"We were staring into the abyss," says Baiju Shah, CEO of BioEnterprise, recalling the 2000 recession that had slowed Cleveland's economy to a crawl. "It wasn't just a cyclical thing; there were global forces at work that were going to leave us behind for good." As the city bled jobs in traditional sectors, such as manufacturing, committed competitors — including Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and Summa Health System — banded together to save the city and themselves. In 2002, they launched BioEnterprise, a unique accelerator that provides health-care startups with access to biomedical-specific expertise, world-class research, and cold, hard investment cash. "It's a true collaboration," Shah says. "Either the chair or CEO of each partner institution has been actively involved." Shah, a Cleveland native, studied similar biomedical clusters in other cities, looking for best practices. The big insight? Follow the money. "We ask what investors want to invest in and then we go find it," he says. Bill Sanford, a cofounder and original chair, agrees: "This was not a social-service thing. We were going to take a venture-capital approach to bioscience-related economic development — real companies with business plans and an identified path to success."
BioEnterprise has since created or recruited more than 100 companies and attracted nearly $1 billion in new funding. Cleveland's biomedical industry now outpaces the nation's at 7.4% annual growth, bringing with it 20,000 related jobs. A number of venture funds have opened offices in Cleveland, and a Medical Market & Convention Center breaks ground this year.
Shah and Sanford are now sharing what they've learned. "This market-driven assessment could be employed in other troubled regions," says Sanford. "What they don't have is the collaboration among those who are historically competitors. I use the term 'forced collaboration,' and when it works, it's amazing what you can do."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.