Roobiq CEO Adam Fish

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post incorrectly stated Adam Fish founded Forge. In fact, Matt Winn, formerly with Chrysalis Ventures, founded the group.)

Louisville has lost yet another promising high-tech startup.

Roobiq, which is developing a Siri-like mobile digital assistant for businesses, has left Louisville for a Silicon Valley incubator. (Roobiq creators called their app “Siri’s business cousin.”)

The four-person team is at least the third major promising tech company in five years to leave Louisville including Backupify in 2007 and Impulcity last year.

Worse, we’re losing people who are irreplaceable contributors to Louisville’s fragile startup culture.

I’m not the most objective source on this because we at IL have known three of the four (Roobiq just added a new engineer) – Adam Fish, Chris Vermilion and John Receveur – for quite some time and like and admire them.

http://youtu.be/3vrJU2amOeU

Moreover, this is such a small town when it comes to startups that earlier this year, Insider Louisville took Roobiq’s former NuLu offices after Roobiq moved to offices in Gill Holland’s The Green Building.

Chris Vermilion

Adam, Chris and John – especially Chris – were regular participants in #OpenCoffeeLou, a weekly networking group for entrepreneurs and investors we host.

Finally, we saw those guys every day in Please & Thank You, with NuLu as our tiny startup Mecca.

I first met Adam, Roobiq CEO and founder, back in 2011 when he addressed an Idea Mornings gathering about his entrepreneurial network Forge, then talked about the first glimmers of his concept that became Roobiq.

We’ve talked informally to Adam, John and Chris about their departure.

(All three are so personable and cool they have no trace of the stereotypical tech geek/scientist. My wife Cheryl jokes that if they don’t make it as entrepreneurs, they always have their modeling careers to fall back on.)

John Receveur

We agreed not to mention the incubator because they’ve not gotten permission to talk about their acceptance or the details of what we understand is a very competitive program. In fact, we’re waiting for more details so IL journo Melissa Chipman can do a full-fledged formal story.

Until then, let me tell you why this matters.

In a conversation just before he left Monday night, Chris was clear the group would all have preferred to stay in Louisville if Louisville had a comparable incubator or had sufficient tech talent and patient capital.

But this opportunity to go to the heart of the tech innovation world was too great to pass up. And Chris made it clear he wasn’t ruling out returning, but odds are heavily against it, because the guys are beginning to attract serious national investors.

It’s not just losing this effort, which I believe will grow into a substantial company before it’s snapped up by a larger company, that’s a bitter blow to Louisville.

It’s losing those three entrepreneurs, who all have advanced degrees.

Chris Vermillion has a Ph.D in physics from the University of Washington, and did his post-doc work at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories in San Francisco.

Adam Fish has his undergrad degree in biology from the University of Southern California, with his MBA from the University of Louisville. Adam decided on getting his MBA and becoming an entrepreneur rather than a physician after working for David Jones, Jr. as an intern at Chrysalis Ventures. As an intern, he was instrumental in rebuilding Forge, which remains Louisville’s dominant gathering of innovators and investors.

I haven’t checked, but I believe we have included Adam on every IL list of must-know innovators.

John Receveur has bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science from Whittenberg University and from University of Syracuse, and an MBA from HULT International Business School, the Boston-based global business program.

These are NOT the guys you want leaving town if you aspire for Louisville to be more than an old-line manufacturing town, held together with the equivalent of duct tape and baling wire in the form of an intermodal transportation network that’s iffy at best on a day-to-day basis.

As I pondered this, more than one person during the last 48 hours suggested to me Louisville should think of itself as a “gateway to the West. Sort of like St. Louis. We give birth to great startups and support entrepreneurs until they’re ready to go to Silicon Valley, or at least to larger cities.”

Bright young tech stars have been trying to warn us for years that our lack of business-building resources – a great university, courageous investors and sophisticated startup incubators comparable to The Brandery in Cincinnati – makes us less and less competitive up against peer cities.

Back in 2009, Rob May, who co-founded Backupify with Vik Chadha, told me he moved Backupify to Boston because Louisville simply doesn’t have the cash and intellectual heft to take his flourishing content backup firm to the next level.

One year ago, Hunter Hammonds, who co-founded the Impulcity share-the-night social media app with Austin Cameron, emailed IL to tell us Impulcity was moving to Cincinnati after finding investors there.

On a side note, I freaking love Louisville and think the support that we’ve gotten from the community, especially GLI has been … awesome. But our company and product hinges on data. I need HIGHLY talented data scientists and engineers to really scale. I’m not confident that we could even pick those people up in Louisville.

The good news in all this is, Louisville suddenly is a place where talented, ambitious innovators get traction. But it’s also the place they leave as soon as they need a significant raise or need to add the next level of talent.

This is a city in a state where everything is fine as long as those basketball teams are winning. A city addicted to the seasonal sugar highs of seeing our teams high in the AP rankings, or mentioned on SportCenter.

To me, that means nothing and contributes nothing tangible to Louisville’s future.

If you want to know what lasting success looks like, read this NYTimes story from last November about Dr. Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of  Technology. Langer’s MIT Lab, the Times reported, has spun off companies whose products treat cancerdiabetes, heart disease and schizophrenia, among other diseases. Langer himself started or helped start 25 companies, and he owns 811 patents.

What can we do to make Louisville a more promising place for future Dr. Langers?

Three things:

  • Put pressure on U of L officials to make the school into something more beneficial to Louisville and to Kentucky than an sports program.
  • Focus the multiple new efforts to create a significant startup incubator in Louisville.
  • Intensify the effort to reach the wealthy investors in this town who are reluctant to even invest small amounts in startups.

If we do nothing, our future Chris Vermillions, Adam Fishes and John Receveurs will be increasingly likely to board flights from Standiford Field to Austin, Boston and San Francisco.

The worst thing is, we can’t even say, “We’ll never know.” We will know, and it likely won’t be that long a wait.

What’s going to be really depressing is reading about “formerly Louisville-based entrepreneur” Adam Fish or Rob May or Hunter Hammonds on Wired’s website or in the WSJ five years from now as 2018’s largest IPO.

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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

40 thoughts on “Brain drain: Roobiq leaves Louisville for Silicon Valley, third major tech startup departure in five years

  1. You just don’t have the wealth / money / capital there to keep this segment. I live in an area where there are lots more VC, and still they leave for Silicon Valley…..some of them…because that is where the money is….a whole lot of it. Personally, I think Louisville needs to reckon with what it is and what it does best….focus on that….don’t be a wannabel

  2. You just don’t have the wealth / money / capital there to keep this segment. I live in an area where there are lots more VC, and still they leave for Silicon Valley…..some of them…because that is where the money is….a whole lot of it. Personally, I think Louisville needs to reckon with what it is and what it does best….focus on that….don’t be a wannabel

  3. Don’t chase after these “dreams.” Does anyone remember e Street…..or whatever is was / Wasn’t? If Louisville is a Fast Food Business Mecca……go with that….build on that. Or more likely, it’s a health care provider…..long-term especially…..go with that. Build on that. Don’t try to be something you aren’t, because the Reality is you are NOT that, and probably won’t ever be that.

  4. Don’t chase after these “dreams.” Does anyone remember e Street…..or whatever is was / Wasn’t? If Louisville is a Fast Food Business Mecca……go with that….build on that. Or more likely, it’s a health care provider…..long-term especially…..go with that. Build on that. Don’t try to be something you aren’t, because the Reality is you are NOT that, and probably won’t ever be that.

  5. Strongly agree with your three points outlined above. You hit the nail on the head with sports meaning nothing and contributing nothing tangible at all to Louisville’s future. Bread and circuses. It is almost sad to watch.

    But I also think IL regularly exaggerates overall potential contributions of tech start-ups. It is definitely a crying shame to lose bright people, who started something (or will go on to start many things) potentially big. But to claim that a proper tech incubator will somehow be our savior from all that ails our ‘duct-taped bailing wire’ city is more than a bit hyperbolic.
    I fully agree with all stated here…up to a point. Many more resources and attention need to be thrown at entrepreneurial efforts. But the same essence which makes them agile and gives them so much potential is a liability when they get big enough to need/chase more money. How do we plug that hole?

  6. Strongly agree with your three points outlined above. You hit the nail on the head with sports meaning nothing and contributing nothing tangible at all to Louisville’s future. Bread and circuses. It is almost sad to watch.

    But I also think IL regularly exaggerates overall potential contributions of tech start-ups. It is definitely a crying shame to lose bright people, who started something (or will go on to start many things) potentially big. But to claim that a proper tech incubator will somehow be our savior from all that ails our ‘duct-taped bailing wire’ city is more than a bit hyperbolic.
    I fully agree with all stated here…up to a point. Many more resources and attention need to be thrown at entrepreneurial efforts. But the same essence which makes them agile and gives them so much potential is a liability when they get big enough to need/chase more money. How do we plug that hole?

  7. It is always disappointing to see talented folks leave the area, but the guys are doing what they need to do to grow their company. There is only one SV. Louisville should not aspire to be SV. What could make sense however, is for Louisville to target successful SV companies who have reached a maturity where they are no longer a start-up but trying to make money. SV is a very expensive place to run a company and attract/keep people that can afford to live there.

    Lastly, please consider that the 3 start-ups you cite, while interesting and worthy of investment consideration, all operate businesses that are ‘complex’…..meaning it is hard to ‘show me the money.’ I am quite certain that a start-up that can show a ‘simpler way to find the money’ is much more likely to find the support it needs to thrive in Louisville.

  8. It is always disappointing to see talented folks leave the area, but the guys are doing what they need to do to grow their company. There is only one SV. Louisville should not aspire to be SV. What could make sense however, is for Louisville to target successful SV companies who have reached a maturity where they are no longer a start-up but trying to make money. SV is a very expensive place to run a company and attract/keep people that can afford to live there.

    Lastly, please consider that the 3 start-ups you cite, while interesting and worthy of investment consideration, all operate businesses that are ‘complex’…..meaning it is hard to ‘show me the money.’ I am quite certain that a start-up that can show a ‘simpler way to find the money’ is much more likely to find the support it needs to thrive in Louisville.

  9. And no disservice at all to iPhone app makers, but how many jobs do these create (even indirectly)? Maybe the hard-nosed, black-and-white of sheer job creation is the wrong question–how would several successful small-to-medium sized tech start-ups really increase the quality of life/vibrancy of the city? I think the presence (and success! and retainment!) of tech start-ups would be a great thing, but seems more a hip-and-cool niche than a turnaround potential for the city.
    [It’s right about here where you accuse me of living in the 20th or even 19th century. It’s okay…I’ve been called worse.]

    I think small-to-medium size modern manufacturing should be encouraged (in certain opportunity zones, some of which may be slightly outside the city, Greenbelt Hwy, Portland, Shepherdsville). They could exploit the natural advantage of UPS, employ more people in a little more diverse set of roles, and have (nowadays though, only slightly) more inertia to moving once setup than app makers. I think Portland (especially with an influx of Holland investment) is ripe for small/craft/cottage industries where something material is actually made.

    A few small companies making piece-parts out in PRP may not help too terribly much with the creation of a new urban utopia built on intellectual capital and sustained through “metawork”. But, on the whole, it may benefit Louisvillians more than tech start-ups. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. And the right amount of modern/cool/smart/small-scaled manufacturing might be just the right fuel for Gill Holland’s kindling in Portland. You’re not going to create a tech hub there overnight and the more employment an industry can offer the better.

  10. And no disservice at all to iPhone app makers, but how many jobs do these create (even indirectly)? Maybe the hard-nosed, black-and-white of sheer job creation is the wrong question–how would several successful small-to-medium sized tech start-ups really increase the quality of life/vibrancy of the city? I think the presence (and success! and retainment!) of tech start-ups would be a great thing, but seems more a hip-and-cool niche than a turnaround potential for the city.
    [It’s right about here where you accuse me of living in the 20th or even 19th century. It’s okay…I’ve been called worse.]

    I think small-to-medium size modern manufacturing should be encouraged (in certain opportunity zones, some of which may be slightly outside the city, Greenbelt Hwy, Portland, Shepherdsville). They could exploit the natural advantage of UPS, employ more people in a little more diverse set of roles, and have (nowadays though, only slightly) more inertia to moving once setup than app makers. I think Portland (especially with an influx of Holland investment) is ripe for small/craft/cottage industries where something material is actually made.

    A few small companies making piece-parts out in PRP may not help too terribly much with the creation of a new urban utopia built on intellectual capital and sustained through “metawork”. But, on the whole, it may benefit Louisvillians more than tech start-ups. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. And the right amount of modern/cool/smart/small-scaled manufacturing might be just the right fuel for Gill Holland’s kindling in Portland. You’re not going to create a tech hub there overnight and the more employment an industry can offer the better.

  11. Excellent post. Heartily agree! SV is filled with all sorts of startups all chasing $ for the next big thing. Some will make it….most will not. The same can be said of Austin, NYC, Boston.

    For all the techies is Louisville….how about developing an app that would be of interest to UPS Airlines or UPS WorldPort or Humana or Kindred or B-F or Ford or GE Major Appliances etc etc etc. (I have sensed a disdain for those old style companies from the Louisville techies….it is a disdain that is misplaced. The techies can help those ‘old style’ companies re-invent themselves….and is so doing, both will likely be far more successful than some app that does something that no one is likely to pay for.

    If you can create it….then pitch it to the right people…you might find success!

  12. Excellent post. Heartily agree! SV is filled with all sorts of startups all chasing $ for the next big thing. Some will make it….most will not. The same can be said of Austin, NYC, Boston.

    For all the techies is Louisville….how about developing an app that would be of interest to UPS Airlines or UPS WorldPort or Humana or Kindred or B-F or Ford or GE Major Appliances etc etc etc. (I have sensed a disdain for those old style companies from the Louisville techies….it is a disdain that is misplaced. The techies can help those ‘old style’ companies re-invent themselves….and is so doing, both will likely be far more successful than some app that does something that no one is likely to pay for.

    If you can create it….then pitch it to the right people…you might find success!

  13. Good thoughts. I know LVL1.org and others are involved with that conversation … how can we connect?

  14. Congratulations to Adam and his team – I wish them the best in this next phase of their company development. However, as you stated in your article, you aren’t too objective here. While I think anyone would agree that these folks are bright and innovative, it’s a stretch calling Roobiq a major tech startup. While the company may have potential, it has not yet hit even some of the most preliminary hurdles startups face… and is certainly not in the same category as Backupify. Where Adam in particular has succeeded, in my opinion, is in promoting himself; your coverage is evidence of his PR success. And of course, “fake it til you make it” is a saying for a reason! I don’t mean to disparage what Roobiq has done so far, but let’s not get carried away, especially at the expense of numerous other startups in town who are at further stages in the game and are committed to remaining in Louisville if possible.

  15. Congratulations to Adam and his team – I wish them the best in this next phase of their company development. However, as you stated in your article, you aren’t too objective here. While I think anyone would agree that these folks are bright and innovative, it’s a stretch calling Roobiq a major tech startup. While the company may have potential, it has not yet hit even some of the most preliminary hurdles startups face… and is certainly not in the same category as Backupify. Where Adam in particular has succeeded, in my opinion, is in promoting himself; your coverage is evidence of his PR success. And of course, “fake it til you make it” is a saying for a reason! I don’t mean to disparage what Roobiq has done so far, but let’s not get carried away, especially at the expense of numerous other startups in town who are at further stages in the game and are committed to remaining in Louisville if possible.

  16. Have you heard of the Vogt Awards? They are a program for manufacturing startups making real things. I think they can be one of the premier programs for start ups that want to make tangible products instead of software.

  17. Have you heard of the Vogt Awards? They are a program for manufacturing startups making real things. I think they can be one of the premier programs for start ups that want to make tangible products instead of software.

  18. Sure. As a EE Speed graduate, yes, I am familiar and, yes, you are right. IL recently had a post on the Vogt Awards in fact. They seem way more interested in small software concerns though. Not that that is a bad thing, unwise, or unneeded.

  19. Sure. As a EE Speed graduate, yes, I am familiar and, yes, you are right. IL recently had a post on the Vogt Awards in fact. They seem way more interested in small software concerns though. Not that that is a bad thing, unwise, or unneeded.

  20. Vogt Awards this year is being refocused as a hardware / manufacturing prize. This was done intently by the organizers to refocus on the original spirit of the prize. They’ve gone so far as to partner with UofL’s Rapid Prototyping Center to provide those fabrication services to applicants. Once the website gets a refresh I expect this to be a big buzz in the national HW Startup community. It’s an established prize (1999) and as an endowment doesn’t take equity like an accelerator (huge psychological point for HW startups).

    And for the hardware / software fun side of things that displays a true hardware identity for Louisville, see LVL1 and what we’ve been doing to promote 3D printing and DIY fabrication. We’ve got LVL1 members routinely bragging about being able to get *anything* via UPS in 3 days to our friends nationwide. Not to mention all the local part distributors and fabricators making hardware components easily accessible.

    I wish the Roobiq team best of luck and am certain they are making the right decision. SV has an immense amount of gravity because of developer density that feeds a salary escalation loop. There are plenty of talented software guys in Louisville. Here’s the thing: they are getting paid lots of SV equivalent money and are telecommuting from Louisville to companies in California, with hosting in Utah, and other services scattered everywhere else.

    There’s certainly a case to be made that Louisville has a tech identity as a place where real things are made and moved around. I’m glad to hear that others in the community think that’s possible too.

  21. Vogt Awards this year is being refocused as a hardware / manufacturing prize. This was done intently by the organizers to refocus on the original spirit of the prize. They’ve gone so far as to partner with UofL’s Rapid Prototyping Center to provide those fabrication services to applicants. Once the website gets a refresh I expect this to be a big buzz in the national HW Startup community. It’s an established prize (1999) and as an endowment doesn’t take equity like an accelerator (huge psychological point for HW startups).

    And for the hardware / software fun side of things that displays a true hardware identity for Louisville, see LVL1 and what we’ve been doing to promote 3D printing and DIY fabrication. We’ve got LVL1 members routinely bragging about being able to get *anything* via UPS in 3 days to our friends nationwide. Not to mention all the local part distributors and fabricators making hardware components easily accessible.

    I wish the Roobiq team best of luck and am certain they are making the right decision. SV has an immense amount of gravity because of developer density that feeds a salary escalation loop. There are plenty of talented software guys in Louisville. Here’s the thing: they are getting paid lots of SV equivalent money and are telecommuting from Louisville to companies in California, with hosting in Utah, and other services scattered everywhere else.

    There’s certainly a case to be made that Louisville has a tech identity as a place where real things are made and moved around. I’m glad to hear that others in the community think that’s possible too.

  22. This is all very encouraging stuff to hear and get out there. I honestly was cringing in anticipation of a (possibly deserved) shout-down by app people.

    Would love to eventually see a product that people find useful–if not outright covet–that might have etched on it “Designed in Louisville, Kentucky”. Add “..and Manufactured…” all the better.

    Would be awesome to hit a home run (oh God, here’s a terrible pun) and make a Louisville Slugger equivalent for the 21st century. Or, at the very least, an admirable product someone might be surprised came out of our fair city.

  23. This is all very encouraging stuff to hear and get out there. I honestly was cringing in anticipation of a (possibly deserved) shout-down by app people.

    Would love to eventually see a product that people find useful–if not outright covet–that might have etched on it “Designed in Louisville, Kentucky”. Add “..and Manufactured…” all the better.

    Would be awesome to hit a home run (oh God, here’s a terrible pun) and make a Louisville Slugger equivalent for the 21st century. Or, at the very least, an admirable product someone might be surprised came out of our fair city.

  24. I am curious about several comments that you make regarding UofL in this article. You state that Louisville lacks a great university while simultaneously suggesting that the University of Cincinnati is a great university. One of your quotes claims that the start-ups can’t hire qualified engineers here in Louisville even though the Speed School graduates several hundred engineers every year who are looking for ways of staying in Louisville. Finally you state that UofL needs to do more than provide a sports program when the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research is hosting a national level workshop on Renewable Energy next weekend trying to raise the profile of the city and the university while bolstering research and tech development in the field of renewable energy. So, I am confused. What exactly do you want UofL to do that they aren’t?

  25. I am curious about several comments that you make regarding UofL in this article. You state that Louisville lacks a great university while simultaneously suggesting that the University of Cincinnati is a great university. One of your quotes claims that the start-ups can’t hire qualified engineers here in Louisville even though the Speed School graduates several hundred engineers every year who are looking for ways of staying in Louisville. Finally you state that UofL needs to do more than provide a sports program when the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research is hosting a national level workshop on Renewable Energy next weekend trying to raise the profile of the city and the university while bolstering research and tech development in the field of renewable energy. So, I am confused. What exactly do you want UofL to do that they aren’t?

  26. Great post! With all due respect to those that have moved (Backupify, Impulcity, Roobiq) taking all of 20(being generous) jobs with them…good luck.

    “There are plenty of talented software guys in Louisville. Here’s the
    thing: they are getting paid lots of SV equivalent money and are
    telecommuting from Louisville to companies in California, with hosting
    in Utah, and other services scattered everywhere else.”

    No true-er words spoken…and it applies to sales/biz dev types as well!

  27. Great post! With all due respect to those that have moved (Backupify, Impulcity, Roobiq) taking all of 20(being generous) jobs with them…good luck.

    “There are plenty of talented software guys in Louisville. Here’s the
    thing: they are getting paid lots of SV equivalent money and are
    telecommuting from Louisville to companies in California, with hosting
    in Utah, and other services scattered everywhere else.”

    No true-er words spoken…and it applies to sales/biz dev types as well!

  28. The two main problems I see as a budding online entrepreneur in Louisville:

    1) Kentucky’s tax code is anti-entrepreneur (I say this as a progressive!). The LLET minimum tax discourages microbusinesses who want the legal protections of an LLC. I consider this $175 minimum, which is not based on profit or even revenue, to be akin to theft and serves as deprivation of entrepreneurial development, which can take many years before any significant revenue is realized. There are virtually no tax breaks or incentives for tech startups either.

    2) Louisvillians are largely technophobic and tend to like to keep their focus on as few websites as possible. They’re mostly on Facebook as independent websites languish, because they don’t want to take the extra few minutes to understand a different approach or realize that not everything is happening on that single site.

  29. The two main problems I see as a budding online entrepreneur in Louisville:

    1) Kentucky’s tax code is anti-entrepreneur (I say this as a progressive!). The LLET minimum tax discourages microbusinesses who want the legal protections of an LLC. I consider this $175 minimum, which is not based on profit or even revenue, to be akin to theft and serves as deprivation of entrepreneurial development, which can take many years before any significant revenue is realized. There are virtually no tax breaks or incentives for tech startups either.

    2) Louisvillians are largely technophobic and tend to like to keep their focus on as few websites as possible. They’re mostly on Facebook as independent websites languish, because they don’t want to take the extra few minutes to understand a different approach or realize that not everything is happening on that single site.

  30. I agree with what you say before the last sentence. The problem with the last sentence is that Louisville should want to retain even a small tech sector, as these people are very creative and contribute all sorts of vibrancy to our economy and culture. We shouldn’t try to shut out any sector even as we concentrate on the sure winners.

  31. I agree with what you say before the last sentence. The problem with the last sentence is that Louisville should want to retain even a small tech sector, as these people are very creative and contribute all sorts of vibrancy to our economy and culture. We shouldn’t try to shut out any sector even as we concentrate on the sure winners.

  32. What is the best place to view the start-up and tech business in Louisville, or even Kentucky at large? I own one myself, and admit to very little knowledge about those around me.

    Oh, in skimming the comments I saw some endorsement of “manufacturing” as a way forward. Manufacturing is undoubtedly necessary, but part of a “21st century economy” is new work: new goals, workflow, audiences, and application. Here’s to hoping pure industrialism has run its course.

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