Toledo venture capital gets state money, but it comes with warning


COLUMBUS — Rocket Ventures LLC, the entity providing much of the start-up capital for fledging technology companies in northwest Ohio, convinced the state today to refuel it for another year, but it was warned that the pump will run dry if it doesn’t show marked improvement.

The taxpayer-financed Ohio Third Frontier Commission agreed to provide the venture capital entity with $1 million to continue its operations for another year, but placed conditions on a second-year $1 million.

Rocket Ventures was the subject of a critical report by an independent evaluator hired by the commission to review all five regional organizations receiving state funding under its Entrepreneurial Signature Program. The program provides funding and other assistance to small start-up technical firms until they can fly on their own or become attractive to private sector investors.

Rocket Ventures received $15 million in seed money from the state three years ago, but the evaluation conducted by the Invantage Group, recommended it be denied additional funding because of “relatively weak’’ performance numbers.

Among other issues, the report noted a third of all Rocket Ventures clients had ceased operations, the firm seemed to have little experience in commercialization of products, and it did not have enough collaborations with other economic development partners.

In making his case to the board today, Rocket’s director, Dan Slifko, was sharply critical of the evaluation, arguing that it attempted to apply a broad template that didn’t fit the entity serving 18 northwest Ohio counties. It also argued that it was at least partly based on factual inaccuracies as he listed 17 economic development groups, corporations, and universities that he counts as investors and collaborators.

“We feel completely opposite from what the independent reviewer said,’’ Mr. Slifko told the commission.

Mark Kvamme, a commission member who serves as president and chief investment officer of the state’s private JobsOhio economic development entity, said he walked into today’s meeting with the intention of opposing more funding for Rocket Ventures. Mr. Slifko changed his mind.

At one point, Mr. Kvamme turned to Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, president of the University of Toledo that has partnered with Rocket.

“Would you put your kid’s college education money into Rocket Ventures,’’ he asked.

“Absolutely, I would,’’ Mr. Jacobs said.

Rocket had originally planned to ask for $1.5 million in additional funding over two years, but instead made a pitch for $2 million. The additional $250,000 a year would go into a new fund, separate from its investment fund, to provide service support for start-up companies.

It will match the taxpayer aid dollar for dollar with donated private cash and dollar-equivalent services. Mr. Slifko said the entity has already raised $575,000 in cash.