We are not alone: the Midwestern startup campus

This past Friday around 2PM., I hopped into my Honda Accord, made a couple of right turns out of Over-the-Rhine onto I-75, flicked on the cruise control and set my sights southbound. My destination? Louisville, Kentucky — to meet up with Steve Case, JD Vance and the Rise of the Rest gang as they made their final stop of their seventh iteration of the ROTR Bus Tour.

Steve Case’s mission is no secret. His tour (which began here in 2014) has shown a spotlight on the middle of the country in a whole new way. Entrepreneurs and startups have created a vibrant, collaborative ecosystem that the coasts would be foolish to miss out on.

As I drove through the rolling hills and horse farms of Northern Kentucky on Friday, I had time to to think about Steve’s thesis statement for “flyover country.” It’s not just a dissonant collection of ecosystems. It’s a CAMPUS of ecosystem builders, coastal ex-pats and community collaborators. No sooner had I started thinking about this (I was probably on thought #2) and I arrived. Louisville, Kentucky isn’t four or five hours away from Cincinnati. It’s an hour-and-a-half down the road.

So, in less time than it would take you to drive from San Jose to San Francisco, you can drive from Cincinnati to Louisville. Any why stop there? Indy is less than two hours west of Cincinnati — made that jaunt just a couple weeks ago for a Powderkeg event. Cincinnatians can make it up to Columbus in a little over an hour; several made it to Columbus Startup Week last week. And Columbus natives know how to get up to Cleveland in two hours flat. My point here is simple: we’ve got a tech startup neighborhood nearly as accessible as the best the coasts have to offer.

Once I got to Louisville, it was a blast. Almost as much fun to sit on the other side of the stage as it is to be behind it. Almost… As you’d expect, familiar faces abound in the synergistic nature of the Middle Country states. VCs from Louisville recognized me, knew Cintrifuse’s mission and tagged my Twitter handle all without me even saying a word to them (yet). Ecosystem builders like Matt Hunckler from Powderkeg were getting ready to take the stage at the ROTR’s big close-out pitch event. And of course, it was great to catch up and surprise some of the Rise of the Rest team.

My short drive was rewarded with an afternoon filled with pitches from energetic young companies that are less than a tank of gas away from everything we’ve built in Cincinnati (and with an Accord hybrid, it literally cost me pennies to make the trip down and back). It’s opportunities like this that remind me of how lucky we are in the Midwest. The fact that I can hop in a car to demo days or pitch competitions or Startup Weekends in THREE cities outside of our own — and be back home at a reasonable hour —  remains a bit mind-boggling. That’s density we don’t brag about enough.

Better yet is the collaboration we see in this Midwestern backyard. It becomes commonplace to see friendly faces from a Chicago-based venture firm (that’s you, Victor Gutwein). Matt Hunckler is running a rut in the roads between each city with his ecosystem-building efforts at Powderkeg. And here I am, cheering on every community at our side.

So when I see Steve Case get up on that stage (again and again and again), I’m still inspired by what he helped get started — a kick-ass network of entrepreneurs who don’t need to leave home to succeed. I love this quote from Steve I heard on Friday:

“It’s inspiring to see the fighting spirit of entrepreneurs and as long as we continue to see that we’ll keep coming back.”

If you’re Case and Co. why would you stop? You know the network. You’ve seen it in action. And it just keeps getting bigger.

(Shameless plug) And in the true spirit of collaborative ecosystems, it’s our turn to pump up the volume in Cincinnati this week. Matt and the team from Powderkeg are bringing their Indy-based amplifiers down I-74 and dropping them into Union Hall this Thursday for Fuse50 — our one-day tech conference built specifically to highlight the best of tech and innovation happening here and outside of Silicon Valley.

I hope to see many of the friendly faces from Friday here again on Thursday… and again in July… and in October

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