UC Venture Lab brings NKU regional talent to Cincinnati Innovation District®

UC, Cincinnati Innovation District® enhance talent opportunities with wider collaborative outreach

The University of Cincinnati’s 1819 Innovation Hub, positioned within the heart of the Cincinnati Innovation District® (CID), paints a bright new picture of collaborative growth after broadening their reach and attracting talent from across state borders.

UC’s Venture Lab startup accelerator at the 1819 Innovation Hub graduated 10 new startup teams on March 9, one of which hails from Northern Kentucky University (NKU) — a key indicator that the CID is embracing a wider reach for talent in the region.

NKU joins other local universities also selecting teams to join the UC Venture Lab program including Xavier University, University of Dayton, Wright State University and Cincinnati State, all representing novel talent from around the region.

“As a major research university, the University of Cincinnati is delighted to be a boundary spanner that sparks innovation across our region,” says UC President Neville G. Pinto. “This kind of collaboration is a win-win for our Tri-state community and builds momentum for even greater impact.”

New institutional partnerships not only increase the talent and resource availability across the region but also help nurture new locally based enterprise.

“The Cincinnati Innovation District and the University of Cincinnati’s commitment to empowering our region on both sides of the river, is a shared passion between us,” said NKU President Ashish Vaidya. “This is an excellent example of regional collaboration that uplifts entrepreneurship and innovation to new heights. I am pleased that we can leverage our collective talent and resources to further accelerate economic growth and catalyze a more prosperous and equitable ecosystem for the region.”

As part of the Venture Lab’s latest cohort — graduating 10 new startup teams on the afternoon of March 9 — novel business ideas are not only reaching beyond UC, but are proving to make an impact on equity and inclusion issues that currently affect so many people. The impact of both Innovation and equity and inclusion are strong tenets of UC's Next Lives Here strategic direction.

One such collaborative initiative connects college students who have become housing insecure to available living accommodations, food and clothing. Inspired by a top-grade student who lost financing and housing in her junior year, UC associate professor of history Holly McGee took advantage of the virtual collaborative format to extend her “Pathways to Success” project beyond UC. Teaming with faculty at Xavier University and Cincinnati State gives McGee the opportunity to work closely for this unique housing niche with both the county and the state. Their multi-collaborative efforts help to not only serve a wider population but also to become a successful model for other institutions.

Reaching even wider, the Venture Lab startup out of nearby Northern Kentucky University (NKU) takes a broad regional collaboration one step further.

Better steps

Graphic on left of diverse people in silhouette with NKU's Haley Andes virtual portrait on right.

NKU' startup team SolePurpose, directed by Haley Andes, is a shoe company that promotes inclusion by creating greater access for people to find appropriate fitting footwear through the use of innovative technologies. Andes looks forward to collaborating with technical, IT and business professionals through UC's Venture Lab to help bring her company to reality. photo/provided

“As a single mom with a full-time job in Lexington, I would have never been able to come this far with my idea if UC’s Venture Lab was not virtually accessible,” says Haley Andes, NKU alum who got her start through an NKU incubator. “Grant Hoffman in UC’s Venture Lab approached my mentors at NKU about fitting novel startups here in Kentucky with a collaboration in Cincinnati — and the rest is history.”

close up of hands holding a cell phone camera taking photo of a sock covered foot.

Through UC Venture Lab's startup accelerator, NKU's SolePurpose initiative looks forward to securing the funding and development of novel iOS and Android technology to scan 3D images of feet and braces for custom-fit shoes. photo/provided

Designed to create access to custom-fit shoes for people with foot and ankle disorders, Andes’ “SolePurpose” project promises to provide consumers with a wider variety of stylish shoes much more cost effectively and all without leaving the comfort of their home.

Andes, who earned her master’s degree from NKU in 2020, is now associate director for the Lexington nonprofit company Build Inclusion, helping high school students with disabilities find competitive and integrated employment after graduation.

“I work in the disability field and have seen a growing need for people with foot and ankle support problems to obtain access to a variety of proper fitting footwear that is both functional and fashionable,” says Andes. “My ‘SolePurpose’ business idea combines iOS and Android smartphone camera app technology with a connection to shoe manufacturers who can create the whole shoe from a scan of a person’s foot and ankle. This technology can provide a much broader sense of inclusion for people with braces or foot issues who want to wear more trendy styles and with the same support as a separate shoe insert.”

This is an excellent example of regional collaboration that uplifts entrepreneurship and innovation to new heights. I am pleased that we can leverage our collective talent and resources to further accelerate economic growth and catalyze a more prosperous and equitable ecosystem for the region.

Ashish Vaidya President, Northern Kentucky University

The potential to connect startups like the “SolePurpose” initiative with the right technical app designers, cloud-based software platforms, shoe manufacturers and business personnel are even greater now through the Venture Lab’s virtual format that can successfully match new talent with professional entrepreneurs in residence anywhere, says David Zellen, UC assistant director of startups.

“It is incredibly important for the economic growth of the entire region that our postsecondary institutions take a leading role in growing and attracting world-class talent,” says Gene Kirchner, senior vice president and chief operating officer, Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are key ingredients to global competitiveness. We applaud the collaboration that is taking place between the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University in support of innovative entrepreneurs like Haley Andes. This is exactly the type of investment needed to fuel a vibrant regional economy.” 

At the pre-accelerator graduation ceremony, each Venture Lab team demonstrates their novel business plans — from the output of their seven-week curriculum based program — to a virtual audience that is open to the public, including interested professionals from around the state and region.

Since its inception, the Venture Lab has graduated 147 teams and has launched just under 50 startups to date. "One of our teams just closed a $4 million seed round on their Series-A raise," says Grant Hoffman, UC director of startups.

Matching the right professionals to bright new ideas locally and beyond increases the opportunities to provide industries with their most precious commodity right now — talent, adds Hoffman. 

“When you think about the landscape we’re living in today, it’s all about reach, speed and the ability to quickly solve problems,” adds David J. Adams, first chief innovation officer for the University of Cincinnati, and architect for the Cincinnati Innovation District®. “As a public institution, and burgeoning innovation district, the ability to reach across the region to access resources, talent and collaborate to find solutions to today’s economic and social problems is an initiative we feel strongly about as a model to the state and region.”


Featured image at top: Grant Hoffman, UC director of startups, engages with Haley Andes from University of Northern Kentucky about her startup collaboration at UC’s Venture Lab Cohort #13 graduation. photo/provided

Cincinnati Innovation District®

A unique and thriving ecosystem that attracts, produces, retains and develops talent by co-locating and collaborating with organizations. Unveiled in 2020 by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Lt. Governor Jon Husted, the district envelops a myriad of innovation assets and access to some of the world’s leading academic and research centers, organizations and talent pools. Some of the CID’s innovation community includes: the University of Cincinnati, a Carnegie Level 1 research university; the world-renowned Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; the Gardner Neuroscience Institute; the Environmental Protection Agency; Cincinnati State University and the future 600,000-square-foot Digital Futures Complex, home to UC’s Interdisciplinary Digital Futures Institute. The district’s mission is to become a globally recognized talent hub and lead a transformational movement. The combination of industry engagement, unique experiential platforms and accessible research expertise — working at the pace of change — will become a model nationwide.

1819 Innovation Hub

The nerve center of the Cincinnati Innovation District®. Home to startups and midsized and Fortune 500 companies, the 1819 Innovation Hub is an ecosystem that serves as a catalyst for collaboration for industry and talent. The 1819 Innovation Hub is the home to UC’s Office of Innovation, UC’s Venture Lab (a startup accelerator program), UC’s Makerspace, UC’s Office of Technology Transfer and 14 corporate partners who are seeking access to talent and proximity for cross-collaboration. Partners that are currently embedded include: Procter & Gamble, Kroger, FIS, Kingsgate Logistics, Cincinnati Bell, Kao Brands, Hillman Accelerator, CincyTech, Village Life Outreach Project, Fifth Third Bank, Cincinnati Insurance Company, Live Well Collaborative and Simpson Center for Urban Futures.