Buying into a sense of untapped opportunity in America’s heartland, venture capitalists looking beyond coastal hubs in Silicon Valley and Boston for lucrative gains are hungering for a piece of young and innovative Midwestern startups.
Offering them a seat at the dining table is Cleveland’s Comeback Capital.
“There are many more people outside this region who want to invest in early stage companies here than actually do because we don’t have good vehicles for doing so,” said Comeback founder Scott Shane. “Comeback is the vehicle for that. The idea is you get coastal VCs and others using us as a scout fund, which is a model that doesn’t really exist through much of Ohio or Northeast Ohio today.”
Perhaps more importantly, investors feel the development of an outfit like Comeback could invigorate Ohio’s lackluster VC ecosystem, which many startups have fled in search of capital and support in past years.
“Historically, there just has not been a lot of VC dollars in places like Ohio,” said Chris Berry, president of OhioX, the state’s trade association for tech companies. “So something like this is much needed and very important for Ohio.”
VC funds invested $156 billion in U.S. companies in 2020, which was a banner year for the industry, according to data from Pitchbook. About 80% of that was concentrated on firms in the coastal VC hubs. Less than 1%, or about $1.1 billion, was in Ohio.
Activity is picking up this year, however, with nearly $1.2 billion invested in the Buckeye State through the first half of 2021, according to Pitchbook. Nonetheless, Ohio’s share of the VC engine remains paltry in the scope of the country at large in what could be another record-setting year for the industry overall.
“In the Ohio market and greater Midwest, there should be 10, 20, 30 Drive Capitals. But you need to create an environment of risk capital,” said Mark Kvamme, co-founder of Columbus’ Drive Capital, which raised $650 million in new VC funds in early 2020. “If we did that, this region would just explode, in my opinion.”
With its early-stage focus, Comeback, Kvamme said, is a small step in that direction.
Through its debut demo fund in 2018, Comeback backed Path Robotics, a startup founded by Case Western Reserve University students (Shane also is an economics professor at CWRU’s Weatherhead School of Management) that is developing AI-powered solutions for robotic welding. Drive followed Comeback’s lead with an investment of its own, prompting the startup’s move to Columbus.
This spring, the business announced another fundraise — led by New York VC firm Addition and featuring Drive — amounting to $71 million raised for Path to date.
“What Comeback is doing, we need more of that,” said David Croft, an attorney with Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis who works closely with tech startups. “And we need many more funds like this if we want to change the investment mentality in this area.”