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JumpStart investment lures upscale talent to Health-Tech Corridor

Cleveland-based venture development organization JumpStart Inc. is helping build up the city's Health-Tech Corridor (HTC) with a $250,000 investment in Monarch Teaching Technologies, Inc., maker of a special education learning software.
 
The investment comes from JumpStart's $10 million Evergreen Fund, which focuses on companies that relocate to the rapidly growing 1,600-acre district that links downtown Cleveland to University Circle.
 
Monarch's move from Shaker Heights to MidTown Cleveland will make them one of more than 170 tech firms located along the corridor, says JumpStart CEO Ray Leach.
 
"It's another example of a smaller, high-growth company moving to this section of town," Leach says. "The corridor is a good place for employers to access needed talent."
 
Monarch was founded in 2005 to develop visual learning software for children and adolescents with autism. The latest iteration, called VizZle, has been adapted for use by schools, clinicians and parents of children with varying special education needs.
 
"VizZle is a truly unique and innovative product," says Rem Harris, JumpStart's senior partner in charge of investing, in a statement. "The combination of high-quality content and ease of use allows curriculum to be customized for each student, enabling them to learn on an individual basis." 
 
The invested dollars will be utilized to strengthen Monarch's product development and sales and marketing arms, adds Leach. JumpStart's Evergreen Fund invests seed capital in similar high-potential businesses across the region, with 82 portfolio companies receiving $31 million through the fund to date. The fund also sets aside a special $2 million "carve out" fund for companies ready to move into the corridor.
 
"An increased number of people in MidTown doesn't just strengthen the economic impact of the neighborhood on a one-by-one basis," says Leach. "There's momentum now."
 
Companies doing business from the corridor have access to four world-class clinical institutions and a bevy of talent-rich universities. Add a mix of flexible office and lab space and you have reason for additional businesses to join the party.
 
"We were very attracted to the overall vibe of innovation and collaboration in the HTC," Monarch CEO and President Bob Gephart adds in the statement. "There are also so many great sources of support and new talent for a company like ours."

Spotlight: reality show illuminates Gordon Square, CLE's 'movers and makers'

Cleveland's maker economy constitutes a growing community of creators whose work is only limited by their imaginations — or perhaps the size of a screen. Here on the north coast, designer Susie Frazier helped bring maker dreams into locals' homes courtesy of a new reality-based television show.
 
"Movers & Makers with Susie Frazier," which launched March 25 on WKYC-Channel 3, illuminates local independent inventors and tinkerers with Frazier as the host. For the pilot, the 20-year design veteran and her team chose the Edison apartments in the Gordon Square arts district, developing furniture and art for a two-bedroom model suite.

View the trailer for last week's pilot:


 
Frazier worked with a local team of artists and designers to execute the project. Featured players in the 30-minute premiere were metal fabricator Alex Loos, wood craftsman Freddy Hill, woodworker Kurt Ballash, and artist/curator Hilary Gent of the HEDGE Gallery inside 78th Street Studios.
 
"The show is about my life as a designer and projects that come my way," says Frazier. "There's a synchronized process of working with the cluster of makers here, and that's what we're trying to highlight."
 
Although it aired last week, Frazier has posted the full pilot on her YouTube channel. The idea for the show germinated late last year after Frazier contracted the Edison gig. Her Los Angeles-based management firm pushed "Movers and Makers" as a vehicle for her work in creating home accessories, furniture and fine art using cast-off materials from the construction industry.
 
Filming took place in Frazier's 78th Street Studios space and in Gordon Square in late February and early March. Revealing the nuts-and-bolts progress of a complicated project is something unique to the reality design genre, she says.
 
"We're excited to share what we do and how we do it," says Frazier. "There are lots of 'before-and-after' design shows, but I'm excited to showcase the process."
 
"Movers & Makers" can be a beacon for a maker movement with approximately 135 million adherents across the U.S.," the budding TV host adds. 
 
"People want to be more resourceful and do something with their hands," Frazier says. "The show can be a model for people to get out there and do it. I have no formal training — I learned by doing like so many others."
 
Meanwhile, maker spaces represent a culture shift in how new startups are created. Cleveland's long history of mass production is transitioning into hyper-local manufacturing that emphasizes exciting technologies such as 3D printing.
 
Frazier is pleased to shine a spotlight on that ongoing evolution. While WKYC is not committed to carrying the program forward as a full series, Frazier's producers are set to pitch the show, which is in development as a nine-episode series, to various cable networks.
 
"There's so many directions we can go," Frazier says. "We want to have makers in every episode, and highlight other trades and crafts." 

The business of babies: getting new and expectant families on the right path

Parenthood is not always an easy journey for expectant families unsure where to turn for guidance on birth planning and decision-making. Luckily, navigating parents along childbirth's sometimes rocky path is the mission of a business created by Clevelander Ashley Sova.
 
CLEBaby is a full-service pregnancy, birth, and parenting agency that hosts local events, presents childbirth education classes, and, perhaps most importantly to its founder, provides postpartum doula services. 
 
Sova offers educational tools that treat parenthood as an ongoing process that begins during pregnancy and continues through a baby's first months. Classes are taught in a client's home and center on a range of topics covering pregnancy, labor and birth. Sova's clientele, mostly professional women ages 27 – 40, prefer the comfortable nature of private classes over a more sterile hospital learning environment.
 
"They can ask embarrassing questions, and find out the information that matters for their birth experience," says Sova. "People will invite their pregnant friends and make it into a group event."
 
Teaching the classes are professionally trained doulas, who act as travel guides in advising families during pregnancy, birth and the immediate postpartum period. CLEBaby's postpartum doulas are also brought on to help with infant feeding and light housework, and offer mothers critical support in whatever ways they need to recover from childbirth.
 
Sova hired a doula for her second pregnancy after a difficult birth with her first child. Having an informed, supportive resource close at hand was a revelation, she says, one that inspired her to launch CLEBaby instead of returning to her job as a cancer researcher at Case Western Reserve University.
 
"Having an experienced woman who has seen so many births and knows it inside out brings such a sense of calm," Sova says. "We've had women tell us the service has been life-changing for them."
 
CLEBaby has served 50 to 55 families over the last year, a number Sova plans to grow through new classes and events. Outings for 2017 include a mom-centric ice cream social and a "daddy bootcamp" at a local brewery where new fathers can sip a beer while learning basic baby care.
 
Raising a newborn may not be all glitz and glamour, but neither should it be overwhelming or isolating, says Sova.
 
"We're going to continue to grow our services and our team," she says. "We want to continue on the path of having the most knowledgeable doulas around."
 

NEO sons come home to help fuel CLE's tech economy

A year ago, Chad Supers was running sales for a "baby startup" out of his San Francisco apartment. Today, the Elyria native is back home to help integrate the now fast-growing company into Cleveland's emerging tech economy.
 
Growbots, a Silicon Valley sales software firm, recently opened its national sales operations office in the Tenk Machine and Tool building on the West Bank of the Flats. The company builds outbound sales platforms for nearly 500 emerging B2B companies  in the U.S., Europe and Canada, raising $4 million in annual recurring revenue.
 
Growbots has four employees stationed at its West Bank office, among them former Phenom co-founder Mike Eppich. Supers says the Cleveland firm is prepared to bring on another two dozen sales and administrative roles by the end of 2017.
 
"In Cleveland we know we can get people who are hungry, hard-working and have the right attitude," Supers says.
 
Company leaders housed in Growbots' two other locations — Warsaw, Poland, and San Francisco — chose Cleveland for a potent talent base that's far less expensive to train and hire than the employee pools on the coasts.
 
"There are engineers and other great talents here, and it won't cost you what it would in San Francisco, New York or Boston," says Eppich.
 
Cleveland's hiring pool is a bit shallow when it comes to experienced tech workers, but that challenge can be met with in-house instruction, Supers notes.
 
"Any sales person should have knowledge around our space, but most people we're hiring don't know our competitors," he says. "That's the biggest struggle, so as a leader I have to set up an infrastructure where our employees can be trained." 
 
Like many of its West Coast brethren, Growbots provides a laid-back, results-oriented work atmosphere where rounds of pool are played between work assignments. Even in such casual environs, Supers is serious about his opportunity to bring high-paying tech jobs to his hometown.
 
"To think I'd be starting a small company and bringing it to Cleveland from San Francisco is pretty crazy," he says. 

Medical competition set to put Cleveland at forefront of big data revolution

Healthcare is undergoing a big data revolution, with a decade's worth of research, clinical trials, patient records and other pertinent information being aggregated into giant databases. Organizing this tsunami of information is a massive industry challenge, one an upcoming Cleveland-based event is attempting to tackle.
 
The inaugural Medical Capital Innovation Competition — orchestrated by The Global Center for Health Innovation (GCHI), Cuyahoga County, BioEnterprise, and the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) — invites professional and collegiate teams to offer up their best big-data ideas for a chance at $100,000 in prizes along with critical feedback from Cleveland's world-renowned healthcare sector. The two-day event will be held April 25 and 26 at GCHI's Innovation Center.
 
"From a startup perspective, it's a great opportunity for companies to come up with unique solutions," says BioEnterprise president and CEO Aram Nerpouni. "We're getting applications from around the country and all over the world."
 
Big data is becoming an increasingly big deal both domestically and internationally. According to a 2016 BioEnterprise report, the healthcare IT industry outpaced biotech and medical devices for the first time since the organization began compiling the study 12 years ago. In Cleveland, Explorys, Hyland Software and CoverMyMeds have made headlines with their attempts to take on the data overload from an industry generating huge amounts of new information every day.
 
"Every community in the country has the same challenge," says Nerpouni. "We are looking for some solutions and doing it in a way that plays to a regional strength."
 
Application deadline for the competition is March 31. Ideas will focus on the management, analysis and optimization of health data and be judged upon their commercial viability.
 
Nerpouni says the competition will be attractive for startups searching for a medical innovation hub. Trends like the Internet of Things (IoT) and Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) foretell a future where even more data will need to be collected and translated in order to improve access to patient care.
 
“Cleveland continues to build upon the strengths of its health IT, biotech and medical device assets,” says Nerpouni. "The competition is a celebration of the growth of that critical mass while letting the rest of the country know what's going on here." 

Young entrepreneur's healthy, eco-friendly snacks fuel customers and her growing biz

Emily Yoder believes healthy eating can create positive change in the world,

The young entrepreneur is nurturing that concept via Earth Energy Sustainable Treats, a new startup that creates all-natural "power snacks" for an on-the-go customer base.  
 
Yoder, 20, makes vegan and gluten-free snacks using locally sourced ingredients that are packaged in eco-friendly materials. Her energy bites, for example, are handmade with peanut butter, chocolate, oats, and flax seed, with a hint of organic maple syrup collected from Goodell Family Farm in Mantua. She also sells a protein-rich "power bar" and a hearty cookie treat.
 
"There's no point in being an entrepreneur unless you're trying to change something for the better," says Yoder, a Kent State University senior.
 
Yoder, of Canton, launched her "traveling bakery" last summer at various Cleveland farmer's markets. She's now gained enough of a following that she's expanding her product line this year to include a trail mix and an apple-cinnamon version of the power bar.
 
"I have lots of awesome fans in Cleveland," Yoder says. "There's a market for this because it's satisfying something people haven't seen before."
 
She started her business to fill what she recognized as a gap in the healthy snack market. Even ostensibly nourishing treats like Clif bars have high calorie and sugar content, while soy free and vegan options are limited.

Yoder's business model has not just impressed her customers. In January, she won the Global Student Entrepreneurs Awards (GSEA) pitch competition, which held its regional round on KSU's campus. Yoder takes her healthful ideas to Kansas City this week for nationals, competing against 25 fellow students  for a spot at the GSEA Global Finals in Frankfurt, Germany. 
 
Meanwhile, she continues to grow her one-woman business, although she's not alone in the undertaking. Adam Fleischer, owner of The Wine Spot, mentored her during the pitch competition, while her parents have supported her throughout the process.
 
Looking ahead, Yoder is excited for the upcoming summer market season. She also aims to hire her first employees and procure space at Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen (CCLK) in 2017. Whatever transpires, Yoder will continue to concoct nutritious treats that promote a healthy lifestyle.  
 
"The true nature of entrepreneurship is to innovate and make things better," she says.  

Trending: Cleveland healthcare sector attracts nearly $200M

Cleveland healthcare companies attracted almost $200 million in new equity investments in 2016, continuing a strong local trend of ideas translating into investment dollars, say authors of an annual industry study covering the Midwest.  
 
Forty-six Northeast Ohio companies raised $198 million last year, according to the BioEnterprise Midwest Healthcare Growth Capital Report. The figure put Cleveland fourth in regional venture investment, just behind Minneapolis ($422 million), Chicago ($323 million) and St. Louis ($241 million). Ohio also ranked third among Midwestern states in drawing $291 million in healthcare investment funding, trailing only Minnesota ($424 million) and Illinois ($327 million).
 
“We are encouraged that Cleveland, again, ranks near the top of Midwest regions in number of companies and investment attracted,” says BioEnterprise president and CEO Aram Nerpouni, whose local nonprofit is tasked with assisting biomedical startups.
 
Medical device companies led the charge with $89 million raised, followed by $58 million garnered by local biotech and pharmaceutical firms. Matching a national trend, funding in Cleveland's health IT and services sector more than doubled, from $20 million to $50 million.
 
Drug development company BioMotiv raised $37.5 million in 2016, representing the region's largest deal. OnShift, a developer of software for post-acute care and senior living, had the next largest deal at $18 million. ViewRay, makers of a clinical MRI-guided radiation therapy system, raised $13.75 million.
 
Since 2012, Northeast Ohio's healthcare sector has acquired an average of $200 million in private investment capital, a trend that Nerpouni says is emblematic of the area's strides in the industry.
 
"A decade ago we were getting $30 million a year," says Nerpouni. "The consistency we're seeing now is exciting."
 
The region has also had more than 60 exits since 2002, meaning global entities are consistently grabbing up area companies, although many of these businesses are staying in the region after being acquired. Nerpouni cites Explorys, a healthcare data analytics company and division of IBM Corp. now building its headquarters near Cleveland Clinic.
 
Nerpouni expects local healthcare funding to break $200 million in 2017 as Cleveland's biomedical industry continues to find its legs.

"Look at the talent we have moving into Northeast Ohio," says Nerpouni. "The rest of the country is catching up to the fact that if you're a biomedical company, this one of the places to grow." 
 

New strategic alliance aims to build on CLE's immigrant culture in high-tech world

Startup accelerator Flashstarts has partnered with Global Cleveland in an effort to add international flair to Cleveland's entrepreneurial scene.
 
The new strategic alliance combines Flashstarts' expertise in startup and innovation with Global Cleveland's talent attraction endeavors. Officials backing the new venture also expect to deliver solutions for international entrepreneurs struggling with their immigration status.
 
"Global Cleveland is spreading the word about the city, while we're recruiting the best entrepreneurs we can find," says Charles Stack, CEO of Flashstarts, a technology/software accelerator and venture fund. "This program will allow us to draw talent from anywhere in the world”
 
The partnership also acts as a stepping stone for formation of a Flashstarts Global Entrepreneur-In-Residence (GEIR) program with Northeast Ohio universities, says Stack. Immigrant founders who apply to the program through Flashstarts will be chosen through a competitive selection process. Successful applicants then link up with a partner university in exchange for a cap-exempt H-1B visa, splitting work between the school and their startup.
 
"We'll offer them a spot in our accelerator program and give them $50,000 in exchange for equity," Stack says. "At a university they could be supporting an entrepreneur program, or recruiting students to the school from their home country."
 
Uncertainly over the Trump administration's immigration policy makes the partnership with Flashstarts a necessity, notes Jessica Whale, Global Cleveland's director of global talent and development.
 
"Getting proper visa status can be challenging," Whale said in a press release. "This program aligns perfectly with our vision of transforming Cleveland into an international hub of innovation.”
 
Proponents believe the collaboration can grow the region's job base and build wealth. Stack says the newly minted affiliation is especially unique due to Global Cleveland's robust links to immigrant brainpower.
 
"They have ties to countries and marketing opportunities all over the world," he says. "That's going to make what we're doing stand out."
 
Pending strong outcomes, the partners aim to expand their effort to universities throughout the region. Even one successful startup can create hundreds of jobs, a numbers game that heavily relies on the attraction of new talent.
 
"If we want to grow our employment base as a region, the way to do it is with startups," says Stack.

"Cleveland has always been a great city for immigrants. We want to continue that trend." 

Fun and colorful salon caters to pint-sized clients

Any parent will tell you that taking a child for a haircut can be adventure — but of the stressful ilk. Deborah Gideon knows the drill. As owner of the kid-friendly Cuts N Curls salon, she's built a thriving enterprise around eliminating anxiety from the periodic trim.
 
Gideon's Solon-based business is a salon, toy boutique and party center all wrapped up into one colorfully energetic package. The surroundings are fun and upbeat, with brightly painted walls and a checkerboard floor. Children watch movies from the comfort of car-shaped styling chairs, while the electronic ping of video games ring out in the background.
 
"Kids love it here, and parents are de-stressed because it's so chill," says Gideon. "It's a happy vibe."
 
Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, Cuts N Curls has become a destination stop for busy families, Gideon notes. The Pepper Pike resident started the salon in August 2007 with a focus on children, but expanded her services to include adults. After moving to a larger space following her initial launch, Gideon offers cuts for kids and their parents, as well as ear piercings, color and highlights, and manicures.
 
The fun doesn't stop there, as Cuts N Curls hosts birthday parties that invite little girls for a day of glitter spray, temporary tattoos and age-appropriate dress-up. Gideon also sells a selection of organic and nontoxic hair products, accessories, nail polish and toys.
 
Put together, these elements are designed to create a relaxing atmosphere that makes a potentially scary experience enjoyable. Gideon's staff has also been trained by Autism Speaks Cleveland to accommodate special needs children.
 
"The word-of-mouth from the autistic community and mommy blogs has been unbelievable," says Gideon. "People have had terrible experiences over haircuts, and they cry with relief when they're here."
 
While the salon has nearly 6,000 clients in its database, Gideon's staff caters to the needs of individual customers; all the more to make them feel safe and comfortable, she says.
 
"We have notes on kids with food allergies or if they like Elmo or the pink car," says Gideon. "It makes them feel good, like there's something special going on here."
 
Creating an accessible environment has fostered bonds not just between stylists and their pint-sized clients, but with parents as well.
 
"People say we've made their lives easier," says Gideon. "I don't take that lightly." 

Women Who Code launches new tech network in Cleveland

An international nonprofit that empowers women to pursue and succeed in high-tech industries has chosen Cleveland for its newest chapter.
 
Women Who Code, with 60 locations in 20 countries, is an 80,000-member strong organization supporting an underrepresented demographic in technology-based fields. Upon joining Cincinnati as Ohio's second WWCode network, the Cleveland group kicked off at a JumpStart-hosted launch event on January 31, complete with programming activities and a brainstorming session to determine the group's future outreach.
 
The local chapter, which already consists of over 100 members, is led by Nicole McGuire, a technical architect at IBM's global consulting company Bluewolf. McGuire is tasked with guiding the group through regularly scheduled events, promotions and relationships with venues and sponsors.
 
Cleveland was selected as a chapter due to what WWCode global leadership director Joey Rosenberg calls the city's "vibrant tech spirit"
 
"We saw Cleveland having this movement around technology and entrepreneurship," says Rosenberg. "There's a buzz here we thought would support Women Who Code. Under the steady guidance of Nicole, this network has a chance to have an incredible impact on the city of Cleveland."
 
Hackathons, technology study groups and fireside chats with female tech leaders are currently being planned for WWCode's first year here. McGuire says bringing the group to Cleveland will galvanize the area's tech sector and create an immediate, and much-needed, system of resources.
 
"Women need to believe they belong in what is a heavily male-dominated field," says McGuire, a 16-year industry veteran. "We'll introduce them to role models that will let them say, 'Hey, I can become a vice president or CEO (in tech) and here's some women who've already done that.'"
 
College-aged women and those already pursuing tech careers are WWCode's target audience. Encouraging more female participation is critical in diversifying a field where only 17.6% of computer science graduates are women, organization officials maintain.
 
McGuire has always loved coding, dating back to 1983 when her parents bought her a Commodore 64 for Christmas. She looks forward to spreading that love to Cleveland-area women hoping to excel in technology careers.
 
"We want to find as many women as we can get to help drive the organization,"  McGuire says. "There's a chance here to mentor women, and produce more mentors to help junior coders or people already in the industry."
 

Women, Wine & Web Design aims to boost digital literacy

Tech Elevator founder and CEO Anthony Hughes believes digital literacy drives the modern economy. In order to put more women behind the wheel, he's created a Cleveland coding boot camp geared specifically toward them.
 
Women, Wine & Web Design is a free beginner's workshop that teaches the fundamentals of front-end web development. Hosted by JumpStart, the February 7 program will familiarize women of all ages and skill sets with HTML/CSS, directing them toward building a basic webpage.
 
Hughes, whose organization is sponsoring the event alongside e-commerce firm OEC, says the three-hour workshop is a casual, if intensive, introduction to coding principles. Tech Elevator alumni will guide attendees through the class led by software designer Nicole Capuana.
 
Program registration closed quickly, says Hughes, who points to a waiting list of would-be coders as further evidence of an increasingly in-demand skill set.
 
"There's a huge demand from women who are interested in exploring this path," says Hughes. "This program is a good vehicle for them to try programming and have fun at the same time."
 
Tech Elevator's objective with its web-related venture is to bring more women into a male-dominated field.
 
"Giving folks a sense of creating something is a great way to plant a seed and get them more involved," Hughes says. "Technology can be intimidating, but we're creating an event that's accessible."
 
Ideally, women leaving the class will pursue further coding knowledge via free online sources or more formal educational pathways. Program officials want to foster an uptick in the percentage of women graduating with computer science bachelor's degrees. Currently, the numbers are pretty dismal. Per ComputerScience.org, "as of 2010-2011, women made up just 17.6% of computer science students."
 
"Diverse companies have diverse thought processes," says Hughes. "Finding ways to bring more women into the field is only going to be better for all of us."
 
Cleveland is a first-time host for Women, Wine & Web Design, but Tech Elevator hosted a successful iteration of the program last fall in Columbus that drew 70 people.

Though the Buckeye State ranks below average in nationwide digital literacy, Hughes says additional introductory programming classes will only drive that ranking higher. To that end, Tech Elevator already has another women-friendly web event in preparation for later this year. 
 
"This could be a quarterly program," says Hughes. "If it helps women explore career paths more deeply, we'll keep doing it." 

In brightest day or deepest night, Clevelander's invention keeps outdoor athletes in sight

For John Kulbis, inventor of Safety Skin reflective skin spread, the light bulb went off in 2010 when he leaned against a wall while painting a home interior. A dash of white paint from the wet surface striped Kulbis's arm, leading to a creation meant to make joggers, cyclists and pedestrians easier to see on the road.
 
Today, Safety Skin is the first product of Road Wise, Kulbis's Cleveland-based startup. The reflective spread is applied directly to the skin before or during activity, with the aim of bouncing headlights back to drivers in a variety of weather or nighttime conditions.
 
"Without light the spread has a subtle gray hint to it," says Kulbis, a Cleveland native and Euclid resident. "When light hits the product, it reflects back to the light source."
 
Safety Skin is made of natural ingredients and can be placed anywhere on the body. Kulbis tells outdoor athletes to run the deodorant-like applicator down their legs or along their arms and sides, especially in warm weather where less reflective garments are used. Kulbis's product stands up to perspiration, but can be removed easily enough using a wet wipe or soap and water.
 
A former competitive cyclist and runner, Kulbis has been perfecting his invention for the last two-and-a-half years. Safety Skin is now available at area athletic apparel and bike shops.
 
"Safety" is in the name for a reason. In 2014 alone, 4,884 pedestrians and 726 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That said, Kulbis wants to keep his product message positive and upbeat.
 
"I'm not selling this on scare tactics or fatalities on the road," he says. "I wanted to create something that people are actually going to love to use."
 
Looking ahead, Kulbis envisions Safety Spread having fashion and art applications. A hot pink or bright orange product could be used to make a mural, or be placed on a model for a colorful photo shoot. 
 
For now, the athletic entrepreneur is increasing brand awareness through expos and other events. Empowering runners, cyclists and late-night walkers to take control of their visibility is all the motivation Kulbis needs.
 
"Right now, it's about getting people to believe in the product," he says. "All the stages of this have been really exciting."
 

Locally made Backattack Snacks pack a protein punch, spell success for founders

Snacking is fun, as long as you don't read the ingredients on the back of the package, says Brian Back, owner of Backattack Snacks, a Westlake-based seller of naturally made beefy jerky and almonds.
 
An average pack of "gas station jerky," for example, is loaded with preservatives and strange chemicals that begin with "poly." Backattack's Ohio-raised Angus beef jerky, made by the proprietor on site at Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen (CCLK), has only nine ingredients, all of which can be pronounced by his nine-year-old daughter, Graci. Back's email signature says, "You should never need a PhD in chemistry to understand what you are eating," a thought he reiterated during a recent interview with Fresh Water Cleveland.
 
"Our jerky is made of meat and spices," says Back. "That's it."
 
Back and wife Lauren also sell five varieties of roasted almonds in flavors including wasabi ginger and pumpkin spice. The couple's Chocolate Firecracker brand continues the business's all-natural trend, containing cayenne pepper, Himalaya sea salt, organic raw cacao, and honey sourced from area apiaries.
 
Back's jerky isn't in stores but can be purchased online, at local farmer's markets or at the Merchant's Mrkt collaborative retail storefront in Legacy Village. His almonds can be found at Heinen's, Mustard Seed Market and various mom-and-pop shops throughout the region. Since launching Backattack Snacks in 2015, the owners have expanded their reach into six states outside Ohio.
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"The goal for this year is to get our almonds into bigger stores," says Back. "We also want to be a vendor at Progressive Field."
 
The story behind the snacks started when the Backs' passion for cooking and fitness led them to experiment with healthy nibbles for athletes. They made beef jerky for family and friends, then used their jerky marinade to roast almonds.
 
In kicking off their snack business, the first-time owners enlisted the aid of fellow Cleveland food entrepreneurs, who mentored them in the ways of pricing, labor and product placement. Local food service veterans Tim Skaryd and his father, William, gave the Backs invaluable advice on packaging and other manufacturing minutiae.
 
"You always have to keep learning," Back says.
 
Handmade snacking goodness does not come cheap. A quarter-pound of jerky goes for $13, while a half-pound of Chocolate Firecracker costs $9, but the price tags have a conscious. A portion of sales helps fund the Johns Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute's research of arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplaysia (ARVD), a rare heart condition that is a leading cause of sudden death in young athletes.
 
Meanwhile, the young entrepreneurs will keep providing high-quality almonds and chewy beef to health-conscious consumers.
 
"We're meeting some big players in the space and seeing them enjoying our product as much as everyone else is," says Back. "The coolest thing is seeing our work come to where it has."

Local startup unlocks the power of Amazon

Amazon.com is an unstoppable e-behemoth, ringing up nearly 40 percent of holiday web sales between Thanksgiving and the Monday after Turkey Day alone. As more consumer brands and general manufacturers harness the power of the online giant, a Cleveland startup is aiming to help them realize the powerful platform's nearly limitless potential.
 
Marketplace Strategy (MPS), housed in Tyler Village in Cleveland’s historic Tyler Elevator complex, is a five-person team of experienced digital marketers developing Amazon optimization programs for companies including Powerstep Insoles and Cyalume
 
Where other Amazon-specific agencies may focus on keywords and product page content, MPS takes what vice president of sales and marketing Jeff Walcoff calls an "end-to-end" approach. That means not only maximizing website visitors, but also creating a better user experience, increasing a business's presence on the platform, and optimizing company revenue.
 
MPS's work with Powerstep, in particular, demonstrated the Cleveland service's potential, Walcoff notes. The startup organized the shoe insert provider's sales listings while also fashioning back-end improvements. Powerstep's sales leapt significantly following the makeover.
 
"For us in digital marketing, unless you have some kind of software others don't, you have to offer something that makes you stand out," says Walcoff. "Growth with our clients has been across the board."
 
Walcoff and his colleagues developed the Amazon optimization program as part of a larger agency, but split off last year to launch MPS. 
 
"We saw potential to develop something unique; not just an SEO (search engine optimization) company," Walcoff says. "Right now we want to build a good foundation of clients. We've had conversations with local manufacturing companies big and small, and some national brands."
 
E-commerce will continue to grow, with Amazon leading the way, says the company official. According to a 2016 survey by BloomReach, 55 percent of consumers reported going directly to Amazon when searching for a product, nearly double those who cited search engines and other retailers.
 
MPS can be part of that evolution, considering that many companies—even larger ones—don't have much infrastructure around the Amazon platform.
 
"If you're selling something, Amazon is the epicenter of the internet," says Walcoff. "We love the companies in Cleveland and welcome the chance to work with them."  

Local firm puts a new spin on human relations, finds a welcoming niche

As a small-business owner, Mark D’Agostino knows firsthand the difficulties of staffing a human resources department. All too often, HR employees are overworked, undertrained and unsupported by company leadership, he says.
 
To address these issues, D’Agostino launched ConnectedHR, a professional services firm that provides its 30 clients with experienced HR consultants. ConnectedHR personnel work on-site at companies—albeit off their payroll and benefits programs—diving into the complex realm of workers' compensation claims, employee engagement and other duties beholden to an in-house HR operation.
 
"We go out to organizations and become their HR entity on a part-time basis," says D’Agostino, who started his Independence-based business in 2014. "We have one young woman who works at five different organizations each day of the week."
 
Company "technicians" are spread out to diverse industries such as biotech, childcare and law. Cleveland law firm The Rathbone Group and drug discovery company BioMotiv are among the entities currently hosting a ConnectedHR staff member. Client business models may differ, but human resources basics are similar across industries, D’Agostino notes.
 
"Our technicians have an agenda and structure they follow very closely," he says. "It's streamlined enough that they know what aspects to focus on."
 
Businesses that enlist D’Agostino's services generally don't have an HR strategy in place. The company founder and president understands how that goes, as he didn't have a human resources staff at the business supply distribution company he ran prior to launching ConnectedHR. Visiting other offices at the time revealed HR's dispersal throughout harried personnel groups. From there, a vision for a new employee engagement approach came into being.
 
Since its inception, ConnectedHR has steadily grown its client base and topped $1 million in annual revenue. D’Agostino enjoys working with an established clientele that have reached a stage of growth where a level of HR professionalism is needed.
 
"I'm also excited about my team," D’Agostino says. "There's such an energy and vibrancy with them. They're a very educated, experienced group."
 
Ensuring worker well-being is especially satisfying in a region where small business is an economic driver.
 
"I'm passionate about supporting these organizations, because I'm a small business owner, too," says D’Agostino. "My clients want to be a good employer for their employees." 
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