By: Leigh Keeton
Great Lakes Innovation & Development Enterprise
Cleveland Whiskey is one of Northeast Ohio’s most successful and well-known startups. The company has raised more than $2 million, perfected a disruptive technology that dramatically accelerates the maturation of distilled spirits, and sold more than 200,000 bottles of its whiskey around the world.
Writers for Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur have told the Cleveland Whiskey story. The magazines stacked up its whiskey’s taste against traditionally aged spirits, shared as much about the rapid aging process as founder Tom Lix would divulge, and lauded him for applying this new technology to an industry that hasn’t changed manufacturing processes in generations.
But there’s a lesser told side to the story. Cleveland Whiskey has strong ties to education.
It started with the Innovation Fund.
In 2010 Cleveland Whiskey received a $25,000 grant from the pre-seed fund founded by the Lorain County Community College Foundation. Tom used the money to move the company out of his basement—literally.
“The Innovation Fund was some of the very first outside money that we raised,” Tom says. “It enabled us to move from my basement into a laboratory space in MAGNET.”
Once in the Cleveland incubator that supports manufacturing companies, Tom used the grant, combined with a subsequent $100,000 Innovation Fund award, to make some critical early hires and quickly transition from research and testing to making some of Cleveland Whiskey’s first products.
Besides working capital, the Innovation Fund money gave Tom’s startup the external validation he needed to bring in additional investments. The $2 million ramped production and in 2013 Cleveland Whiskey began selling. In just 10 months, the company sold nearly 50,000 bottles, earning almost $1 million in revenue.
And all the while, Tom has involved students in making his product and his company the best they can be.