How Akron Made Space for Entrepreneurs

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At City Summit 2018, 50 cities committed to new initiatives to support their innovation economies. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments in order to showcase successes, identify best practices and connect peer cities who can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work:

In the beginning of the 20th century, Akron’s economy seemed invincible. The town was home to all four of the world’s leading producers of tires, lending it the nickname “The Rubber City.” Collectively, the city produced 80 percent of tires used in the U.S. and was at the forefront of a booming, and at the time, highly innovative sector.

Circumstances changed in the 1960s. New technology from upstart company Michelin essentially doubled a tire’s useful life, upending the industry for incumbent producers, and, as a consequence, for Akron. Within an 18-month period, three of the four corporations ceased to exist as independent entities.

Today, Akron sees an opportunity to re-establish itself as a hotbed of innovation. In 2016, Akronites elected their first new mayor in nearly 30 years, installed a new president of the Chamber of Commerce, and a new county executive. And, after a regional assessment, the city also had new economic priorities. Mainly, rely less on attracting the big, multinational companies of its past and more on developing its homegrown entrepreneurs and startups.

A Commitment to Grow Akron from Within

Energized with a new vision for Akron’s economic future, public, private and university leadership were now ready to commit to bold action. Joining NLC’s Innovation Ecosystem program alongside 50 other cities at City Summit in November 2018, Akron committed to take concrete steps towards enhancing its culture of entrepreneurship.

Heather Roszczyk, hired by newly-elected Mayor Daniel Horrigan as the city’s first innovation and entrepreneurship advocate, says that her directive from the mayor was clear: “to make sure that Akron is a place where entrepreneurs and innovation are supported and celebrated every single day.”

One of the strategies Mayor Horrigan identified was revamping the city’s business accelerator, the oldest in the state of Ohio. “The accelerator had been fairly stagnant, with very few companies graduating out into downtown” Roszczyk says. “There were no common spaces where the tenants could meet and bounce ideas off each other.”

If Akron was going to be known as a hotspot for entrepreneurs, this would have to change. With funding from the State of Ohio and Burton D. Morgan, a local foundation focused on entrepreneurship, Mayor Horrigan spun the accelerator into an independent non-profit called Bounce Innovation Hub. Its board appointed a new director, hired new staff and transformed the dimly lit, cavernous first floor into a meeting and co-working space for local entrepreneurs.

Visit today and you’ll find a cafe, makerspace, conference rooms, and a creative co-op; all spaces that help facilitate the collision of people and ideas that contribute to the vibrancy of a burgeoning downtown. Additionally, the walls are filled with over 120 original works of art and furniture from local artists and makers, emphasizing the important role creative entrepreneurship plays in the ecosystem.

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Bounce Innovation Hub. Photo courtesy of Akron.

In addition to creating physical spaces for startups and entrepreneurs to develop their ideas, the city is showering praise and recognition on the people and small businesses driving Akron’s new economy.

Together with their partners at the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, the city is lifting up the success stories of local startups and creating a culture where big, new ideas are celebrated. In previous years, large companies had been the primary recipients of awards from the Chamber of Commerce. Now, the Chamber is committed to celebrating 100 growth stories each year, as well as raising the profile of 25 “Startups to Watch” on an annual basis.

Roszczyk says, “the Chamber of Commerce has emerged as a tremendous partner from a storytelling perspective.” In addition to recognizing startups, its business retention and expansion activities, in partnership with the city of Akron and Summit County, play a key role in creating a sense of momentum for the city’s innovation ecosystem.

In the months and years ahead, Roszczyk emphasizes Mayor Horrigan and the city’s desire to identify and grow non-tech, as well as minority-owned businesses. “We have a number of organizations that can assist non-tech entrepreneurs, but currently it’s mostly 1-on-1 coaching and not scalable.” To that end, the city and Bounce are planning to launch cohort-based programming aimed at supporting entrepreneurs from under-represented backgrounds and in sectors other than tech.

Roszczyk’s enthusiasm for her city and for entrepreneurship is infectious. She notes that Akron stands out from other, larger cities in its intimacy. “This is a place where you can walk into a coffee shop and know both the baristas and the business owners by name,” she says, before adding, “everyone’s invested. We all want Akron to grow. There may be no better symbol of the transition from “old Akron” to “new Akron” than the building that hosts the Bounce Innovation Hub. The previous owner? None other than BF Goodrich Tires.

Lessons from Akron

  • Incubators and accelerators are best left in the hands of non-profits or quasi-governmental entities. Cities can be highly effective partners in planning, fundraising, and outreach, but are typically not equipped to identify high-growth startups or manage higher risk ventures.
  • Role definition aids collaboration between cities and non-governmental entities. Akron worked with its partners to identify clear roles for each entity. The city of Akron leads strategy around entrepreneurship and inclusive growth, the Chamber of Commerce plays a key role in storytelling and coordination, and Summit County spearheads business retention and expansion. Additional partners like Bounce provide tactical support to emerging and scaling businesses.
  • Supporting homegrown entrepreneurs and startups is an important piece of economic revitalization in old industrial cities. As the U.S. economy becomes less dependent on manufacturing, cities like Akron are leveraging the entrepreneurial spirit of their residents into new higher-wage jobs and industries.

Berkaw-HeadShot (1)About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.