From local startup founder to Bounce program director, Courtney Gras shares her vision and passion for making Akron the place to innovate and collaborate. Follow her on Twitter - @courtneyagras
In spring 2008, as a student studying electrical engineering at The University of Akron, I decided to take a risk and enter a business plan competition. Little did I know at that time I would spend the next seven years working on a startup company here in Akron and that, one day, I would have a chance to take what I learned from this experience to help other startups.
I’ll be honest – those seven years were nothing short of a struggle. At the time, very few resources existed for student startups. Eventually, though, I started to feel like I had a grasp on how to find mentors, where to go for funding, how to find legal help and how to connect with other founders.
So I figured it out, but I couldn’t help thinking that there has to be a better way to connect people to resources here in Akron and throughout northeast Ohio. It was then I realized that my passion truly lies in connecting and helping founders and entrepreneurs.
Since then, I’ve traveled to other startup ecosystems, and specifically to other accelerators in Silicon Valley, Boston and Chicago. I witnessed their vibrant communities and their struggles. I took notes. I was fascinated to learn what type of environment supports entrepreneurs effectively. I found that the core of the most successful startup ecosystems could be summarized by two main characteristics: (1) they were founder-led and (2) they focused on building community and sharing, supporting and helping, rather than protecting.
After my startup took a turn for the worst, I followed my passion for building startup communities and became executive director for Launch League, a small founder-community here in Akron. During this time, I saw firsthand what can be possible when founders meet and help each other. I also saw how willing others throughout northeast Ohio are to work with us and collaborate. There is interest in being more regionally focused, but we needed a vehicle to make this happen and we had a serious lack of physical space to hold collaborative events.
The Road to Bounce
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan heard what we were saying and joined us in trying to find a solution – a way to foster economic development in Akron by building a true startup ecosystem.
Last January, Mayor Horrigan hired David Zipper, former managing director of the 1776 startup incubator in Washington D.C. and partner in the 1776 Seed Fund, to complete an assessment of our startup ecosystem. Over six months, David interviewed more than 50 founders and organization leaders, including representatives from corporations and universities. His findings were simple: Akron has incredible potential to help solve our founders’ biggest challenges – access to funding and talent and collaboration with corporations and universities and other regional resources. It just needed a catalyst. That catalyst is Bounce.
The Bounce Difference
Bounce follows a new model for an innovation space – the “hub” model. As the name implies, a hub is designed to be a magnet for startup founders, investors, students, makers and anybody interested in innovation. A hub comprises physical space designed to encourage collaboration, as well as programming that supports that collaboration. There are many examples of successful hubs, and two in particular that we’re taking notes from – the American Underground in Durham, N.C. and the Idea Foundry in nearby Columbus. While each hub has its differences, their goal is the same – to bring a diverse group of stakeholders together so they can collaborate, create and commercialize more easily. Research shows that when you bring a diverse group of people together in the right environment, innovation will happen naturally. This is what we aim to achieve with Bounce.
Lucky for us, we aren’t starting from ground zero. We’re building on the long history of the Akron Global Business Accelerator and The Bit Factory, a software startup accelerator, and will keep these resources as part of Bounce. But to be a hub, changes need to occur, including leadership, physical improvements and programming.
A new 501(c)(3) nonprofit has been formed under the Bounce name. This organization is led by a board of directors and a larger advisory board consisting of local founders, corporate leaders and foundation leaders. We are in the process of searching for a new CEO, who we hope will be selected by the board early next year. This CEO will set the mission, vision, and strategic plan for Bounce (that’s right, we don’t quite have one yet, but we’ll be working on this in the new year once the CEO is in place). Other staff include myself as program director; someone you know well, Jessica Sublett, as COO; and Heather Roszczyk, innovation advocate for the City of Akron, who currently serves as fellow for the Fund for Our Economic Future. Other staff will be added in 2018, as leadership deems necessary.
Bounce has received a $2M grant from the State of Ohio to completely redesign the first floor of the building to make it a place where people can collaborate. Construction for a makerspace, flexible meeting and co-working space, and a community cafe will start in spring of 2018 and continue through the year. There will be future phases of construction as well, and those plans will be announced later in 2018. We understand the importance of community input in this process. We’ll be soliciting feedback from the community throughout and will keep you up to date with any changes that might occur in the building.
If you’re wondering what is changing on the programmatic side – think big. As program director, my number one goal is to make sure we collaborate with our friends up in Cleveland (and the rest of the region, too) to ensure Bounce members have the very best access to resources. Organizations such as Flashstarts, the Youngstown Business Incubator, ThinkBox, StartinCLE, Techpint, Launch House and many others are on board and excited to work with us to host larger joint events, offer reciprocal memberships to their spaces, and help market what we’re doing for the benefit of the region. There’s also a larger initiative happening up in Cleveland to bring Techstars to the region. Bounce is fully supportive in the planning for that initiative, and we’ll be sure to keep you informed as that program materializes. We’ll also be working on a new mentoring program this year; re-working the founder plugins; adding new networking, showcase and pitch events; and will launch a brand-new website that will have an improved regional calendar of events and ways to sign up for mentoring, facility rentals and much more. Last but not least, I saw the incredible success that Launch League had using Slack as an online community communication platform. We also have a Slack channel available for Bounce members where you can ask questions, share information, post job openings and more. If you’d like an invite please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One last thing I’d like to emphasize is this: Bounce itself is a startup. If you want to best-serve startups, you need to think and act like a startup. Over the next year, the new leadership will be testing ideas and soliciting feedback through surveys and meetings, and learning what works and what doesn’t. We want Bounce to solve the biggest challenges facing our founders, and we’ll need your help to make sure we’re on track. As you know better than anybody, startups have pivots, and you can expect that we’ll be pivoting too, always asking the question “What is best for our founders?” I look forward to working with you on this exciting project. This is a team effort and I encourage all of you to ask questions, get involved and share your ideas. We can’t wait to make Bounce Akron’s front door for innovation!
Have a wonderful holiday season!