Akron's Bounce Innovation Hub enters new phase of leadership
Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub is entering a new phase of leadership. COO Jessica Sublett is taking over as CEO this month.
Sublett has been with Bounce since it was founded in 2018. Doug Weintraub has lead the organization as CEO from the beginning and announced his retirement in May, 2022. Sublett plans to continue to lead the organization down the path that Weintraub started.
"We're not changing course by any means. We're headed in the same direction, and I would say with good tail winds behind us," Sublett said. "So we're going there stronger with more resources."
Part of this plan includes expanding Bounce both in terms of helping more entrepreneurs and expanding geographically into the community. Sublett wants to get outside of the Bounce building and meet entrepreneurs where they are. Last month, Bounce started offering its Aspiring Entrepreneurs program at the North Hill Community Development Corporation. The program teaches people who are starting to think about entrepreneurship about the basics of business. Sublett hopes to partner with more CDCs in the city to bring the program to even more people.
"I think we can see more of that, more of other programming continuing to expand," Sublett said. "We could maybe see MORTOR outside of the building in the coming years." MORTOR is a 15-week accelerator focused on small business entrepreneurs and part of a larger program that's centered on woman- and minority-owned startups.
The Aspiring Entrepreneurs cohort at North Hill CDC is primarily made up of nonnative English speakers, Sublett said.
"That's a safe space for the community and a trusted partner of the community," she said.
She hopes others who may have more trust and awareness in local CDCs will join in future cohorts of Aspiring Entrepreneurs.
"It's a nice way to sort of dip the toe in the water of entrepreneurship that feels not as maybe daunting as coming downtown," Sublett said.
She is hopeful expanding Bounce programming into the community will emphasize the connectedness of Akron's entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Goals for the new year
Sublett has two big goals for Bounce in the new year: support polymer companies and support healthcare startups.
There's an initiative in the community to better support local polymer companies, Sublett said. This effort lead by the Greater Akron Chamber aims to deeply examine the region's polymer industry and develop a framework to leverage its full potential. The University of Akron has led polymer, rubber and plastics research for decades, and a cluster of polymer companies exist in the region. Bounce can support this effort as a commercialization partner, Sublett said.
"We also have a really strong program to support high growth potential technology start up companies," she said.
There's also a robust community of healthcare businesses, Sublett said.
"We have a role to play in commercializing you know health care companies, health care startups, particularly as the pandemic comes through, and there's so many new innovations coming out," she said.
Supporting diverse entrepreneurs
Bounce has long been a supporter of diversifying the pool of entrepreneurs and small business owners in Akron. Its program GROW, or Generating Real Opportunity and Wealth, which Aspiring Entrepreneurs is a part of, focuses on helping women and minority entrepreneurs.
Bounce will continue to review the business ecosystem in the area for gaps that might impact minority entrepreneurs, Sublett said.
"What has persisted? Despite all of our best efforts, what has persisted to be a gap?," Sublett said. "And then working as a group to solve that gap and fill the gap in the community."
One such gap is capital readiness, Sublett said.
"We talk a lot about connecting entrepreneurs to capital," she said, "but once we've done that, if they're not ready to take on that capital, you know it might be at a more established financial institution, that might be just a no."
Organizations such as the Western Reserve Community Fund work with entrepreneurs to get them ready to take on capital, but there's need for more organizations to do this work, Sublett said.
"How can we align the resources, align professional service providers to help our entrepreneurs make sure that they've got everything in line to take on that capital?," Sublett said.
Earlier this year, there were concerns that there was not enough capital in the community to support small business owners. Now, the amount of capital is sufficient, Sublett said.
"It is the preparing the entrepreneurs to be capital ready," she said.
The ecosystem has received a massive infusion of capital due in part to the pandemic and recent economic hardships, Sublett said.
"We have this sort of monumental amount capital that's available," she said, "but now we have got to prepare our entrepreneurs to be able to take that and deploy it and deploy it in a way that helps them grow their company and be sustainable."
Potentially the biggest problem Sublett may have to face in her new role is talk of an impending recession. She wants to focus on preparing small businesses for this potential.
"When this happens, companies budgets get tight, right? And so they're going to stop spending. They're going to stop buying. And so if our startups and our small businesses are the ones they're buying from, they need to be prepared to be ready to manage their cash flow," Sublett said "They need to be able to understand how much runway they have, so how much money do I have to keep operating if money stopped coming in today?"
But Sublett warns next year is not all bad news.
"Statistically, every time there is a large number of unemployment, there's also a large number of businesses started and new innovations created," Sublett said.
There was a 25% increase in new businesses in 2021 over 2020, Sublett said. She's readying Bounce to receive more new entrepreneurs with new technology, innovations and ideas.
"I would anticipate based on historical data and historical statistics that we'll probably see a pretty big increase in deal flow across the ecosystem," Sublett said.