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Decade in Review: Technology

J.R. McMillan



Ten Years in Tech: Columbus at the Intersection of Innovation

Columbus is a city of contradictions, often to the surprise of visitors and newcomers alike. Still sadly maligned by some as a cowtown, we’re actually equal parts cosmopolitan and metropolitan, and as soon as the world thinks it has us figured out, we reveal another side—sometimes surprising even ourselves.

Parallel to our rugged, working-class reputation is a burgeoning credibility as a world-class technology town. Startups and boot- strapping were our proverbial bread and butter a decade ago, but the roots run deeper. As a call center capital, thanks in part to our unassuming Midwest accent, earlier industry innovators from CompuServe to Sterling Commerce called us home. The world’s first firewall and wireless router were both created by an OSU grad back in the early days of the internet. Even today, from ridesharing rivals like Uber and Lyft to more spontaneous transportation like CoGo bikes and electric scooters of all stripes, if it takes off here, it will probably fly anywhere.

But those achievements are past and present. Columbus is a city of the future, and the changes over the past decade only hint at what the next decade may hold. Sure, we didn’t land Amazon HQ2, but Google’s $600 million data center in New Albany is more than a parting gift.

As the fastest-growing city in the Midwest, Smart Columbus is already investing nearly as much money between an initial $50 million grant and more than $500 million in private funding into creating and testing next- generation transportation solutions, then sharing these lessons through an “online playbook” with cities around the globe. Local blockchain pioneers Safechain and Ethex are already applying durable, redundant database design across industries, and the venture capital interest in what’s going on in Central Ohio hasn’t stopped there. Even the ongoing grumbling about Short North parking comes amid an award-winning effort to modernize meters by effectively eliminating them. We really are the test market for any new idea, not just what’s new on the menu.

As surrounding states shrink in population, Columbus is attracting talent at an enviable rate. STEM schools used to be the exception, and now such science, technology, engineering, and math programs are the standard. efforts like those of the PAST Foundation and Invention League are cultivating future innovators who already call Columbus home through hands-on application of design thinking principles to address real-world problems.

Key to all of these endeavors is collaboration, something Columbus tends to do naturally and better than most. Where industries in similar cities compete, ours exchange insights conspicuously. From beer to barbecue, coffee to cuisine, mutual admiration and collaboration are just part of who we are. It’s our prototype for progress.


“The roots of the Collaboratory, in terms of underlying philosophy, are an extension of what we know as the ‘Columbus Way’. It’s well-documented; there’s even a Harvard case study on it. It’s how corporations work together to raise the collective tide,” explained Ben Blanquera, Vice President of Delivery and Experience at Columbus Collaboratory. “Historically, this has manifest itself through the Columbus Partnership, a collection of city leaders across lots of industries who ban together to leverage resources to do the most good, from the arts to economic development.”

With its origins in the Columbus 2020 initiative, recently rebranded as One Columbus, the Columbus Collaboratory’s membership is a who’s who of industry partners filling a crucial void in shared services—cybersecurity and advanced analytics. Hanging a shingle and hoping customers walk through the door just isn’t good enough anymore. They have to trust you first, if not foremost.

“The character of this region is its defining competitive advantage. Couple that with being a great place to live with 70 percent of the country’s GDP within a day’s drive and it creates a flywheel that’s speeding up,” Blanquera noted. “It’s why the number of college graduates in Columbus who plan to stay in Columbus is rising. The Collaboratory is still a startup, and startups require talent as much as capital. Columbus attracts and retains both.”

The nexus of next steps isn’t an isolated investment. Startups require shared insights as much as shared services. So-called coworking wasn’t even in the local vernacular a decade ago. Now it’s the most likely launch point, and not just to split rent and utilities. The critical mass of complementary skills often generates the necessary escape velocity to turn an idea into an enterprise.

“The reason growing companies are crucial to any region is that early- stage companies tend to create the majority of net new jobs. It’s important to have the right mix of new companies, companies that are growing, and successful companies that stick around,” noted Kristy Campbell, Chief Operating Officer at Rev1 Ventures, an investor startup studio that helps entrepreneurs build the foundations for sustainable expansion. “We’re here to focus on those early companies, innovators who are doing something new and novel in their industry.”

Innovation and investment are mutually dependent, but are far too often mutually exclusive. Closing the gap between a great idea and the financial resources to get it out of someone’s garage is where Rev1 Ventures steps in, pulling folks together individually to the same table and collectively under one roof.

“Rev1 Labs is just part of what we do. About a third of our clients have operated in the space, and the rest are operating throughout the region. But they are all headquartered locally and are what investors consider high-growth firms in one of the industries that are commonly backed by venture capital—like enterprise IT, healthcare and bioscience, food and ag tech, advanced materials and manufacturing, alternative energy,” she explained. “Access to advisors is why many are here. But they also value having fellow entrepreneurs around the corner. What’s unique about this innovation center versus some that you see in other cities is that we’re not dedicated to one industry. That cross-pollination of ideas reflects the culture of Columbus.”

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The Interview Issue: Columbus Partnership President/CEO Alex Fischer




Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Alex Fischer looks towards the future of Columbus.

Alex Fischer is the most connected person in Columbus you’re unlikely to have heard of. Unless, that is, you dig beyond headlines and comb through the fine print of nearly any article discussing Columbus’ economic future, its business community, or even the recent campaign to keep the Columbus Crew in Ohio’s capital city.

To the engaged eye, Fischer—President and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, an organization of 75 CEOs in Central Ohio—is everywhere, a ubiquitous presence at the intersection of city and state politics, economic development, and civic life. For the Tennessee-born-and- raised Fischer—whose versatile career includes stints in city planning, business, public policy, and the nonprofit sector— leadership means possessing the skill set to anticipate what is necessary for success, prompt action from others, or if needed, deliver it himself.

Such versatility and incisiveness is perhaps the trademark quality of an urban planner, and it’s no surprise that Fischer sought this interdisciplinary training from a young age.

Fischer came to appreciate the urban planning space as a high school student in Hendersonville, Tennessee, leading his peers in an effort to prevent the demolition of Hazel Path, an old Antebellum home in town. Through that fight, Fischer quickly learned the power of public protest and collective action.

“One individual didn’t change that development, but I think I participated in the dialogue that went from tearing down [Hazel Path] to preserving it and allowing development to occur,” he said. “In my hometown it’s still held up as a really good example of quality development that also had a historic preservation bent to it. And I can point to that and say, ‘Hey, I think I made a little bit of a difference.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Fischer spent his early career involved in a variety of business and charitable endeavors in Knoxville. The principals with whom he came into contact in those years shaped his understanding of cross-sector leadership.

“Tennessee has a tradition of public servants coming out of the business world, so I saw a lot of examples of business leaders interrupting their careers for public service,” Fischer explains. “At a young age, I got to know multi- billionaires on the community side of their passions, not the business side, and so those all influenced me to realize that now in this organization of 75 CEOs, that there’s a real opportunity for business leaders to use the strength of their businesses and their leadership for the betterment of their community.”

After several years in private industry, Fischer transitioned into the public sector, serving as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development before rising to the role of Deputy Governor and Chief of Staff to Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist in the early 2000s.

It was, perhaps, a bit of a surprise that the man with deep Tennessee roots, business connections, and a role at the pinnacle of local policymaking would transition to a similar position in Ohio. But that’s exactly what happened in 2002, when Fischer moved to Columbus to begin a position as the Senior Vice President for Business and Economic Development at Battelle, the Columbus-based scientific research and development firm.

Fischer acknowledges the transition to Ohio was a little odd—“because I was so deeply rooted in the ideals of what we’re doing in Columbus in a different state and different cities.”

He soon found his way to the epicenter of Columbus’ civic and business life—he now serves as a Trustee of The Ohio State University, and the Chairman of Nationwide Children’s Hospital—and developed an appreciation for the city’s unique professional culture.

“In the process [of moving], I found things in Columbus that I realized I had never experienced before. I’d never experienced the level of collaboration. The level of tolerance and acceptance in this city is pretty phenomenal in contrast to some other places that I’ve lived,” Fischer explains. “What’s so motivating [about working in Columbus] is this being such a perfect place to do the work. By that I mean this culture: the scale of the city, the collaborative nature, the Midwestern values, the fact that we have four seasons. All the ingredients exist here.”

At the helm of the Partnership, Fischer has vast capacity and bandwidth to influence the Columbus economy in the near-term while rallying leaders across multiple sectors behind an aspirational vision for the future. Columbus 2020, the city’s economic development plan for this decade, launched roughly 10 years ago and allowed Fischer a vehicle with which to implement his vision. He decided early on that the project would shoot for the moon.

”[Columbus 2020] was a very ambitious set of goals. All the analysis said we couldn’t meet the goals but it’s like, “OK, so what? Let’s go for it,” Fischer laughs. “And if we happen to miss the goals but in the process do some really great things, I don’t think anybody will complain. Well, we surpassed all the goals and it’s really interesting to have been accountable for it from the start until now.”

In addition to the obvious economic development successes in Columbus—the ongoing redevelopment of Downtown, recruitment of healthy corporations, and expansion across the 11-county Central Ohio metropolitan area— the region has benefitted from unexpected windfalls, such as the economic growth driven by data centers for big tech companies such as Amazon and Facebook. Fischer attributes Columbus’ successful branding efforts and continued growth to multiple factors, most specifically a uniquely collaborative culture among Partnership members and public officials, and an explicit focus on the recruitment of civic- minded companies and workers.

“I think it’s all about culture. I was not thinking this way 10 or 20 years ago. I think the future of the Partnership, the future of Columbus, is you keep preserving and teaching culture. That doesn’t mean that it has to be done exactly the same way— inevitably, it won’t because things are changing so fast. One of our cultural aspects that I’m proud of is that we’re comfortable in that very fast-changing environment [...] Continuing to evolve that culture by not just taking it for granted is really important. I think it could slip away if it’s not being cultivated.”

Columbus also stands out nationally in what Fischer calls “the talent war” as the home to approximately 150,000 college students, many of whom will be relied upon to remain in Central Ohio and continue the city’s economic momentum.

“The fierce competition for workforce is where we’re going to be leading the country [...] There’s less of a hierarchy in Columbus for people who want to get involved and make an impact.”

To be sure, Columbus’ traditional selling points remain part of the equation as the Partnership sells Central Ohio to potential clients.

“It still really does matter that we’re in the center of the U.S. population, we’re a day’s drive from anywhere, a great quality of life, a great cost of living. We’re not congested, despite challenges with the commute. All of that adds up. Increasingly, though, it’s about talent. Companies are moving where they can get the talent. And Columbus is a city that is recruiting the talent.”

The rebrand of Columbus’ economic development organization from Columbus 2020 to One Columbus coincides with the birth of a much greater ambition, of a future in which Columbus will be able to stand alone as a city, when the suffix ‘Ohio’ will be redundant and obsolete. Fischer is well aware that sustained growth will require more of the discipline and urgency that permitted success this decade.

Specifically, he stresses the importance the Partnership places on regional master planning throughout Central Ohio, coupled with what he calls “a relentless drive to the growth agenda.”

“No one should assume we’re going to continue to grow. That was the attitude 20 years ago. The last 10-15 years we have consciously built an infrastructure—of Columbus 2020, now One Columbus—of enabling that growth. There’s a science to it and we can never forget that,” he said.

“Our role is to make sure that we are continuing to grow, at the same time, can we do the best possible job of anywhere in the country at ensuring that the rising tide raises every single boat in a harbor? And can we defy the national trend of a growing economic divide?”

Learn more about the Columbus Partnership at

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Arts & Culture

Watch: “World’s largest mural” in Short North is more than meets the eye

Regina Fox



At a glance, "The Journey AR Mural" adorning the Graduate Columbus hotel in Short North is stunning. Look a little harder, and it actually comes to life.

Standing at over 107 feet tall and over 11,000 square feet of augmented reality, "The Journey AR Mural," is the world's largest AR mural, offering technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.

The gaily-painted snapdragons, hibiscus, Easter lilies, and hummingbirds bloom and fly when viewed through the Journey AR Mural app (free for iPhone and Android). Watch the murals come to life in the video below.

Los Angeles-based artists Ryan Sarfati and Eric Skotnes (going by “Yanoe” and “Zoueh," respectively) are the creatives behind the project.

In an interview with Short North Arts District, Skotnes revealed he was inspired to take on the project after learning that Columbus is home to the second largest population of Somali immigrants in the country—he hopes the murals symbolize strength and prosperity for its viewers.

To learn more about The Journey AR Mural, visit

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Arts & Culture

Undercover: Unique music festival showcases Columbus music talent this weekend

Mike Thomas



Since beginning in 2018, Columbus Covers Columbus (CCC) has grown into a signature event in the thriving local music scene. Now in its third year, this unique festival is centered on the concept of local musicians playing sets comprised entirely of music from other local acts.

CCC is the brainchild of Columbus music promoter Tony Casa, who wanted to create a showcase for a supportive community of local artists to share their mutual admiration for each other's music.

As entertaining as the event is for spectators, CCC doubles as a valuable networking opportunity for local entertainers and creatives.

"There are great local merchants, games, and tons of networking opportunities for everyone in the community," says Casa. "This isn’t just a great show, it’s like a proper festival—but in the winter."

Since its inception, the event has expanded to include stand-up comedy, poetry readings, burlesque performances, live podcast recordings, and more, all in the spirit of promoting and celebrating the Columbus creative community.

CCC will take place from January 17-19 at Classics Victory Live at 543 S High St. The event is 18+, with tickets available at the door for $10. For more info including a full list of artists and vendors, visit Columbus Covers Columbus on Facebook.

Cover photo by Catherine Lindsay photography.

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