The Death of a Modest Man of Greatness

My friend Frank Samuel died yesterday in a one-car accident not far from his home in Geauga County. He was driving alone, wearing his seatbelt, in the middle of the day on a familiar road. His car slipped on a turn, spun clockwise, rammed into a guardrail, and his life was extinguished. The police have said that alcohol was not a factor, but anybody who knew Frank would have known that anyway. I occasionally saw him sip a single glass of white wine, but never more.

Frank was my first friend when I moved from Silicon Valley to Cleveland. I was introduced to him by Bill New, inventor of the pulse oximeter and founder of the great medical technology companies Nellcor and Natus. Bill had known Frank from his days leading the Health Industry Manufacturer’s Association, HIMA, in Washington. When I met Frank in 1997 he had returned to his home state of Ohio to lead the Edison Biotechnology Center, a statewide organization tasked with creating life sciences entrepreneurship in Ohio. It was also mentioned by somebody that Frank had returned to Ohio to dutifully take care of an aging mother, though it wasn’t something he talked about. He wouldn’t have.

It was during his tenure at the Edison Biotechnology Center that Frank hired me as a consultant. I was between jobs and needed work and Frank found a project for me. That was the kind of man he was. Frank hired me to conduct a study of how to make Cleveland an entrepreneurial metropolis—again, he repeatedly pointed out. In the early part of the 20th Century, Frank would say, Cleveland was the hub of entrepreneurship in the U.S. Of the 50 millionaires in the country in the 1920’s, 30 hailed from Cleveland, he would point out. Cleveland produced such luminaries as John D. Rockefeller, Jephtha Wade, and John Severance. Their legacy included Millionaire’s Row along Euclid and Prospect Avenues (remnants of which still remain), cultural institutions like the magnificent Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, leading foundations such as the Cleveland Foundation, and Lakeview Cemetery, where Rockefeller is buried beneath a tall obelisk and the Wade Chapel memorializes the leader of Western Union with scenes from the Old and New Testaments composed by Tiffany of thousands of pieces of glass.

Frank’s spirit of joy and wonder permeated his tenure at EBTC, as it was known, and he did a lot to advance the cause of regional entrepreneurship. The study he paid me to conduct had its run, along with other studies, but it did lead to an introduction to Jamie Ireland, who through his leadership at the Generation Foundation had financed the study. Jamie was instrumental in coaxing Cleveland’s many foundations to remember the source of their endowments and to reinvest some of their capital back into the regional economy. Jamie and Jim Petras and I decided that a study was fine, but taking action was better. We formed Early Stage Partners, an early stage venture capital fund, to invest in Cleveland’s start-up companies. Frank was instrumental in getting us going, administering a grant application to the Governor’s Technology Action Fund that was the formation capital for Early Stage Partners.

Frank’s influence expanded further when, during the Governorship of Robert Taft, he was appointed as Science and Technology Advisor to the governor, a position which he held from 2000 to 2007. Among his accomplishments were marshalling the Third Frontier through the legislature. This was a voter-approved bond measure that raised billions to invest in technology development in Ohio. Whenever I traveled to other states, I was always asked about this program—what it was, how Ohio had done it, how it was managed, how they could do it in their state. I always told people to call Frank. Frank was also instrumental in creating an environment of support for the Ohio Capital Fund, a fund-of-funds that was instrumental in bolstering Ohio’s Venture Capital community.

When the Taft Administration was termed out, Frank returned to Geauga County, where he again formed an organization focused on community revitalization through entrepreneurship—the Geauga Growth Partnership. I didn’t see him much during this time, but starting about two years ago, I sought him out to gather his ideas about how to further bolster Ohio’s entrepreneurial and venture capital industries. Support for these initiatives had fluctuated in Columbus, and some of the signature accomplishments of the preceding decade seemed to be in danger. As usual, he was fully informed, thoughtful, incisive in his opinions, and action-oriented. I asked him if he thought that Ohio would support a statewide venture organization and he was qualified in his response. The state needed such an organization, of this he had no doubt, but he wasn’t sure that the disparate parts of the state could be brought together behind one organization, or that there would be sufficient financial support.

A group of trustees on the board of the Ohio Venture Association persevered with the idea, however. We determined to conduct a venture fair and use the profits to finance Frank as Executive Director of a newly formed statewide venture organization. We thought he would be perfectly suited to the role, and he was, it turned out. The Great Lakes Venture Fair was held in October of 2012, just two years ago, and the profits were sufficient to engage Frank as a consultant on the project.

Frank was at first skeptical of support for a statewide venture organization. He traveled the state talking to people and asking for indications of financial interest. He conducted surveys. He concluded that the organization could expect a modest budget sufficient to support a part-time executive director and a consultant on policy affairs. And then Frank traveled around Ohio asking for funding commitments, formed a board of directors, delegated an exercise to develop a mission statement, and engaged with constituents around the state to increase support for Ohio venture capital and entrepreneurship.

Within six months, VentureOhio, as the new organization was named, had more members and far more financial contributions than anybody had thought possible. I attribute this to Frank’s skill at both creating a vision and operating at the tactical level to bring people of many interests and perspectives together behind shared goals. The culmination of Frank’s success in creating VentureOhio was on evidence just over a month ago, at the organization’s first annual dinner at the Blackwell Inn and Conference Center on the campus of Ohio State University. The room was packed—far more attendees than had been anticipated. Networking occurred; awards were given; food was consumed, and the state’s venture and entrepreneurial communities had a chance to look at themselves and say “Wow, we’re bigger and more significant than we thought we were.”

In my last exchange with Frank, I sent him an e-mail congratulating him on the success of the VentureOhio dinner. He responded, as he always did, by trying to give me some of the credit. That’s who he was.

Nobody thought at the time that this event would be the capstone to Frank’s career, but if it had to be, it was a fitting one. Frank was a modest man, self-effacing and eager to give credit to others. But the hundreds of people in the room at the Blackwell Inn were a testament to his skill. He was a singular force in Ohio’s transformation from a Rust Belt economy to an entrepreneurial one, and he will be missed. I will miss him, my friend, Frank Samuel. I do not know how you replace a person like Frank.

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2 thoughts on “The Death of a Modest Man of Greatness

  1. Pingback: Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. | Confessions of A Midwest VC

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