Commentary: My 23 Years at the YBI Comes to an End

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After nearly 23 years, 19 of which were spent as CEO, I’ll be stepping away from the Youngstown Business Incubator this January. Well, not completely stepping away. The organization will always be in my heart.

I still remember the very first day I walked onto the YBI campus – or what would become our campus. Over two decades ago, it was a single building. And not much of one. Instead, it was a long abandoned former furniture store that had only one of its five stories renovated as “incubation” space.

You know, “Here’s some office space. There is your shared photocopier and fax machine. Now run along and turn yourself into a world class company.”

That was our approach to incubation in Youngstown. It definitely wasn’t working.

And it was a mess. Had I undertaken proper due diligence before accepting the position, had I read its board minutes, had I examined its financial statements, had I interviewed its key stakeholders, I never would be writing this column as the former CEO of YBI.

My first years at YBI were the toughest: putting our house in order, getting our finances healthy, repairing all our stakeholder relations, and, most important, planning for a new incubation model that works.

But, we got it all done. We were ready to launch the new Youngstown Business Incubator. However, the state of Ohio had a different idea in mind.

In 2003, the Ohio Third Frontier Program, a multi-billion dollar initiative to accelerate the formation of new technology-based startups, was launched. As a state grantee, YBI was forced to align itself with this mission or lose our operating grant, which at the time was the lion’s share of our annual income.

So we had to come up with a plan to launch new technology-based companies from a community that had never done so before. Easy enough, right?

Our plan was simple. And it was based on a single premise: “You can’t be good at everything that knocks on your door.”

In the beginning, we realized that we would never have the resources, never have the budget, and most important, we would never have the domain expertise to provide world-class services to every new technology.

So rather than offering mediocre services that would produce only mediocre results, we decided to build a world class suite of services around just a single technology. One that made sense for Youngstown.

The technology chosen was business-to-business software: startups that offer software solutions for other businesses to use.

Why did that make sense for Youngstown?

Well, first, B2B software development has almost no barriers to entry. If you have a laptop, if you know how to program, if you have a great idea for a solution, you are well on your way to becoming a successful software company without a single penny of expense.

And, second, the physical location of a B2B software company is irrelevant. Because customers do not care about physical location. They care only about world-class solutions that solve their problems. So why can’t they come from Youngstown?

Over the years, that single focus has expanded to a much more expansive digital concentration that now includes augmented reality, virtual reality, predictive analytics, IIoT, machine learning and artificial intelligence. And we added a second focus of additive manufacturing/3D printing when America Makes located on the YBI campus in 2012.

YBI certainly has come a long way from humble beginnings. And we did so despite a lot of initial skepticism in our organization’s ability to deliver.

A few years ago, when Barb Ewing took over as YBI CEO, I wrote about it:

“When almost no one believed  … we took a long abandoned furniture store and began developing it into a world class, five-building technology campus. When almost no one believed – we began work to launch the fastest-growing software company in the country. When almost no one believed – we set the groundwork to attract a $70 million innovation center to our campus and create our own venture capital fund.

“And when almost no one believed – we began a journey to become the No. 1 university affiliated incubator in the entire world. They believe us now. And they believe our best is yet to come. Our very best. And Barb Ewing will lead us there.”

Those words were written in April 2017. Since then, Barb Ewing has been driving YBI to amazing new heights. She’s a rock star. Seriously, a rock star.  And I hope you will always give her the same level of support you have given me.

Now, I’m just going to sit back and root her on. You go girl!