Build it, and they will come. That was the philosophy Mitchell Skees embraced. The high school junior co-founded a software development and apps company, 3B Apps with his brother, Connor, a high school freshman.
“On our most recent project, Connor and I have spent the last year and a half bringing our company, 3B Apps, from an idea to a company with active clients,” he said. “3B Apps builds custom branded mobile ordering applications for restaurants. Our goal is to give small to medium sized restaurants the technology that matches their large chain competitors and help them stay relevant in an increasingly mobile world, without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Users can obtain information about the restaurant, order, and pay right from their phone so that their food will be ready to pick up. In addition to giving their customers a better experience, this can dramatically improve the restaurant’s flow of operations and increase sales as a result.
The business has come a long way from a simple idea to fruition—and Skees credits the Student Venture Lab (SVL) program for motivation. This program offers young entrepreneurs the opportunity to start and grow businesses in a supportive, success-focused environment.
Still, success does not come without challenge, as Skees will admit.
“Over the course of building all of this, we’ve obviously made mistakes that cost us both time and money,” he said. “As you’d expect we learned a ton from all of this and because of that I don’t regret any of it. We do wish, however, that we could have done things faster. That’s really what was so attractive about The NIIC. We wanted a place that could help accelerate our growth, and it has done just that.”
Specifically, he cites the business coaching and the connections as assets for his business. Looking at the bigger picture, he said The NIIC’s story is rooted just as much in the past as it is in the present and the future.
“I think it’s played a pretty instrumental role in numerous companies over the years, and just as important as the companies that are here now, are those of the future,” he said. “So having this support system and this framework exist here in Indiana, is something that continually excites me.”
Skees is excited about what the future holds for his business, while stopping to reflect on the past. His words of advice to fellow entrepreneurs? “Focus on doing the one thing that’s most important for your business. Everything else will follow. Being quick to test new ideas has been huge for us as well. Also have fun, because if you don’t, you’ll likely quit when you hit a challenge.”
Check out this video to hear more from 3B Apps.
The NIIC has been home to many tech startups over the years and 3r Interactive is among the shining stars.
The company, founded by Jay Johns in 2012, has found its niche in creating an audiobook distribution website. According to Johns, it’s similar to Audible, with better residual rates for independent authors. In addition, 3r Interactive LLC has taken part in generating digital images and small animations for an online curriculum.
Johns credits the Student Venture Lab (SVL) program in part for helping his venture get off the ground. This program offers young entrepreneurs the opportunity to start and grow businesses in a supportive, success-focused environment. Based on the highly successful model used by technology startup accelerators at the Global Acceleration Network (GAN), The NIIC’s SVL Program offers seed investment—and much more—to selected student-owned startup technology ventures.
The biggest takeaway for him has been in the form of social currency. “The networking opportunities at The NIIC gave me the chance to expand my local network of business contacts,” he said. As they say, often it’s who you know that matters just as much as what you know.
In addition to being eager to expand his network, he’s been equally motivated to grow personally. His unofficial mantra? “Learn, Create, Teach.” This attitude has served him well over the years, as his business has grown. He’s also not afraid of challenges and facing them head on. In his words, “every day brings a different problem to solve.”
While every business has its own unique set of challenges, Johns offers some general advice that can apply to all fellow entrepreneurs: “Jump in and start moving. Eventually research.”
Johns is one of the many success stories to come out of the SVL program, and we anticipate many more!
Flexibility is key to small business growth, and that’s one of the reasons Allied Payment Network has appreciated what The NIIC has to offer.
Allied is in the business of processing bill payment requests from bank and credit union customers. The company is delivering the industry’s latest and greatest tools to the rapidly evolving electronic services to some of the country’s most innovative financial institutions. They have redefined the standard in mobile banking payments.
Allied is truly a home-grown success story. Located at The NIIC since 2010, it has since grown from one employee to a team of 22. No doubt, The NIIC has played a role in that success.
“I signed a service agreement with The NIIC in 2010, because I loved the flexibility of having a short-term commitment if we needed to move or add space for new employees on a day’s notice,” said Founder/CEO Ralph Marcuccilli. “I also loved all of the amenities that are included, like conference rooms, copy machines, printers, meeting rooms, projectors, Internet access and phones. The awesome facilities make it easy to attract employees, and The NIIC team is flexible in helping us meet our day-to-day needs.”
But there’s more than to The NIIC than just the physical structures. The NIIC is really a full package that includes professional and experienced staff, “who can do things like help build business plans,” as Marcuccilli put it.
Marcuccilli, whose innovation superhero is Steve Jobs, said that extra motivation has served him well. He also appreciates the varied and often unpredictable nature of his work.
“I have something different to do each and every day,” he said. “I never know what I am going to be doing when I get to work each day.”
Not every company can say it has a solid product with a global footprint. Herb Schwartz, BioPoly LLC, can claim such a distinction. The serial entrepreneur has found success in the biomedical industry and is bullish on the future.
Schwartz Biomedical was started in 2004 with the intent to develop technologies and create value that would then be sold to the industry players. In 2008, Schwartz Biomedical sold its first of such technologies, BioDuct, to Stryker Orthopedics. Since the company has been operating BioPoly LLC, a full-range orthopedic company whose market advantage is its proprietary material. The company employs seven full-time staff. Its patent portfolio includes 18 U.S. patents since the company’s inception.
“This company has received regulatory approval in Europe for partial resurfacing implants for the knee, patella, and shoulder,” said Schwartz. “We develop, manufacture, market, and sell in Europe. We are currently pursuing FDA approval for this technology and hope to begin a clinical trial in the U.S. soon. The BioPoly material also has great potential in other markets such as spine and cardiovascular.”
The road to success has been paved by smart decisions, including moving into The NIIC in 2004. In 2016 he graduated from The NIIC and purchased a building on the southwest side of town, where the company is currently located. In addition to benefitting from the office space at The NIIC, Schwartz and his teamwhich includes his wife Sheilahave benefitted from the consultative services. For example, The NIIC team provided him with the necessary assistance to prepare a solid business plan used to raise capital. He also appreciated the “great value in the resources and accountability the mentors and facility provided,” he said.
“Sheila, too, has been helpful in that capacity. She is my biggest fan and my biggest critic, keeping me grounded and encouraged,” he said about his wife. “She joined the business four years ago and quickly helped me realize that we were not operating at our full potential. Since then, she has helped to direct the business and propel it forward.”
Speaking of progress, Schwartz said he finds encouragement in hearing testimonials from patients who have received a BioPoly implant. In his words, “It is genuinely changing their lives as they are no longer in pain and have regained mobility.”
The NIIC means different things to each client. For Jeff Erickson of Engine Research Associates(ERA), it meant a chance to boost image, attract positive attention and unlock new business connections.
ERA’s personnel invented and also develops and manufactures the Erickson Migrating Combustion Chamber (MCC) engine. It is a unique internal combustion engine that can be used for military and commercial drones, generators, lawn power equipment and many other applications. The MCC engine provides a new operating cycle providing very quiet and cool exhaust, high efficiency, low vibration, low emissions, low cost manufacturing and multi-fuel operation.
The company has been at The NIIC for more than four years. Vice President and Principal Investigator Jeff Erickson said he was attracted to The NIIC because of its friendly and professional staff, clean and modern facilities and large conference rooms.
“We also felt The NIIC would significantly enhance our business image,” he said.
He was proven right. Erickson shared how the company has grown in terms of staff, business opportunities and notoriety—among other things.
“ERA had two full time and two part-time employees when we came to The NIIC and we have expanded to four full time and three part-time employees,” he said. “ERA has won about $4.5 million in military contracts over the past five years for research and development of the MCC engine.”
Their efforts have been noticed. As Erickson shared, they received the 2016 Torch Award for Entrepreneurs of Integrity by the Northern Indiana Better Business Bureau. They were also awarded the 2013 Innovator of the Year Award from the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly.
Erickson said he’s thankful for the opportunities that have been presented to him over the years. For example, working with Karl LaPan and Mike Fritsch has meant great things for the company.
“Their mentoring and support with our business planning has helped us focus on and develop new business opportunities,” he said. “They continue to provide excellent educational and networking opportunities at The NIIC. They has helped to promote us in Northeast Indiana, helping us to develop our messaging to run in advertisements, on theNIIC.org and in newsletters.”
Erickson also attributes his success to internal factors. “Trying to bring a new technology engine to the market has been a daunting task with countless technical, financial and business challenges,” he said. “Working with my brother, Rick Erickson, has inspired me to keep pushing forward and not give up despite the odds.”
Each entrepreneur’s journey is different. Sometimes it’s deliberate—with a clear plan and objectives. Other times it’s happenstance. The latter was the case for Gerrett Stier, Owner and Founder of GMS Distribution.
The journeyman/electrician turned businessman had a great idea and acted on it. His story starts several years ago when he was working for a local restoration company. He was tasked with handling power restoration and ensuring the wiring was safe. In his work, he noticed inefficiencies. Like, instead of turning on multiple circuits, was there a way to use a central box? His concept had legs—before he knew it, he had made 20 units.
Initially, Stier worked from his garage. He wasn’t doing enough volume to justify paid workspace. Then, he sought the help of The NIIC. “Through the advice of Mike Fritsch (Entrepreneur in Residence, The NIIC), we ended up sub-contracting,” Stier said.
Fritsch helped him identify a niche—assembly. Initially, he relied on others for the assembly and distribution, so he could focus on running the business. “In short, Fritsch and The NIIC team challenged and helped me to look at my business model differently,” said Stier. More recently, he has moved assembly in-house and still works closely with his subcontractors on other projects.
“It’s one thing to have an idea, but how to go about it is another. For that reason, the team at The NIIC is a great sounding board for startups. They’re going to open your eyes to a lot of things,” he said.
Following that milestone, he secured multiple distribution contracts. This allowed him to quit his job in 2010 to focus on the business full time. “It just snowballed from there,” said Stier. He estimates that in the past two years he’s manufactured more than 1,400 power boxes. Today, Stier operates GMS Distribution from a manufacturing facility in Huntertown with one full-time employee and two part-time employees.
That growth hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, though. “I always wanted to keep the manufacturing in-house, while outsourcing the distribution. That model works for me because I prefer to support the distributors rather than acting as the sales force,” said Stier.
If you’re interested in following Stier’s lead by bringing a new idea to life, contact The NIIC today at telephone 260-407-6442 or TheNIIC.Org. For more information about GMS, visit www.gmsdist.com.
Call it profit with a purpose. Live On Goods was started by five people with various professional backgrounds, but with a common tie. All the partners have senior family members and/or friends with physical limitations.
“The Live On Goods company’s mission is to make a line of products that will allow these individuals to continue to enjoy their lives with dignity,” said Lisa Rao, Live On Goods co-owner.
To that end, the first product her team designed was the bonTop. The word bonTop is defined by good food with good friends at the table. Made in the USA, bonTops are waterproof, stain resistant, have a signature pouch to catch spills and front Velcro closures to allow easy on and off. The bonTops come in three women’s styles and two men’s versions, available in several different fabrics.
According to Rao, a great deal of thought went into designing the products.
“BonTops were designed with an upscale flair for discerning adults,” she said. “We created this product after failing to find anything but unattractive, ineffective, institutional and infantile adult bibs.”
The end game was to design something that offered both form and function —something attractive yet will discreetly keep clothing dry and clean. In her words, “BonTops allow adults to dine with dignity.”
Their target market is adult children, grandchildren and friends of the people who could use and enjoy and upscale clothing protector. It really is about enhancing quality of life.
“We are passionate about designing products that will allow adults to continue to enjoy their lives while staying connected to family and friends,” said Rao.
Rao said her company’s success is the sum of many parts, including The NIIC. The team at The NIIC assisted with everything from formulating a business plan to helping them make valuable connections in the community to mentor, assist and educate them. What’s particularly noteworthy is they helped her team apply for (and win!) a grant for seed money.
“Mike Fritch and The NIIC have been extremely valuable to Live On Goods,” said Rao.
Her advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to take advantage of the resources available, like The NIIC, early on. Live On Goods also benefitted from assistance from the Women’s Economic Opportunity Center (WEOC). The goal of WEOC is to provide entrepreneurial services to women, under-served, and immigrant populations in the State of Indiana. The WEOC is housed in the Women’s Business Center—one of two in Indiana—strategically located at The NIIC.
“As we learned quickly, working with The NIIC can help you move forward and avoid costly mistakes as well,” she said. “The implementation of WEOC is so helpful for women who are thinking of starting a business.”
Check out this video to hear more from Live On Goods.
Or, visit their website:
Innovation is the lifeblood of any industry—and the medical field is no different. Dr. Michael Mirro of the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation will tell you that firsthand.
The Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation exists to provide opportunities that will open new doors and, potentially, revolutionize healthcare and save lives at the same time. This mission is an extension of the commitment that Parkview has made to communities it serves throughout Northeast Indiana, Northwest Ohio and South-central Michigan.
The hope is that individuals and families, healthcare providers and innovators will be better equipped to face the future as a result of the powerful vision, clinical expertise and medical investigation that will take place at the Mirro Center.
Despite his achievements, Dr. Mirro remains humble, noting a personal failure. “(There are) so many to choose from, but frequently it has been the opportunities not pursued,” he said. “I entered medical school after three years of undergraduate work, cutting short liberal arts education.”
Indeed our failures help us correct course. In his words, “Failure is a key element to ultimate success. Persistence is more important than intelligence.”
The Mirro Center rewards persistence and other qualities essential to succeeding as an entrepreneur. Dr. Mirro himself is a founding and existing board member of The NIIC. The Mirro Student Founder Award, presented to The NIIC Student Venture Lab Client annually at The NIIC Ideas@Work signature event, is named after him. The NIIC President and CEO Karl LaPan works closely with the Mirro Center on its innovation as a corporate client.
Dr. Mirro said the impact of The NIIC cannot be over-stated. He said first and foremost he sees The NIIC as an engine of growth.
Having The NIIC is our community means “transformation of an economic development strategy from the investment into outside companies into nurturing our own talent and ideas,” he said.
Motivation and driving force are different for each business owner. For Jentri Cripe, it was to spread joy to those affected by cancer.
“Spread the Sparkle LLC was started when I was 16,” she said. “I met a person named Becky Fields who inspired me to start it. She was fighting terminal breast cancer with the most grace and optimism. I created a line of clothing that reflected that.”
When clothing is purchased, it is meant to be gifted to those affected and brighten their day—hence the business’s name. Jentri has continued to “spread the sparkle” while growing her business through participation in The NIIC’s Student Venture Lab (SVL) program. This program offers young entrepreneurs the opportunity to start and grow businesses in a supportive, success-focused environment.
“The NIIC helped me reach and network with people who could help me in my business,” she said about her experience. “They are the reason I got into Parkview gift shops with my clothing line.”
Another difference maker in her life has been her mother, an entrepreneur herself and her number one fan. She started as a teen and has had her own animal entertainment business for over 30 years. She has reached thousands of people and continues to grow her business.
“People remember her, and how special their birthday or special occasion was and the animals that she brought or performed with,” said Cripe. “She has left memories with thousands and has always believed in doing what she loves. I looked up to her at a young age.”
Much like her mother’s business, Cripe has made a real and tangible impact on the community.
“My favorite part of my job is hearing stories of people who have received my apparel and how it made their day,” she said. “It is also being out in the community and seeing people wearing the shirts, whom I have never seen before. It is a reminder that no dream is too small. All you have to do is believe in it. Put forth the effort and determination, and you will see it all come together through time.”
Speaking of dreams, Cripe underlines the need for foresight before pursuing a venture. In her words, “It is going to take ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ and if you aren’t willing to take that on, you should wait until you are ready.”
Coaching the Coach: Local Business Owner Finds Her Niche
Even coaches need coaches. It was the time and attention from The NIIC staff that helped Theresa Steele, Founder, Steele Business Coaching, take her business to the next level. Today, she uses a set of simple concepts and practical tools to help entrepreneurs get what they want from their businesses.
It took some work and time to get her business to where it is now. Theresa was introduced to The NIIC about six years ago, through a friend who had an office there. The NIIC President and CEO Karl LaPan provided her with subsidized office space and one-on-one business advising. It was through that relationship that she connected with Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Business Coach Mike Fritsch.
That was the navigation of her start-up journey. Fritsch provided expertise in areas like lean startup and lean canvas, customer discovery, product-market fit and business model design. “He asked thought-provoking questions, which led to me pursuing a couple of pivots.”
For example, going into the coaching relationship, she wanted to work with businesses in some capacity related to improving efficiency. Initially, she considered providing project management training. Fritsch challenged her to look at her business from different angles to identify her niche and build confidence.
With regard to project management, Theresa said, “I didn’t really think I had something different or better to offer.” After all, there were plenty of companies that offered PMP (project management professional) training and boot camps. It turns out she did have something to offer, and the demand was there too. Her strengths lie in strategy, processes, and systems—skills that businesses need and often lack. And she could offer these services through a coaching model.
According to Theresa, this type of relationship can benefit businesses because of the element of objectivity. “A coach can help you take a step back and see what you don’t see,” she said. Business owners or managers are often too close to the situation and operate in the present, focusing on extinguishing daily fires. Theresa offers an outside perspective and the knowledge and expertise to help small to mid-sized businesses break through plateaus. She employs the Entrepreneurial Operating System® (EOS®) to encourage focus, discipline, and accountability across teams. Through this system, she empowers companies across all industries to perform like world-class organizations.
She helps them look at the big picture and their future goals while also digging in to identify the root cause of their issues. Then, together they work out an action plan to achieve those goals and resolve those issues.
As for Theresa’s vision for her company—she wants to add staff and expand her geographic reach beyond Allen County.
Theresa is a great example of what can happen when you Assess. Discover. Do.™ at The NIIC. Keep dreaming big!
You can follow Theresa’s lead by bringing a new idea to life by visiting TheNIIC.Org or calling 260-407-6442. For more information about Steele Business Coaching, visit http://steelebc.com or call (260) 750-7050.