The startup world’s high-stakes, high-pressure push for growth can feel like an action movie when described by insiders. Start fast. Explosive expansion. Disrupt the status quo. Win or die. Be a hero. Then move on to the next thing. “It’s like a rocket ship,” says serial Cincinnati entrepreneur Ry Walker. “You either make it into orbit, or you blow up.”
Several of Walker’s startup efforts have taken off, including Astronomer, a software company that helps businesses manage and study data. In March it raised one of the region’s largest ever investment rounds, $213 million, to push growth; the only larger local fundraising announcement was in January, when Enable Injections raised $215 million. CincyTech participated in both funds and has backed both companies from their earliest days.
“Our goal is to identify and support companies that address big market opportunities with disruptive products or services,” says CincyTech CEO Mike Venerable. “They have to scale up quickly and really produce 50 to 100 percent top-line growth each year. The way the business world works these days, there’s a 24- to 36-month period where category winners are decided. You don’t have to be first in your category, but you need to be at least second or third, or you aren’t relevant.”
Walker founded Astronomer in Over-the-Rhine in 2015 and based its data-analysis tools on an open source coding platform that’s become an industry standard, boosting accessibility for clients of all sizes and industries. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, he says, the company had 30 employees; today there are about 300, with roughly 10 percent based in Cincinnati and the rest in Silicon Valley or working remotely. Walker has served as CEO, chief technology officer, and head of product, but he stepped away from day-to-day responsibilities as experienced executives were hired to fill each of those roles.
“Ry has stayed in Cincinnati the past 25 years launching companies, which is what this region needs in order to continue attracting investment,” says Venerable. “We want to develop a deep bench here of people with the mentality and experience of 100 percent growth.”
Both Venerable and Walker point to Silicon Valley as an example of how success breeds success. That area’s FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) spin off employees every day who land multi-million-dollar investment deals on their work resume alone. Can any of the new startup businesses take the lead in feeding a talent pipeline for this region?
Walker says he feels a responsibility to support Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem because it’s provided him with funding and encouragement. He’s been advising the University of Cincinnati, his alma mater, and doing some small-scale “angel investing” in local startups. “I’d love to spend the next 15 years of my working life replicating some more me’s,” he says.