#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Jordan Davis, Director at Smart Columbus
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
With its “Goldilocks size” and pipeline of talent from dozens of higher education institutions, including The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio is a leading city for growing startups. This week’s #StartupsEverywhere features Jordan Davis, who’s working to make Columbus the model for smart cities around the country. Read on to learn more about how the Columbus startup ecosystem has been impacted by recent high-profile acquisitions, interest from major tech players (including Facebook and Hyperloop), financial reforms in 2010, and more.
What’s your personal role in the Columbus-area startup ecosystem? Can you tell us more about what your organization does?
I serve as the Director of Smart Columbus. This means I have one of the best jobs in the whole city and I get to help to make Columbus the model for connected cities of the future! Smart Columbus is a regional smart city initiative co-led by the City of Columbus and the Columbus Partnership that includes partnerships with The Ohio State University, American Electric Power, and many more. Together, we will be implementing future-forward transportation projects that better connect residents to jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and drive economic growth for the Columbus Region.
I help feed the entrepreneurial ecosystem by building bridges between corporate and startup companies and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to engage with our smart cities work. We engage entrepreneurs through hackathons, as well as by sponsoring and supporting community events such as StartUp week. We are working to create new value for the ecosystem with data, through the Smart Columbus Operating System.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened for Columbus recently?
In 2016, Columbus was the winner of the U.S. Smart Cities Challenge. As a result, it received two grants (totaling $50 million) to be used to improve mobility for Columbus residents using next generation technology. Since winning the challenge, our community has been hard at work planning for deployments that will start this year and continue through the end of 2020.
Columbus has continued to make headlines with big wins in 2017 such as:
Columbus was named the #1 metro for scaling startups;
Columbus-based CoverMyMeds sold to McKesson for over $1 billion dollars, the largest tech acquisition in Ohio’s history;
The American Natural History Museum dinosaur exhibit came to COSI Columbus;
The Midwest Connect, which would link Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Chicago, was selected as a finalist for Hyperloop One; and
Columbus local startup and social entrepreneurial success story, Hot Chicken Takeover, was featured on the Today Show.
What makes Columbus an ideal place to start a company?
Columbus is “Goldilocks size.” It is big enough to have scale and small enough to get the attention of all the major players in town. Through its open-minded approach to life, business, and ideas, the Columbus Region has cultivated an environment built on collaboration through which you can quickly network with key decision makers, with both local and national significance.
Columbus is also one of the fastest growing major metropolitan areas in the country and is celebrated as one of the strongest metros in the country for job creation. An up-and-coming tech city, Columbus-area research and technology institutions are attracting the brightest minds and aspiring entrepreneurs from around the world. It has:
A growing base: Columbus has the 6th largest Fortune 1000 base layered on top of a fast-growing economy, making it a place innovators want to be to sell to big companies and big markets.
A robust talent pipeline: The Columbus Region is home to 56 college and university campuses with a total enrollment of more than 136,000 college and graduate students and more than 22,000 annual graduates.
What industries have historically thrived in Columbus? How has this shaped the startup ecosystem there?
Columbus has a diverse economy, but it really stands out when it comes to insurance, financial services, retail, logistics, and healthcare. Industry giants and startups alike benefit from Columbus’ combination of demographics and geography making us a national consumer laboratory. As “Test Market, U.S.A.” we are the perfect space for startups to launch, test, iterate, grow and succeed. Innovative industry giants such as Nationwide Insurance, American Electric Power, and Huntington Bank have leaned in heavily to support the local startup community as investors, mentors, and first customers. This type of access has accelerated the growth of the Columbus startup community and provided a sharp competitive edge for our entrepreneurs.
There are a number of universities within close proximity to Columbus. What has their impact been on the startup ecosystem?
Access to talent is a critical component of a successful startup community and luckily Ohio is home to over 200 higher-education institutions. Columbus, in particular, is home to The Ohio State University (OSU), one of the largest universities in the country and an institution with an annual enrollment of over 45,000 students. OSU is an active and engaged leader in the Columbus startup community, investing in several venture capital funds, commercializing and licensing technology, and encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit of its students through hackathons, entrepreneurial clubs, and events.
What is the biggest challenge you face in the Columbus?
The biggest challenges we face in Columbus are time, talent, and capital.
We are working collaboratively to solve the challenges that all emerging ecosystems face such as access to capital, mentors, and talent, but we are just getting started. Startups need diverse tech talent to succeed and while we’re making progress to increase that here, there’s still a gap. Capital is a similar challenge; while we have more than we’ve had in the past to support growing companies, those same companies will need more in the future – and bigger rounds – as they grow.
As we continue to grow, attract, and retain both capital and talent in our community, we will look back on the Smart City Challenge win and Covermymeds exit as pivotal moments in our history. In less than five years, Columbus will be a leader in innovation, entrepreneurship and the blueprint for the American Smart City. All we need is time and continued collaborative support from our community.
Who are the primary drivers of entrepreneurism and innovation in your community? How have they supported startups in Columbus? Are their limits to their reach?
The primary drivers of entrepreneurism and innovation in Columbus are the grit and determination of our entrepreneur and investor community. This Midwestern spirit has fostered success and perseverance for entrepreneurs in previous decades, but to compete at the level we know we can we are capable of we need our corporations and community leadership to continue to invest in our entrepreneurs and the local funds who support them.
Are there specific policy issues that are especially pertinent to startups in Columbus?
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed in 2010 to bring financial stability to the U.S. economy. While beneficial to the overall economy, this law had unintended consequences on the Midwest startup ecosystem. By preventing institutional banks from investing in venture capital funds, this law removed a key source of investment for a number of critical local funds, which in turn decreased the amount of capital available for our startups. In Ohio, institutional banks were typically “first money in” new venture capital funds, also providing confidence for subsequent investors such as individuals or family offices who may lack venture experience and the ability to conduct due diligence on the emerging fund. The sudden change in the law had negative consequences for Ohio venture funds and we believe that a reinterpretation of the law exempting small venture capital funds will positively and significantly impact our local startup community and communities across the fast-growing Midwest.
Are your federal policymakers involved in your ecosystem? What has your interaction with them been?
Ohio legislators are some of the strongest advocates for entrepreneurs in Washington. Earlier this year, Senator Rob Portman hosted a roundtable discussion for top investors and entrepreneurs in Columbus to hear their stories and offer ways to help pave the path toward their success. In addition, Senator Portman played a key role in removing a tax provision (editor’s note: that Engine was also actively opposed to) from the Senate’s original proposed bill that would have had negative consequences for entrepreneurs in Columbus and across the U.S.
Both Senator Brown and Senator Portman are invested in the success of Ohio entrepreneurs, and members of their team are regulars at Columbus startup-focused events.
In the House, former U.S. Representative Pat Tiberi chaired the Joint Economic Committee hearing on startup formation in the U.S. and invited the leader of our statewide venture group, VentureOhio to testify on behalf of entrepreneurs in Columbus and Ohio.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of the Columbus area?
Absolutely! Here’s a recent feature on ten growing tech startups in Columbus. In addition, I am also keeping my eye on these local companies:
Safechain is eliminating fraud and redundancy in the title industry through blockchain-enabled technology;
Beam Dental is a smart tech-enabled dental insurance company;
DOmedia is changing the way media is bought and sold; and
Updox provides an industry-leading healthcare care coordination solution and was named the past three consecutive years to the Inc. 5000 list of America's fastest-growing private companies. The company has integrated with more than 100 electronic health records (EHR) and serves more than 300,000 users and 72 million patients.