Entrepreneurs’ Center, University of Dayton partnership growing in the restored Arcade

‘Unpolished gems’ become entrepreneurs

Dayton entrepreneur Luis Estevez said the partnership between the Entrepreneurs’ Center and the University of Dayton plays a critical role in his company’s effort to perfect water treatment technology to remove toxic PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” and industrial dyes from water.

“It’s so much in part due to the Entrepreneurs’ Center and their belief and faith in us that we can do it,” said Estevez, the owner of Dayton-based AIMM who patented the water treatment technology with UD’s Kenya Crosson, associate dean for faculty, staff affairs and research.

“They can find these unpolished gems and somehow buff them out and make them proper entrepreneurs.”

Estevez is one of about 930 businesses and entrepreneurs served by the Entrepreneurs’ Center (EC), which in February 2021 moved from its longtime home at 714 E. Monument St. to the renovated Dayton Arcade complex at 31 S. Main St. Dayton.

The EC is serving an increasing number of clients, mostly in the Dayton/Springfield/Butler County and west central Ohio regions. It has grown from being the smallest of the organizations funded through the state’s Entrepreneurial Services Provider Program (ESP) to the second largest, after JumpStart in Cleveland, said Scott Koorndyk, president of the EC.

“The Entrepreneurs’ Center has been on an amazing seven-year period of rapid growth, and I fully expect that to continue for the foreseeable future,” Koorndyk said. “We are now a team of more than 20 full-time employees, along with a team of almost 20 entrepreneurs-in-residence and executives-in-residence, with a singular focus on the success of entrepreneurs in our community.”

It also plays a key role in downtown revitalization. The EC and UD formed the non-profit Arcade Innovation Hub LLC to manage a 100,000-square-foot space as the Arcade’s anchor tenant and PNC came on board as the sponsor of The Hub Powered by PNC Bank at the Arcade.

The Hub houses the Entrepreneurs’ Center; UD’s L. William Crotty Center for Entrepreneurship; the satellite office of the Greater West Dayton Incubator, which UD launched in 2021; several other UD programs; and a PNC office.

Most EC clients have offices offsite, but some are located at The Hub.

“We currently have more than 140 member companies. Those companies have more than 600 employees who work in our space,” said Koorndyk, who has headed the EC since 2015. “We have members that are brand new startups, members that are part of larger organizations, members who use the innovation hub as a remote office, and members that have been in business for a long time.”

EC members can rent a dedicated desk in a secure co-working space for $250 a month or a secure office starting at $500. Members who don’t require a dedicated office or a desk can pay $150 a month to work in common areas of The Hub, where there are a variety of tables, chairs and other work spaces. Internet service and tech support is provided to members.

“We want people to be in and out as quickly as can be,” said Koorndyk, noting that office space is currently 80% occupied and ideally members would stay no more than three to five years before growing enough to move out.

“While we certainly have incubation capabilities within The Hub, and the EC supports companies in their very early stage of development, we don’t generally consider ourselves an ‘incubator,’” Koorndyk said. “That term tends to imply a focus on physical operations. The EC provides service and support well beyond a facility.”

Koorndyk said The Hub sets up an opportunity for a “collision” of students and entrepreneurs in classrooms, offices, lounge areas, the CenterPoint Energy Tank, where events such as the UD Flyer Pitch competition are held, or the beautifully restored Arcade rotunda, where some businesses not affiliated with the EC are tenants on the ground floor and EC members have offices overlooking it.

UD and Sinclair Community College offer more than 40 classes a week at The Hub, attended by about 500 students, said Vince Lewis, UD associate vice president of entrepreneurial initiatives and president of The Hub.

Lewis said school of business innovation hubs are not unusual on college campuses but this one is unique because it is off campus and paired with the Entrepreneurs’ Center, which worked with UD in the past but now has a much tighter connection.

“It creates this really rich exchange and collaboration that didn’t exist before and would be hard to replicate anyplace else,” Lewis said. “One of the best things about it is the opportunity for our students to engage with an entrepreneurial ecosystem and businesses.”

Economic development opportunities

As the Hub’s primary sponsor, PNC provides critical funding that enables The Hub to support entrepreneurs, students and the Dayton region’s innovation ecosystem, Koorndyk said.

PNC sees the Hub as a way to strengthen the startup community and uplift the entire Dayton region, said David Melin, PNC regional president for Dayton.

Aside from the financial commitment of its sponsorship, PNC has an office in The Hub staffed by employees to assist business owners with banking needs and participates in panel discussions, financial workshops and business planning sessions to support students, entrepreneurs and startups.

“In Dayton, we are focused on making a positive impact on the downtown and in the region. Cultivating business opportunities is one of the ways we can achieve that goal,” Melin said. “The Hub Powered by PNC Bank brings together students, faculty and staff, entrepreneurs and local business leaders to form collaborative ideas and groundbreaking solutions that help drive our local economy.”

The EC clients are a mix of about 130 technology companies that are part of the EC’s Entrepreneurial Services Provider Program, and nearly 800 other clients operating a wide variety of businesses served through the EC’s Small Business Development Center, Koorndyk said.

In addition, the EC has served more than 450 small businesses across the U.S. in partnership with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s effort to commercialize technology supporting national security needs.

“The EC provides a wide range of services to small businesses, including business planning, business support services, network and customer development, one-to-one mentoring and coaching, access to sources of capital, support for licenses and joint ventures, financial planning, market and marketing strategies, intellectual property strategies and leadership and team development,” Koorndyk said.

Ohio’s Third Frontier Commission picked the EC as the region’s ESP provider in 2017.

The most recent ESP award covers Jan. 2023 to June 2025 and totals $29.8 million, half funded by the EC and community partners and the other by the Third Frontier Commission and the Ohio Department of Development, Koorndyk said.

Since 2017 the EC has served 206 tech startup clients in the ESP program. Those companies created 1,008 new jobs in Ohio with an average annual salary of $83,000 and had a $529 million economic impact, Koorndyk said.

Just more than half are software/information technology companies and the others focus on sensors, biomedical, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and energy, according to EC data.

“As companies progress, they move out of the (ESP) portfolio, and are then replaced by new clients,” Koorndyk said.

He said the SBDC program experienced significant growth, adding 200 new clients since 2021, and more than 50% of those served are led by minority entrepreneurs.

The EC has a 2024 annual budget of $7.8 million, up from $4.1 million in 2019, he said. The city of Dayton has supported the EC since its founding in 1998, and other funding comes from federal and local governments, corporate and academic partners, research organizations and private contributors.

“We’ve expanded our strategic partnerships dramatically, as best exemplified by our relationship with the University of Dayton,” Koorndyk said.

Students in The Hub

Students take a variety of business and entrepreneurial classes, as well as courses offered by the schools of engineering and arts and sciences, said Lewis.

The bulk of the students are from UD but quite a few are from Sinclair, he said.

“Sinclair has a pretty good presence here in small business management, marketing, entrepreneurship, those types of programs,” Lewis said.

Students work with companies through formal and informal internships, giving them real-life work experiences that teach both hard- and soft-skills they’ll need after graduation.

One example is the Stitt Scholars program for engineering, business and design students, who get paid as interns by the university.

“It’s an experiential learning class, plus they’re doing projects for hub members, they’re doing projects for, in some cases, community members and clients of our Greater West Dayton Incubator,” Lewis said. “That opportunity is hard to replicate if you don’t have The Hub and you don’t have the partnership with the Entrepreneurs’ Center. That’s how we get connected. That’s the glue that helps us connect to all of these organizations.”

The students get to work on a real world project, such as product testing, creating a marketing plan, or a market validation effort.

“Because it’s a cross-disciplinary team you’re giving business students a sense of what a design engineer is thinking about when they create a product,” Lewis said. “Or you’re giving engineering students some business experience and a sense of how the business world operates.”

Entrepreneurs get valuable help

UD’s Flyer Pitch new-venture creation competition, in its 18th year, was restructured and is now held at The Hub. It is a collaboration between UD, the EC and PNC. Entrants compete for $150,000 in grants and $50,000 in support services provided by the EC.

“It can be technology businesses, it can be manufacturing, it can be a main street start-up and also non-profit organizations,” Lewis said.

Estevez and Sarah Kallile, founder and CEO of Lunnie, an Oakwood-based nursing bra manufacturer, both won awards in recent Flyer Pitch competitions.

“We went in needing lots of equipment to move the needle on things we were trying to do and that money went directly to that,” said Estevez, who said he won $35,000 in 2022.

He has been working with the EC since he attended a 2019 boot camp for entrepreneurs. In 2021 Estevez left his job at the University of Dayton Research Institute to work full-time on the water treatment technology, which is still in the development stage.

The EC provides him with interns and an entrepreneur-in-residence who mentors and advises him.

Kallile started her company in 2021, sold out of her first production run and is working on the next one. The EC provided her with an entrepreneur-in-residence, an intern who assists with social media, and help with the expensive process of filing for a patent.

“It’s not only financial support but having those key advisors (to) guide me along the way. It’s everything,” Kallile said. “I think as an entrepreneur you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Ryan Meritt, CEO and founder of Ahmic Aerospace, a Dayton instrumentation and sensor technology company, has been in business for ten years. Ahmic’s customers include the U.S. Air Force, NASA and private companies, Meritt said.

The EC reached out to him in 2020 about a U.S. Department of Defense pitch competition and a class, and since then his company has received EC funding to supplement costs for an intern and to purchase services. Meritt also got help with brochures and marketing, legal services for patents and a mentor who he said has been an invaluable resource.

The EC also helped him grow from three to 10 employees in three years and he’s hoping to hire three more.

“(The Entrepreneurs’ Center’s role) is to help accelerate businesses, it’s to help them grow so they bring in more money,” Meritt said of the EC. “It’s done exactly that for us.”

Future challenges, opportunities

Access to capital is one of the big challenges faced by companies in the region, Koorndyk said.

“In part, that is due to the reduction in overall venture capital investments nationally. But we know that we need to do our part in making sure that our regional entrepreneurs can find capital in their local community,” he said. “This is a strategic imperative for us, and that’s why we pursued the Build to Scale Capital Challenge award.”

The EC was one of 20 organizations nationally that in 2023 won the Build to Scale award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“This new program will help us strengthen the region’s ability to create and sustain capital networks which will lead to greater investment into the Dayton startup ecosystem,” Koorndyk said.

He and Lewis both said the Dayton region stands out for how well it supports entrepreneurs the way local governments and other organizations work together on economic development efforts.

Lewis said that doesn’t always happen in other places where multiple entities may be competing for the same limited pot of money for entrepreneurship programs.

“And I think because we don’t have that kind of environment and because of the size of the community and the size of the ecosystem it really does lend itself well to this sort of collaboration that we’ve been able to execute,” Lewis said. “I think there is a real spirit of collaboration throughout the whole community.”

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