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.