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Lake County entrepreneur incubator LakeStart launches

Andrew Cass | The News-Herald

Eleven area entrepreneurs who have “taken the elevator to the top floor,” as Kevin Freese put it, are taking the elevators back down to help others find success.

Freese, a local business owner and chairman of the Ohio Northern University College of Engineering Advisory Board, is one of the 11 mentors involved in the recently launched Lake County-based entrepreneur incubator LakeStart.

LakeStart’s official name is The Raymond C. Kralovic Center for Entrepreneurship, named in honor of the STERIS founder who passed away two years ago.

After retiring from STERIS, Kralovic was actively involved in the entrepreneurial community in Northeast Ohio, LakeStart Board President Kip Marlow said.

“Ray was a great man and it would be his wish that the work he was doing here would be continued,” Freese said.

The idea to bring an entrepreneurship accelerator program to Lake County dates back several years, but hit a few challenges.

“Our timing was awful because it was in the middle of the Great Recession,” Marlow said. “We couldn’t get off the Schneid at all. So it got to the point where now, starting in (last) May, we kind of figured out what we wanted to be when we grew up.”

There are entrepreneur incubator programs all across the country, Marlow said, but LakeStart will be a bit different.

“Most of the ones get $500,000 from the state, or from a city like Shaker Heights did it for the Shaker Launch House, and so some people are paid to man those places,” Marlow said. “We decided we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to do it raising a little money — we’re trying to raise some money, but it’s not going to be a half a million dollars. We don’t need it, we don’t want it.”

The 11 mentors and others who have been involved in helping to launch LakeStart are doing so on a volunteer basis.

Freese said they’re appreciative of the Lake County commissioners, the Lake County Ohio Port & Economic Development Authority, cities like Willoughby and Mentor, and the local business owners and leaders that have been involved in helping get LakeStart started.

The only money that has been spent is on the creation of a website (LakeStart.org) and the $1 a year rent paid for office space in Willoughby City Hall.

“We want to be bootstrapping this thing forever,” Marlow said.

The 11 mentors bring a combined 250 years of experience.

Marlow, the founder of Marlow Surgical Technologies, and Freese are among those serving as mentors. The others are:

• Paul Novosel, serial entrepreneur and founder of Trust Manufacturing

• Christine Blake, CEO of Cardinal Credit Union

• Ken Graham, founder of National Threaded Fasteners

• Bob Cain, serial entrepreneur

• Mario Jurcic, founder of Secure IT

• Ray Paginini, founder of Cornerstone IT

• Larry Lamphier, Wintergreen Associates and 25 years as a manufacturing CEO

• Sharon Ward, founder of Northcoast Senior Moving and 25 years of experience in the banking industry

• Tim Eippert, founder of MC Sign

“The relationship with a mentor is more valuable than money,” Freese said.

Freese added that the mentorship he’s gotten along the way was a major key to his success. Marlow concurs.

The mentors come with a variety of different backgrounds and areas of expertise.

Kralovic often said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

“Ray knew that when he founded STERIS,” Freese said. “He knew there were things he didn’t know and so he sought out people to get him there.

“Here’s this guy with a revolutionary technology, who’s going to change the world. He believed he was going to change the world. He knew in his head before he started down the path, this was going to change the world of sterilization and infection control.

“But there were other areas that he knew he probably needed help in. He went out and circled himself with people who could help that.”

LakeStart is aiming to provide the same opportunity to budding entrepreneurs in the area.

Marlow said the mentors bring skill sets ranging from business planning to human resources to intellectual property, marketing, management and more.

Applications for the program can be found on LakeStart’s website.

“We’ve got an awesome group of people that have volunteered their time that are experienced business leaders and entrepreneurs,” Freese said. “We know that through our process of trying to onboard these folks (potential program candidates) to assess what they have and what they need to make them successful. That if they’re chosen to go through our quote-unquote program, they’ll get a coach, a mentor that will hold their hand throughout the process to make sure that they’re successful.”

Marlow said they will meet with applicants and talk with them, and if they feel that they can help the applicants with their product, they move forward with the process.

The rule of thumb is to bet on the horse not the jockey, Marlow said.

“It’s the person that invents, the person that executes, that’s the key,” he said. “I mean I don’t care if you have T-shirts to sell. If you’re really passionate about T-shirts, you’re going to do well.”

Counseling and mentoring could last a few months to a few years, as needs will vary by person, Marlow said. The people selected for the program could have one or more mentors. The program is available to those outside of Lake County as well, but they want the businesses to be based out of the county. There is no charge to be a part of the program.

LakeStart will work to create a timeline with milestones for those selected with the program.

“There needs to be some kind of definitive endpoint of when someone’s going to exit the program,” Freese said. “We need to be outcomes based.”

As the center grows, more mentors are likely to be brought on board, Freese said.

With the program in its first year, Marlow said he would personally like to have 100 to 200 people come to the center and have 40 business started this year.

The ultimate goal is to create jobs and wealth in Lake County, Marlow said.

“Everyone wants to have a job,” Freese said. “We can never have too many jobs for our people out here. Which then brings more residents that need more houses, which means there’s more housing starts. It’s what fuels the economy.”