OCEAN was founded in late 2014 as a non-profit, faith-based accelerator serving Cincinnati-area entrepreneurs in the tech sector. Today, with about 350 alumni, OCEAN has expanded its mission to include training for “main street” businesses through its distributed Genesis educational program. Seed capital for participants in the tech accelerator, which went virtual in 2020, has grown to $50,000.
We spoke to Christy Johnson, COO for the Hyde Park-based group, about OCEAN’s growth from its days with a physical coworking space in Cincinnati’s Crossroads Church to an online-first program that is working with entrepreneurs around the globe.
In addition to seed capital, what types of mentoring services are available to OCEAN tech accelerator participants?
Johnson: Through each of our programs, there is pretty personalized mentorship. On the high-tech side, our program manager works really closely mentoring each company throughout the program, and then we connect them one-on-one to people who kind of match their current needs. … Sometimes that’s just in the form of come in, do a session, where current participants can just ask questions and get some honest experience passed down through our alumni.
How would you describe most of the companies who come to the accelerator?
Johnson: Our program focuses on early stage, so we tend to see pre-revenue and pre-final product or pre-alpha. … The $50,000 investment is oftentimes the first capital that they receive.
What are the sources of funding for your programs?
Johnson: We’re nonprofit, and about 30% of our revenue is generated through things like program participation fees on the small business side or corporate sponsorships. And then about 65% of our revenue is philanthropic.
You’ve signed what I understand to be a 2-year agreement with 11 Tribes venture capital out of Chicago?
Johnson: That agreement actually offered 11 Tribes a kind of exclusive access to our high-tech companies for class seven and class eight (funding). They provided the seed capital that went along with being part of that program and have been really great partners of OCEAN, obviously adding a lot of value to our portfolio companies, and enabling our portfolio companies to continue and raise a full seed round. The status of our relationship right now is that 11 Tribes is a friend of OCEAN, just like any other venture fund, so we’re always in touch and passing on deals between each other.
You describe your mission as integrating “practical business skills with biblical wisdom.” How does that define the mentorship and support provided to entrepreneurs?
Johnson: Our thesis is that … in doing all those disciplines needed to grow a business, you also may be confronted with the realities of perhaps, you know, finding that this thing that I thought was going to bring me ultimate fulfillment is really just actually frustrating me, and I feel more lost than I did in my corporate job. And so what makes us a little bit unique as an accelerator is that … we invite founders to consider the other parts of their humanity that are at play there, too, like what are the values that you’re bringing to the table when you’re looking for a fundraising partner? What are the values that you want to make sure you’re aligned with on that partner, or when you are thinking about your marketing strategies? Oftentimes, you know, you could market toward somebody’s fear and try to draw out the worst in them. But let’s take a pause here and think, is that the kind of marketing that you want to run for your company?
Are your training programs available to all business sectors, not just tech?
Johnson: We launched a small business training program, called Genesis, in 2018 as an onsite learning program. And then in 2020, we piloted that as a virtual training course. And now it’s offered regularly through Genesis in cohorts that we launch a couple of different times a year. We also partner with other organizations who use the program to equip or train entrepreneurs that they already serve. Places like coworking companies or churches or even other incubators find it helpful to just have some ready-to-go curriculum.
Our Genesis participants are most often individuals who are in the earliest stages of starting out on their own. … They know how to do the thing that they’re good at, but they’re not quite sure how to turn that into a business.
How has Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem – universities, other accelerators – worked with OCEAN?
Johnson: We try to participate in the events and stay engaged with other leaders in the ecosystem and just be up to date on where all the other organizations are. When we started in 2014, there were a number of other accelerators in town specifically on the tech side, and since then, a lot of them have either left the city or transitioned to other programming. And so we’re kind of one of the only high-tech accelerators really still in the ecosystem that offered the early stage, with capital, traditional kind of accelerator model. There are a number of other really great programs that focus on pieces of that model. So we’d like to refer folks from our application pool or from our alumni pool into other programs. We also really love being in touch with the local universities and their entrepreneurship programs.