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Hamilton County Development Center changes name, honors champion of minority entrepreneurs


The Hamilton County Development Company has rebranded once again. The Norwood center, which encompasses an incubator (the HCDC Business Center) as well as economic development and lending service providers, will now be known as HCDC, Inc.
 
"We are branding as a single entity instead of having three names for our three different economic development programs," says Bridget Doherty, marketing and communications director.
 
On the same day they announced the rebranding, Jan. 16, HCDC, Inc. honored Mel Gravely, longtime supporter of minority entrepreneurs, with the Larry Albice Entrepreneurship Award. The award is given yearly to successful entrepreneurs who have given back to the community and is named after former HCDC chairman and board member Larry Albice, who played a considerable role in the expansion of the Business Center and received the award in 1998.
 
Gravely, who is responsible for starting the Minority Business Accelerator, is a published author on the topic of race in business. His passion for supporting women and minorities in their business ventures has characterized his work for decades. He's currently the majority shareholder, president and CEO of TriVersity Construction Company, which specializes in construction management, contracting and design. He also founded the Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking, a think tank for minority business initiatives. And he's the immediate past chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce. The list goes on.
 
"Mel is the type of leader who puts others in the limelight," says David Main, president of HCDC, Inc. "We thought we would shed some light on him and his outstanding contributions to entrepreneurship. He has dedicated his life to helping others innovate and achieve."
 
Gravely's recognition came at HCDC's annual meeting, where the organization presented its annual business awards, including awards for lending, economic development and HCDC resident company of the year. Startup Get Noticed Get Found received the resident of the year award, with lending awards going to Fifth Third, Huntington and Listermann Brewing Co.
 

New Findlay Market public art project seeking artist proposals


Findlay Market is next in line for a major public art installation.

The site is the western plaza and esplanade of Findlay Market, next to Elm Street and steps away from the site of a future streetcar stop.

An artist for the permanent work is expected to be selected this summer, with installation in Spring 2016.

"Hopefully it will become something that people everywhere will recognize as Cincinnati’s icon, something we’re all proud to share with the world," says Tim Maloney, president of The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation.

In late 2013, Maloney announced the Haile Foundation would spend $600,000 for three public art projects over three years. He was inspired  by public art he had seen in other places — Denver’s "I See What You Mean" by Lawrence Argent, a large blue bear peeking into that city’s Convention Center, and Chicago’s Millennium Park "Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, also known as "the Bean" — and believed Cincinnati needed public art that would be a strong symbol for the city.

The first of the three Cincinnati projects, Tony Luensman’s neon "CAMPGROUND," was installed on the western wall of the Cincinnati Art Museum last fall. It was supported by both the Haile Foundation and Macy’s.

ArtWorks Cincinnati, which is administering the Haile Public Art Fund, has put out a call for artists’ concepts for the $150,000 project, with proposals due Feb. 15. Two to three artists or teams of artists will be selected as finalists and paid $500 to develop design proposals. 

Criteria for the Findlay Market project: It should complement the market and its iconic status in Cincinnati, it should delight and leave a lasting impression, it should have "visual gravity" and it should be made of durable materials. The chosen project will have a budget of $140,000 for full design, fabrication and installation, plus $10,000 in a maintenance fund.

See the project's "call for artists" website for more details.
 

New accelerator Ocean sets the record straight on religious affiliations


Since Cincinnati accelerator Ocean announced its flagship class of startup companies in December, the phrase "faith-based" has been bounced around quite a bit. Though the accelerator's website uses the term and local media have deemed them a "faith-based venture," co-founder Tim Brunk says that the term may be getting more attention than it should.
 
"This is a high-tech accelerator," Brunk says. "This is not a mission. We are here to bring jobs. We're here to help the kind of people who are going to build hospitals and create jobs."
 
If anything, Ocean seems to be more of a faith-integrated startup accelerator. Though the founders — Brunk, Tim Metzner and Chad Reynolds — are all Crossroads church members, Ocean isn't a church program. The accelerator has partnered with Crossroads due to the overwhelming support the three got from the 25,000-plus congregation members and the organization itself. Ocean also uses space on the Crossroads campus in Oakley to conduct its operations.

Though the founders may feel a theological tie to Crossroads' mission, such a tie or connection isn't required when recruiting startups and definitely not when recruiting investors.
 
In fact, Ocean's new class actually includes two self-proclaimed agnostics.
 
"All we ask is that they are willing to explore," Brunk says. "Religious involvement is not a requirement."
 
The accelerator's main goal is to create startup founders with character — ones that investors can truly trust with their money. Generosity, honor, intelligence and integrity are all qualities Ocean hopes to foster alongside their business-related curriculum.
 
"Faith is a foundation, not a guarantee," Brunk says. "We foster a belief in respect, of not taking advantage of or exploiting others."
 
When asked if the companies that come out of Ocean would perhaps be at a disadvantage without the dog-eat-dog mentality that can lead to Fortune-500 status, Brunk shakes his head.
 
"There's a perception that good people are naïve, and a lot of times, unfortunately, that assumption is true," Brunk says. "But I see (our program) as putting our companies at a significant advantage, not a disadvantage."
 
To the Ocean team, success is measured by more than money. If its startup founders can find a way to build balanced, successful personal lives alongside their steadily-growing businesses, the accelerator will have done its job.
 
The thing that makes Ocean unique from other accelerators — and the part that earned the term "faith-based" — can be found in its supplemental curriculum. The session speakers include CEOs who have gone through tumultuous marriages due to their never-ending hours at work discussing faith, family and community with startup founders. Some members of the Ocean class go to church, others do not. As for the Ocean founders, all they want to do is open doors.
 
In the meantime, Brunk is tasked with finding the types of investors who are looking for a well-rounded, likable, trustworthy individual or team. He spends his time connecting with investors and making sure that the companies who have signed on are receiving the highest quality business education possible.
 
Though Brunk did quote the Gospel once during our interview, it's apparent that the label following Ocean may not be entirely accurate. Right now, the accelerator is in its second week of what is best described as "business boot camp," getting their companies ready for any investor that could walk through the door.

Just like any accelerator, they're most interested in making sure their companies are poised for success. The accelerator plans to have weekly practice runs with potential investors to make sure their companies stay on their toes. If they emerge as better people, that bodes well for the future.
 
"This is still an experiment," Brunk says. "We still don't know if it is going to work. But if we can succeed in creating a dialogue, well, that's all we can ask for."
 

Mt. Notre Dame students named "Best in State" in national mobile app challenge


A team of young women from Mt. Notre Dame High School in Reading was recognized last week for creating a mobile app concept that helps students with productivity.

Out of 90 teams across the state, the "Do It" app — designed to combat student procrastination and disorganization — proved best in show in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. In conjunction with the Technology Student Association, the challenge aims to bolster student interest and involvement in science and technology while bringing the winning student-designed apps into the Google Play marketplace. With the constantly growing market for tech-related jobs, Verizon is targeting middle school and high school students in order to pique their interest early on.
 
Mt. Notre Dame's state title earns them a ticket to the regional competition. Winners will be announced Jan. 16 and will each receive $5,000 in grants to allow their respective schools to continue to develop their science, technology, math and science programs.

"Best in Nation" teams will be recognized in early February and awarded with the opportunity to learn coding and app development from MIT App Inventor Master Trainers. The cash prize for the "Best of Nation" teams is $15,000, plus the chance to make their vision a reality.

 

UpTech event to connect startups with jobseekers


For many Cincinnati jobseekers, finding a coveted position at one of the many growing startups here could begin with a simple trip across the river.
 
On Feb. 9, Covington-based UpTech will host an event that everyone at the accelerator hesitates to call a "career fair." Instead it's dubbed UpLink, which will attempt to bring together enthusiastic job seekers and the startups that desperately need them.
 
From 4-7 p.m., attendees will snack on appetizers and wander from booth to booth, checking out what each startup has to offer. Most of the companies are seeking freshly graduated developers, tech specialists or marketing gurus; all of them are looking for creativity.
 
"We want the doers and the innovators," says Abby Ober, Program Associate at UpTech who's organizing the event with Alyssa Jones. "We want the kids who take initiative."
 
The list of startups in attendance in still growing, and UpLink will likely accept company applications until the day of the event. Though several UpTech startups have signed up — Tixers, linkedü?, Seesaw — UpLink hopes to recruit companies from accelerators across the area. Specifically, they're looking for companies in their first five years of existence with a need for paid help.
 
As for the startups themselves, leaders are looking for the kind of people who are moldable, willing to learn and ready for a slew of different responsibilities.
 
"If you can't take punches, then this isn't for you," says Alex Burkhart of Tixers. "You have to have an appetite for risk."
 
Candice Peters of Seesaw is looking for a similar type of candidate. "We want someone outgoing, a jack-of-all-trades who is able to switch gears every 10 minutes," she says.
 
Since the event takes place on a Monday, UpLink organizers say they're catering specifically to students in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.
 
The event promises a casual atmosphere that reflects the startup vibe. That said, students and other jobseekers should dress for an interview. There will be a photographer in attendance offering free LinkedIn headshots.
 
All available jobs are paid but not necessarily full time. Most positions are hourly without benefits, though that's not always the case. Many startup associates, like Ober and Jones, have other jobs on the side. That said, the experience at a small, growing company is invaluable.
 
"Startup culture is awesome," Jones says. "There's really nothing else like it."

UpLink is located at 112 W. Pike St. in Covington.
 

Thinking outside the sandbox: Startup Cintric's journey through The Brandery


Cintric, the Cincinnati-based startup that's created a platform for mobile integration of location services, is a prime example of how much can change when a company joins an accelerator.
 
When Cintric founders Rhett Rainen, Connor Bowlan, Joel Green and Erwan Lent first entered The Brandery last summer, they had two different companies with slightly overlapping goals. Rainen and Bowlan were working on a fashion and beauty advice platform called Lookit that eventually transformed into a location-based notification app; Green and Lent hoped to create an app for location-based chatrooms called Shoutout. When the four creative brains met at The Brandery, it became clear that something bigger was possible.
 
"I think the value of The Brandery for us was less about driving our vision forward and more about providing a sandbox to experiment and clarify what that vision was," Bowlan says. "There’s a pretty unique opportunity to explore when you’re given a small chunk of funding and are surrounded by some of the most creative and intelligent people you’ll ever meet."
 
Rainen and Bowlan were impressed with Green and Lent's remarkable enginnering capabilities and began collaborating on a few side projects. Before long, their friendships evolved into a well-oiled idea machine, and out of that Cintric was born.
 
Cintric's initial goal is to solve the problem many smartphone/mobile device users have when using location services: a draining battery. By using an innovative drag-and-drop interface, Cintric's platform allows developers to build location components into their apps with minimal effort.
 
Cintric is also focused on making it easier for companies with applications to track who and where their users might be by building the apps in a much more efficient way.
 
As for the team itself, Cintric is made up of a French whiz-kid (Lent), an iOS engineer with incredible dental hygiene (Green), a bearded behemoth with mad financial projection skills (Rainen) and Bowlan, who is "terrible at describing himself."
 
"I tend to think of our team as a bunch of mavericks," Bowlan says. "I think a lot of folks were unsure of us at the beginning of The Brandery program due to our age (the oldest is 25) and willingness to take big swings and throw things out if they weren’t working."
 
The company is in the process of closing out its seed round of funding. Over the next few months, the Cintric name is likely to make its way to the forefront in Cincinnati's startup scene.
 
"We’ve got some pretty ambitious and unorthodox projects launching in the next few months that should do a good job of showcasing how we’re not afraid to think outside the box," Bowlan says.
 

Xavier's new Center for Innovation opens for students this week


On Thursday, Jan. 8, Xavier University students will get their first peek at the newly-completed XU Center for Innovation.
 
Over the past several months, the Physical Plant at Dana and Woodward on Xavier's campus has been transformed into a functioning cross-disciplinary space. This week, Xavier RA students will be the first to use the remodeled building as part of their RA training curriculum, which involves an innovation/problem-solving workshop.
 
The Center's purpose is to provide a home base for a newly rebranded and refocused innovation program at Xavier. The center will include classrooms for students as well as workspace for corporate clients and startup companies who come to Xavier to learn how to make their businesses more innovative.
 
The Center's Executive Director, "man on fire" Shawn Nason, is responsible for creating the training program, which is geared to helping organizations up their game.
 
"Shawn is a black belt in innovation," says Mary Curran-Hackett, Innovation Curator at the Center. "Companies that want to learn how to be more innovative are in good hands with him."
 
These programs aside, the Center will also provide open workspaces for professors and staff who are involved in the new School of Arts and Innovation, directed by Tom Merrill, a longtime Xavier faculty member. As a part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Arts and Innovation will offer classes in Innovation, Art, Digital/Video/Film, Music and Theater and Rapid Prototyping/Human-Centered Making. They also offer a minor in Innovation Engineering for students majoring in other fields.
 
As for the space itself, the Center maintains the minimalist, industrial character of a warehouse. High ceilings, exposed pipes (painted navy blue, white and gray of course) and a utilitarian feel make it ideal as a center for thinking and development. The modern décor includes Ikea furniture assembled by the Center staff themselves. The team's willingness to quite literally put their sweat and tears into this building only further evidences the passion and determination each member feels for the cause.

When all students return to campus on Jan. 12, the Center for Innovation will be ready for them. An Open House for Xavier students, faculty and community members will be held 2-6 p.m. Feb. 4 to provide a formal introduction to what the space has to offer.

 

Makers Megaphone graduates from CO.STARTERS to help other small businesses


When the words "marketing" and "branding" hit a Cincinnatian's ears, a plethora of big names come to mind. As a small business owner, the overwhelming size and high price tag that accompany services from larger marketing firms can prove intimidating. As a craftsman-turned-business owner, that intimidation factor can be even more significant.
 
Enter Ashley Berger. A Pratt Institute graduate and participant in the current fall ArtWorks' CO.STARTERS program, she moved to Cincinnati after 11 years in Brooklyn. Her background is in art, but she's worked and specialized in marketing, advertising and branding as the years have gone by.
 
Berger moved to the area to pursue a job opportunity with Dynamic Catholic in Hebron, and it wasn't long before she noticed the tremendous amount of creative energy in the Cincinnati area. After a year, she decided to quit her job and pursue a goal she had in mind: to help these creative individuals get the word out about what they can do.
 
"Many of these creative small business owners are really good at making things but not at letting people know about them," Berger says.
 
Berger intends to offer small-scale business coaching, website development services and other marketing tools to the kinds of craftspeople who surround her at ArtWorks. Her company name, Makers Megaphone, reflects the idea of providing a metaphorical megaphone through which these "makers" can promote their craft.
 
Berger has found guidance and support through the business-building process at CO.STARTERS. Unlike many of the participants in the program, however, Berger is actually building her business as the class goes along. The questions she asks during the seminars are not hypothetical; the answers are quickly applied to her business in real time.
 
"The week they talked about LLCs and trademarks, I did that," Berger says.
 
As of now, Berger hopes to be open for business by the beginning of 2015. Her website is in its final stages and her business plan is almost complete. Since each step of her company's establishment aligns with the CO.STARTERS curriculum, her final session on Wednesday evening will likely coincide with her business plan's finishing touches.
 
As for clientele, Berger hopes that her creative pricing structure and hands-on experience with other craftspeople through ArtWorks and otherwise will likely attract business owners who could benefit from her expertise.
 

Two Brandery graduates take advantage of the changing world of music

In response to the constantly-evolving world of music, two Brandery graduates, MusicPlay Analytics and Wax Music, are taking full advantage of holes left in the market.
 
Made up of a former platinum-selling musician, a software engineer with a Stanford PhD and a lead developer who's a veteran in the tech+music game, MusicPlay Analytics is poised to contribute significantly to the industry. As a company, its initial goal was to make sure that artists are paid every time their songs are broadcasted or performed in a business setting. Since their time at The Brandery, the team has evolved their idea to include an element that monitors consumer behavior.
 
"We’re now able to solve a problem for the Performing Rights Organizations and help songwriters earn their fair share," MusicPlay CEO Eron Bucciarelli-Tieger says. "But now we'll (also) be able to eventually allow record labels and songwriters to target tour and release promotions in the real world ... as well as bring 'Big Data' insights to small businesses."
 
Bucciarelli-Tieger and his team find themselves surrounded by support here in Cincinnati. With Dayton roots and an "in" at The Brandery, setting up shop here was a no-brainer.
 
"Cincinnati punches above its weight in terms of its culture and startup scene," Bucciarelli-Tieger says.
 
The Brandery's other music-centric graduate, Wax Music, has seen tremendous success in the last few months, causing CEO Jonathan Lane to be a busy guy.
 
Wax Music has created a mobile app that truly understands each user's music tastes. With the data it gathers, it gets to know the user so well it can recommend music that a simple algorithm never could. Instead of focusing on streaming the same songs to your laptop over and over again, Wax jumps off of the Pandora model to introduce its user to new artists and then alert them when those new artists are performing nearby.
 
With the concert industry booming, Wax has decided to avoid the licensing requirements that arise with sites like Pandora and simply provide a platform where music lovers can find more music to love.
 
Since the app was released, it's been promoted in 34 countries as Apple's Best New App. Both TechCrunch and VentureBeat have featured the app, and it was the winner of Microsoft's Push the Web Forward Contest.
 
 

Local startup Strap attracts $1.25 million in investments for wearable tech


It looks like nice guys can finish first. That's certainly true when it comes to Strap, the Brandery grad and Soapbox-profiled company that's created the first software and analytics platform for wearables.
 
Charlie Key, cofounder of Cincinnati's Modulus and angel investor for Strap, describes the company as having "all the pieces." He describes founding partners Steve Caldwell, Patrick Henshaw and Joey Brennan as "extremely likeable, intelligent people."
 
Maybe that's why the company announced a $1.25 million round of seed funding last week. The round secured investments from CincyTech, Mercury Fund, Vine Street Ventures, Danmar Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners, New Coast Ventures and a number of angel investors, including Wendy S. Lea, CEO of Cintrifuse.
 
The founders' sparkling personalities aside, Strap also seems to have been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. With the popularity of wearable technology slowly gaining ground, Strap's "toolkit" for developers entered the market while the market was hot. Their team, made up of startup veterans and truly brilliant technical talent, was also more than prepared to dive in.
 
"Well-timed, right team, right tech team — all investors look for that," says Caldwell, who serves as CEO.
 
Strap's technology, called StrapMetrics, is already compatible with wearables such as Pebble, Android Wear and Google Glass. The tool's ability to optimize sensory data from wearables is a key element in the growth of the industry.
 
Though nothing was set in stone, Caldwell and his team knew to expect an increase in capital as far back as early November. They've been fundraising since June and July, but it was The Brandery's Demo Day that truly ignited investor interest. In the past couple of months, Caldwell, Henshaw and Brannen have moved their families from Mississippi and truly settled into Cincinnati. They've since posted five job listings (four developers and one VP of engineering), reflecting their anticipation of a change in workload. They also recently already hired a marketing specialist, Sophie Turcotte.
 
For now, Strap will remain at The Brandery on Vine Street. By February, however, they expect their staff to have increased to 12 people, a number too large to fit into the accelerator's workspace. At that point, they'll start looking for another location in Cincinnati to call home.
 
"The goal is to grow the company significantly," Caldwell says. "This is a billion dollar industry, and we believe we can be a billion dollar company."
 

Cincinnati native creates one-of-a-kind razor, raises nearly $200,000 on Kickstarter

As Cincinnati native Zac Wertz was studying for the bar exam, his mind was wandering elsewhere.
 
For his entire adult life, shaving had always been an issue. Any razor he tried seemed to cause the same irritation. Though he dabbled in the electric shaver game, he was overwhelmed by how expensive and unreliable each option remained.
 
Wertz found salvation in the single-edge razor, the extremely cheap option that's become popular among shaving enthusiasts. The problem with using these blades, however, is the incredible amount of precision required to avoid hurting oneself.
 
With an MBA and a law degree from the University of Cincinnati under his belt, Wertz's mind began to wander. He had one goal in mind: make a single-edge razor that's easy to use. Within a year he surpassed his Kickstarter goal of $100,000, and that number only continues to grow.
 
Wertz began prototyping at home and tested his design on himself. Pleasantly surprised by the favorable results, he took his project a step further and started working with the Columbus-based industrial design firm, Trident.
 
"Explaining the concept was confusing to most people, but Trident understood it," Wertz says.
 
The company's first official prototype blew him away. Compared with other razors, his nicks were limited and the shave quality was unique — even better than what you get with other single-edge options.
 
"It gives you an aggressive but mild shave, all with one razor," Wertz says.
 
With a solid product in hand, Wertz launched Beluga Shave Company. Beluga's razor allows users to choose whichever blade fits into their budget. The wooden handle and 316L stainless steel pivoting head allows users to place the blade of their choice into the head, screw it closed and then begin using it as easily as they would any run-of-the-mill safety razor. Though the razor has a higher up-front cost, ranging from $125 to $150, Beluga offers a 25-year warranty to buyers based on the high-quality nature of the materials.

To Wertz, this is the kind of razor you pass down to your grandchildren.
 
"It can be a chore to shave," Wertz says. "This turns it into this luxurious experience."
 
The Beluga razor company is still primarily a one-man operation. Wertz contracts with manufacturers, expert designers and mechanical engineers from all over the country, but he is the company's only full-time employee. Even so, the product's design is close to being finalized. Customers can preorder the product on the website now and shipments are expected to begin in July.

Though a female-friendly version of the razor has yet to be developed, Wertz anticipates that a similar future model will prove marketable to women as well.

Eight startup myths ... busted

Whether they're actually involved with one or not, people love talking about startups. And amongst all the chatter, several stereotypes have emerged. Here to set the record straight are a few of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky's startup connoisseurs.
 
Special thanks to Eric Weissmann of Cintrifuse for the pitch.
 
 
MYTH: Startups are full of young people in hoodies.
 
"Startup life isn't for everyone. I came from the corporate world where I was used to dressing up more times than not. Now I find myself participating in no-shave November and wearing hoodies, athletic attire. I have even been caught wearing socks and sandals..." – Alex Burkhart, Tixers
 
"Entrepreneurship spans all ages. Out of the 60-plus companies inside HCDC's business incubator at the Business Center, the average age of entrepreneurs is 42 years old." – Bridget Doherty, Hamilton County Development Co. Business Center
 

MYTH: Venture capitalists (VCs) sit on bags of money and live a glamorous life.
 
"(VCs) are hard workers hard workers, very smart, travel a ton and don’t make very many investments in a year. They’re patient and deliberate with their funds (see Dov Rosenburg at Allos Ventures)." – Eric Wiessmann, Cintrifuse
 
"VC's are very much like entrepreneurs. They are out raising money themselves. They are constantly fundraising and tied to performance. They definitely don't just sit back and kick it, that's for sure." – Alex Burkhart, Tixers
 

MYTH: Every startup has to be a tech startup, and every employee is tech-savvy.
 
"We work with over 100 entrepreneurs each year, and of those 10 percent fall into the tech category." (See PetWants, Creative Invites and Events, Project Blue Collar, Functional Formularies.) – Corey Drushal, Bad Girl Ventures
 

MYTH: Startups have to go to West Coast or East Coast to find investors.
 
"(Some entrepreneurs) don't consider the advantages of things like an increased runway because of cost-of-living if you build a company in the Midwest." – Patrick Henshaw, Strap
 

MYTH: There are no women in startups, no women in tech and no system in place to support them.
 
"The Greater Cincinnati/NKY startup eco-system has a friendly and inviting environment for female founders. The latest Uptech class has five female founders, including myself and Amanda Kranias of Seesaw, a family social network. ... We also have a fantastic female founder, Brooke Griffin, at the CincyTech-funded company." – Candice Peters, Seesaw
 

MYTH: If you start your own business, you will have fewer people telling you what to do.
 
"Some people want to start their own businesses to get away from long hours ... or the horrible bosses of the world. However, starting your own business requires a substantial time commitment and possibly more people telling you what to do." – Bridget Doherty, HCDC Business Center
 

MYTH: In the startup world, no one gets paid until you have a big exit.
 
"Many startups have attractive pay and competitive benefits (see InfoTrust)." – Eric Weissmann, Cintrifuse
 

MYTH: Startup owners just eat Ramen noodles and drink beer from their office fridge all day.
 
"Not just Ramen — if you add hotdogs, it makes it that much classier and better tasting." – Patrick Henshaw, Strap
 
"There is never a problem finding beer. No keg per say, but always a case of Miller Lite or craft beers in the fridge." – Alex Burkhart, Tixers

Breaking Brad: People's Liberty names 2015 fellowship winners

People’s Liberty announced today that its inaugural Haile Fellowship grants are going to Brad Cooper and Brad Schnittger, who will each receive $100,000 as well as co-working space with additional design and communications support at the new People’s Liberty office in Over-the-Rhine. The fellowship officially begins on Jan. 12 and will run throughout the 2015 calendar year.

Cooper’s project is Start Small, which plans to build two 200-sq.-ft. zero-net-waste houses. When finished, they'll stand on concrete foundations and be fueled by solar panels, making them self-sustaining and long-term investments in the community.

Schnittger's project is MusicLi, a music publishing platform to afford local musicians the opportunity to properly document, register and publish their musical compositions to an online library, allowing advertising agencies to license and purchase more Cincinnati music. Schnittger is co-founder of local music and design agency The All Night Party and a member of the popular rock band The Sundresses.

"I can't begin to express how rewarding it was to call both of the grantees, to let them know they'd be taking on their dream projects next year," Jake Hodesh, People's Liberty's vice president of operations, said in this morning's announcement. "Both indicated how their lives would never be the same. Knowing that our work has the potential to change people's lives, that makes my job worthwhile. January can't get here soon enough."

Better for buyers: Shelfie and Popad give consumers control

The folks over at Popad hate advertising.
 
"It disrupts your experience," says John McClelland, co-founder of the company. "What if people in your community could make the ads you see … your friends, your family?"
 
McClelland and his Brandery-trained team are self-proclaimed data geeks. Their chief technology officer, Luke Libraro, has an RFID (radio frequency identification) card in his hand that allows him to enter the Brandery building with a simple wave.  Their "boy wonder" engineer, Skylar Roebuck, was head of product at a company called Mobiquity by the time he was 25. And Rachel Bires, their Instagram connoisseur, is actually a licensed attorney who is unbeatable at darts.
 
Together, they have created an interactive app where users can submit a photo of themselves using or displaying a particular product. That photo, after a series of votes by other Popad users, then becomes available to Popad clients for purchase. In return for their submission, the creator of the image will receive royalties if their "ad" is purchased. Right now, all submissions come through Instagram.
 
The idea behind Popad emerged when McClelland's wife posted an Instragram photo of his (presumably very cool) shoes. When friends saw the photo and subsequently bought the shoes, a lightbulb turned on. By allowing regular Joes to submit photos of themselves actually using or enjoying a product, Popad hopes to create a stronger, more authentic personal connection with the consumer. This, they believe, is much more effective than advertising in the abstract.
 
"There's more of a dialogue now—there's been a fundamental shift in how people are operating," McClelland says.
 
Consumer communication is a key part of another Brandery graduate's business plan. Shelfie was founded by Edward Betancourt, a quinoa-obsessed runner with mad programming skills, and C.J. Acosta, a Reddit loyalist with a knack for marketing and pink hoodies. Together, they've put together a data-generating application that has already seen stellar success in in-store audits.
 
The app itself gives shoppers the power to do something about an absent product on the shelf. If they notice a product is missing, they simply snap a "shelfie" of the empty shelf, send it through the app, and are rewarded for their participation with points that they can redeem later.
 
"Think of it as an easy, one pic review of the in-store experience," Acosta says.
 
By generating real-time data, Shelfie could potentially create solutions ranging from contacting sales representatives at the site to arranging to have the missing product shipped to a customer's home.
 
For now, Shelfie is looking for investors. By staying in marketing-friendly Cincinnati, or "the little city that could," Acosta and Betancourt have made incredible connections and are building on the consumer-first approach that was born during their time at the Brandery.
 
"The concept of tackling the problem, from the consumer's side, proved to be the radical and most disruptive thing we could do," Acosta says.

The customer is always funnier: The story behind Barefoot Proximity's new CIO

The existence of Chief Innovation Officers (CIOs) at growing creative companies is nothing new. It is, however, a role that is becoming more and more necessary as newer businesses emerge and already-existing companies fight to stay relevant. Barefoot Proximity, a Cincinnati-based advertising and communications agency, recently hired its new CIO both in response to this trend and to make sure that any opportunity to disrupt convention—or "innovate"—is seized will full force.
 
The man filling this role, Troy Hitch, is a character. His creative background in theatre and musical production is immediately apparent upon meeting him; he is animated, sarcastic and quick on his feet. After graduating from Northern Kentucky University, Hitch dabbled in everything from medical text illustration to creating interactive installations for the Cincinnati Zoo. As a creative individual, Hitch always knew that the Internet was a powerful tool. In 2004, he and a partner started their own content-generating studio, Big Fat Brain.
 
Big Fat Brain was based in Covington and dubbed a "new media studio" by its founders. Hitch and his partner made webisodes and short-form video content for companies looking to vamp up their websites.
 
"It was lo-fi production value, high content value stuff," Hitch says.
 
Big Fat Brain's national success led to a connection with the former president of CBS radio who had just started MyDamnChannel, an entertainment studio and distributor of web and TV content. Big Fat Brain's work with the company, which involved producing numerous creative webisodes, is what ultimately led Hitch and his partner to realize the power of consumer input.
 
"We could actually engineer a connection [to the user]," he says.
 
This realization came to a head with the success of Hitch's trans-media web video series, "You Suck at Photoshop," in 2008. The episodes, which have reached 100 million views to date, centered around a pissed-off guy, whom the viewer never sees, begrudgingly providing a YouTube tutorial.
 
When an overwhelming amount of fans insisted the "You Suck at Photoshop" guy was comedian Dane Cook, Hitch and his partner realized they could use that user connection to their advantage. They brought Dane Cook onto the show, and the Internet exploded.
 
Today, as the CIO at Barefoot, Hitch hopes to find more opportunities to truly involve the customer/consumer/audience when considering strategies for his clients. By integrating their inclinations and preferences in every way possible, Hitch hopes to expand on the opportunities presented to the company. As the person in charge of hiring Barefoot's creative department, he also plans to draw in talent that knows how to deal with that kind of data.
 
"This is not about me anymore," he says of his work. "The consumer is fickle—there are a million different options these days. We need a value exchange. My job is to engineer [the material] so that other people can create and think and inspire."
 
According to Hitch, the power of the media is that people want to participate. CIOs, he says, are necessary because the consumer expects something different than what the old agency formulas can deliver. That said, if it were up to him, the word "innovation" would be cut right out of the title.
 
"Innovation is an overused and abused word," Hitch says. "I like to describe my role as embracing complexity and delivering simplicity."
 
Every company's CIO may see their role differently. Still, when individuals like Hitch are hired to force companies to think way beyond the box, "innovation" in inevitable. 
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