Innovation Accelerator finds Omaha to be where potential meets progress

Chris Tagatac, who fell off a roof in 2011, shows how he can walk with the help of the “Ekso” suit, a device brought to market with the help of Innovation Accelerator. Assisting Tagatac is Ekso clinical training specialist Lisa Hughes.

You could say it has been operating in “stealth mode” for the past five years.

Now, the Omaha-based organization that helps high-tech startups find a market for their products is ready to spread the word about finding success far from the Silicon Valley or Boston's Route 128 corridor.

Innovation Accelerator, as it's called, made a public debut Wednesday during a luncheon for about 100 local and national business leaders. Founder John Pyrovolakis explained his operation and its latest coup — the takeover of the iBridge Network intellectual property database.

The iBridge, developed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, will be moving to the Scott Data Center near the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Aksarben campus and will be managed by Innovation Accelerator's nonprofit arm.

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Dan Neary, CEO and chairman of Mutual of Omaha, said he was an early supporter of Pyrovolakis' quest to promote the commercialization of American innovative projects. He said the iBridge Network should boost efforts by connecting researchers and inventors with entrepreneurs. Neary expects it all to build an even stronger “culture of innovation” locally.

“It's brainstorming with the best of the best,” said Neary.

To bring home the value of innovation, the luncheon group meeting at Mutual of Omaha's top floor watched a man — paralyzed from the lower rib cage down — walk with the help of the “Ekso” suit.

By putting on the battery-operated and sensor-equipped exoskeleton, Chris Tagatac, who fell off a roof while living in Vermont in 2011, was able to stand up and move across the room. He must balance and shift his weight, and the device pushes his joints to move forward.

Tagatac, who has a wife and two teenagers, said walking with the device has helped him regain some sensation in his abdomen. Pain is reduced by being upright, and the toning in his legs has improved.

“It's just great to be eye to eye with the world,” said Tagatac, a 50-year-old partner in an investment fund.

He said such a life-changing injury affects family and friends, and it has been a “great uplift” to see them react to his progress.

Pyrovolakis said his role with the Ekso suit's creator, the California-based Ekso Bionics, was to help find capital to market the invention.

Among those watching Wednesday's presentation was Walter Scott Jr., chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. He said a big question is: What can we do with the iBridge Network?

“We're in the front end of this,” he said. “The potential is pretty dramatic. Can we get it out to the people who can use it to produce something you can commercialize? If we do a great job, it'll be a fabulous opportunity.”

When pondering how Innovation Accelerator found its home, Pyrovolakis said that operating in Omaha did sound “crazy.”

But by locating to the Scott Technology Center, he said, “We have been more effective in commercializing startup companies and fulfilling our mandate (from the federal government) to do so than we would operating other places.”

Innovation Accelerator is the private component of a public-private partnership with the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation Research Program.

Since its inception in 2008, the firm has leveraged $5 million of federally supported research work into $200 million of private investment and acquisitions in the startups it supports, Pyrovolakis said. The iBridge aims to build on those results by further linking researchers and inventors with entrepreneurs.

Pyrovolakis, a New Yorker, was “pretty much unaware of Omaha” until he came here for a conference about six years ago. A warm reception from the business community's “power circle” made Omaha “an obvious choice” when he was looking to test whether high-tech startups could be successfully commercialized in a place considered “nontraditional” for innovation.

“Omaha is not the first place you would think of if you are someone managing a portfolio of early-stage innovation,” Pyrovolakis said.

He said Omaha business leaders, including Scott and Neary, a former head of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, gave Innovation Accelerator startups a level of access that they wouldn't have had in the Silicon Valley. That access is valuable to startups, which need to know if their innovation is applicable to real firms.

For example, Neary provided access to senior Mutual of Omaha executives who mentored an Innovation Accelerator startup called BitSight Technologies in developing a cybersecurity platform. The company, now operating in Cambridge, Mass., was later funded by venture capital and is considered one of Innovation Accelerator's successes.

Now, Pyrovolakis hopes to take the Omaha model and replicate it in other nontraditional places. He said the United States' ability to innovate and market its innovations is essential to its future standing as a world leader.

“We can't just sit back and say, 'It's in our blood and we're going to lead the world,' ” he said. “That kind of lazy attitude will lead to decline. What we're doing in Omaha is a very important model. It's a local initiative that will have global implications.

“That particular message resonates better in Omaha than it does in other parts of the country.”

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