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UpTech — Building an Information Cluster

By Feoshia H. Davis

UpTech finalists present their ideas to a board of national technology and business leaders at Griffin Hall on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.

Jim Uber came for the money. He stayed for the change in worldview.

Uber co-founded one of the first start-up companies in a new, intensive Northern Kentucky digital business accelerator program. UpTech, as the planned five-year program’s name implies, develops tech-based companies aimed at creating the jobs of the near future.

UpTech is a partnership of several Northern Kentucky organizations including Northern Kentucky University, the Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development Corp. (Tri-ED)and Vision 2015, a nonprofit organization that supports the region’s 10-year strategic plan.

Individual participant’s six-month UpTech support package includes an impressive $100,000 in seed investment. Selected companies also work with students and faculty at NKU’s College of Informatics (informatics.nku.edu). It’s funded mostly by private investors and with some state funds. Most of UpTech’s mentors and support service providers are students and volunteers.

UpTech’s first “class” of start-ups began in early June, with eight companies. Uber’s company CitiLogics (citilogics.com) has created Polaris, a real-time forecasting platform that uses existing water management data to help utilities better control their water distribution systems.

Polaris software will allow utilities to better pinpoint leak sources and improve water quality, among other things. It also forecasts how a particular piece of infrastructure will hold up in an emergency or a heavy use period. And it allows departments to share that information easily.

A Cincinnati-based company, CitiLogics moved to UpTech’s Newport offices, a requirement for all participant companies. Uber said the major reason the company applied for the program was for the money, but UpTech offers so much more.

“Honestly, (we applied) for the funding. We also knew, of course, that being part of a business accelerator would change our worldview, but it was impossible to predict just how at that time,” he said. “We knew exactly what we wanted to achieve with technology, but we were more naive from a business development perspective.”

Through a series of programs, Up-Tech guides participant start-ups through areas of business development from marketing and fundraising to market research and pitching the company to both investors and clients. UpTech’s business development process pushed the CitiLogics principals to go all-in, devoting more resources to actually developing the company, which was founded in 2009.

Griffin Hall is a new state-of-the-art facility that houses the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University, a key partner in the development of the UpTech companies.

“UpTech pushed us through a process that forced us to see just how important, and time-consuming, the business development process was going to be. That, in turn, forced us to assign resources to it that we were previously reluctant to commit. We just wouldn’t have done that on our own, and it’s critically important,” Uber said of the company he helped launch.

Those are the kinds of breakthroughs UpTech wants businesses to achieve to grow from the start-up stage.

Dubbed a “super accelerator,” UpTech offers significantly more in terms of finances and resources than the country’s average accelerators. For instance, its $100,000 seed funding is five times the average $20,000 award. And while most programs last three months, this one lasts six months. Each company gets two interns from NKU’s College of Informatics, one of the few informatics colleges in the country. In exchange for those resources, each company must stay in the Northern Kentucky region for two years after completing the program.

“We think that will give them enough time to love Northern Kentucky and find success in Northern Kentucky,” said Casey Barach, vice president of entrepreneurship for Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, who helped organize the accelerator.

The six initial companies are the first of 50 UpTech is working to bring through its accelerator in the next five years.

UpTech’s goals are big.

A primary one is developing an information-based industry cluster in the region that can employ many of the hundreds of informatics grads coming out of NKU each year. Founded six years ago, the informatics college offers nine bachelor’s, five master’s and a variety of graduate and undergraduate certificate programs.

The eight start-up companies selected received $100,000 from UpTech, along with riverfront office space in Newport; business support (legal, accounting and marketing), assistance from Northern Kentucky University faculty and staff, and use of NKU labs and facilities.

“The (college’s) recent top three grads left and are going to work on the West Coast,” Barach laments. “We want to create companies where they can work here in Northern Kentucky.”

Through its funding mechanism, Up-Tech also wants to further develop a culture where Northern Kentuckians see investing in start-ups as a viable investment option.

“We want it to become normal. When someone is investing, we want them to think ‘I should put part of my money in a early-stage technology company,’ as part of that process,” Barach said.

The companies have exceeded his expectations at the halfway point in the six-month program.

“Some have revenues. Some have customers,” Barach said. “They are getting introduced into the market, ready and poised to take off.”

OneMorePallet, another company founded in the Cincinnati area, is making an entry into the logistics market. Co-founded by serial entrepreneur and start-up consultant Bill Cunningham, OneMorePallet matches small shippers and haulers.

Though Cunningham is a startup veteran, he jumped at what UpTech offered.

“It’s really great to have these resources that you don’t have to go out and find,” he said. “I’ve found marketing folks who I would have never thought to connect with, and the resources at NKU are tremendous.”

While at UpTech, Cunningham is revising OneMorePallet’s software, which allows haulers who have extra space on their trucks to connect with small companies that have a pallet or two of product to ship. By the end of the six-month program, he hopes to have 200 customers.

CitiLogics also is poised for growth, Uber said, and the money UpTech is putting in allowed it to bridge a crucial gap in funding and revenue generation. Without UpTech, Uber says, the company may have gone out of business. Now, it’s ready for success.

“All in all, we’re a much more experienced, stronger, and more aware company than when we walked in,” he said.

Selection of the next round of UpTech start-up participants is expected next spring after a marketing push. While recruiting is largely regional at this point, program officials hope to be attracting applicants from across the United States within the next couple of years.

Feoshia H. Davis is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].

The Inaugural UpTech Class

7 Moose Games, a software developer offering 3D simulation products geared towards the health, oil and gas, mining, academic, manufacturing and public safety industries. The company specializes in the “gamification” of business and training software.

CitiLogics, a developer of real-time data fusion software that helps water utilities lower energy costs, reduce water leakage, improve service reliability and enhance the quality of tap water.

— Crowdspark, an on-demand content platform that allows users to create online contests.

— InstrumentLife, an Internet-based business application with a social media interface that connects musical instruments with owners, retailers, repair shops and schools.

MakeupHaulic, a website dedicated to aggregating beauty-related video logs (vlogs) into a searchable interface.

OneMorePallet, a logistics service website that provides small shippers the ability to purchase excess capacity from less-than-a-truckload carriers at a significant discount.

Student Designed, an online tool that allows businesses and universities to connect through a marketplace where businesses outsource projects for university professors to review and assign to their students as class assignments.

Text and the City, a mobile marketing company that combines text messaging, a conventional website and mobile website to connect users on a hyper-local basis.

Source: UpTech