The next class of Pipeline fellows includes entrepreneurs who have made advances in animal rehabilitation, materials selection for engineers, vitamin and supplement sampling, secure online trading and interactive sports injury education.
And now they're looking for help to further advance their businesses.
Pipeline, a program aimed at fostering innovation among entrepreneurs and investors, lasts all year and offers its participants a chance to network and grow their startup companies. The program started for Kansas entrepreneurs and last year opened up to entrepreneurs in Nebraska and Missouri.
Thirteen were selected for the 2013 class, and five are from Nebraska. Each Nebraska startup has fewer than 10 full-time employees, though some also have contract workers or hire interns.
This year's Pipeline fellows from Nebraska are:
Owner, Ace Ortho Solutions
Benkelman, Neb., isn't the mecca of high-tech entrepreneurship, but that didn't stop Ben Blecha from growing his business out of his hometown more than 300 miles west of Omaha. The company develops and manufactures braces for dogs with anterior cruciate ligament and other injuries.
Upon hearing about Pipeline, Blecha couldn't forgo the chance to bring that entrepreneurial spirit a little closer to Benkelman.
“That's one of the huge advantages of why I wanted to join that network,” he said. “I just spent two days in Kansas City and I have cotton mouth and my mind's spinning 100 miles per hour.”
Blecha's background is in prosthetics and orthotics. He earned a degree in those areas from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He also got a prosthetist-orthotist certification and is owner of Sky Prosthetics Inc. in Benkelman, where he evaluates and fabricates artificial limbs and braces for people with mobility issues.
About eight years ago, he realized the need for equivalent products for animals.
“There's no degree for animal medical prosthetics,” he said. “I'm a human prosthetician. I started taking some of the biomechanical concepts I knew to design the braces, then found out you had to change them a lot.”
Today, his business works to make biomechanical designs out of a manufacturing lab housed in a former retail space on Benkelman's Main Street.
“If you would go into it, it'd look a lot like the shop at the farm,” he said, “but it also has some high-tech equipment in it.”
Blecha said his contacts through Pipeline will help to develop the high-tech equipment, which includes scanners with three-dimensional capabilities. With that scanning equipment, veterinarians could send Blecha a scan of a dog's injury remotely via email, versus sending a cast of a dog's injury through the mail.
The best part is that the Pipeline network is just a phone call or email away and he can continue to work from his hometown.
“Now I can go retreat to Benkelman and I can digest everything and put everything to work without having all the other distractions,” he said.
Co-founder, MultiMech R&D
The ability of engineers to find the ideal materials for their designs is the focus of Leandro Castro's business. And while modeling simulation software isn't new, the software suite the Omaha company recently released with its focus on materials is.
“The real difference is that we basically help engineers to reduce the amount of physical prototyping they have to do when it comes to the material level,” he said. “Instead of going back to a lab and looking into every material, we help them to figure it all out virtually.”
For example, engineers needing to test materials that best meet the automotive industry's need for lighter and more fuel-efficient cars can use MultiMech's software simulations instead of racking up the time and expense of casting every material.
“We have some very unique approaches to predicting composite materials,” Castro said, noting that the company has attracted global corporate clients in the aerospace, defense and energy industries.
The company, started in 2010, is a blend of Castro's expertise. A Brazil native, he received a computer science degree from the Federal University of Ceará in Brazil and came to Nebraska in 2006 on a scholarship as an exchange student.
Here, he met his wife, Carissa. He's now pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Nebraska Business Development Center named MultiMech R&D the technology company of the year in 2011. The company also received a grant from the Nebraska Innovation Fund.
“We experienced a lot of traction in the last year,” Castro said, “and I hope that with the help of the Pipeline and its members we can grow even more.”
By next year, Castro hopes to hire more employees and he believes Pipeline will help him decide how to foster that growth. He said the advantage of the organization is that it's full of startups from a range of industries with a variety of perspectives.
“A lot of the problems we have are the same — raising capital, getting employees, communication, pitch and marketing,” he said. “There's a wealth of knowledge.”
Co-founder, Bulu Box
At his first event as a Pipeline fellow, Paul Jarrett heard from another entrepreneur four recommendations that Jarrett instantly knew could give his Lincoln-based company a boost.
“My jaw dropped on why we hadn't thought of those really simple things,” he said. “I sprinted back to my room after dinner and started emailing my programmer and co-founder, who is my wife. ... We were talking about it and it was like, 'Wow. At the first dinner, at the first chat, we already got a ton of value out of this.'”
Jarrett's business provides vitamins and supplements to customers as a subscription service. Bulu Box allows customers to sample, review and choose which brand of products works best for them. Subscribers then are encouraged to purchase one or more of the supplements found in their box.
“The goal is to really help people live a healthier life and to help people discover products to help them live a healthier life,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett, a former Division I starting defensive lineman, used supplements to help him drop 100 pounds from his 300-pound frame after playing football. A Lincoln native, he earned a degree in journalism with an emphasis in advertising from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has worked on campaigns for Lowe's and Nike and marketing strategies for Nebraska-based Complete Nutrition.
He and his wife Stephanie, who is also a Nebraska native, moved back to Nebraska to expand their business, which launched in 2012.
Jarrett said perhaps the people involved in Pipeline who have no connection to nutrition will help the company weigh business decisions because Bulu Box sells to all kinds of people.
But more than that, Jarrett said, Pipeline will arm Bulu Box will the tools to help others in the entrepreneurial community.
“I think we're making really powerful connections,” he said. “Long term I want the tools and things I learn from Pipeline to make a better startup and better community in Lincoln, Nebraska.”
Banking was an obvious career choice for Matt Medlock, but starting a business from scratch wasn't.
A fourth-generation banker, Medlock believes Pipeline will open doors for him to learn more about entrepreneurship and for his business, an online closing table that provides buyers and sellers a one-stop location to create, negotiate and close trades with financial protection.
Already, he said, the fellowship program has connected him to entrepreneurs and businesspeople who have experienced the same problem he's currently facing: How can he grow from being a startup and continue to scale his company to serve national and international clients?
“In 2013, we are facing excitement and challenges of moving past a small business,” he said, noting that PaySAFE started in 2012 and has registered users from 38 states and 31 countries.
PaySAFE — SAFE stands for “secured audited funding and escrow” — is like a traditional escrow account.
Based in Omaha, PaySAFE serves as a third party to hold funds then distribute them according to pre-determined terms. PaySAFE can be used for almost any transaction where parties have a lack of trust or familiarity, whether it's for purchasing everyday products online or buying and selling cars, artwork or agriculture equipment.
A Valentine, Neb., native, Medlock attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, received a graduate degree in banking at the Graduate School of Banking in Boulder, Colo., and earned an MBA at Creighton University.
He has worked in small community banks and large national banks. Medlock has more than 20 years of banking experience. He left his job as a vice president at First National Bank of Omaha in 2011 and started PaySAFE.
With a young company, Medlock said, he's looking to find out how to better pinpoint how customers get the best out of his product. He envisions Pipeline assisting him most with evaluating partnering opportunities with other companies and understanding what partnerships he should pursue.
“They have resources for us to analyze and get feedback to help answer some of these questions,” he said.
The surgeries that ended his collegiate football career prompted Rob Rhodes to pursue medicine. A desire to create an option for anyone to find medical information just a click away drew him to the world of entrepreneurship.
“Anybody can twist an ankle, so we really feel like to be a reliable, one-stop-shop source for injuries, and giving the opportunity for people to learn, is huge,” he said.
Rhodes founded Lincoln-based InjuReplay, an online resource that aims to provide reliable information about injury and recovery for anyone, from soccer moms to sports enthusiasts. Started in 2012, the site offers recovery prognosis and discussion about how people can learn about injuries.
The 3-D “interactive athlete” animation feature familiarizes users with the human body, highlights areas prone to sports-related injuries and can even serve as a tool for you to understand other athletes' injuries and decide whether to play an injured quarterback in your fantasy league.
Rhodes said the resource is a combination of his two passions: medicine and sports. He was a middle linebacker for the University of South Dakota, where he earned his medical degree.
Rhodes, who is currently medical director of business development at the Physician Network and is in private practice at Southwest Family Health, has served as a volunteer team physician for the University of Nebraska athletic department and the Lincoln Marathon and is the primary care physician for the Lincoln Saltdogs.
He's also the founder and president emeritus of the board of Clinic With a Heart, a faith-based nonprofit that provides free, urgent, short-term medical services to the homeless and underinsured people.
Rhodes said Pipeline will be another step in his goals for personal and professional growth. Even this early in the program, he senses the potential for InjuReplay to partner with other organizations.
“Just being a part of such a highly successful group of people, every time you look around, it's inspiring,” he said. “I think a year from now, I'll be very proud to have been part of it.”
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