This month our series of ‘Five Solid Questions with …’ continues with an interview of TechLife Columbus founder and VP Delivery and Experience @ Columbus Collaboratory Blanquera. If you would like to see past interviews with Brian Shea, Ron Frissora, Denise Zabawski or Mike Rosello please see the links at TechLifeColumbus.
Steve Gruetter: Today’s interview is Ben Blanquera of Columbus Collaboratory and the founder of TechLife Columbus and the founder of Tech Strategy and what others, Ben?
Ben Blanquera: And husband to Sandy and dad to four beautiful young ladies.
Steve:: Absolutely – and I can fill in some more; curator of the Columbus Startup Digest, , Columbus CIO forum member, and few other advisory boards.
So let’s go ahead and cover the first question. Per the list of activities, you are established as a leader in the Central Ohio IT community. Why do you continue to do all of the things that you do for the community?
Ben: Well, that’s a good question. I think it comes down to a couple of things. One, I consider myself very fortunate to be able to do what I do every day for a living. But more importantly, it’s the notion that if you’re fortunate you should try to give back. The very least that I could do is try to help, as this town has been so gracious and generous to me – so we try to make it become a better place. So our efforts are centered on trying to help Columbus become a better place. It’s really that simple.
Steve: Something that I have heard you say before is ‘Create the world that you want to live in.’ – let’s discuss that a little bit.
Ben: Both my wife and I have come to the conclusion that there’s no reason to wait to try to create. There is no reason why you shouldn’t live in the place you want to live and live the way you want to live. The only determining factor is – are you willing to work for it? If you’re willing to work for it, then it comes down to having a clear idea – what kind of place you want to live in. And for us, it’s around being a community that’s growing, a community that helps each other out and being around some of the smartest and brightest people around that can create things. So it’s really that simple.
Steve: Given the effort that you and Sandy have put into it, what do you think are the most important metrics for success in the Central Ohio IT community?
Ben: Well, I think it’s important to have some things that sort of drive that are indicators of success, so I don’t think there’s one or two metrics. I think there’s indicators of we’re moving in the right direction. The things that are around for me – moving in the right direction is – at the macro level, is the economy growing in town? Are jobs being created in town? And when you look at statistics over the last seven years in town, it’s a resounding yes. Then the question is, what’s the quality of those jobs being created? When you look at the average median income in town, it continues to grow, which means we’re creating high wage jobs.
Steve: If I’m not mistaken, Columbus is the only city in the Midwestern United States that can say that.
Ben: What I would suggest is that Columbus has won numerous awards and recognition over the last five years for the highest median wage, fastest-growing Midwestern city, best place for millennials, a whole series of awards because I think Columbus is now becoming the worst kept secret in terms of best place to be. These are really interesting statistics, so let’s see how we can impact our world every day with our level of engagement in the community. We are attracting more subscribers to the TechLifeColumbus newsletter. As an example, we just created the TechLife Slack channel. The channel is a place where members of the technology community have online conversations to connect, learn and grow. And the question is, is that community growing? Are we seeing new people we had never seen before jumping on into that community and the answer to both those is yes. We’re at 606 members right now talking on 47 channels.
Steve: I know! I run the Cloud Channel on the TLO Slack
Ben: Right! So, I mean the basic premise around the community things we’ve been trying to is around how you create a platform for people to know what’s going on, how to get involved and then being able to connect them quickly and easily. That’s some of things I do in the community. I’m very lucky that on the professional side of things that I’m able to work with some of the leading companies in town.
Steve: Great transition as the next two questions are going to be talking about the Columbus Collaboratory. For those of you who are reading this for the first time, Ben really does have a day job. So I think most of the Central Ohio IT community is aware of the Columbus Collaboratory, but what can you tell us about it that the average Joe doesn’t know about?
Ben: I think the average Joe would not classify us as the biggest, being the coolest startup here in town. I think the average Joe would see us as being, perhaps, another corporate entity out there that has been commissioned to work in advanced analytics and cyber security. What they don’t see is that there’s a unique experiment being undertaken. It’s being undertaken in the spirit of collaboration by seven of the largest companies that said, ‘maybe if we work together in a meaningful kind of way, we can accelerate innovation in advanced analytics and cybersecurity.’ And so what they have essentially done is said, “OK, we’re going to put our money where our mouth is and we’re going to invest $4 million each in this entity called the Columbus Collaboratory.’ Essentially those are seed investors. We essentially have about four years to go from a seed investment to a self-sustaining entity, and along the way, return the money back to our founding investors in terms of value returned.
Steve: I am going to ask you to put on your Thornton May ‘Futurist’ hat for a moment; what is the optimal, pie-in-the-sky impact of the Collaboratory?
Ben: There are a couple different facets to that answer question of impact. There are a couple different ways we measure that impact. There is one impact associated value created for the companies that invested in us. We have metrics associated with are we doing things that accelerate innovation in ways that value can be quantified for our member companies. So that’s one impact. Two, are we doing things to increase the fundamental capacity in terms of capability of our member companies? We measure that that by a value ascribed to collaboration sessions by our member companies. And then the third piece is really what kind of impact are we making for the community in terms of raising visibility for Columbus on the national stage? Why is that important? It attracts companies, investment and talent to this region. So those are at least some of the ways we measure the impact of the Columbus Collaboratory. And so if we fast-forward a couple of years from now, we start thinking about the seven member companies, those seven member companies that have incurred some kind of significant competitive advantage because of the work we’ve done, they are seen by their peers as leading in terms of security posture and that Columbus has grown in stature nationally in terms of being a place where advanced analytics and cybersecurity happens, which in turn multiple companies relocated here and talent has come back here because of that.
Steve: This has been a tremendous destination city in terms of the cybersecurity intelligence available to it by the talented individuals we have in town. Can you talk a little bit more about – as much as you’re allowed to – talk about some of the work products that are coming out.
Ben: As you can imagine, Steve, it’s some of those things we can share, some of those, we can’t. One item I can talk about is last year we open-sourced or released to the open-source community an advanced analytics package that essentially allowed data scientists globally to be able to access cognitive services natively in their integrated environment. When we look at this year, a lot of our focus is around how you create tools around the broad notion of applying analytics to cybersecurity. The amount of threats out there is growing at a much faster rate than the manual ways to intervene. And so we’re coming up with new mechanisms to be able to manage risk in those environments in a way that can reduce operational costs.
Steve: At this point in time for Ben Blanquera, what makes you the most happy in a professional sense, what gives you the highest level of satisfaction?
Ben: Well, I think the piece that I’m most excited about is that when I looked at the trajectory of growth, the trajectory of things happening, we haven’t reached our peak yet. We’re just sort of starting. Columbus has had a rich history about being pioneers in lots of areas. And most of it is not really well known. And what’s interesting now is when you look at the pace of startups, the pace of interesting technology being created, I think it’s ever increasing. We’re going to add another million people to this MSA in the next 10 to 15 years, which is an indicator that we’re a pretty great place to be. So I’m really, really excited about that. And now what I’m really excited about is that the next generation of technology leaders in town are going to be driving the ball forward when I’m long retired. So those are some things I’m pretty excited about.
Steve: Here is a bonus question for our readers. For TechLife Ohio, for Tech Strategy, for Columbus Collaboratory, for the Startup Digest, for the Central Ohio Business Analytics Group, for all the things you’re representing in town, what is next? What is the next great thing that Ben’s got out on the horizon that he’s going to use to drive the ball forward in our town?
Ben: It’s not about what Ben has on the horizon, but what Columbus has in front of it. In terms of opportunity, we’ve just recently received the $50 million Smart Columbus Grant. But what’s probably more important is that the Columbus community has already committed about another $367 million in terms of add-on funds to extend the sort of impact with Smart Columbus. I really believe that the next sort of large, broad opportunity is for us to really earn the title of being the smartest city in this nation, driven by our prowess in data, analytics and smart transportation.