Ten years ago, Ravi Bhatt considered his college town of Bloomington, Ind., when he was deciding where to locate his promising new business venture. He loved Bloomington, and equally adored his alma mater, Indiana University. In the end, though, he chose Chicago, believing that the Windy City offered the best mix of talent, infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly, safety net to set his idea in motion.
Chicago was the catalyst Bhatt hoped it would be. But a decade later, he is back living and working in Bloomington as the co-founder and CEO of Folia, a fast-emerging company that is helping modern enterprises streamline their research, analysis and idea generation practices. One of its leading products is iAnnotate, an award-winning annotation product that allows users to read, mark up and share documents on a tablet. Folia currently serves more than 1 million people daily—from students and teachers to top Wall Street investors, lawyers and even Hollywood screenwriters.
Bhatt, who has a degree in cognitive science from IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences, has returned to Bloomington to write the next chapter of his company’s success story. He has plans to significantly expand Folia’s team roster, which currently includes five Bloomington-based employees, to 40 local employees with expertise in, among other fields, computer science, cognitive science, business and communications. (Folia also has 15 additional employees who work across three other cities.) He’s also hoping to add new tools and services to the company’s portfolio to meet the evolving annotation needs of his customers.
What’s more, he’s excited to help enhance Bloomington’s reputation as an incubator for early-stage startups and to continue to partner in this branding effort with IU, which he credits with helping to transform his hometown into a hub for business growth. Key to this development, he says, has been the talent, mentorship, connections, funding and other key resources IU and its local partners have made available to entrepreneurs seeking to fully leverage their university affiliation.
“In 2010-2011, we looked closely at Bloomington, but while the city had a decent talent pool, the infrastructure just wasn’t there yet,” Bhatt says. “What a difference a decade makes, though. And so much of that difference is because a lot of people at Indiana University have put a lot of hard work, innovative ideas and relationship-building into helping businesses like mine unlock their potential.”
As he looked to take the next step in growing his business, while also considering the needs of a new family, including a wife and two young children (now ages 3 and 6), Bhatt started to engage with the team at IU Ventures, which assists IU students, faculty, staff and alumni in work that advances high-potential new venture opportunities. Through his conversations with Vice President for Venture Development Jason Whitney and other members of the IU Ventures team, he was introduced to the rapidly expanding IU Angel Network and its successful members spanning IU’s global community of alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends. He also learned about several new academic programs at IU focused on the areas of entrepreneurship and innovation; new funding opportunities such as the IU Philanthropic Venture Fund, which aims to bridge the gap in startup funding by making equity investments in high-potential early-stage companies with IU affiliations; and key developments adjacent to the university, such as The Mill, which has become the largest coworking space in central Indiana for startups and entrepreneurs.
When it came time to make his next big personal and professional move, Bhatt had two cities in his sights: Seattle, which typically is found at the top of Forbes’ list of “Best Places for Business and Careers,” and Bloomington. This time, Bhatt chose Bloomington, and he hasn’t looked back.
“I give a lot of credit to IU and IU Ventures, which have not only put together programs to help businesses like mine quickly develop, but are also helping those businesses access key academic programs at IU that are generating talent and ideas,” Bhatt says. “They’re also helping emerging entrepreneurs tap the knowledge of industry experts, discover potential funding channels and make connections with like-minded people. Then there is the important innovation work happening on the perimeter of the university of places like The Mill, which also contains a lot of IU DNA.”
Bhatt says Bloomington has addressed one of its greatest challenges in the decade that he was away. With the help of IU, The Mill and other organizations, it has built a strong “safety net” for emerging entrepreneurs.
“The biggest problem we saw 10 years ago was that, if this business we are launching goes under, well I don’t know that there’s another job in this market. But that’s no longer the case. For young entrepreneurs—but also mid-level and even senior business leaders—there are enough talented people and other quality resources here that if you fail, you can dust yourself off and try again. Now you have people asking themselves, ‘Is this a good place to fail? Because, clearly, it’s a great place to succeed.’”
Busting myths and building a brand in the world of professional gaming
After several decades traveling the world and consulting for major U.S. and European companies, Jeff Thinnes has also recently found himself back home in Indiana. An Indianapolis native and graduate of IU’s Maurer School of Law, Thinnes sold his family house of 22 years and came to Bloomington to launch his new business, SummaForte, a company that produces health and wellness products to assist professional gamers, traditional athletes and others with their performance and recovery. He founded the company with his then-25-year-old son Murtagh, a graduate of IU’s Kelley School of Business.
SummaForte, which focuses on developing science-driven products that equip customers with the health benefits of CBD and other nutrients, has nearly closed its $2 million seed round of funding. The funding round has been led by a $460,000 investment by the IU Angel Network, the network’s largest investment to date and its second investment in the company. In 2020, the network invested $35,000 in the company, which was still operating in “stealth mode” and preparing for its first beta product launch.
Upon his return to Bloomington, one of the first people Jeff Thinnes met was Jason Whitney, who quickly recognized the potential of the company to positively impact the rapidly growing world of esports, the company’s initial target market segment. Whitney began to envision ways IU Ventures could engage its network of alumni in furthering the company’s marketing, fundraising and business development efforts.
“The world of competitive esports has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years,” Whitney says. “With that, you have professional gamers who are suffering from very real injuries, inflammation and fatigue from extended use of their muscles and ligaments.
“Our alumni have come up with innovative healthy solutions to address these issues, and they have quickly reached several milestones, including designing and making products and creating a network of experienced partners such as leading scientists and physicians. These developments attracted the attention of our Angel Network investors, who have seen how effective the company’s products are in enabling peak athletic performance and recovery and can easily envision the strong potential for the company to be a leader, first in the esports and gaming industry and then in other tangential markets.”
Thinnes knew that his experience as an international lawyer, business consultant and professor, as well as his numerous global connections, would be valuable for SummaForte’s future. Nevertheless, he knew it would also be important to partner with people with expertise in the startup world, which he admits is a relatively new frontier for him.
“One of the things I love about being in a startup is that you are constantly confronted with new challenges begging for creative solutions,” he says. “And having a broad network to tap into means you aren’t alone—there’s an abundance of helpful experience and insights out there. It’s invigorating. Connections have led to more connections, and soon we are meeting people active in our markets as funders, partners, customers, etc. The IU connection has really helped us extend the perimeter of or our network.”
As he and his son continue to expand their business, he is also determined to “bust” several myths, including that “you can’t be healthy in e-sports” and that “you can’t start a business as a family.”
He’s also determined to make new hires, introduce them to Bloomington and integrate them into a community that has showered his company with support and continues to strengthen its startup culture, as well as its reputation as a rising tech city.
“It wasn’t a blind hunch to launch here [in Bloomington], since we are both alumni, but our wildest expectations have been exceeded by the support from the university and Bloomington community,” Thinnes says. “It was a big move to sell the family house of 22 years and come to Bloomington to launch this business, but it was definitely the right decision.”
Dedicated to an economically successful future
Thinnes and Ravi Bhatt are members of The Mill, and, as such, share a workspace that has served as a launching pad for numerous other successful startups. The Mill consists of 19,000 square feet of renovated, 100-year-old factory space in Bloomington’s downtown Trades District and is home to hundreds of members and dozens of companies.
Pat East has run The Mill since it launched in November 2018. Since that time, The Mill has become the fastest-growing co-working space in the state, and East has led a number of specialized initiatives to provide budding entrepreneurs with funding, pitching and mentoring support to accelerate their ideas and technologies into business concepts.
East is passionate about working closely with IU, one of three “cornerstone” sponsors of The Mill, and other partners in turning Bloomington into a recognized startup incubator and one of the Midwest’s leading centers for new technology and other innovation.
“The local efforts from the city of Bloomington have really spurred economic development in a meaningful way, starting with The Mill,” East says. “Their top-to-bottom renovation of a century-old furniture factory is a fantastic resource for the community, and it’s a tangible way to show entrepreneurs, ‘this is how we support you.’
“And even more important than the building, as great as it is, are the people inside of it. IU and IU Ventures have been huge supporters of The Mill since day zero. Before the building was even open, they believed in our mission to launch and accelerate startups and knew that one plus one equals three if we worked together. Since opening, we’ve co-invested several times, helping to invest more startups dollars in this region in the last two years than in the last decade.”
Working together, The Mill and IU have been a powerful force in building a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem in Bloomington.
East explains that The Mill has served as a model for other development in the area. Earlier this fall, the city announced that it had received a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to create a new Trades District Technology Center, which is expected to break ground in 2022. Additionally, the city is planning to redevelop the historic Showers Administration Building. The building will become the new home for the management company Fine Tune which was founded by a Kelley graduate.
For its part, IU Ventures has invested in numerous early-stage startups with strong connections to IU and that are part of the cohort of successful companies based at The Mill.
These startups include The Bee Corp, which was founded by Ellie Symes, a graduate of IU’s Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Wyatt Wells, an alumnus of the IU School of Public Health in Bloomington. The agtech startup develops solutions for growers and beekeepers who rely on commercial pollination.
Symes and Wells, who were recently named to Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list for 2022, launched their company after winning the IU Business Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology Competition in 2016. Since that time, the company has raised more than $3 million in funding, and its technology has been used to grade over 100,000 hives by beekeepers and crop growers in several U.S. states as well as Australia, New Zealand and Colombia. Last year, IU Ventures invested $250,000 in the company through the IU Philanthropic Venture Fund.
The IU Ventures portfolio also includes the rapidly emerging Civic Champs, Periodic and Ziptility. It also includes Blueprint Stats and Stagetime, which recently secured their second investments from the IU Angel Network that will help them advance their innovative products in the sports analytics and performing arts industries, respectively.
“IU Ventures recognizes the value of supporting not only our faculty and student entrepreneurs, but also the tremendous value supporting our alumni-led startups provides to the overall Bloomington community,” said IU Ventures President and CEO Tony Armstrong. “Our strong partnership with The Mill and other local support organizations allows us to connect campus resources to our emerging portfolio of investments.”
Both Thinnes and Bhatt applaud the “quality” of their engagement with IU, The Mill and the city of Bloomington, and the doors those institutions are opening up for them.
Both have expressed appreciation for the positive spirit that has greeted their arrival and that is giving them reason to feel extremely optimistic about the future of their businesses and the city they now call home.
“For us, we’re feeling like this is a fantastic place to be,” Bhatt says. “And it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun to be in a place where so many of the resources we need to succeed are either right here or will be available very soon.