Richmond’s Innovation Center poised to take off with Launch Indiana

By Louise Ronald

Eleven-year-old Dezi Cottman wants to work with computers, just like her mother.

As part of her job at Porter Advertising in Richmond, Dezi’s mom Jessica Clark develops applications — “apps” for short — through coding, the process of creating steps for a computer to follow in order to accomplish a task.

Dezi Cottman and her mother, Jessica Clark, participate in a coding workshop for fourth-to-sixth graders at Richmond’s Innovation Center.

“Mom’s always saying, ‘I’m doing coding today,’” said Dezi. “I like coding,” she said, grinning broadly.

Dezi and Clark participated in a recent coding workshop for fourth-through-sixth graders at Richmond’s Innovation Center. Instructor Emma Venard of the Eleven Fifty Academy, a Carmel-based non-profit making a statewide effort to introduce kids to coding, was assisted by Innovation Center Executive Director Scott Zimmerman. Four local professionals in the field volunteered their time so participants could get lots of individualized attention.

The session was part of a series of workshops over the course of a week that gave students from kindergarten through 12th grade an opportunity to try age-appropriate coding exercises.

A participant in a coding workshop for fourth-to-sixth graders gets some assistance from Roland Martin, an instructor in the School of Computing Informatics at Ivy Tech Community College in Richmond.

“Computers solve problems,” Zimmerman told the fourth- through sixth-graders at the beginning of their hour-long workshop. “You’re the humans who tell the computer what the problems are. … A lot of the jobs in the future are going to rely on you knowing some of the computer skills.”

The workshops are just one example of the Innovation Center’s focus on the future. For three years, the center has hosted the ATT Greenhouse Academy, a coding project for ninth-graders. From an initial group of six students, the academy now boasts a waiting list. Members of Girls Inc. come to the center once a week during their summer session to try coding activities. And the basement of the building recently was upgraded so it can accommodate a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Scout troop.

Eric Dimick Eastman is excited about the center’s efforts with K-12 students. Dimick Eastman is co-founder of Green Filing, a company that develops and manages tools for electronic filing of court cases. The company’s employees are spread all over the map, including Richmond. Dimick Eastman did his work in the Innovation Center for two years before setting up an office nearby.

“Once you’ve written your first program, you have a different relationship with the technology that’s all around us all the time,” he said. With the insight gained in their own coding, kids become critical consumers of technology, said Dimick Eastman. They start thinking, “I could do that better.”

Providing young students opportunities to learn about both computer programming and entrepreneurship is one of the aims of Launch Indiana, a statewide project managed by Jason Whitney, former executive director of the Richmond Innovation Center. In addition to the K-12 initiative, Launch Indiana is developing a network of mentors for companies considering something new and a map showing entrepreneurial individuals and companies around the state. In conjunction with the Indiana Communities Institute at Ball State University, Launch Indiana also is working with cities, towns, and regions to find ways to welcome and encourage entrepreneurs.

Jason Whitney, program manager for Launch Indiana, talks about the statewide initiative at the Richmond Innovation Center, where he was formerly executive director.

Much of Launch Indiana is inspired by the success of Launch Fishers, the home to Whitney’s project. Founder John Wechsler described Launch Fishers to a group of about 20 gathered at the Innovation Center this fall.

Since 2013, Wechsler’s organization has provided office space for innovation-driven entrepreneurs. This type of company, he said, develops along a very different curve than “traditional” businesses. As a rule, ideas either crash or take off within six months of startup. In that context, small offices with short-term or no leases keep expenses at a minimum. At the same time, having other entrepreneurs nearby trying out their own ideas seems to have a remarkable effect.

“We are starting to see organic economic activity spawned by creation of an environment,” said Wechsler.

Consider what has happened in central Indiana over the past few years. Between 2009 and 2014, the region saw a 17 percent growth in the technology industry, with more than 5,000 new jobs created. Almost half of the state’s technology sector jobs — which grew by more than 4,600 in 2015 — are located in central Indiana.

Launch Indiana aims to build the groundwork for similar growth throughout the state.

The Innovation Center at 814 E. Main Street in Richmond houses small low-rent suites for technology businesses and startups, a coding classroom, and public meeting spaces.

It is one piece of Gov. (now Vice President-elect) Mike Pence’s $1 billion initiative announced in July, a 10-year plan to “foster entrepreneurial cultures, spark new ideas and companies, and propel long-term economic growth and job creation.”

Whitney said Richmond’s Innovation Center is well positioned to benefit from Launch Indiana. Its activities, he said, are based on a “very similar mindset.”

When Zimmerman recently took over the Innovation Center reins from Whitney, he consolidated and expanded on already existing efforts to create a local network of high tech professionals and a space where they could meet, work and share ideas.

“The Innovation Center is becoming a hub for computer tech workers and companies,” Zimmerman said. For example, Pizza Wednesday fills the center lobby on a weekly basis, as professionals gather for an informal meal and conversation — interwoven heavily with technical talk.

Pizza Wednesday, an informal networking opportunity for technology professionals, draws a crowd in the lobby of the Innovation Center in Richmond.

Employees of Doxpop, a provider of digital court records located a few doors east of the center, are regulars at the lunch. “That is an opportunity … for my employees to feel like they’re part of a larger community of people who understand what it is that they do for a living,” said company president Ray Ontko. “When you’re a young IT worker, oftentimes you’re the only person in town who knows what you do, except for maybe your boss or your co-workers, so it really … helps to have people who are dealing with similar technologies, have other ideas, other perspectives on technology for you to talk to and collaborate with.”

Isaac Behrens can sympathize.  A systems engineer for All State Insurance, Behrens moved to Richmond when his wife got a job here. For two years, he worked from home. “As far as I knew, I was the only one in town doing tech stuff working remotely.”

Then he learned about the Innovation Center, where he now has office space and serves on the tech education committee and takes advantage of opportunities to meet with others in the field. “We just discuss technical stuff for the purpose of discussing technical stuff,” Behrens said.

Zimmerman said he initially was skeptical that creating these conversations can in and of itself lead to economic growth — until he witnessed something of the kind.

Ahsan Ali Khoja, a sophomore from Karachi, Pakistan, is one of three Earlham College students working on an idea for a startup digital payroll business. The three had been regular visitors at Pizza Wednesdays for about a year when Zimmerman heard about their business idea and invited them to use an office in the Innovation Center during the summer.

Earlham College sophomore Ahsan Ali Khoja values the mug and the advice he got while working at the Innovation Center over the summer.

“It was a nice space to be in,” Khoja said. “Everybody there was really excited to hear about us.”

The group not only got business advice, they also got nuts and bolts help. When they found themselves in need of some equipment they didn’t have funds to buy, they mentioned the problem to Zimmerman, who sent out an email to the center’s network. Within five minutes, Khoja said, they got a message that the equipment had been ordered and was on its way.

“I have never seen anything happening that way,” he said. “People were trying to help us succeed.”

That kind of reception motivated the team to work harder, Khoja said. Though the lesson they learned over the summer is that their idea needs more work, the three continue to pursue the idea of starting a Richmond-based business someday.

In addition to Earlham, the Innovation Center is looking for ways to reach out to Indiana University East, Ivy Tech Community College, and the Purdue Polytechnic Institute – all local campuses. The idea, Zimmerman said, is to encourage students who like the city to stay after they finish their schooling.

Ontko is an example of an Earlham graduate who decided to establish his business in Richmond. He said the city has real appeal for companies like his. Not only is there a good local infrastructure for information technology, but the cost of doing business is low and the community is a nice size.

“It’s not like going to a very large, anonymous metropolitan area with all the attendant loneliness and difficulty to fit in,” said Ontko. “People who are looking for high tech opportunities are often looking for a place that’s friendly.”

Scott Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Innovation Center (right) talks with John Wechsler, founder of Launch Fishers, at an information session about the state’s Launch Indiana initiative.

At Launch Indiana presentations, representatives from Ball State are encouraging towns to consider projects such as outdoor WiFi, bike-friendly streets, downtown housing and gathering places — projects much like those put together for Richmond’s successful bid for a Stellar Communities grant in 2013. Whitney said the city’s Stellar plans fit nicely with the state’s vision.

That’s no coincidence, said Mayor Dave Snow. Many of the projects — now beginning to come to fruition — grew from the results of a survey about how to attract young entrepreneurs to the city. “It’s really going to bring a lot of excitement and energy into the heart of the city,” he said.

With a city center growing more dynamic, an active network of tech professionals, ready availability of entrepreneurial advice, and a pipeline for future talent reaching from area kindergartens through graduate programs, Zimmerman is hopeful that Richmond is in the early stages of its own launch.