Frank Braski is at the forefront of an entrepreneurial movement that’s developing in Columbus.
As co-founder of ColumbusMakesIT! and the RiverCity Foundry, he’s hoping to generate and nurture business ideas that spark economic development in the bi-city area.
Braski sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about his background, career and community projects.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: Let’s start with your background. What was life like for you growing up in Columbus?
A: It was great being the baby of eight. My father was a school teacher. My mom was a mom. In the back of our house we had three little plots where we had our own little garden. We had a woodshop and we would make things.
Q: I didn’t know you were from Columbus before this interview. You just seem like you’re from some place else.
A: Well, because it sounds like I’m not from here. ... My mom was from Maine. My father is from Chicago, you know from a military family. ... (They met here) and I went to St. Anne’s School kindergarten through eighth grade. I didn’t really have much of a chance to pick up that Southern drawl. ... My father, when he got out of the military, he stayed here and he taught at Marshall Middle School for 35-plus years. My mother has since passed away. One of her dying words to me as I got to see her go to heaven was, “Go be amazing.”
Q: Tell me more about that.
A: ... What do you say to Mom when she does that? That was her wish for me... because she’d had a lot of struggle and strife in her life. ...
Q: What types of struggles did she have in her life?
A: Have you ever been out to the Vietnam Memorial at the Infantry Museum? ... The first panel there, it says, “Memories of Home” and “Memories of War.” The “Memories of Home” panel is her and her family and her husband who was killed in Vietnam. ... She was widowed with seven kids. ... The youngest was playing with gasoline one day. ... He was 2 years old and catches on fire, burns down the house, destroys the car. He’s in the Martin Army Hospital with third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body. In the course of a couple of months, she loses her husband, her house, her car, and she doesn’t know if her baby is going to make it. She’s all by herself.
She goes to church and she’s living out of a hotel on Victory Drive. I’m not in the picture yet. My father was in seminary, had joined the Army as a volunteer at the age of 35. He was serving at Kelley Hill as the pastor’s assistant. ... His heart reached out to this woman. He goes to the hotel. He takes the boys and my sister. He takes them hiking, fishing, just getting them out of the hotel so my mom can rest and recuperate and do things. She would cook dinner for him on Sunday night. Completely platonic. Over the course of a couple of weeks of doing this, he realized that this was what God had intended. He didn’t need to go become a priest and he had a family that needed him.
Q: What happened next?
A: He went out to Uchee Creek and stayed several days and nights, and prayed to God. Afterwards, without having talked to my mother, he sells his motorcycle and buys her ring, and goes to her on that Sunday night. ... Because the military only pays for four dependents, the younger three didn’t have any benefits. He goes, “Marilyn, I would like to marry you and adopt these younger three so they can have my benefits and I’ll help you raise this family.” My mother’s first words were, “Frank, you’re crazy.” He says, “Maybe so, but this is what I want to do.” She was like, “OK.”
Q: Wow, what a story. ... So, who were your role models as a child?
A: I definitely looked up to my father, and I looked up to my older brothers because I was the baby. ... With my father, one of the neat things he had the opportunity to do, being a science teacher at Marshall, he would invite the astronauts and the visiting NASA people. When they would come to town, they would come to our house for dinner because we had a table set for 10, and what’s another one? I got to hear firsthand about these stories of walking on the moon and just different things that they would do. I just knew, growing up, I was going to be the astronaut — until I got glasses.
Q: You went to Columbus State to study computer science. Why didn’t you continue?
A: I actually was working with my first startup. We had created a little company. We were doing telecommunications work, this thing that we now know as touch-tone banking. ... I was making a good deal of money, so I decided to continue to pursue that.
... The thing that moved me away from Columbus was a Swiss-based company that did pharmaceutical work and I was going to work in their R&D group. That was very exciting. I got to travel to Switzerland and Germany and go to a bunch of places I’d never been before. ... Then eventually, a couple of years into that, I ended up going to work for IBM.
... We got to work for some of the biggest clients and on some of the hardest problems on the planet at the time because they just wanted really capable, smart people that didn’t have a family, that it didn’t matter if they traveled. ... That was a lot of fun. I did a lot of neat things there, built a lot of very large systems that people use on a daily basis now. That was very gratifying.
Q: Such as what?
A: Have you ever flown with Delta and you’ve seen the little systems that tell you where the gate is, and if you’ve been upgraded? Those things. ... We call it the digital nervous system of Delta. That was a part of a project that I was on. ...
If you really want something done, tell me you can’t, and I’ll probably go and try to show you how you can, because I’m very much an optimist.
Q: Tell me about the innovation lab that you started at TSYS and how that led to ColumbusMakesIT!
A: I was at TSYS. I had the great benefit of being able to talk to a number of our largest clients. Not a lot of people realize that it truly is the headquarters of a global Fortune 500 company. They have pretty much all the major banking and financial players. Anybody that issues a credit card or a bank card, they have a lot of those clients with them. Their executives and their product development folks would come in and talk about things that they wish they had or things that they were hearing from their customers.
Q: So how did you address that problem?
A: We created a repository where people could go and put in their ideas. We would look at the ideas and people could vote on the ideas, so it was kind of an “ideocracy,” where people could put in their information and they could choose to be anonymous or not. ... One of the innovations that we came across was the notion of being able to turn your card on and off. ... We went around and we actually built a prototype — mocked up what that experience might look like and then started showing it to folks. People were like, “Yes, we want that.” We actually went through the product development process to create that. We worked on a couple of patents for that, and it’s actually part of two products that TSYS launched called TSYS Authorization Controls and Cards Controls. It basically allows the person to be in control of when your card can be used, or not, based on your location. ...
Q: How did that lead to Columbus ColumbusMakesIT!?
A: As part of our education at the IdeaCenter, we went to a program at Georgia Tech called Flashpoint. Flashpoint, it’s a start-up accelerator by Merrick Furst. He is a brilliant man. ... His approach is based on his lessons learned and his own experiences of being a serial entrepreneur and doing some things in Silicon Valley and making some very successful start-up companies.
Q: Can you explain to me exactly what ColumbusMakesIT! is?
A: ... We call it the center for creativity and entrepreneurship. ... It’s a local community and donor-supported nonprofit organization. We do educational outreach. We work with schools. We do after-school programs. We do classes and workshops as well as we have a physical space located right across from the Coca-Cola and Space Science Center. We’re part of the River Valley Regional Commission. We have 8,600 square feet, all of the tools and technologies that you might need to fabricate something, whether it be plastics, whether 3D printers or wood or metal-working with our woodshop. We have sewing machines and art supplies.
The concept is if you can dream, or if you can think it, we want you to be able to create it. If you don’t know how to create it, then we’ve got people either in the space, as well as constructors and professors, that we’ve worked with that can help you learn how. Not everybody has a garage filled with tools or a basement or a workshop that has a full woodshop and sanders and grinders and access to wood and materials and tools and the safety equipment. That’s one of the things we wanted to do, is make that available to people at a very low cost so you can become a member and have access to these things.
Q: About how many people do you have involved at this point?
A: Depending on how you count, we’ve got a lot of volunteers. ... We’ve got about 85 people that we work with on a regular basis. We’ve got about 55 members that pay to have access to the space. Then we’ve got a bunch of entrepreneurs that kind of... work out of the space and they live their work life out of the space today.
Q: What types of inventions and businesses are you seeing?
A: We have everything from physical objects and people making devices. One of the startups that we’re working with has a sleeping aid for children on the go. As parents travel with young ones, they can have kind of a respite, a little nice, safe, quiet place where they can go and get some rest. One of our inventors and co-founders of the space, Marc Tessier, has taken his love of the Enigma machine, which he kind of became world-famous for, and turned that into a puzzle-making and tricks business. There’s a phenomenon going on these days called “escape rooms” where people pay to go and be locked in a room that they have to figure out the puzzles to get out of the room. That’s a thing. We actually have a few in Columbus and they’re growing.
Q: Explain the difference between ColumbusMakesIT! and the RiverCity Foundry, and their relationship.
A: ... The RiverCity Foundry is a joint partnership between ColumbusMakesIT! and Troy University and Columbus Technical College. We’ve also got great support from the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Phenix City-Russell County Chamber of Commerce, and the economic development arms in both cities. They’re very excited about what we’re doing because we spend a lot of effort and energy on business retention and expansion, as well as business recruiting. So, we’ll go around and try to get a big company from somewhere else to come here. Well, if you think about it, we’re creating jobs here, but they’re coming from somewhere else, and so they’re typically at someone else’s expense. What we’re trying to focus on is creating new jobs.
Q: How does the RiverCity Foundry work?
A: This summer we’ve been running what we call the Proof of Principle, which is an eight-week boot camp. Dr. David White at Troy University has been very gracious with the use of the facility. We’ve been meeting for the last eight weeks. We’re in week 7. Next week is our launch. ... We started with what we call a startup weekend. We sent a call out to all the local entrepreneurs and said, “OK, if you have a business idea or something you’ve been working on and you’d like to see if it would be something that would be a fit for you, come check us out. We’ll listen to your ideas.”
We did that on a Friday night and then by Sunday afternoon we worked with them all over the weekend. We had them do their final pitch. On Friday night they gave a one-minute pitch and then by Sunday they gave a five-minute pitch. Then from the 21 that presented, we chose eight. We took those eight and then for the next eight weeks, we met on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings at the Troy University campus and went through a series of startup methods. ...
Q: Governor Bentley was recently in Phenix City and seemed very impressed with what you’re doing there with the foundry. Tell me about that and what that was like having him pretty much endorse what you’re doing.
A: That was great. We’d had a dry run of that on Monday evening. We got to tighten it down. We got some great feedback and some guidance on how to focus on being more specifically targeted for him as an audience. It was refreshing to get that he understood our message and what we were trying to do. The folks surrounding him and working with him on some of the legislation have actually gotten some further correspondence on some of the advantages that Georgia has over Alabama right now from an investment perspective. ...
We’re trying to orchestrate the same kind of ecosystem or environment here in the Phenix City, Columbus, Fort Benning area because we have all the right mix of people and talent and resources. But do you know where to go on a Wednesday night or Tuesday night to go find the local investors who will help you make your dreams reality? Well, now you do. It’s Tuesday night at Troy University. Before us, there wasn’t a place.
Q: When you say investors, is this public funding or grants that you’re talking about, or is it actually people with money?
A: These are ordinary people. ... In fact, on Monday night last week, I had the most delightfully unexpected conversation with two ladies that said, “We have been looking for something to invest in in the area.” People have 401(k)s and they’ll have investment properties and they’ll have their different little things and there are even church groups that have little investment clubs. Just like they have a book club, they’ll have an investment club. ... This is an opportunity to actually get involved. ... You don’t have to have a lot of money. You would be surprised at what $1,000 dollars will do for a startup company.
Current Residence: Bibb City
Job: Entrepreneur, creative and co-founder of ColumbusMakesIT! and RiverCity Foundry; eChannel manager for mobile applications in the commercial space at Synovous.
Previous Jobs: Executive consultant and a managing principal at IBM for 10 years; former owner of the Marble Slab Creamery at Columbus Park Crossing; founder of the IdeaCenter at TSYS.
Education: Spencer High School graduate, 1989; studied computer science at Columbus State University, 1989-1990;
Family: Divorced; three children, Mary, Drake and Jakob; father, Frank J. Braski; and seven siblings; mother deceased.