Innovate Springfield helps take ideas from concept to completion
BY CATHERINE O’CONNOR
For nine local start-up entrepreneurs, graduation night on Oct. 30 marked the completion of the Co.Starters program, a series of weekly three-hour intensive seminars presented through Innovate Springfield, the business incubator supported by University of Illinois Springfield.
Before deciding on the Co.Starters program, Katie Davison, executive director of Innovate Springfield, reviewed several similar programs that walk start-ups through the process from idea to implementation. “What we liked the most about this was the community partnerships aspect,” Davison said.
Those who were selected for either the June or September co-horts of the Co.Starters program represent a wide range of backgrounds and are in various stages of launching or expanding their businesses. Davison said partnerships with Downtown Springfield, Inc.’s Momentum on Main Street program and U.S. Bank provided scholarships for seven of the participants.
Sara Beth Ayers is the business incubation program coordinator for Innovate Springfield and led the nine-week Co.Starters program. She collaborated with the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council to present the curriculum simultaneously in both communities.
Co-founder Gordon Davis is a political science graduate from Lincoln Land Community College who at one time also worked as a youth counselor for at-risk kids, a networking consultant and a firefighter. A native of Cadillac, Michigan, Gordon was inspired to start Whimsy Tea because he and his wife, Laura, couldn’t find a good selection of the teas that they knew and loved.
According to Davis, marketing is the key to connecting with soda-drinking customers, because as a culture we’ve gotten so used to drinks that are super-saturated with sugar.
“While we can’t make health claims, we think about baby steps, where consumers make better choices to help them find better health,” Davis said. As a tea aficionado, Davis works directly with importers and their suppliers to learn all that he can about the product. “Ancient Forest is a tea cultivated from Chinese plants that are between 700 and 2,000 years old, grown since the time of Jesus,” Davis said.
Davis described his wife as the brains of the operation and said she has the palate for tasting the teas. Laura also works behind the scenes, providing day-to-day business operations expertise.
“One thing I learned from Co.Starters is that I’m not a numbers guy. An important concept the program discussed was how to find the break-even point and understand how to scale up, over time,” said Davis.
He decided to reduce the number of products from 43 to 35 types, which include combinations of pure tea and tisanes, aromatic blends of botanicals prepared as tea, with prices ranging from $4.50 to $32 an ounce. All proceeds from the sale of Whimsy’s Chocolate Chai blend are being donated to Helping Hands of Springfield, where Laura Davis is a program director.
Stephanie Cullen Design
Stephanie Cullen is an independent graphic designer and artist who works with small businesses and individuals to create communications solutions. “Often my clients have a big idea, message or event and hire me to help them develop the best way to bring it to their audience,” Cullen explained. She found that one of the most important aspects of the Co.Starters program helps entrepreneurs set priorities, define their audience or customers and determine a breakeven point for sales and finances. According to Cullen, “Co.Starters gave me a place to work through ideas with honest, critical feedback. Because if you ask friends or family for reaction, they will often just say, ‘Oh, I love it.’”
With a graphic design degree from Robert Morris University and previous experience working for Springfield Scene magazine and the Illinois legislature, Cullen has a wide range of experience designing graphics, logos, brochures, signs and social media imagery to reach a variety of audiences. A couple of years ago she decided that the best way to keep from losing sight of her creativity and zest for life was to become an entrepreneur and focus on working closely with each client to provide individualized service. “I had paid off my student loans, so I knew it was time to work on things that I have a passion for,” Cullen said.
Strategic Client Solutions Ltd., d/b/a FastDisability.com
Jacqueline Gragg, CEO of Strategic Client Solutions, provides an array of client-focused services to assist individuals, organizations and state governments to obtain Social Security disability benefits. She is a Social Security advocate with a decade of experience, including working as an adjudicator, reviewing and processing claims and as a program manager for the state of Illinois’ Social Security Income (SSI) program. She helped the state obtain $66.5 million in SSI back pay to help offset the cost of care for thousands of wards of the state who are disabled. The majority of her clients have been children whose benefits would transfer with them to their foster caregivers and families.
With a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in administration, Gragg provides comprehensive consulting to help in the application, determination, appeals and redetermination processes. This year she has participated in nearly 170 hearings as a trained non-attorney representative. The cost for her services can be a flat fee for consulting, or 25% of past due benefits awarded as a lump sum when an applicant is determined eligible for Social Security income.
“The Co.Starters program provided a sense of camaraderie, helped give me clarity to take steps back and reflect on what I do and my potential,” Gragg said. She has also been working to develop software that will expedite Social Security applications and is writing a book to help others with the process. “I feel like I’ve just begun,” she said.
Inventor Kevin Wasmer, who is the son of an entreprenuer, will tell you with an infectious smile that his start-up product, Pedal Python, is “the world’s best cable organizer for musicians.” When not hard at work as a technician for Watts Copy Systems, Wasmer plays in the rock band Enamel. So, he understood first-hand the need to bring order to the pedal board cables that seemed to sprawl around the stage like snakes.
After experimenting, Wasmer came up with the idea for his cable organizer in 2012. His research and development involved surveying fellow musicians who helped him create the highly customizable, flexible casing that is now produced in five different colors and lengths ranging from 10-50 feet. He assembles them using materials sourced through industrial suppliers and distributes from his home with the help of his wife, Gail.
Wasmer credits the founder of Watts Copy Systems for being a great role model, as head of a successful company which also started as a home-based business. “They don’t go along with the crowd. They really set an example for building trust with customers’ feedback and referral,” Wasmer said.
Wasmer, who participated in DSI’s Momentum on Main Street program, was selected to receive a scholarship for Co.Starters, sponsored by U.S. Bank. In addition to exploring patent and trademark issues with attorneys from Brown, Hay & Stephens, who offer pro-bono mentoring to ISPI start-ups, Wasmer is also working on getting his foot in more doors with increased confidence and fresh perspective he gained from the program. Through website sales, Pedal Python is now being used on stages and at music festivals around the globe.
Other start-up entrepreneurs who participated in the program include Brian J Boucher; LeAnn Divjak and Kelly Sholtis of Kathi, Kelly & Me; Laura Rabe of Cherrybrook Photography and Mary Senger, Coffee & Curios.
According to Ayers, Innovate Springfield has nurtured and supports more than 80 member companies through providing work space, professional development programming and a community of like-minded starters. Offering access to a shared learning environment and the Co-Starters educational curriculum, Innovate Springfield is one of more than 120 entrepreneurial communities around the world, connecting local graduates of the program to a global network of innovation resources.
Catherine O’Connor is an open-desk member of Innovate Springfield where she is working to launch a strategic communications company with a mission to strengthen future progress by reviving historic legacy connecting to our past.
Innovate Springfield members
55% are women
35% are people of color
24% are women of color
Since 2008, Co.Starters has included:
223 local leaders
477 program facilitators
86.8% of starters who participate launch a business
83% are still in business after 2 years
70.8% are female founders
60.7% are minorities
28.6% are low-income
86.8% of participants reported it helped them determine next steps