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A Boot Camp For Startup Companies; Bit Factory Opens

By Katie Byard The Akron Beacon Journal.

Chelsea Blackerby's new workplace in Akron boasts big windows, an impressive view of downtown, and mod new furniture -- some of it featuring recycled wood, some of it bright orange plastic.

But a primary draw for her is who else will be in the work space: mentors, advisers and other entrepreneurs -- all with tech know-how.

"This is what we need as a newer company," said Blackerby who with her husband, Michael Wohlwend, founded an enterprise that creates online instructional tools that companies use to train workers. "What we really need is like-minded people, who can we bounce our ideas off, mentors."

Blackerby's company Plumpom is one of the first two tenants of Akron's Bit Factory, a city-affiliated boot camp for entrepreneurs, in which young companies participate in a six-month program to give their startup ideas a big boost.

The Bit Factory -- the name derives from computer "bits" -- caters specifically to promising tech startups, such as Plumpom and the other initial tenant, InCheck Services, a mobile phone app that allows vehicle owners and auto shop owners to communicate with each other.

The Bit Factory program got $150,000 in funding last year from the nonprofit Burton D. Morgan Foundation of Hudson. The state's Ohio Third Frontier economic development program granted an additional $250,000.

"We think the Bit Factory is really going to stand out," said Anthony Margida, Bit Factory's president and CEO of the Akron Global Accelerator, which houses the Bit Factory and is at Canal Place, the former B.F. Goodrich factory complex.

"Our goal is to make an impact on Ohio, and ultimately get nationally known for what's being done here," Margida said.

Organizers say Bit Factory allows Akron to offer its unique version of what other cities already are providing: an intensive, nurturing program for tech-savvy entrepreneurs to live their dreams, start a company and contribute to the local economy.

The Bit Factory is set up as a business itself. The money it will invest in client companies -- in exchange for providing all of the program's services and a small stake in each venture -- is coming from the state's Ohio Third Frontier initiative.

Margida said the Bit Factory offers a rolling application process, meaning that clients can apply and join when they are ready. The 5,000-square-foot Bit Factory space on the fifth floor of the Global Business Accelerator could house as many as a dozen at one time, he said.

Plumpom, the online learning company that is among the Bit Factory's first client companies, is about 2 years old. Until just days ago it was based in the West Akron home of founders Blackerby and Wohlwend, who both are in their early 30s.

Wohlwend said those creating new startups have myriad questions about everything from financing to selling products or services. "This gives us the ability to rapidly air your questions" to mentors, as well as advisers and other entrepreneurs, he said. "That's going to be extremely beneficial."

Plus, the Bit Factory allows a startup to move from a home, Blackerby said, where distractions like laundry and walking the dog pop up.

At the Bit Factory, Plumpom plans to work on expanding its online learning tool products, taking advantage of the space that is designed for collaboration. There are wheeled chairs, allowing users to easily scoot from one desk to another, and lots of white boards that folks can use to brainstorm ideas.

A key attraction of Bit Factory, Margida said, is that it offers customized programming.

"All clients will not see the same thing," he said. "We will direct Bit Factory resources and design a program experience around where each company is."

James Hilton, 27, of West Akron, is one of the Bit Factory mentors. Like other mentors, he knows computer coding and has some experience with startups. He and business partners already are working on their third venture; this one is a game app.

Mentors will regularly be at the Bit Factory working with client companies.

"Entrepreneurs today want more day-to-day involvement," Hilton said. "They don't need that tertiary, once a month, five-minute phone call."

Like the mentors, advisers also are techy. One of the advisers is Annal Vyas, a visiting law professor at the University of Akron, who understands computer programming as well as various legal issues tech startups face. Vyas is working with Bit Factory in his role as an adviser at the University of Akron's Small Entrepreneur and Economic Development (SEED) Legal Clinic.

Vyas said the Bit Factory goes a long way in getting Akron on the startup map.

"People will start seeing this area as an avant garde area for entrepreneurs."

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