It's generally accepted that a nurturing community for entrepreneurs results in successful economic development. Northeast Ohio, however, is not one of those regions known for its plethora of start-ups: in its rankings of "Best Cities for Entrepreneurs," Entrepreneur Magazine ranks the Cleveland area 57th out of 61 cities. But the winners of this year's NorTech Innovation Awards reveal a different trend - one that emphasizes the abundance of innovative ideas and products within existing Northeast Ohio companies. As part of Making Change: Reinventing our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman reports that encouraging that kind of innovation could be just as valuable to the economy as a brand-new start up.
Frequently, when we talk about entrepreneurs, we think of people starting up their own business; going out on their own; being their own boss. We think of people like Seryrell Davis.
Seryrell Davis: And I was sitting at home watching (a) football game and a commercial came on and I had the jar in my hand of salsa and I was tossing it up in the air and I looked at the ingredients and I looked at the jar and I said, "I betcha I could make this and sell it." And I just started going into production on my own.
In his garage, Davis used a food processor to whip up cases of his self-titled "Seryrell's Salsa." After a few years he quit his job as a corrections officer and started to make deals with some local supermarkets. Demand grew enough that he now contracts with production companies that pump out hundreds of cases of his creation. His salsa might not be making him rich, but Davis has high hopes.
Seryrell Davis: I'm hoping to conquer the United States and other continents.
While entrepreneurs often start with big goals, once their businesses reach a certain size, that creativity and energy often ebbs. It's not that the entrepreneurs lose their ability to generate new ideas - it's that other things get in the way.
Scott Rickert: Entrepreneurs can't do everything, that's my message.
Scott Rickert is CEO of NanoFilm, a mid-size, Cleveland-area company that uses nano-technology to make ultra-thin coatings for various surfaces.
Scott Rickert: You can't do everything, cannot run your business or grow your business. You have to decide and at some point you have to stop running the business if you're going to continue to grow.
For Rickert, that meant hiring a Chief Operating Officer to handle the day-to-day business. This gave him the freedom to play with new ideas, such as their recent creation - the de-fogger - a specialized cloth that prevents sunglasses or scuba masks from fogging up. That product won a NorTech Innovation Award this year. Rickert's shift in responsibility makes him more of an "intrapreneur" these days: someone who works from the inside of an existing business to take risks and come up with new products. Intrapreneurship is something the region should be encouraging, says Kirk Neiswander, senior vice president of programs at the resource center for early stage companies, JumpStart. He says lately some well-established businesses are leaning toward innovation.
Kirk Neiswander: Those companies are the ones that right now are expressing a great deal of interest in learning about innovation and actually in some cases, I think they're expressing interest in trying to figure out either in total or by division, how they can be more entrepreneurial.
One of those big boys did take a risk on a new product that paid off. And it's all because of one word: plastics.
Mark Kziezyk: There wasn't a paint out there that we could paint on plastic without it dripping off or scraping off or pealing off. So our lab was able to create this great product called Fusion that is no prep, no sanding, no priming. It goes right on the surface and bonds to it and keeps it from pealing or chipping.
Mark Kziezyk is senior product manager in the Krylon division of Sherwin Williams. Now, Sherwin Williams is a 138-year-old, $5.4 billion company and the Krylon division is just one part of that, handling aerosol products and caulking. Kziezyk says Fusion outsold their forecast for the year in just four months. That success got the company to sit up and take notice - and make some changes. Pat Macko is vice president of marketing for the division.
Pat Macko: With that product launch and that success, it really opened our eyes to understanding what a new product can do, what innovation can do.
The division is now intent on breeding a culture of innovation, Macko says. Employees are encouraged to develop their idea-hunting skills and then submit them to the division heads through a link on their e-mail system. She says you never know where a new idea will pop up.
Pat Macko: So we're really just trying to create the environment of rethinking and sharing ideas and really giving anyone the opportunity to post an idea, to pose an idea that may or may not be a valid one, but we're willing to hear them all.
Macko says the whole company is observing how this new culture plays out. But it should be the entire region paying attention to companies that make innovation a priority, says JumpStart's Kirk Neiswander. The NorTech Innovation Awards have been honoring innovative companies for more than ten years, but Neiswander says it's in the region's best interest to do more than just recognize them once a year.
Kirk Neiswander: Generally, we get them started or they're located here and all we do is tax them and forget about them and that's the worst thing we could do. I think there are things we could do to help existing companies grow in value, not revenue but grow in value. And if you can do that and they are good corporate citizens - which means they have to give something back, and they do through taxes and so forth but also for philanthropy - that's going to drive and enhance regional economic development.
A company's successful innovation might not directly create new jobs, but it has a ripple effect, Neiswander says. Increased value in one company puts added demand on suppliers, for example, and those companies increase earnings and add new jobs. Neiswander says the challenge now is finding a way the region's intrapreneurs have the support our entrepreneurs already enjoy. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.