By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Rahul Bawa never intended to run an incubator, much less what he calls a commercialization program, but today he finds himself spending 30 to 40 percent of his time as the volunteer leader of The Hamilton Mill and its new initiative named Pipeline H2O.
The well-connected resident of Cincinnati shared with us the focus of the incubator – advanced manufacturing and clean technology – which are sectors of interest to many in the East Tennessee area. Perhaps more important, however, is the manner in which those two areas were selected and how Bawa is positioning them for success.
“Hamilton is a traditional rustbelt community,” he says of the city of about 62,500 people that is a little more than a half-hour drive northwest of Cincinnati.
About two and one-half years ago, the City Manager asked Bawa to assess what needed to be done to make the existing incubator more of a success. While it had been around for more than a decade, Bawa says he found something much different from what we think of as a vibrant start-up space.
“You don’t have an incubator,” he told the City Manager. “You have a building with cheap office space.” Many of the tenants were one-person law offices, not the traditional entrepreneur pursuing a new venture.
With more “encouragement” from the city, Bawa devoted time to answering the question of what was missing in the greater Cincinnati ecosystem and what Hamilton could provide. One of the things he discovered was the fact that the city owns the local utility, and between 75 and 80 percent of the energy it generates is from renewable sources, particularly hydro.
“We picked clean tech for that reason,” Bawa said. “We rebranded and relaunched the incubator as The Hamilton Mill in July of 2014.” Today, The Mill has 17 tenants covering the technology gamut – from water purification to advanced manufacturing.
Bawa chairs The Mill’s board of directors and has leveraged his Cincinnati connections to help both the incubator and the new commercialization program. Key partners include well-known entrepreneurially-focused programs like Cintrifuse, CincyTech, and Queen City Angels as well as nearby Miami University.
“Six months ago, I was approached with the idea of a water accelerator,” Bawa says. After a few months of study, Pipeline H2O was launched in September and just announced its first class of eight companies that begin the program next month (Pipeline H2O Announces Inaugural Class – Final). A total of 66 applications – two-thirds from U.S.-based enterprises – were received from entrepreneurs on five continents, and those are being whittled down now.
The applications cover a wide variety of water-based businesses including those in the areas of consumer innovations, data analytics, infrastructure, monitoring/metering, reuse/recycling and wastewater.
“Overall, we are very pleased with the quantity and quality of the applicants,” Bawa said in a recent email to the core working group supporting Pipeline H2O. As far as terminology, he explains that “I’m not overtly calling it an accelerator.” There are several reasons.
“Entrepreneurs in this space are probably not twenty somethings,” Bawa notes. As a result, they are not likely to pick-up and relocate for the several months that traditional accelerators require. “It’s just not that easy for them,” he says.
In addition, Bawa says that Pipeline H2O, which is being funded entirely by The Mill, does not provide advance funding to the participants. The programming is also not focused on the basics of starting a business, but rather on sales/customer acquisition. All participants are expected to have a prototype in place.
“That’s why we are calling it a commercialization program.” Bawa says.
When it ends in May, the participants will select two cohort companies that will receive $25,000 each.
The inaugural program, which Bawa hopes will become an annual event, requires the teams to be in the Cincinnati region one week a month. A primary focus of the work they will do during those visits is sales and marketing, although Bawa says the “programming will not be finalized until the companies are selected.” He wants to tailor it to the needs of the participants.
“We have a lot of water expertise and potential customers in the area,” Bawa says.