I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Wagner.
Eric is the CEO and co-founder of Converge Ventures, an innovative firm based outside of Columbus that helps STEM startups get situated with sources of runway and helps with product commercialization. Eric’s career, spanning more than two decades, has seen him in the C-suite and leading innovative projects. Converge Ventures, launched in February of this year, is run in partnership with business advisory firm BX3 and Converge Technologies, a commercial engineering and business advisory services firm that he also co-founded and where he serves as chief strategy officer. Prior to founding Converge Ventures and Converge Technologies, he was collaboration manager for the Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME), an industry-facing commercialization center within The Ohio State University, where he is presently the program manager for its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program. Other positions he has held at Ohio State include an adjunct instructor for the [email protected] program, and at the institution’s commercialization office, where he oversaw strategic planning and helped lead the formation and launch of more than a dozen start-ups. Eric is a member of the Ohio Tech Angels and an active angel investor in Ohio start-ups. He is an advisor and mentor for SBIR/STTR (small business innovation research/ small business technology transfer research) programs and the Ohio Federal Research Network. He has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an executive MBA, salutatorian, from The Ohio State University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Immediately after college, I joined Southwest Research Institute, a nonprofit think tank in San Antonio that received federal funding to research new innovative ideas. I went on to join, and eventually lead, a defense contracting startup focused on undertaking R&D for the government, followed by The Ohio State University, where I helped revamp the research institution’s technology startup and commercialization programs. Through my two decades of helping to foster technological development, I have become deeply familiar with the various local, state, and federal programs that support our local science and engineering brain trust via non-dilutive capital. In fact, over the past ten years, I’ve helped startups connect with more than $100 million in non-dilutive capital.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
This isn’t too funny, though it was a bit of overreach on our business strategy: When we launched Converge Technologies, we bought a 28,000 sq-ft innovation center and hired staff on our own nickel. We scrambled for the first year to fill the revenue pipeline and execute a multi-faceted strategy, which pulled everyone in different directions. We relied heavily on a few customers who we had a high confidence of closing so that we could make payroll. Then Covid-19 hit and that moved everything way to the right and increased uncertainty. I guess the takeaway is that plans change every day: You can never be over prepared or have too many business development opportunities; and it is okay to temper growth to hedge your bets.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
For me, it’s Machiavelli’s The Prince. Now I must start out by saying that — I definitely do not ascribe to the teaching of power acquisition and control, though it is indeed helpful to know other people’s nature and intention before doing business with them.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We at Converge wanted to revolutionize the technology startup process. We saw the potential in helping startups that had gotten their start as projects in university-affiliated and federal laboratories turn into high-growth, revenue-producing companies. We removed the barriers to early cost-of-entry by building out our innovation center and spurring our firms’ product development by connecting them with state and federal sources of non-dilutive capital. A year and a half following our launch, we’re still as passionate about our model as on the first day.
Do you have a “number-one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
For me, my guiding principle is that “it will be worth it in the end.” I don’t care if that worth is monetary, pride in ownership, helping the customers, mentoring and educating our students and staff, or being our own boss. We strive to create a place to work where people feel like it is worth their time and best effort to be a part of the process.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
All of us have had to adjust to cabin fever and figure out how to socialize remotely. For someone who normally is never Facebook, I have found myself rekindling those distant social connections.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We are an engineering design and product development company at heart, so we need to be in the laboratory, getting our hands on new products. It was hard to shut down and not be able to do that, though we’ve since implemented a remote work policy, brought in essential employees, and tried to rethink the way we are working.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Turn off the news! Use the time to rekindle connections with your immediate family. Watch the science and the numbers, and know your enemy. We have predicate viruses in H1N1 and SARS. Wear the mask! It’s better to be safe than sorry and so that you don’t inadvertently transmit the virus to a vulnerable person.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
One of our portfolio startups is Ubihere, an AI-based indoor tracking system for assets, equipment, and people. We are starting to pilot the system across several large healthcare systems. Hospitals had told us that they saw a need to improve their operational effectiveness and inventory management before COVID-19. As, at least we hope, we see the pandemic winding down, the importance of hospitals and health systems knowing exactly what they have and where it’s located for medical professionals’ use has become all the more clear. On another note, we also see an onshoring of manufacturing, which would benefit our core service offerings across the board.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I want to say that working from home / telecommuting will become permanent, though I suspect we will drift back to the pre-COVID state of working in a few years. After 9/11 and the swine flu pandemic of 2009, there were rumblings of curbing business travel. Humans have a short attention span, and ingrained psychological behavior. Many people still want to meet potential business partners in person before inking a big deal with them, for example.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We will follow the needs of the markets. Converge adaptable in the types of startups we can help support and grow.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I’d encourage others to do the same. Customer discovery is a commonly used buzzword, yet one that’s rarely undertaken at great depth. Ask people the right questions and they usually want to share the answers — because it benefits them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Like Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. For everything we do, we have a plan A, plan B, and plan C. Being flexible and adaptable keeps you in the ring when Iron Mike is punching you in the face.
How can our readers further follow your work?