CoMADE Offers Entrepreneurs a Tool Box for Growth

Starting small in Walnut Hills, this new type of manufacturing incubator could make Cincinnati a national model for collaboration.

Illustration by Fran Labuschagne

The future of Cincinnati manufacturing starts arriving this summer in the old Walnut Hills Kroger store. Here, neighborhood residents can borrow hammers and power drills, interact with startup businesses, and take job training classes. The CoMADE initiative is hoping to spur job growth on two fronts—supporting entrepreneurs and teaching manufacturing skills—while opening new opportunities in underserved neighborhoods.

Over the next two years, CoMADE will refine and expand its programs while planning a $26 million, 100,000-square-foot facility in the city’s Innovation Corridor near Reading Road and Martin Luther King Drive. The result could become a national model for offering manufacturing expertise and equipment, office space, job training, and community support under one roof.

The journey begins with that tool library in Walnut Hills. CoMADE gathers hand tools through donations and purchases, loans them out to people wanting to do small projects at home, and offers instruction and encouragement. The interactions bring neighborhood folks inside the ex-Kroger building, where they’ll see manufacturing startups sharing woodworking, metalworking, and high-tech workspaces, and job training underway in various classrooms.

“The tool library is a bridge space,” says cofounder Matt Anthony. “It’ll help us identify people who might want to be in our workforce development programs or who might get excited about using our equipment for a new product idea.”

“We want the ‘new economy’ to work for everyone. Call it inclusive capitalism,” says Rich Kiley, one of CoMADE’s founders.

Anthony and CoMADE partners Rich Kiley and John Spencer visited 17 cities to learn best practices from manufacturing incubator groups. They saw organizations helping entrepreneurs design prototype products or grow startup businesses, others training people to pursue new careers in modern manufacturing, and successful tool library concepts—but no examples of a holistic approach in one accessible location.

“We think there’s a lot of synergy around making products in Cincinnati,” says Kiley, a former Procter & Gamble executive who helped start the P&G Venture Fund, Ohio Capital Fund, and CincyTech. “Whenever startups grow, the owners need help to expand operations. Lots of people, especially in neighborhoods new businesses don’t flow into, are looking for decent-paying jobs. We’ll put them together at CoMADE and see how we can make connections. We want the ‘new economy’ to work for everyone. Call it inclusive capitalism.”

CoMADE has an ambitious five-year plan to create 100 new manufacturing companies and 1,000 new manufacturing jobs and train 1,500 workers in modern manufacturing skills. The Walnut Hills space will be seeded with tools, equipment, and entrepreneurs from two organizations that Anthony helped launch and is rolling into CoMADE: the First Batch incubator program and the Losantiville design collective in Over-the-Rhine, where startups like Mortal Ski Company and Ohio Valley Beard Supply got off the ground.

The goal is to move those makers, classrooms, and connections—along with the tool library—to Reading and MLK in 2021 and add more equipment, technology, and capacity. Kiley is raising funds to acquire property and hire an architect for the new building, which would likely be located within the Neyer Properties development footprint in the intersection’s northeast quadrant—a key spot near the University of Cincinnati’s planned Digital Futures building, the new NIOSH research center, the MLK interchange on I-71, and UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub, which opened last year to kickstart the Innovation Corridor. It’s also within walking distance for many Avondale and Walnut Hills residents and on a number of Metro bus lines.

“Once we determined that new construction would cost about the same as rehabbing an old building, that opened up a lot of options for us,” says Kiley. “We have to own the building in order to keep it an affordable space. If we rented, we could get priced out as the Innovation Corridor area develops around us. That’s happened in other cities where similar organizations got forced out of the communities they were serving.”

David Adams, UC’s chief innovation officer, runs the 1819 Innovation Hub and encouraged CoMADE to join the Innovation Corridor in order to open more doors for its startups and job trainees. “The 1819 Hub brings people together to see what happens when they collide,” says Adams, who recruited P&G, Kroger, Cincinnati Bell, Cincinnati Financial, and CincyTech to establish offices there. “I like to see innovation being done in innovative ways, and that’s the CoMADE concept—they’ll have space for entrepreneurs, but more importantly they’ll lift people up by teaching them how to be entrepreneurs.”

One of CoMADE’s consultants, Alex Bandar, has been supporting entrepreneurs for 11 years at the Idea Foundry in Columbus. Housed in a century-old shoe factory just across the river from downtown, it has 15 full-time and 30 part-time employees, with more than 750 members using its manufacturing and office spaces.

Bandar thinks the way CoMADE is combining the best elements of incubator programs across the U.S. and testing its ideas for two years before moving into the new building will result in a home run for Cincinnati. “This is a brand new concept,” he says. “There’s really no rulebook in this field, though I do think I’ve learned a few keys to success. You need to be adjacent to or in a successful neighborhood, have an anchor nonprofit organization, and have a single entity as the organizing agent. It’s great to see UC anchoring the Innovation Corridor. It’s really an ideal situation for CoMADE to grow into.”

For now, the organizing agent for Cincinnati’s new manufacturing movement is looking to make connections one hammer, power drill, and socket wrench at a time.

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