After hitting a COVID-19-size road bump, the Lab @ Cuyahoga County, a business development program that gives entrepreneurs and startups access to governmental infrastructure to test new ideas and technology in a real world environment, is officially underway.
The program, run by Rebecca Eby, innovation manager at Cuyahoga County’s Office of Innovation and Performance, offers a “living laboratory” of resources — including the county’s staff, its information systems and facilities — for three to four months to help scale up, test and commercialize innovative solutions and ideas.
“Local government has so much more to offer entrepreneurs — besides that traditional grant and loan funding that you typically see,” Eby said. “We have the people and the places and the information that in many cases entrepreneurs need to develop their products, particularly if their product has a community need or a community benefit.”
The Lab, inspired by similar programs in Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, selected six projects for the two tracks of the inaugural program that began work in June.
“We kicked things off, and the first step for our entrepreneurs was a two-week workshop on market validation and customer development to get them thinking about what the market and their possible customers look like,” Eby said.
Two of the projects then entered the Product Validation Track, which is designed to test new products in real world situations, Eby said.
RoadPrintz, an advanced robotics, geolocation and sensor technology used to apply street markings without stencils, was partnered with the Cleveland Metroparks. EvergreenCLE — which is developing technology to monitor and automate nutrients, PH, water, temperature, lights and air exchange for indoor hydroponic farms — has partnered with the Cleveland Public Library to set up a 9-foot growing dome early next year, Eby said.
The other four projects are on the Ideation Track, which connects the entrepreneurs with subject matter and commercialization experts and customers to provide product feedback.
CablePlant is a web-based software that documents network infrastructure, ethernet cabling and other network assets. AugTagger is a geo-spatial information delivery network to be used with location apps, and Recipe Re-Mix is healthy recipe programming and benefit enrollment assistance technology for seniors.
The fourth project, UnBail was developed during Hack Cleveland’s Fix216 Criminal Justice Reform event in 2018.
“We are Google Maps for individual criminal cases,” said Cait Kennedy, co-founder of UnBail, which she describes as a step-by-step guide to help defendants navigate the justice system, from arrest to expungement.
UnBail was chosen by the Lab after law students from Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law mapped out “a matrix of possible outcomes for anyone arrested in the city of Cleveland” as part of a class created to help develop technology.
“The criminal legal system is a maze of laws, language and unwritten rules,” Kennedy said, adding that research indicates that defendants have to go through about 200 individual steps when navigating the court system.
UnBail is designed to give a those accused of a crime a clearer understanding of legal proceedings, she said.
UnBail, which has been accepted to work with a national social impact startup accelerator, gALPHA, benefited from being introduced to and talking to experts in the legal, IT security and public procurement fields, Kennedy said.
“They were validators for us. They facilitated relationships in the community,” she said. “When we are introduced by the Lab, it lets those people know we are worthy of their time.”
With the Lab program, UnBail had 15 separate interviews with experts over the course of the program and was able to write a RFP (request for proposal) that it is releasing nationally in hopes of finding a developer to create the first iteration the mobile app, Kennedy said.
Connecting potential customers or users to a startup to find the right product market fit is an essential part of the commercialization process, according to Jerry Frantz, chief investment officer at JumpStart Inc.
JumpStart, an economic development nonprofit that supports startup and entrepreneurial businesses, runs the Lab’s Market Validation and Working with the Public Sector workshops and provides coaching for the county staff who work with entrepreneurs.
Frantz said that making connections with potential customers — even trying to find someone who will give you the time to talk — is incredibly difficult and that is what makes the Lab program so valuable.
“If an entrepreneur has a concept or idea or novel approach to something, one of the important steps is to try to figure out if the market is there before you go build it,” Frantz said. “A lot of times an entrepreneur will get excited by an idea and go spend a lot of time, effort and sometimes money to build a prototype first.”
Frantz said that while the startups working with the Lab gain valuable market feedback and real world pilot opportunities, the Lab also helps the county by bringing in technology and services to help make government more efficient.
“The other great thing is that the benefit of the program flows both ways,” he said. “The county is helping an entrepreneur grow and solve a problem the entrepreneurs needs solved and the county benefits from that solution.”