By Adam Moore
Maybe it was the animated rockets set in a continual launch pattern on the massive screen backing the stage, the seemingly limitless energy of the evening’s emcee, or the signature “Rocket” cocktails that truly set the night off: Whatever it was, there was an undeniable buzz in the air at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Nov. 6, as the Iowa Startup Accelerator (ISA) officially launched its inaugural class of entrepreneurs into the world.
The nearly 900 audience members – some coming by the busload from Des Moines and Cedar Falls – were boisterous and lively, cheering on representatives from each of the accelerator’s 10 teams as they took to the stage to publicly pitch their companies for the first time following an intensive 93-day program.
In a vivid display of just how central the Internet has become to our lives, all 10 teams created businesses that rely on it to serve their customers, whether helping a student save money on private education loans or allowing foodies to order directly from local farmers (see the full list in the sidebar). But that fact also lent itself to some pretty cool business concepts.
Eshan Halekote of Vinveli showed how his company can use drones to capture data from hard-to-reach places like the tops of wind turbines, while Ben Picard of Punctil introduced a solution that could help doctors turn appointment no-shows into revenue. Boris Kogan of SwarmBuild explained how his marketplace connects users with engineers and fabricators, effectively turning anybody with an idea and a laptop into an industrial designer.
The pitches were all well-polished and engaging, told with an ease that belied the intense practice and preparation behind them.
Over the course of the 93-day accelerator, each team was required to give its pitch 100 times – sometimes while being shot with a marshmallow gun, often with little to no warning. That was in addition to meeting with 100 volunteer mentors and interviewing 100 customers, all while creating iterative versions of their product. The teams, hailing from three countries and six states, maintained grueling schedules, working 12-16 hour days and giving up a 6 percent equity stake in exchange for a $20,000 investment and the guidance of mentors.
“This isn’t a part-time gig,” Geonetric and ISA founder Eric Engelmann told the audience. “There were people who quit their jobs to come here, people who left their families behind for three months to work here … They worked very hard for this.”
It’s a sentiment echoed in interviews with some of the participants, each of whom described being pushed out of their comfort zone in the name of rapid research and development.
“I don’t want to discourage people from applying, but it was definitely painful,” Blake Rupe, founder of Re-APP, said with a laugh. “They make you jump through a lot of hoops, do things on a really short deadline… They wanted to weed out people who didn’t respond.”
That rigor, developed to push the odds of entrepreneurial failure “way down,” according to Mr. Engelmann, has seemingly paid off for the members of the accelerator’s first class. Each presenter spoke with confidence about their products and target markets, and several of the teams announced major agreements and contracts with established companies. Among the biggest was Vinveli, which announced its first six-figure enterprise contract with Gamesa Corp., based in Spain.
HowFactory confirmed a trial with Accelerated Cooking Products of Cedar Rapids. If that trial is successful, HowFactory’s software solution for creating and maintaining standard operating procedures could expand to more than 76 other companies under the ALI Group banner.
Mr. Picard of Punctil told the audience that he was “officially retiring the fundraising slide” in his pitch, having received a $250,000 investment just the week before the event.
A few Corridor-based venture funds also got into the Launch Day enthusiasm. Built by Iowa, an early stage fund founded by Roby Miller, Ravi Patel and Adam Ingersoll, announced $50,000 investments in Lendedu and HowFactory, and in the closing moments of the event, Mr. Patel and Mr. Ingersoll pledged – seemingly upon the spur of the moment – another $50,000 investment, to be divided among the 10 teams. Iowa City-based venture capital firm Dreamfield Ventures also announced that it would invest in one of the teams, although the CBJ was unable to confirm the specific recipient of the investment by deadline.
As the night drew to a close, David Tominsky, program manager with the ISA, took to the stage to offer a brief look forward to next year’s edition. Referring to the 131 applications received for this year’s ISA class, he expressed confidence that the night’s results would be a catalyst for greater things to come.
“We would love to see that number (of applications) triple, and I think that we can do it,” he said.
The ISA will begin accepting applications for its next class in February 2015.