Cincinnati Is Pouring $1 Billion Into a Startup-Friendly ‘Innovation District’

February 20, 2020

By Jeff Barrett, CEO at Barrett PR
4-minute read

In short:

  • Late last decade, the Queen City made a number of quiet moves to position itself for the future of healthcare, logistics and entrepreneurship.
  • One of the country’s most promising “innovation districts” proves Cincinnati is committed to startups, many of which have already succeeded in the region.
  • Startup founders would do well to consider planting their business in the city as it prepares to launch into the 2020s.

It’s easy to identify a “growth city” once it’s grown. With hindsight, you can point back to reasons why Austin, Denver and Charlotte became hotspots for budding businesses. The harder thing to do is to predict which city is next.

But we’re beginning to recognize the signs that indicate a city will win in the 2020s, in the way that rail systems, waterways and the interstate caused cities to become business hubs in the past.

In this decade, an international airport, strong university and biotechnology bend are a city’s calling cards to startup success. Add to that the fairly new concept of innovation districts(opens in new tab): In these centers, corporations and researchers collaborate with business accelerators(opens in new tab), which give startups funding and access to resources like mentorship from industry greats.

And on that list, Cincinnati checks all the boxes.

What makes Cincinnati poised for growth?

No single move Cincinnati has made in the last decade is the key, in terms of positioning it as a startup-friendly city. Just like a chess match, the next 10 moves aren’t obvious to the untrained eye. They just look like an in-the-moment move. But if you look closer, Cincinnati is already sitting on checkmate.

Even though it has a significantly growing economy(opens in new tab), one of the nation’s coolest revitalized neighborhoods (Over-the-Rhine) and is home to Procter & Gamble and Kroger headquarters, Cincy wasn’t historically included in discussions about high-growth cities of the last decade. But business publications recently took notice: Forbes and Rise of The Rest ranked it sixth in “rising cities for startups(opens in new tab)” in 2018, the same year Inc. included it on its list of surge cities(opens in new tab).

Cincinnati has a history of growing big businesses, as evidenced by Procter & Gamble's HQ in the city.

Travelers too have discovered Cincinnati in recent years, thanks to a position on The New York Times's coveted "52 Places to Go(opens in new tab)" list, as well as countless shoutouts to the region's dining and craft beer and bourbon scenes.

And then there’s FC Cincinnati(opens in new tab), which grew quickly from Major League Soccer’s second division into a full-fledged team(opens in new tab) in only three years, capping off in 2019. 

Global companies as well as a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem fuel Cincy’s community engine, including its Minority Business Accelerator(opens in new tab), Hillman Accelerator(opens in new tab) for underrepresented founders, Cintrifuse(opens in new tab) startup community and nonprofit Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation(opens in new tab).

Cintrifuse is an example of the blossoming startup communities in Cincy.

And while everyone was focused on Amazon’s HQ2 selection frenzy (which Cincinnati did not win), the region’s airport, already the eighth largest cargo hub in the country, quietly landed another deal: Amazon selected it for its $1.5 billion Prime Air principal hub(opens in new tab), expected to create over 2,000 jobs. Other businesses and Amazon partners may follow suit(opens in new tab), wanting to be in this central location as we move to an economy in which lightning-speed shipping becomes the standard.

Beyond its new position as a shipping mecca, Cincinnati also offers affordable living and a talent pool of recent college graduates.

“There is real value for talent to have an option beyond Americas coastal cities,” said Christopher Reintz, chief client officer of Grey Midwest, which opened two years ago(opens in new tab) as a full-service arm of the legendary New York City advertising agency. “[Cincinnati is] an option where they can live affordably without missing the cultural advantages of urban life.”

“There is real value for talent to have an option beyond Americas coastal cities. [Cincinnati is] an option where [you] can live affordably without missing the cultural advantages of urban life.”



Building the startup hub of the future

More than five years ago, Uptown Consortium(opens in new tab), a nonprofit dedicated to Cincinnati’s economic and community development, saw an opportunity to tap into emerging technological demands.

It made plans for the Innovation Corridor(opens in new tab), a collaborative environment for medicine, business, research and technology to come together. Current tenants include the University of Cincinnati’s innovation and research accelerator(opens in new tab) and neuroscience institute(opens in new tab). The Gateway(opens in new tab), a residential-meets-retail-meets-office space, will house some of the Corridor's 51,000 residents(opens in new tab) when completed next year.

Cincinnati's Innovation Corridor will be complete next year.

The Global Institute on Innovation Districts(opens in new tab) lists Cincinnati among 27 U.S. markets(opens in new tab) at the forefront of “a new geography of innovation,” thanks to the Corridor’s 1 million square feet of new space(opens in new tab) representing $1 billion of investment.

The project’s goals are obvious.

“The Uptown Innovation Corridor leverages the strengths of the Uptown anchor institutions —medicine, research and innovation advancements — to attract talent and high-growth companies to Cincinnati,” said Beth Robinson, president and CEO of Uptown Consortium.

CincyTech(opens in new tab), a regionally-focused venture capital fund that’s become one of the Midwest’s most active seed investors(opens in new tab), is one of the Corridor’s early residents. Since 2007, CincyTech’s portfolio companies have brought over $1 billion(opens in new tab) to the city, helping put Southwest Ohio on the map(opens in new tab) as a place for VCs from the rest of the country to find investment opportunities.

CincyTech is a local VC firm that has helped to put Southwest Ohio on the startup map.

Meanwhile, world-class research from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the University of Cincinnati and other local institutions have created a particularly strong pipeline of human health startups, said CincyTech CEO Mike Venerable. Ones to watch(opens in new tab) include Genetesis(opens in new tab), whose machines pinpoint the cause of chest pain with high-tech imaging, and Clarigent Health(opens in new tab), whose mental-health app aims to stop self-harm before it happens.

“Complemented by the region’s pharma and device talent base, and a network of engaged providers with real-world feedback, seed-stage opportunities have a significant head start in Southwest Ohio,” Venerable added.

Cincinnati's plan is working. 

In my opinion – which is fairly well educated, thanks to visits to dozens(opens in new tab) of startup(opens in new tab) cities(opens in new tab) – Cincinnati has one of the nation’s most promising plans for an innovation district. Its impressive track record of health startups and plans to become a major player in logistics with the new Prime Air hub also make it an attractive spot for growing businesses. 

While most cities are banking on one advantage to push them forward, Cincinnati has a full suite, and it’s working to build more.In the great chess game that is launching a startup, heading there could be your winning move. 

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