Introducing Pipeline H2O
The Hamilton Mill, an advanced manufacturing, clean-technology incubator focused on developing high growth potential startup businesses, introduced Pipeline H2O, a water-commercialization program, in September 2016. In January 2017, the program welcomed its first class of startups selected from 66 applications from across 5 continents representing 14 different countries. In April, the program was recognized with an award from the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration (GCC-ASPA). The award for “Program Excellence” recognized Pipeline H2O as a program with exceptional productivity, performance, effectiveness or innovation that provides highly responsive service to customers and demonstrates the organization’s value. In May, Pipeline H2O conducted its first Demo Day for its inaugural class of startups, awarding PowerTech Water and Searen the program’s first two $25,000 investments. We recently had the opportunity to connect with Antony Seppi, Operations Director at The Hamilton Mill, to learn more about the program and the incubator.
THE: Describe Pipeline H2O and the role it plays in Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem.
Seppi: Pipeline H2O is similiar to the “accelerator” (think The Brandery, UpTech, Ocean) concept in that we brought a number of selected startups into our region and introduced them to various organizations and individuals throughout the Greater Cincinnati Region to help accelerate their progress as a startup. We have amassed a tremendous amount of talent from the water-tech and entrepreneurial community to help make this successful both for the region and the participating startups. Our partners include Village Capital, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati Water Works, Confluence, the University of Cincinnati’s Water Center, Xavier University’s Center for Innovation, the City of Cincinnati, the City of Hamilton, and Cintrifuse.
A couple of minor differences from your traditional accelerator model are that we did not ask the startups to relocate to the region during the duration of the program. Rather they came to Cincinnati once a month from February through May. Additionally, we are not taking equity in the startups that are participating in the program. Participants in our program are eligible for one of two $25,000 awards that are awarded via a peer selection model — a model unique to our premier partner in this program — Village Capital.
In the end, Greater Cincinnati is a tremendous resource for startups looking to innovate around water. As a matter of fact, the Cincinnati area/region leads the country in water-tech patents per capita. Additionally:
Cincinnati is the birthplace of water research in the U.S. beginning in 1913.
Cincinnati is home to the U.S. Federal Water Research and Development Laboratory, AWBERC and the National Homeland Security Research Center.
While many regions are faced with increasing water shortages, Southwest Ohio is water-rich.
THE: What types of companies are you looking for to be part of your program?
Seppi: As part of our inaugural Pipeline H2O class, we were looking for water-technology companies that had a physical prototype that could be tested with identified customers. The solutions also had to be solving problems in one or more of following areas: water infrastructure, reuse/recycling, monitoring/metering, data analytics, consumer innovations and wastewater.
THE: How do you measure success with the entrepreneurs you are mentoring?
Seppi: Customer engagement which will lead to happy, paying customers.
THE: Why Cincinnati (Hamilton), and why now? What makes this the right place and time for Pipeline H2O?
Seppi: The Hamilton Mill is an award-winning business incubator that provides support for young companies and entrepreneurs focused on clean energy and advanced manufacturing technologies. This is our area of expertise, and we are able to leverage our City of Hamilton partners to make this successful. The City has been extremely aggressive in introducing renewable energy initiatives to its utility customers – Hamilton has control of all utilities, including water, gas, electric, sewer, fiber – and we are able to leverage this expertise in a “City as a Lab” approach. This means we can get our startups involved with city utilities to test their products or concepts. The City is close to seventy-five to eighty percent renewable energy in terms of its production, with most of this coming from the Meldahl Hydroelectric Facility.
Because of our expertise in this sector, Cintrifuse (StartupCincy), Village Capital and several City of Cincinnati leaders approached us to spearhead this regional effort. They asked us in Spring 2016 to administer the program, and we jumped at the opportunity. Throughout the country and around the world, Village Capital establishes these types of communities revolving around particular sectors such as energy, agriculture, health, education, financial and health. Village Capital thought the Cincinnati area would be a good fit for energy.
Plus, the City of Hamilton has the world’s best drinking water!
THE: What have been the biggest challenges for you to this point?
Seppi: Staying relevant with all of the other startup noise that is out there. Again, we are not your traditional incubator/accelerator and developing the next generation smartphone application is not our goal. We have carved out a very specific niche that is not meant to compete with other entities that are part of the Cincinnati ecosystem. We are more interested in world-changing technologies that will literally make a difference in how people live their lives and sustain themselves. By the nature of the technologies and the products our startups are building, it will be a little longer time to maturation.
THE: Since you started, what lessons have you learned that have made you a stronger organization?
Seppi: Organizationally, The Hamilton Mill is made stronger by the local, regional and national partnerships we have been able to forge. We could not have done this without the support and insight of our partners.
THE: How do you see Pipeline H2O working with other incubators and organizations such as QCA that are helping small businesses and entrepreneurs?
Seppi: Our collaboration with the other ecosystem partners will ultimately lead to the success of the program. We will lean on them for expertise and mentorship opportunities and use them to fill in needs where we don't necessarily have that area of expertise.
THE: What does Cincinnati and the surrounding region need to do to make small business success a priority?
Seppi: Be honest and upfront with startups that are going through the ecosystem, whether it's Pipeline H2O or some other organization. It does the region and the startup no good if we can't have the honest conversations as to whether a small business is on a trajectory for success or not. Make suggestions for adjusting the product or solutions, team makeup or whether to just cut bait and move on to the next great idea.
We also need to do a better job of marketing the region and communicating that this is a great region for startups. We are getting better at this, but still have a ways to go. Once we get there, more resources will come flowing in.
Finally, make small business development part of the overall economic development conversation and strategy. The days of the large scale wins are very few and far between. There needs to be a healthy mix of the larger scale focus mixed with small business focus. This is what we have done in Hamilton and why we are achieving results.
Pipeline H2O is beginning preparations and recruitment for its second class in the fall of 2017. Visit PipelineH20.org for more details.