Funding group vows to build on successes

Firm acknowledges improvement needed

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    Jim Olzak, of Woodville, a founder of Nextronex, Inc., points to monitors for the solar panels at Bryan, Napoleon, and Collins Park in Toledo.

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  • Jim Olzak, of Woodville, a founder of Nextronex, Inc., points to monitors for the solar panels at Bryan, Napoleon, and Collins Park in Toledo.
    Jim Olzak, of Woodville, a founder of Nextronex, Inc., points to monitors for the solar panels at Bryan, Napoleon, and Collins Park in Toledo.

    Greg Knudson knows that growing a company takes time, patience, and, in the case of Nextronex, a little sunlight.

    The Toledo solar firm announced Friday that it had landed seven new projects across northwest and central Ohio, marking another step forward for the company, which was formed in 2008. The new projects total 8 megawatts and are slated for completion in December.

    "This is so key to get these new jobs because now we’ve stepped up to a new level with these megawatts we’ll install," said Mr. Knudson, vice president of sales and marketing at Nextronex. "Now we are starting to ramp up and take off."

    The firm is on track to install 16 megawatts of its solar inverters across Ohio by the end of the year.

    Nextronex's success is due in part to $675,000 from Rocket Ventures LLC, a Toledo venture-capital group that pumps money into start-up companies. Although Rocket Ventures helped Nextronex evolve from a few employees to an operation that has more than 10 people and does about $5 million in business a year, the group has come under scrutiny from the state officials who provide a portion of its funding.

    The Third Frontier Commission, which funds groups like Rocket Ventures under its Entrepreneurial Signature Program, is placing a greater emphasis on short-term job creation and building stronger business networks within the state's industrial clusters. That focus, along with the results of a report measuring the success of six ESP-funded programs, led the commission to place stipulations on funding for Rocket Ventures and the Dayton Development Coalition earlier this month.

    The commission, with the assistance of the Ohio Department of Development, is helping both organizations either restructure or offer services that will bolster business. If they fail to show measured improvement, the two firms could lose out on funding in 2014.

    Invantage Group was hired by the commission to evaluate the ESP-funded programs. It determined that a third of Rocket Venture’s clients had ceased operations and that it had a “small collaborator network for deal flow and little experience with commercialization.”

    Invantage is an independent evaluator whose findings were presented to the commission in June of this year. Rocket Ventures was created by the Regional Growth Partnership and received $15 million in state funding three years ago. That money was supplemented with private funds.

    Dan Slifko, president of Rocket Ventures, LLC and director of Rocket Ventures.
    Dan Slifko, president of Rocket Ventures, LLC and director of Rocket Ventures.

    Rocket Ventures created 245 direct jobs from fiscal year 2007 to 2012, which ranked it fifth in job creation among the six organizations. The median number of jobs created by an ESP-funded program was 313, the report stated.

    Although the commission approved $1 million for Rocket Ventures in 2013, it must show improvements to qualify for an additional $1 million in 2014.

    “We want to see our communities actively engaged. When I’m talking about communities, I’m talking about the entire region,” said Lisa Delp, executive director of the commission. “We believe that Rocket Ventures can help us get connected at the local level.”

    The report said Rocket Ventures needs to get better at expanding businesses across all of northwest Ohio.

    The Dayton Development Coalition had a “relatively limited progression of clients through commercialization framework,” according to Invantage's report. The Dayton coalition created 375 jobs, ranking it third among the six groups.

    “Part of the vision that [Gov. John Kasich] has laid out is that we have focused some of our efforts on a three-to-five year strategy and developing some of the shorter returns,” Ms. Delp said, adding that growing businesses in the short term would benefit the state in the long run.

    Dan Slifko, the president and director of Rocket Ventures, said he wasn’t surprised the state evaluated ESP-funded programs, and it’s only natural that adjustments need to be made.

    “Do we think we’re perfect? Certainly not,” he said. “And certainly as these evolutionary things take place, we’re adapting and making the necessary changes.”

    Those changes include hiring two more staff members by 2013 and the creation of the Ignite Development Fund, which will contain $1.7 million for start-ups during the next two years. Both address concerns listed in the June report.

    “There’s been a tremendous growth over the last year as a result of the joint venture with the University of Toledo Innovation Enterprise and access to the assets they have. The clients and the deal flow, that has improved dramatically since our joint venture was created,” Mr. Slifko said. “One of the things that came out of that was a tremendous interest in [information technology] companies.”

    One of the people Rocket Ventures is hiring will specialize in IT companies, he said.

    Mr. Slifko pointed to companies like Nextronex as a model of what can be accomplished in northwest Ohio.

    Mr. Knudson, who is the former director of Rocket Ventures, joined Nextronex in early 2011 and said the company's success is partially tied to its early stage funding from Rocket Ventures.

    The Dayton Development Coalition plans to improve its standing with the commission by taking similar actions, which include engaging more businesses and targeting aeronautics and biosciences companies, said Ray Hagerman, vice president of investments for the coalition.

    “We may be hiring an additional four or five entrepreneurs or residents to increase the amount of deal flow,” he said. “Hopefully the state will be satisfied with that.”

    Bill McCreary, the northwest Ohio commissioner of the Third Frontier, said the groups funded under the ESP program aren’t doing traditional work like funding an automotive facility. He said it will take time for the companies they support to expand and become players in the business world.

    The key is finding the right balance between developing new products and technologies and running a savvy business, he said.

    “When the Third Frontier started, it was a little bit longer-term,” Mr. McCreary said. “You have sort of a three-to-five year window for the state to see benefits. It’s a little bit more shorter term than it was in the past.

    “But it’s by no means next quarter.”

    Contact Kris Turner at: or 419-724-6103.