Apr 7 2012

Cleveland’s Entrepreneurial Renaissance

I love that many of the emails I am getting include the phrase “entrepreneurial renaissance” in the title. Renaissance is such a powerful phrase – a brief trip to wikipedia helps us realize why it rings so true in this context.

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. Though the invention of printing sped the dissemination of ideas from the later 15th century, the changes of the Renaissance were not uniformly experienced across Europe. As a cultural movement, it encompassed innovative flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, beginning with the 14th-century resurgence of learning based on classical sources, which contemporaries credited to Petrarch, the development of linear perspective and other techniques of rendering a more natural reality in painting, and gradual but widespread educational reform. In politics the Renaissance contributed the development of the conventions of diplomacy, and in science an increased reliance on observation that would flower later in the Scientific Revolution beginning in the 17th century. Traditionally, this intellectual transformation has resulted in the Renaissance being viewed as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern era. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term “Renaissance man“.

Deb Mills-Scofield took up the challenge and wrote me a thoughtful note of the things driving the entrepreneurial renaissance in Cleveland (and – more broadly – the Northeast Ohio area). It follows:

Northeast Ohio (NEO), from the Akron/Canton area south to Cleveland North and from Youngstown east to Lorain County West has become a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship.   It’s the Polymer/Hi-Tech Valley.   So how has this happened? It’s taken a few years – starting with early growth about 8 years ago to more rapid innovation and startups today.  These are just a few of the factors that have contributed to this.

  • Universities – such as Univ of Akron & Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) – investment in tech transfer; Kent State known globally for its leadership in fashion design.
  • Disruptive innovation in higher education for the masses through the efforts of community colleges like Lorain County Community Collegewhich increase access to education and training for skilled labor, liberal arts and high-tech:
  • World class medical research and innovation global leaders like The Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and Summa Health System which spin out medical device and diagnostic equipment and protocol startups as well as bringing in millions of dollars in research grants.  Combined with increased investment sources (below), NEO is now one of the top bio-tech VC investment locations in the USA;
  • Increased seed, angel and early-stage funding sources – both private and local to state-level public sources.  While there were just a couple of sources 7 years ago, there are many sources today including some VCs from other parts of the USA who have opened offices here.
  • Entrepreneurship is ‘place-based’ and NEO has a growing, eclectic, inter-generational community that is building and attracting startups, including an increasing number of serial entrepreneurs which means more and more companies being created with more experienced people who have learned from failure and success and apply that to each new venture (a virtuous spiral)
  • Rapidly growing IT/Design/New Media/Social Media sector with young, passionate, terrific people who are helping make Cleveland and the region and cool, fun, artistic, musical, foodie hot spot.  In fact, companies in these sectors are growing so rapidly they are having trouble hiring enough people.
  • Thriving Arts sector – visual arts, performing arts, music, etc.  Cleveland has one of the world’s best orchestras, one of the nation’s few free art museums and the soon to be opened new home of the Museum of Contemporary Art.  It is also home to one of the top conservatories in the US, Oberlin College Conservatory that is doing innovative work not just in music,     but also in the business of music and in using music to increase academic achievement in underserved K-12 education locations. The Cleveland Institute of Art is a major global player in industrial design.  In addition, the East 4th street restaurant scene has great music (and food and shopping).  Galleries, bands, gathering places are popping up all over the region.  These attract all kinds of creative and innovative people from very diverse backgrounds.  As Richard Florida has said over and over, the Creative class needs the arts!
  • Foodie Haven – Cleveland has become one of the nation’s Foodie hotspots as well.  A restaurant review for the New York Times recently wrote about how surprised and delighted she was with the great food in Cleveland.  Our local chef, Michael Symon, put Cleveland on the map when he became an Iron Chef.  There is every type of ethnic cuisine in every type of venue and ambiance.  A recent visitor to the city remarked on the terrific food and the use of locally grown produce.  In fact, the internationally renowned over 100-year-old West Side Market has been chosen to host the 8th International Public Markets Conference in 2012.
  • The North Coast is a neat place to live – downtown occupancy rates are over 95%, the lake is a great place to enjoy the warm season, including a new boat house for the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the most visited in the US, amazing parks (e.g., The Emerald Necklace), paths and history.
  • History of entrepreneurship and innovation – let’s not forget that Cleveland has a strong history of innovation and entrepreneurship over the past 150 years.  While the elements that fostered that economic engine had dimmed, they were not extinguished and are coming alive, being built upon and learned from.

While you won’t read about much of this in the local Cleveland press, there is something almost daily in the national on-line/off-line press.  Cleveland’s growth stems from its heritage, its diversity of people, education institutions, arts, sciences, skills and recreation. Innovation comes from all these areas – in themselves and in combination bringing new viewpoints, new customers, new markets and new needs. All of these are why Cleveland and NE Ohio has become a great place to start a business and a life.