Eight Omaha and Lincoln startups have until Oct. 3 to polish their spiels and then wow a panel of judges headed by Steve Case, co-founder of America Online, for a chance to win a $100,000 investment.
The Rise of the Rest startup bus tour and pitch contest announced the eight business contestants selected to compete for a $100,000 check from Case’s venture capital firm, Revolution LLC.
Among local contestants are former Nebraska football players and a small-town Nebraskan who spent his early years drawing at the kitchen table. Several cited personal experience as the catalyst behind their product or service: a family member whose grandmother-in-law took a turn for the worse, a computer expert who nearly fell asleep at the wheel while driving, a guitarist who regularly broke strings and a racing fan who spent an inordinate amount of time as a youth fixing cars at the racetrack.
Revolution received more than 500 applications from five regions, including more than 100 applications from startups in Omaha and Lincoln, during the application period from late July through Sept. 7.
Rise of the Rest refers to cities and regions with flourishing startup communities outside of the Silicon Valley, New York and Boston regions, said Case, who founded the Washington, D.C.-based investment firm in 2005. A total of $500,000 will be invested in startup companies at the five locations — $100,000 in each.
Omaha/Lincoln is the tour’s first stop. Next, Denver, Oct. 4; Salt Lake City/Provo, Oct. 5; Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct. 6; and Phoenix, Oct. 7.
Narrowing the field to just eight local companies involved “very difficult decisions,” Case told The World-Herald.
“We found entrepreneurs and companies who are leveraging local expertise to help solve hard problems in industries like agriculture, transportation, fintech (financial technology) and sports — all industries with rich ties to Nebraska,” Case said.
Case plans to spend time with startup founders and founders of the region’s more established companies, such as Hudl, Hayneedle, ScoreVision and Flywheel, and will be sharing the stage with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to “explore how the startup ecosystems in both cities are being nurtured.”
The competition will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Rococo Theatre, 140 N. 13th St. in Lincoln.
It’s a quick turn on the clock, with each contestant allowed four minutes for his or her presentation. The winner will be announced that evening.
To attend the free competition and other free events, including a 3 p.m. “fireside chat” with Case, register at riseofrest.com.
LifeLoop offers a software platform for senior living communities and allows family members, residents and staff to better connect. When co-founder Amy Johnson’s grandmother-in-law was living in an independent community, “she quickly declined” and had to be placed in a memory care unit. “Our family felt like we missed some key engagement points, some check-ins, and wished we would have been alerted to what was happening to her.”
Johnson and LifeLoop co-founder Philip Lee learned that in many states, including Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, skilled nursing facilities are required to track their residents’ health and activities. However, that information doesn’t always “go anywhere,” Johnson said.
The company’s application allows those facilities to track the information for compliance purposes while providing families the ability to log on and see the activities their loved one engaged in that day through staff notes and photos, along with their health status. Spot a problem? Families can send a message to a staff member or the family member.
Dial Retirement Communities, Immanuel Communities and Vetter Health Services are among LifeLoop’s customers, Johnson said.
The company, which launched in January 2015, has raised $840,000 through investors, friends and family. Its founders learned of Case’s pitch contest through the local startup community. The prize money would allow them to hire a product developer or account manager.
But winning isn’t the only goal, Johnson said. “Any time you can get in front of people and tell your story, it’s great.”
Opendorse connects marketers with athletes to build social media campaigns. The startup also tracks every social media comment posted by its stable of athletes, creating a database that helps clients. Former Nebraska football players Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic founded the company in 2013.
Here’s how it works: Last year Courtyard by Marriott wanted Rob Gronkowski, a tight end for the New England Patriots, to promote its Super Bowl contest via social media. “Courtyard used Opendorse to send Rob an offer: Courtyard will pay you $10,000 to send this tweet right now,” Lawrence said. “We handle the delivery of the tweet, the payment and other details.”
Its stable of 3,500 athletes includes Draymond Green of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, Odell Beckham Jr. of the NFL’s New York Giants and Sydney Leroux of the U.S. women’s national soccer team.
Clients include Hyundai, Gillette, FedEx, Tide and Courtyard by Marriott, Lawrence said.
To date, the company has raised $2.8 million from friends, family, angel investors and venture capitalists, Lawrence said.
He’s excited about the arrival of Case and his entourage. “It’s great to have this level of attention in our region.”
A win would allow the company to expand its reach into the NBA, MLB and other sports leagues, and add jobs,” he said.
Places VR, Omaha
The startup is perfecting a mobile virtual reality platform that would allow businesses and individuals to create a “virtual place” where they can meet and collaborate, founder and Chief Executive Ben Vu said.
Want to rendezvous in a virtual forest via your smartphone or mobile device? Vu expects to give people the opportunity later this fall — just add a virtual reality headset that connects to a smartphone.
“We’ve had some beta testers who’ve built the living room they’ve always wanted. A teacher built a virtual classroom designed to help students with test anxiety,” Vu said.
“They can build it virtually within minutes and experience it with friends,” said Vu, who spent part of his boyhood drawing at the kitchen table at his family’s home in Norfolk, Nebraska.
“I’ve built my own personal virtual man cave that I don’t have space for physically,” Vu said, with a laugh.
The capability to build virtual reality environments exists, but typically requires high-end computers. “This is for smartphones — something everyone has in their pocket these days.”
Places VR, founded in 2009 as Sky Vu, has five full-time employees. Vu, the creator of Battle Bears, an online mobile game, said Case is one of his heroes. His platform, AOL, “ushered me into the Internet. When I heard he was coming to town I was really excited to meet a pioneer of the Internet. To be able to pitch to him is icing on the cake.”
Vu plans to keep his pitch simple but “show our passion.”
If his startup wins he would use the money to accelerate the company’s growth by hiring more local talent.
Quantified Ag, Lincoln
The cattle health management startup uses software and a Fitbit-like device to monitor the health of livestock.
Founder Vishal Singh said he’s honored to be selected as a finalist. “The attention our region will get from the Rise of the Rest is a big win,” he said. “And I’m happy to get to play a part in it.”
Even better? Winning the $100,000 prize. The money, said Singh, would help Quantified Ag make additional refinements to its product and hire more employees.
Previously the startup’s focus was on the research and development of its platform. “Now we’re starting with sales,” said Singh, who left his previous job of 15 years with the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in spring 2015 to lead the company full time. At that time the startup employed six, and now it’s eight.
“We’re getting a lot of good interest even beyond the U.S., so we’re in the process of investigating what we need to have in place to sell abroad.”
The company builds software that allows race teams, from amateur level to NASCAR, to make faster and better decisions on the track. During a race the driver and the crew chief are communicating the whole time through radio, said Kyle Tautenhan, the company’s operations crew chief.
The radio communication is open to everyone. “On the track, everyone can listen to what everyone else is saying. RaceNote takes all the communication and transcribes it in real time so that the engineers and crew chief can read what everyone on the track is saying, including competitors,” Tautenhan said.
Using the transcription, engineers and crew chiefs can quickly change their strategy, he said.
RaceNote was co-founded in 2013 by Dusty Reynolds and Kevin Berry. Said Reynolds: “I grew up working on race cars and spent an embarrassing amount of time at the racetrack. Year after year, racing became more technical, yet the software wasn’t there to support those technical needs. I started RaceNote to bridge that gap.”
The company launched with three employees and now employs nine.
Reynolds is expected to give the four-minute pitch. That’s the equivalent of about eight laps, at a speed of 180 miles per hour around a typical NASCAR track.
“A $100,000 investment would allow us to accelerate our growth plans,” Reynolds said.
Gear Supply Co., Omaha
The startup sells subscription guitar string plans and its own brand of guitar accessories, such as cables and straps under the Gear Supply label.
Founder and Chief Executive Joshua Koterba has been playing guitar for a long time. He’s even toured the country in the pop/rock band Sail By the Stars. But frequently Koterba has found himself “driving across town to find the right guitar strings” and come away empty-handed if a retailer didn’t stock the right strings.
“I’ve ended up ordering them online from my phone in the parking lot,” he said. It made him think: “Wouldn’t this be great if I could get this shipped to my house. That was the inspiration,” Koterba said.
Koterba launched the business from a spare bedroom in February 2015 and now employs four full-time workers. Customers can choose from several subscription options: One set of strings every two months up to four sets a month.
Professional players might change their strings every day — after every gig, he explained. On the other hand, someone strumming guitar in her bedroom for fun might need a set only every month or so. Gear Supply has about 3,000 monthly subscribers.
“Steve Case? He’s super-cool, advocating for startups outside of the coast,” Koterba said.
“I’m wearing many hats, and winning would allow us to hire local talent and secure additional inventory.”
Drive Spotter Inc., Omaha
The company builds real-time video search for fleet applications. “It’s YouTube for fleets,” said co-founder Chris Augeri. Founded in November 2015 by Augeri and Andrew Prystai, the startup uses mobile phones mounted on the dash to make a video recording of the journey, which includes the movements and behavior of truck drivers. The company’s “intelligent software” analyzes what’s happening on the video, Augeri said.
“When our software sees something such as a driver passing on an overpass or speeding in a construction zone,” it notifies the driver or fleet manager, who can then alert or coach the driver.
Drive Spotter’s videos are used to collect travel data. The data is especially valuable to insurance companies that want to map risk assessment in certain areas, such as a street, route or city, said Augeri, who has a doctorate in computer systems.
Augeri’s inspiration for the product arose from a scary incident in which he almost fell asleep at the wheel while driving. “I started looking at using video to provide alerts,” he said.
Drive Spotter, based in Omaha, employs four full-time and eight part-time workers in Omaha, Detroit, Des Moines and Austin, Texas.
“A really good software developer costs between $80,000 and $100,000 in this region. The money would give us someone new to develop and refine products.”
“Steve Case is a pretty solid investor,” Augeri said. “We’re looking forward to hearing everyone’s pitches.”
Nobl Health, Lincoln
Co-founders Raymond Page, chief executive officer; Brett Byman, president; and Katie Hottovy, chief marketing officer, incorporated in February 2013.
The startup technology company designs software to improve workflow and patient health outcomes at hospitals. Under the Affordable Care Act, federal reimbursements to hospitals are linked to patient outcomes.
The software is designed to improve communication among medical personnel. It allows health care providers to help identify areas where they might better serve patient needs.
Nobl employs 11. Byman said the company’s products also have cut the number of inpatient falls in health care facilities that have adopted the company’s products.
When they learned of the pitch contest, Nobl saw it as an opportunity for national exposure. A win represents the opportunity to attend a few more conferences or hire a few more employees. “We’re excited,” Byman said. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you always have to have a pitch ready.”