used to seeing.”
 
The store, which opened in 2010, continues that emphasis on new ideas by highlighting young, up-and-coming designers, both local and national.
 
“We’re always trying to find that next talent and figuring out how we can get that to work out,” Marable says. “We’re at the point now where we’ve seen quite a few different designers who come through the store and become bigger outside of us. We’ve been able to be a springboard to help people check it out or take it to the next level if that’s what they want to do, just to give people that option.”
 
Now he’s hoping his business will be the next talent that ArtWorks Big Pitch Competition invests in. Marable appreciates the mentorship provided by ArtWorks as well as the community of small business owners who have made it to the final stage along with him.
 
“I wanted an opportunity to learn from people who have been doing it longer than me, to think about it differently and learn more steps we can take to really grow the business,” he says. “Even connecting with other contestants and creating a community that helps us all grow.”
 
Winning any of the up to $20,000 in business grants OTR is competing for will also help the shop grow both by taking on more new artists and by moving to a larger location.
 
“We have limited edition products, but we also want to reach a wider audience,” Marable says. “Each brand we bring in speaks to different individuals.”
 
Marable wants to see Original Thought Required expand to more than a retail outlet. He’s seen the business become a cultural center. By working with new designers and maintaining close partnerships with the local hip hop music scene, OTR has become a place people can come for conversation, to meet others with similar interests and be inspired.
 
“That’s something I never really considered before opening, and that’s what’s kept us going, being a centerpiece for the neighborhood and the city,” Marable explains.
 
Original Thought Required is trying to take that influence as wide as possible. As the store expands as a business, Marable hopes to also expand its community work, including the informal meeting place in the store and the opportunities provided to youth and artists. OTR frequently partners with Elementz and highlights young artists in its Final Friday shows.
 
Marable wants to provide even more programming.
 
“We want to give youth that opportunity, that exposure, positive reinforcement,” he says. “It’s really about connecting with that individual and seeing that talent and seeing how we can work with that and keep them from giving up.”

Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience; tickets are on sale now.
 

Communications startup Cerkl flips the traditional model of email newletters


Tarek Kamil and Sara Jackson, co-founders of Cerkl, want their “smart newsletter” technology to help organizations transform their communication strategy into an engagement strategy.
 
“Cerkl flips the traditional model of communication — of sending one message and guessing what everybody wants to hear — on its head,” Jackson says. “We ask the audience what they want to hear, what they like and what are their skills in order to empower organizations to personalize their communications.”
 
Jackson says Cerkl is targeting universities looking to engage alumni, students and parents; churches seeking better communication with their congregations; nonprofit organizations building better relationships with their audiences and donors; and corporations wanting to improve internal communication with their employees.
 
Organizations who use Cerkl upload their email lists and create topics customized to their mission and work. Each person on the list gets a welcome email asking them to select the topics that most interest them and to create a profile. Individuals can also choose to receive newsletters from other Cerkl organizations.
 
The Cerkl software encourages individual customization though smart tags and prompts.
 
“We understand that people’s needs and interests evolve and change over time, so we watch that on behalf of the organization,” Jackson says. “Unlike other newsletter platforms, where all you have is a name and an email address, with Cerkl you know who is on your list and what their interests are. So an organization can search for specific interests and reach out to people based on that.”
 
The depth of information and customization has prompted some organizations using Cerkl to request integration with donor management software. That feature is currently in development, and Jackson anticipates it will be available in a few months.
 
Cerkl also allows organizations to earn money with their newsletters.
 
“With open rates three to four times higher than the national average, our organizations can demonstrate they’re reaching and engaging their audience,” Jackson says. “When that happens, businesses want to get in front of those audiences and organizations can choose to monetize their newsletter. So instead of newsletters costing you, they're generating revenue for you. Our goal is that organizations wouldn't have to pay for Cerkl, that their newsletter would earn them money.”
 
In June, Cerkl graduated as part of the Ocean accelerator’s first class. Jackson and Kamil each have experience with other accelerator programs but say Ocean is the “Disneyland of accelerators.”
 
“We were in full sales mode and sprinting hard when Ocean began,” Jackson says. “The program confirmed a lot of best practices, connected us to an abundant network to help get us to the next place we need to be faster, helped us put processes in place and prepared us to be able to scale. In addition, the exposure, that Ocean/Crossroads connection, helped us build our profile.”
 
Ocean also appealed to Cerkl because of its faith-based focus.
 
“The faith voyage, which happens simultaneously to business voyage, is not necessarily a religious thing,” Jackson says. “It is about unearthing the values, passion and purpose-driven work behind your business. From a marketing perspective, it’s important to keep those qualities top of mind — people are more compelled to lean into products with values.”
 
The Cerkl co-founders are big supporters of Cincinnati’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
 
“We believe this is the best place to build a business,” Jackson says. “You don’t have to leave Cincinnati to go to Silicon Valley to build something great, you can do it right here, and organizations like Ocean, who support those efforts, are the reason for that.
 

TEDx and NewCo host outstanding conferences dedicated to Cincinnati's innovation activity


Cincinnati innovators took the spotlight at two major events earlier this month, starting with TEDxCincinnati, which packed downtown’s Cincinnati Masonic Center July 9 with 1,000 attendees.
 
“We definitely had a mix of participants, from first timers to repeat attendees,” TEDxCincinnati Director/Organizer Jami Edelheit says. “We sold out in three weeks even with a larger venue, and our waiting list was close to 200 people. We already have some exciting things in the works for the next main stage event.”
 
The five-hour event, emceed by Local 12’s Bob Herzog and Atlanta-based actress Allison Wonders, featured 23 presentations, including TED talks and performances. A mix of local and national speakers covered subjects ranging from hope and perseverance to new technologies and human trafficking.
 
TEDx talks were presented in two two-hour blocks, separated by a dinner break and the opportunity to explore Innovation Alley, where participants could get a Thai Yoga Massage, touch a snake from the Cincinnati Zoo, get a taste of the Maker Space at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, write a love note to Cincinnati, experience virtual reality with the University of Cincinnati and take part in activities presented by event sponsor United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
 
Among the highlights of the evening:
• Social justice advocate Jordan Edelheit’s live webcast with Dan from the Marion Correctional Facility to talk about poetry and TEDx events at the prison;
• A cheetah visit from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden;
• Four Chords & a Guy, who performed decades of popular songs in a few minutes accompanied by simple music and a great sense of humor; and
• Aidan Thomas Hornaday, a 14-year-old philanthropist who speaks eloquently about the need to give and plays a mean blues harmonica.
 
Edelheit is thrilled with the response to TEDxCincinnati.
 
“It was awesome having Alex Faaborg come from Google Virtual Reality,” she says. “We had a line out the door for registration, and the first 100 people received a Google CardBoard Virtual Reality Glasses. Ed Smart and his Operation Underground Railroad met with Cincinnati Players before the event to discuss modern-day slavery. They’re now talking about collaborating on a program later this year.
 
“We loved including the some of the children from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and The Aubrey Rose Foundation in the finale with Eliot Sloan from Blessed Union Souls singing his hit song, ‘I Believe.’ As a result of that performance, Toby Christenson, Chris Lambert and Chris Lah are collaborating with Eliot to do a fundraising CD for Cincinnati Children’s Charitable Care Fund. They plan on involving community kids and Children’s Hospital patients. How exciting for this to be one of the many positive outcomes from TEDxCincinnati.”
 
Videos of all the TEDxCincinnati talks and performances will be available online in August.
 
On July 23, NewCo Cincinnati offered the field-trip version of a TED-type program, with 85 companies across the region hosting nearly 900 participants. From Northern Kentucky to Blue Ash, NewCo hosts brought attendees into their offices, breweries and factories for a unique and personal experience with Cincinnati innovators.
 
NewCo hosts were primarily startups but also included agencies, nonprofit organizations, higher education institutions and a couple of large corporations. Attendees could build their own schedule by geography, field of interest or subject.
 
A VIP reception to kick off NewCo Cincinnati was held July 22 with over 200 attendees.
 
The next day’s main NewCo event was divided into six one-hour sessions, with 30 minutes of travel time allotted between each session. Attendees trying to get from West Chester to OTR may have scrambled, but many sessions were located in the urban core and plenty of NewCo participants took advantage of Red Bike to move from session to session.
 
NewCo sessions varied greatly in content and style.
 
At the OTR Chamber of Commerce session, held in the Crown Building adjacent to Findlay Market, short presentations from the Chamber, Findlay Market and Red Door Project were followed by audience questions and discussion.
 
SpiceFire took participants on a tour of its stunning offices in SangerHalle on Race Street, gave a brief presentation, then broke up the group for a hands-on activity that provided a taste of its client experience.
 
Rockfish gave a short presentation, then let attendees try out Google Glass and Oculus Rift or just enjoy the view of downtown from their Mt. Adams perch.
 
A panel discussion by Cerkl, Activate Cincinnati, Starfire, Girl Develop It and Bad Girl Ventures looked at the local startup ecosystem from a female perspective.
 
At the end of the day, NewCo hosted a wrapup party at the Christian Moerlein Taproom for all attendees and hosts to do some networking while sharing their experiences of the day.
 
Both TEDxCincinnati and NewCo Cincinnati did an outstanding job of highlighting innovative activities taking over the region, not just in the startup community but in nonprofits and the arts as well. Yet, as the organizers of both events have said repeatedly, the 2015 hosts and presenters were by no means an exhaustive representation of Greater Cincinnati’s exciting entrepreneurial growth.
 
The depth and breadth of creativity in the region will ensure that the 2016 versions are just as compelling to attend. As word gets out about these events, expect those tickets to sell out even faster next year.
 

Brush Factory builds exciting future on a base of craftsmanship and tradition

 
Hayes Shanesy and Rosie Kovacs established Brush Factory in 2009 as a working studio to produce custom furniture and handmade clothing and restore vintage motorcycles. After exploring storefront retail and sewing classes, Brush Factory has refocused its business to hand-made furnishings and design objects.
 
“Our business grew organically,” Shanesy says. Brush Factory today is “more intentional in focus, concentrating on our core values.”
 
Their experience and hard work is paying off, earning Brush Factory a place as a finalist in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch program.
 
Shanesy, a third-generation woodworker, focuses on design and craftsmanship “not because it's trendy but to build on and celebrate tradition.”
 
Brush Factory produces custom furnishings for individuals as well as business clients such as People's Liberty, Salazar, Noble Denim and Cintrifuse. The idea of ordering custom furniture may sound intimidating to people who don’t know the difference between a finger joint and a lap joint, but Shanesy’s conversational and unpretentious approach puts clients at ease.
 
“Some people come to us with a piece in mind,” he says. “They might have a photograph from a magazine or a particular style that they’re looking for. We work from that initial idea to create a concept to present to the client.”
 
The Brush Factory name comes from the business’ first location in Brighton, where their building was a former brush manufacturer. Today, Brush Factory calls Camp Washington home. Shanesy intentionally chose a neighborhood where they would have easy access to manufacturing and distribution resources.
 
“The metal shop where we have some parts made is literally 500 yards away, and our finishers are even closer,” he says. “It’s crazy how many resources there are right here.”
 
The growing interest in well-made, hand-crafted, locally sourced goods has been a boon for Brush Factory and other Cincinnati makers. Shanesy, one of the first Cincinnati Made members, credits that organization and other regional makers for creating a vibrant and engaging movement.
 
“The community at large has been so supportive,” he says. “The interest in mission-focused business and collaboration with other organizations and companies has created a great word-of-mouth audience for us.”
 
Brush Factory applied for the ArtWorks Big Pitch this year to access the mentorship and business resources offered in the program. They’ve been paired with Bob Bonder from Rhinegeist as well as a US Bank small business specialist.
 
“We’ve been working toward really diving deeper into our business plan and taking it to a better place than it’s ever been before,” Shanesy says. “We are spending a lot of time on what strategies we’ll approach in the next year, including how to work from where we are today and take it to a place that’s exciting and more efficient, interesting and fun. The Big Pitch is a great opportunity to really force us to think about very specific goals and to be able to share those with a wider community.”
 
Shanesy encourages people to attend the Big Pitch finals on Aug. 27.
 
“It’s a fun event,” he says, “and it’s exciting to hear these ideas and have the people behind them talk about what it is they do and how they want to move forward.”
 
What will the Brush Factory pitch? You’ll have to attend to hear the details, but it will involve producing more “ready to go” goods.

Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.
 

Cut and Sewn founder/designer living her childhood dream


Jenifer Sult has wanted to sew for a living since she was a child. When she was 10, she bought a vintage sewing machine from a yard sale with her allowance and used it for many years after that.
 
To make her dream into a reality as an adult, she studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati, where she now teaches. She eventually became a designer, pattern maker, seamstress and entrepreneur.
 
“There was the fear of sacrificing a regular paycheck for something unknown and potentially erratic,” she says, “but my need for creative freedom compelled me to pursue my childhood ambition.”
 
Sult has built her passion for sewing and design into a successful business, Cut and Sewn, over the course of more than 15 years of creating for clients. She began by taking on work in her own home, designing and sewing products for small businesses and garments for individuals. As the business grew, though, Sult realized she would need a new workspace.
 
“I had reached the point where my client base and manufacturing jobs were taking over not only my home studio but my living room, dining room and even my kitchen,” she says. “I had to either upscale my business or scale it way down, and you can guess which one I picked.”
 
So in June Sult moved her studio and business into a storefront on Hamilton Avenue in Northside.
 
“I have employees now!” she exclaims.
 
In the Northside space, Sult and her team are able to provide design, pattern-making and production services to more small business and corporate clients in Greater Cincinnati.
 
”We provide ethical and sustainable manufacturing and designing while helping a new generation of trades people and business owners,” Sult says. “We provide a low-barrier to enter into the designed soft goods market in Cincinnati through working individually with our clients.”
 
Cut and Sewn focuses on small batch and unique manufacturing to make local businesses’ ideas into tangible, beautiful products.
 
But Sult is nowhere near done growing her business. In fact, she’s a finalist in ArtWorks’ Big Pitch contest for small business grants.
 
“ArtWorks itself is such a proponent of small, local businesses,” Sult says, “it wasn’t hard for the Big Pitch to catch my eye as a glittering opportunity for Cut and Sewn.”
 
If awarded a grant, Sult will use it to continue to grow her business in its new iteration as well as try a few new things.
 
“I really want to use my pattern-making skills to create a new line of commercial sewing patterns that are artisanal, well designed and beautifully curated,” she says.
 
Sult sees the current culture of do-it-yourself creativity as the perfect opportunity to publish this kind of product. She hopes her quality sewing patterns would enable others to participate in this wave of “maker” culture.
 
Even if she doesn’t receive a grant in the Big Pitch competition, Sult appreciates the opportunity to receive business mentorship and advice about maintaining and growing her business.
 
“(My mentors) Mike Zorn and Lindsay Kessler have been super supportive and responsive to my business goals as well as my personal ones,” Sult says. “They are great listeners, and I feel that with their notes and criticism I can go far.”
 
Considering how far she has already come, Sult will likely continue growing and trying new things for her business, fueled by her love of design and sewing.

Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.
 

Big Pitch finalist Jess Sheldon shows longtime love for OTR with Cityscape Tiles


In December 2012, Jess Sheldon went on a first date.
 
The Cincinnati native has always been the creative type. Her art form of preference, photography, has been in her life since her days at Walnut Hills High School. So when this particular first date went particularly well, Sheldon decided to create something for the guy that would show him what she was all about.

As a junior in high school, Sheldon used to drive down to Over-the-Rhine from her home in Mt. Lookout to take photos of the buildings, talk to people and get a feel for the community. At that time, Over-the-Rhine was far from what it is today; many of the now-restored old buildings hadn't been touched in decades.
 
"I always loved how gritty, loud, lively and candid it was," she says.
 
In 2012, Jess still had the original black-and-white photos from her OTR trips. After that first date, she superimposed the photos onto old, antique tiles she found in a dumpster to create tiny pieces of tangible art, then gave them to her date as a gift.
 
"He thought they were coasters," she says. "I didn't mean them to be, but the more I thought about it the coaster idea actually made a lot of sense."
 
Today Sheldon is running a self-funded business by creating durable, high-end "coasters" featuring photos of favorite landmarks in Cincinnati and around the world. She describes her tiles as having a "grittier" feel, one that calls the past to mind.
 
"I like the idea of creating something tangible in the digital era," Sheldon says. "Coasters have a dual purpose as mementos."
 
When Sheldon decided to apply for ArtWorks' 2015 Big Pitch competition, she entered with the name of her wedding photography business, Hazel Brown Photography. She's since decided to rebrand the tile-crafting part of the business as "Cityscape Tiles" to reflect her primary focus.
 
Sheldon's business has expanded rapidly over the past few years. Her tiles now appear in specialty shops in Columbus, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, popping up at places like Mica 12/V in OTR and Red Tree in Oakley. She also sells at City Flea and has made a habit of taking custom orders from companies like Sam Adams and LaRosa's.
 
Though the photos on the tiles primarily feature physical places, Sheldon is open to expanding her concept.
 
"It's more about the idea of home, of passing things down," she says.
 
Right now, Sheldon is in Europe documenting an outdoor adventure trip to the Alps. After nine years as an outdoor adventure leader with Apogee Adventures, she's received numerous photography commissions from the company.
 
"Traveling offers me perspective," Sheldon says.
 
The goal for Cityscape Tiles is to expand by one city per year, eventually branching out to more niche markets like universities. Regardless of Sheldon's active travel schedule, she is a firmly rooted Cincinnati resident living in — you guessed it — Over-the-Rhine.
 
And that guy, the owner of her first set of tiles? He and Sheldon are still together today.

Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.
 

Grateful Grahams founder displays gratitude along with desire to grow business


Rachel DesRochers takes the name of her business, Grateful Grahams, very seriously.
 
“For my family and I, something that we talk about every day is this idea of gratitude,” she says. “Just taking a second every day to think, ‘Whoa, look at all this amazing stuff in my life.’ That’s just how I live my life.”
 
DesRochers wanted to share this value with the world and decided to do it through cookies. She came up with the idea while a stay-at-home mom for her two children at the time.
 
“I was doing some baking and had an awesome recipe and we had an awesome message, so I combined them both and they worked,” she says. “I called my husband at work and I said, ‘I think I’m going to start this graham business called Grateful Grahams.’ And he said, ‘Of course you are, honey.’”
 
In the eventful five years since that day, DesRochers has held onto her core values and her vision of creating food with integrity. She still makes her grahams in small batches and uses no dairy, eggs, soy, GMO ingredients, high fructose corn syrup or dyes in the cookies. The vegan recipe is a nod to her father, a cancer survivor who went vegan during treatment.
 
With every bag sold, she hopes to spread her family’s message of gratitude. When Grateful Grahams sells their wares, they ask customers to write about what they’re grateful for on paper tablecloths. Their website has an entire page devoted to “Sharing Your Gratitude,” and on Facebook they often encourage followers to tag friends and family to express their appreciation for one another.
 
DesRochers wants that message — and the grahams — to travel far and wide.
 
“I started it with a huge vision,” she says. “I started it with the mission that I want to be across the country selling my product.”
 
Now that Grateful Grahams is a finalist in ArtWorks' Big Pitch competition, the Covington-based company might get a big boost toward that distribution goal. The cookies are currently available at about 45 stores across the country and sold online, but winning part of the Big Pitch’s $20,000 in grant money would allow DesRochers to go to food shows to increase her wholesale business.
 
“I really appreciate that ArtWorks is willing to look at food producers,” DesRochers says, “because food is slow money and it takes a long time to really build big companies. There are lots of different resources and programs for tech businesses in Cincinnati, but being in the food industry is a different niche.”
 
DesRochers knows how slow and difficult it can be to start and grow a food company. Now she wants to pass on what she’s learned from the process to other entrepreneurs. In 2013, she started the NKY Incubator Kitchen, renting workspace in her commercial kitchen space to other food companies and sharing experiences, tips and advice along the way. NKYIK is one of 80 local companies presenting at the first NewCo Cincinnati July 23, and it’s helped launch Skinny Piggy Kombucha, The Delish Dish and other startups.
 
NKYIK is only one of many community projects DesRochers is involved in. She has also helped co-found the Good People Festival and is working on an event called Grateful Plate to celebrate women farmers, food producers and chefs in Northern Kentucky.
 
For her, all the giving back comes from gratitude.
 
“I love my life,” she says. “I wake up every day and I’m so absolutely grateful that I get to create really cool things. There’s always gratitude for the fact that this is my life and I’m really happy to have these choices to make every day and to teach my kids that you can do whatever you want with your life!”
 
Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.
 

Snell's Viking design work is at All Star Game, Lumenocity and everywhere in between


“Design is taking over everything.”
 
Jason Snell, founder of graphic design company We Have Become Vikings (WHBV), is more than qualified to make such a statement. The Dayton native and DAAP grad has literally been in the middle of Cincinnati’s coolest happenings, from Lumenocity to ArtWorks murals to the All Star Game, and his design work is everywhere. Although WHBV has been in existence since 2007, Snell’s celebrity status has just recently picked up major steam.
 
WHBV is an ArtWorks Big Pitch finalist hoping to take home some of the $20,000 in cash prizes in August. The company is focused on building identities for their clients, whether that involves designing a logo or redefining a brand.
 
“I’ve always been drawn to illustration work and graphic marks, and helping a client feel good about putting their logo and their name out into the world is very rewarding,” Snell says. “I love seeing their confidence soar and knowing I’ve helped them achieve this first goal.”

Snell came up with the company name through a little etymology research. With an agency background and grand familiarity with the term “branding,” Snell discovered that the term was born in Viking times, when the warriors used to “brand" their shields with family crests. Much like how we now brand our coffee, shoes or companies, the Vikings created visual statements that would make them recognizable and set them apart.
 
Snell and WHBV have a slew of recognizable projects over the next few months.

The new Ezzard Charles mural at Republic and Liberty streets in Over-the-Rhine is the company’s second ArtWorks-affiliated mural; this one features the Cincinnati boxing legend with an affinity for jazz music. Snell is also playing a big role in Lumenocity for the second year in a row, collaborating with the guys at Brave Berlin. And his design work, in partnership with Jake Staubitz, is appearing on widely-distributed All Star Game snapback hats.
 
As a sports fan himself and a regular on WCPO’s The Fifth Mascot sports shows as “Mr. Satin,” Snell is well-suited for the ASG job.

“Brian Niesz (of WCPO) asked me if I wanted to be the 'Superfan on the Street,’ and I said yes,” Snell says. “I love to act silly and I’m big sports fan, so it was a good blend.”
 
The next step for WHBV, Snell hopes, is to transition from a one-man show to a true creative team. He entered the Big Pitch competition to get things moving in that direction by learning accounting and operations. After many years of solo hustle, the boost could mean an even bigger presence in Cincinnati and beyond.

The time Snell spent building the business — now housed on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine — is apparent in the company’s growth over the last decade.
 
“Getting out of my dining room to Vine Street was a big win,” Snell says. “Learning to ask for what I’m worth and sticking to my guns was not always easy, but it was a must.”
 
Until Big Pitch announces its winners Aug. 27, you’ll most likely see Snell and the WHBV logo just about everywhere. And when he’s not designing or collaborating with other local artists, he’s usually spending his money at Northside Tavern or eating with his dream team of culinary compatriots, including Jose Salazar, Jean Robert De Cavel and Dan Wright, to name a few.

“The journey has been the reward,” Snell says of his work, “and now I’m in my eighth year of WHBV and having a blast.”

Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.
 

Improved DCI app helps visitors navigate downtown


Just in time for the All Star Game, Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) is launching a new version of its Downtown Cincinnati app.
 
The original app, released in 2011, had started to become ineffective for users.
 
“The app was out of date, and we’re really excited to add more functionality to it,” DCI Director of Marketing Tricia Suit says. “Two things have changed since the first app was released. First, the technology of apps has improved significantly, which has increased people’s expectations about what an app can do. Second, we have more and better information in our data center. So people will be able to sort information in different ways, which makes it more useful.”
 
DCI worked with US Digital Partners to redesign the app, based on user feedback and USDP’s digital expertise.
 
“Everyone who has seen the beta version of the new app has been really excited about its usability of,” Suit says. “Our testing has been really positive.”
 
The app features four primary content areas — eat, shop, stay and play — to match the functionality of DCI’s website.
 
The original app “had categories like ‘full fare,’ ‘daytimers’ and these words that described a restaurant but didn't match how people searched for a place to go eat,” Suit says. “In the new version, you can search by type of cuisine, brunch, happy hour — much more about what the user would be looking for in a search.
 
“Also, the listings will show all open hours for a business with the current day in bold. There’s nothing worse than when you’re looking at a place and it just shows their hours for today when you’re planning to be there tomorrow.”
 
Other new features for the revamped app include links to tours and major events from the start page.
 
“When you first open the app, the screen lists the big events that are happening — right now it’s the All Star Game — as well as three or four other seasonal features,” Suit says. “Each of those listings gives you the option to see a complete list of events that is updated weekly.”
 
The front screen also features a “tours” button to connect content from the DCI website tours page, including a public art map and itineraries. There are links to Queen City History Tours, Segway Tours and other tour options for experiencing the city.
 
The app covers the entire urban basin area from The Banks to Findlay Market, including Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the West End.
 
“There are defined Central Business District boundaries,” Suit says. “But when people come downtown, they come downtown. They go to a Reds game and eat at Fountain Square and grab a drink at The Lackman. They don’t think about whether they’re at The Banks or in OTR or the CBD — they’re just downtown. So we include everything that’s downtown.”
 
DCI developed the app with visitors and residents in mind.
 
“The app is usable if you’re standing in the middle of Fountain Square trying to decide what to do,” she says. “But if you live in Cincinnati and don’t come downtown often, it will give you walking directions from where you park to the restaurant or store you look up.”
 
DCI is working closely with the hospitality community to ensure the 200,000 visitors coming for the All Star Game know the app is available, as well as promoting it on an ongoing basis to conventions, meetings and visitors.
 
“If you know you’re going to be visiting Cincinnati, you can download the app and make some plans, see what’s going to be open on the day you’re going to be here,” Suit says. “See what tours are available and actually use it for trip-planning as well as the ‘day of’ tool.”
 
In addition to helping promote downtown businesses, the app may also help DCI with its annual perceptions survey.
 
DCI typically uses its e-newsletter and website to encourage residents and visitors to complete the survey. According to Suit, “there is certainly an opportunity for us to reach out to app users to take the downtown perception survey this year in a way that was not possible with the previous version.”
 
Survey results are used by DCI to inform its annual work plan and performance measures while tracking data that can be used to evaluate business development.
 
The new Downtown Cincinnati app is available for both Android and Apple products.
 

Roebling Point Books & Coffee in love with Covington, and vice versa


According to Richard Hunt, founder of Roebling Point Books & Coffee, the city of Covington needs a bookstore and coffee shop like a body needs a heart and mind.
 
The “books” part of the Greenup Street establishment came first; Hunt has a background in publishing and a surefire passion for the written word. When a nearby coffee shop closed, he and his team recognized the void and decided to fill it, knowing that coffee and books tend to attract the same crowd.“

In many respects, we’re completely indebted to the Covington community at large,” Hunt says when asked about the store's beginnings. “It is very much a symbiotic relationship.”
 
Roebling Point (or RoPoBoCo, as Hunt deemed it) was chosen as one of eight finalists for ArtWorks Big Pitch, which supports businesses focused on art, culture and creativity. Though some may be skeptical of a bookstore's ability to thrive in an increasingly e-book-centric world, Hunt remains confident.
 
“What’s incredible to witness is how independent bookselling is once again in a growth phase,” he says, “(and) for reasons one might expect: the buy-local movement, a push-back from chain store blandness and because we recognize our customers by name, drink preference, favorite authors/titles. ... We appreciate their individuality.”
 
Hunt tries to set Roebling Point apart by truly engaging with the community around it. The shop is currently a direct supporter of local organizations like Green Umbrella, Keep Covington Beautiful, NKU’s Steely Library and the Center for Great Neighborhoods.
 
“One thing I’ve learned after 30 years in publishing is that readers are both inquisitive and appreciative of creative approaches,” he says. “Our strengths are our community, our steadfast commitment to literacy and our aspiration to always help.”
 
Hunt sees Covington as the perfect backdrop for his mission.
 
“We like to be part of the revitalization of the area but are mindful of how changes ripple through the community,” he says. “Gentrification only gets ghastly when pushing people from their homes — and from all the evidence I’ve seen, Covington is being very careful to repopulate abandoned spaces first while looking to make those folks living here safer, engaged and proud of their town.”
 
If Roebling Point can pull off a win at Big Pitch’s final night competition on Aug. 27, the company intends to use most of the prize money to provide better staff pay and benefits and maintain or even increase its active involvement in the community. Hunt has a passion for fighting childhood illiteracy and would like nothing more than to contribute more to the cause. As a bootstrapped company, any little boost would help.

“Here’s the essence of what we seek at Roebling Point Books & Coffee,” he says. “That every individual, regardless of race, age, gender, income, birthplace, political and religious persuasion, sexual orientation and personal aspiration be granted a chance to succeed. And we’ll do our share by putting books in people’s hands every time we get the chance.”

Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.
 

Look Here to reveal layers of Over-the-Rhine's past


Historic preservationist Anne Delano Steinert wants people to discover the layers of Over-the-Rhine’s past. Her place-based public history project, Look Here, will mount historic photographs around the neighborhood as close as possible to the vantage point from which they were originally taken, comparing historic views to the view of that location today.
 
“There are layers of the past around us in the built environment all the time,” Steinert says, “and it’s really important to me to give people the skills to read the clues to those layers. This is my way of giving the people in Over-the-Rhine a way to connect to the past.”
 
Steinert’s fascination with the layers of the past actually began in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. As a teenager in the 1980s, she would take the bus downtown from her home in Clifton.
 
“OTR was definitely low-income then and there was a lot of urban decay, but it was also still really rich,” Steinert explains. “There were a lot more (historic) buildings standing in 1982 than there are today. So it’s where I really got a sense of the power of the past to speak through the built environment.”
 
Now she wants to help a wide range of residents and visitors in the neighborhood hear those voices, too. Recipient of a People’s Liberty Project Grant, Steinert is using her own background and several other projects as inspiration to make Look Here into an experience that can reach viewers from all economic classes.
 
A simple design of presenting photographs on street signs with minimal explanatory text will allow people to create their own meaning from the similarities and differences between the historic present landscapes. Brightly colored borders will grab people’s attention and hopefully pull them into the images and into parts of the neighborhood they may not have explored before.
 
The signs are meant to create a “serendipitous, sudden, unexpected experience of connection to space,” Steinert says, by giving people a glimpse of the past from their exact location. She also hopes they’ll help add a dimension of history to the cultural vibrancy already existing in the neighborhood.
 
As Over-the-Rhine goes through a period of intense transition, Steinert observes, “something gets lost in the remaking, so these signs are really an attempt to remind people some of what’s being lost, that we have to be mindful of what came before.”
 
Look Here’s historic photographs will provide people a chance to meditate on what came before and decide for themselves what it means. The People’s Liberty project grant will allow Steinert to make tools providing deeper meaning and engagement.
 
Before receiving the grant, she’d identified more than 320 possible photographs (although only 40-70 will be in the final exhibit) and knew she wanted to display them on aluminum signs similar to “No Parking” signs. The People’s Liberty funding allows her to create programming around the signs — a launch event, resource packet for teachers, curator-led tour of some of the photograph sites and a website with a map of all images and more information about each one. The website will also provide viewers a way to have a dialogue with the curator.
 
“We’re encouraging people to send me their experiences,” Steinert says, “take photos of themselves looking at Look Here and share the stories of how they’re interacting with the signs.”
 
Steinert hopes the interactive elements may even inspire other neighborhoods to set up similar exhibitions. She also hopes that positive feedback on the project might make it easier for those neighborhoods to complete such undertakings.
 
“This project involves coordinating an unfathomable number of small details and particularly small logistical details,” Steinert says, “and many of those are contingent on the city’s policies.”
 
Since Steinert will be using city-owned poles to mount the photographs, she is in the process of obtaining installation permits. Once she does, Look Here will be the first exhibit to obtain permits of this kind in Cincinnati.
 
If these layers of the past prove meaningful, it may make it easier to reveal more layers all around us.
 

Blue Seat Media says "Play ball!" with new Gameball app


Cincinnatians are passionate about baseball, especially Blue Seat Media co-founders Chris Hendrixson and Jeffrey Wyckoff. The long-time friends and business partners are such Reds fans that the name of their company is a tribute to Riverfront Stadium, where the blue seats were closest to the field in the multi-hued stands.
 
In 2012, Hendrixon made a simple app just for fun that showed the Reds lineup a couple of hours before each game. The Cincy Lineup app was released around Opening Day and let users know via push notification when each lineup was available.
 
“The push notifications are fun and different because they feel like they’re written by a Reds fan,” Hendrixon says. “They’re not your standard Major League Baseball push notification.”
 
The positive response to Cincy Lineup, particularly to the on-point push notifications, made Hendrixon aware of an opportunity, he says, “to make a baseball game interactive and fun while creating a deeper engagement with the game.”
 
“In August of 2014 we decided to go all in,” Hendrixon says. “We had both been in and out of full-time jobs and had bootstrapped everything with no outside investment. We realized we had to go full-time and had to find investors.”
 
Blue Seat Media ended up in the first class at Ocean, the faith-based accelerator program at Crossroads Church.
 
“Ocean really changed everything for us,” Hendrixon says. “We came in, just Jeffery and me, and within a week hired an iOS developer, Nathan Sjoquist, and a few weeks later hired Brandon Kraeling, a web developer who also runs the Red Reporter blog.”

During their time with Ocean, Blue Seat Media developed — and is now beta testing — an expanded and improved version of Cincy Lineup called Gameball. The new app is a modern version of the sports tradition of giving a game ball to the player who contributed the most to his team’s win.
 
Gameball users will choose their favorite team and receive their team’s starting lineup before each game. Users vote for which player will get the game ball that game. Making a prediction before the game starts is worth 1,000 points. Users can vote after the game begins or change their prediction, but, just as in pub trivia contests, points decrease with each minute of play.
 
Blue Seat Media uses an algorithm of Gameball user votes to determine which player will be awarded the game ball. Users who predicted the winner are awarded points for voting correctly, and the points are used to create an average for each user, similar to how a baseball batting average works, allowing them to compete with each other for rankings. As in baseball, Gameball users can miss a few games and remain on the leader board.
 
Eventually Blue Seat Media will allow users to select friends and family groups that will work like traditional fantasy leagues. Blue Seat Media currently is focusing on the beta testing of Gameball, with plans to release the full version prior to Opening Day 2016.
 
The Blue Seat Media team has a couple of hurdles to overcome as they work toward the app’s official launch.
 
“One of our biggest challenges is scaling Gameball to all 30 MLB teams,” Hendrixon says. “The technology is hard, but we know what to do. The push notification content will be a challenge. Our hope is that we can find true fans in each market to write notifications.”
 
They’re also hoping to build a relationship with Major League Baseball around Gameball.
 
“Baseball is at an interesting place right now,” Hendrixon says. “A lot of people feel it has been fading and losing younger fans. We’re really trying to make baseball fun again for young people and to move past the steroids era.
 
“Baseball is a great game with a rich tradition that’s woven into the history of our country. What we’re trying to do is help people appreciate the game and its complexities as well as bring optimism and positivity to the game. But it can be a challenge to write positive push notifications when the Reds have lost six in a row.”
 
The Blue Seat Media team has big plans for the still-young company.
 
“We’re really trying to build the next great baseball technology company,” Hendrixon says. “Our focus right now is building Gameball, but the vision is to have a company and product studio building high-quality design-focused products for every level of baseball.”
 
Although their start-up budget doesn’t include tickets to the July 14 All-Star Game, the staff and supporters of Blue Seat Media are planning to watch it together on television and celebrate the progress they’ve made this year.
 

First Batch welcomes new class of manufacturing companies


Cincinnati's only manufacturing accelerator program has selected its 2015 class of companies, and they’re already hard at work.
 
“Our goal with the program is to say that First Batch is your first step, and probably not the final step, for the companies or their manufacturing partners,” says First Batch founder Matt Anthony.
 
After reviewing applications from across the country as well as from Germany and Estonia, four regional candidates were selected:
 
• Laura Koven’s company AVA will be producing a device geared to help hot yoga practitioners with grip as well as reduce the amount of equipment needed for a class.
 
Beluga Razor, created by Zac Wertz, is a high-end straight-blade razor with a linen-impregnated handle providing extra grip when wet. Wertz recently completed a $200,000 Kickstarter campaign and has 2,000 pre-orders.
 
• Ron Gerdes started Mortal Skis to manufacture skis that fit the icy, man-made, often less-than-ideal snow conditions typically found on Midwest slopes. Mortal Skis will also be looking at ski supplies, like wax, that could also be better adapted to Midwestern conditions.
 
Paper Acorn, a six-year-old company run by Jessica Wolf, has been selling folded paper objects through Etsy and Crafty Supermarket and is expanding into producing DIY kits.
 
Each First Batch company is facing a different challenge. Fortunately, First Batch staff and advisers are well networked in the Cincinnati manufacturing and business communities and ready to help their new class.
 
Paper Acorn, the most established company, is looking at diversifying and expanding their product line.
 
“Manufacturing won’t be that difficult,” Anthony says. “The question will be how to transform the business to fit a new model.”
 
Although Beluga Shave Co. has funding and customers lined up, Wertz has struggled with navigating the manufacturing process. Anthony is confident First Batch can help.
 
“There is a lot of metal industry in Cincinnati, especially in machining,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll have an issue finding someone here to do this.”
 
Mortal Skis might have the most daunting challenge — finding a local company to manufacture skis. But after working with Ohio Valley Beard Supply in 2014, First Batch does have connections to companies who could help produce a Midwest-friendly ski wax.
 
First Batch had initially hoped to have six members for its 2015 class and is considering modifying its business model for the two remaining spaces.
 
“Usually we have to pick someone far enough along on the prototype and capable of doing their own production work, where it’s ready to go to manufacturing,” Anthony says. “We’ve had people apply where the idea isn’t far enough along, it still needs a lot of work or more steps than the First Batch timeline can support. We also have people who are too far along for First Batch.
 
“We’re exploring how we can support everyone in this region by supporting start ups that don’t fit our current profile. Are there other ways that we can provide ongoing support, provide connections, create spots that are more of a long-term support?”
 
This year, First Batch and its parent organization Cincinnati Made will conducting more outreach during the accelerator program.
 
“So many times I talk to people about the program and hear, ‘I didn’t know anyone still made anything in Cincinnati’ and it just drives me crazy,” Anthony says. “People drive down Spring Grove Avenue but assume the factories are all abandoned. It’s a big goal for our program to talk about our relationship with the manufacturers.”
 
Cincinnati Made started offering manufacturing tours this spring to showcase local manufacturers, including National Flag Company, New Riff Distilling and Steam Whistle Letterpress. Members of the 2015 First Batch class can take part in the tours. Their program will also include topical presentations as well as speakers who are able to provide one-on-one advice to each company.
 
First Batch participants had orientation last week and are now being matched with mentors. Each company will have two or three mentors to provide advice and guidance throughout the program. Mentors will also help make sure the companies are on track with the manufacturing plan they establish with First Batch staff.
 
At the end of their five-month program, the class of 2015 will have a final Launch Day, “which is not quite the same as a demo day,” Anthony says. “We hope the final production run is done, but in practice that often isn’t how it ends up happening. I hope we have lots of things to show, at least the production-ready prototype. The companies will talk about what they have done through the First Batch process, what they will produce in their first batch and where they want to go after that.”
 
First Batch is supported by Cincinnati Made as well as The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and TSS. It was highlighted by Dwell magazine in May as one of the country’s hottest design incubators.
 

Creative App Project to build community by teaching Android app development

                                     
As a self-described amateur app developer, Mark Mussman wants to make the tools for creating Android apps accessible to as many people as possible. His dream is becoming a reality through the Creative App Project (CAP), which will teach a dozen non-techies how to design, build and market Android apps this summer thanks to a People's Liberty Project Grant.
 
“The thing is that it's not that difficult (to make an app),” Mussman says, “but it's easier when you have someone there helping you along the way.”

He would know. Although he isn’t a professional app developer, Mussman created his own Android app, Cincinnati Hill Challenge, to supplement his experience of using the Map My Fitness apps. Once he created his first app, he started to realize its potential impact by collaborating with users to host events and challenges around Cincinnati. He began to meet new friends at the events.
 
“I thought it was pretty neat,” he says. “We started to build community around this app.”
 
It’s the potential to build community through building apps that Mussman felt made the project a perfect fit with People’s Liberty. The philanthropy organization’s resources, connections and approachability have been instrumental in getting his project off the ground. He especially appreciated getting to meet other grantees.
 
“Part of what was great about it was connecting with the people on other people's projects,” he says. “It was a really collaborative spirit.”
 
The spirit of collaboration will carry over into the first CAP class. As the participants meet on Monday evenings for 12 weeks over the summer, they’ll first create an app together as a group, then proceed to realize their individual app ideas. Along the way they’ll also learn how to manage the apps, use analytics and market their creations, eventually helping develop resources to make future app development accessible to the general public.
 
Mussman wanted to recruit a diverse group of participants to create these apps and to impact a wide swath of Cincinnati’s population.
 
“Really I wanted it to be people who are involved in their community or looking to get more involved in their community and the Cincinnati community,” he says.
 
Recruiting women has been difficult, he says, but in many other respects the class will be very diverse. He’s happy with the racial balance and the variety of neighborhoods represented. There’s also a great diversity of age, with participants going into their senior year of high school as well as those much older and deeply ingrained in their communities. Even the ideas for apps vary greatly, including architecture, nutrition and much more.
 
Accessibility is also why CAP will focus on Android apps. While Apple IOS developers must pay roughly $100 on a yearly basis, an Android app requires only a one-time fee of $25. Android apps also take much less technical equipment to develop — Mussman says they can be created from any computer, tablet or Android mobile device.
 
“This isn't something you necessarily have to have programming skills to do, just basic Word skills,” he says. “If you can use Microsoft Word and the internet, you’ll be good to go.”
 
Mussman isn’t intimidated by the idea of starting with technology basics. He’s been working in adult education for seven years and has seen tech skills become increasingly important in that field — for example, the GED recently became an entirely computer-based test. But a potential skills gap presented extra hurdles for some of Mussman’s students who had been out of school for decades.
 
“I was doing a lot of really heavy technology education, you know, with people who didn’t even know what a mouse was,” Mussman recalls. “You had to start at the beginning.”
 
With this experience, he’s confident the CAP program can start at the beginning to give participants the tools to create apps and bring people together around them.
 
“I hope that we’re able to not only teach people how to make an Android app but also create opportunities for different community events and for people to gather together to strengthen their communities in some way that benefits them and also benefits the Greater Cincinnati area,” Mussman says.
 
The first public CAP event will be a launch and showcase of all the apps in September. Until then, you can follow the project on Facebook and the Creative App Project website.
 
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