Being Innovative Pays

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    It doesn’t seem like starting a business is the logical thing to do in a recession, but people who create businesses usually are a different breed of people. They often think outside the box, believe in the power of determination and pursue their goals relentlessly.


    These kinds of people have dreams and are bold enough to follow them; they believe in their company and the need for its products or services. It’s this go-getter type for whom Cincinnati Innovates yearns.


    Cincinnati Innovates is a regional online innovation competition that has been awarding grants to aspiring entrepreneurs for the last four years. Each year it awards 12 start-up businesses and innovators with in-kind awards and $100,000 in grant awards.


    "We started Cincinnati Innovates to find the aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators in our region, so that we can connect them with the 50 resources that exist here locally for entrepreneurs," says Elizabeth Edwards, founder of Cincinnati Innovates. "Our sponsors are organizations that want to help entrepreneurs and promote the work they do with startup companies."


    Cincinnati Innovates isn’t a business plan competition, but rather a competition that aims to award the best when it comes to the most innovative ideas each year. Every year Cincinnati Innovates receives hundreds of applications that a panel of judges has to sort through before the panel and the public help pick the 12 winners.


    "There are always more winners than there are awards, which make judging tough for our sponsors. It’s a good problem to have, though," Edwards says.


    More than 1,000 people have participated in the competition since the program’s inception, with more than $250,000 total in grant awards given to local entrepreneurs with incredible ideas.


    "Our winners have gone on to raise almost $5 million in follow on capital, which is incredible for three years," says Edwards. "We’ve received over 100,000 online votes and over one million page views from more than 50 countries, so people are really paying attention to these Cincinnati entrepreneurs."


    Entering the competition is a simple process, and the only required qualification is that entrants have some connection to the Greater Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky area. Cincinnati Innovates will begin accepting applications in April.


    "Most entrepreneurs upload images and homemade videos as well – whatever best helps explain their innovations," says Edwards.


    There is one winner from 2011 that hits especially close to home for Edwards. Pooja Kadambi, an international student from India at the University of Cincinnati, submitted Ischiban Stroke Diagnostic Headband along with some other students as a part of a senior project.


    "This life-saving miracle of a device was just part of a senior project – and according to [Kadambi], probably would have ended as a senior project if [the students] had not received so much attention (and later, awards) from Cincinnati Innovates," Edwards says.


    Because of the grants the group recieved from Cincinnati Innovates, Kadambi is able to stay on at the UC Center for Entrepreneurship Education & Research to get a graduate degree. She will also be able to work on commercializing Ischiban during this time. This scenario shows the power of Cincinnati Innovates to change the community – and possibly, world – for the better, Edwards says.


    "Cincinnati won’t lose one of its most talented young professionals, and the world won’t lose a device that will address one of the most common causes of disability and death in the world: stroke," she says.


    Cincinnati Innovates also changed the life of Zachary Green, inventor of FoxFire, a light apparatus to improve the visibility of firefighters. A former Marine, Eli Lilly sales executive and volunteer firefighter in Wyoming, Green was facing the possibility of losing his job or relocating his family when he entered Cincinnati innovates in April. But with his grant from the competition, he is now able to work full-time selling FoxFire to improve the working conditions of firefighters.


    "Now he’s raising growth capital because he’s doing more than $80,000 a month in sales – literally growing out of cash," Edwards says. "He’s hiring sales reps and expanding like crazy. It’s incredible."


    Being able to help entrants like Green and Kadambi get their ideas into production motivate Edwards as the founder and leader of the competition, she says. "These are the stories that make my job worthwhile and let me know that we’re doing the right thing," she says.