The Ohio Third Frontier program is looking to approve spending at least $82 million before the end of 2019.
The 17-year-old program, which has spent more than $2 billion to stimulate new business development, awaits decisions from the administration of Gov. Mike DeWine on its future. Earlier this summer, the Ohio Development Services Agency released requests for proposals (RFP) looking to invest Third Frontier bond money to help grow technology businesses in the state.
The DeWine administration has been noncommittal about the program’s future. In an emailed statement, DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the administration is examining how best to support new and growing businesses.
“Gov. DeWine and Lt. Gov. Husted are committed to making Ohio globally competitive and attracting growing industries, and Third Frontier has provided many benefits to Ohio businesses over the years. It has also continued to evolve,” Tierney wrote. “We are looking at ways to maximize these resources to take them to the next level.”
The Third Frontier program gives grants to universities, businesses and nonprofits to spur technical innovations designed to lead to new businesses. It has funded a wide variety of research that might lead to the commercialization of products. It has financially supported everything from resurfacing the test track at the Honda of American Manufacturing Inc. with a $6 million grant, to a dozen $200,000 grants to organizations, including the University of Akron and relink.org of Aurora, that are pursuing technology-based solutions to address the opioid epidemic.
Voters in 2010 authorized a renewal of the original 2002 bond issue, approving the spending $700 million over the next decade. Spending $82 million before the year is out will leave the bond fund with about $100 million in spending authority.
Ray Leach, CEO of JumpStart Inc., the Cleveland nonprofit business accelerator and investor, said he thinks that had the Third Frontier program and its money not been around, there would be significantly less startup activity in the state than there is. JumpStart has been the beneficiary of significant Third Frontier financial support and has used some of that money to fund other organizations that help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable businesses.
“I do think the outcomes of the program are such that it would be very hard to wind down this work,” he said. “The only way would be if there is a better alternative, and maybe there is, but I haven’t seen it.”
Leach added one important key to the success of the investments the Third Frontier program has made is the requirement that most grants have a matching private or local investment.
The current RFPs are for its Entrepreneurial Services Provider (ESP) program and its Technology Validation and Start-up Fund (TVSF). The ESP program funds a network of six regional nonprofits, including JumpStart, that offer technology entrepreneurs and early stage companies advice, technical support and entre to early stage and venture capital. The TVSF program provides grants to universities and other nonprofit research institutions to help transition technology from Ohio research institutions into the marketplace through Ohio startup companies. TVSF awards typically go to research programs at universities and other nonprofits, such as a $50,000 award to the Northeast Ohio Medical University for research into a commercial screening kit for gene therapy.
In 2018, the Third Frontier board awarded JumpStart $28.2 million to lead a group of entrepreneurial support organizations for 2018-20, including BioEnterprise, which works with entrepreneurs to commercialize bioscience technologies; Flashstarts, a business accelerator and venture fund that provides capital and support services for tech companies; and the MAGNET Incubation Center (MIC), which helps turn manufactured product ideas into growing businesses.
Flashstarts, for instaance, uses its own money to support and invest in a young business, but is also one of the organizations that benefits, through JumpStart, from funding through the entrepreneurial support program. It can assist an entrepreneur in turning an idea into a business by providing help on things such as forming a corporation, filing the right tax forms and even naming the business.
“Early stage companies often need advice more than money,” noted Shannon Lyons, chief operating officer of Flashstarts. “The Third Frontier money has allowed us to work with hundreds of companies.”
Though the DeWine administration has so far been mum on how it will continue to support entrepreneurial efforts, the research foundation of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce in July 2018 completed a study that offered an alternative.
In “Ohio Bold: A Blueprint for Accelerating the Innovation Economy,” the chamber’s research organization recommended accelerating the state’s business-building activity around four innovation platforms, which it called Next Gen Manufacturing, Future Health, Smart Infrastructure and Data Analytics.
“The statewide Innovation Hubs will focus on ‘industry-facing’ activities and specialized shared-use facilities to advance new-product development, process improvements and commercialization of new technologies through active connections to serial entrepreneurs, angel investors and seed-stage venture capital funds,” the report stated.
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