How 2 KC Founders Are Building Their Side-Hustle into a Full-Time Tech StartupDavid Cawthon
Passion doesn’t just exist from 9-to-5. For many entrepreneurs, running a full-time tech business often starts with exploring problems and potential solutions as a side startup. That’s the case for Dan Schwarzlander and Nick Bennett of VaccineAssist.
“We’re happily employed but side-passioned,” Nick says.
These two friends saw a need and identified a way to address it. Now, they’re working with resources like Digital Sandbox KC and Comeback KC Ventures to make it happen – all while staying enthusiastically (and fully) employed and mostly sane. Here’s how they did it.
A new platform to empower patients
Both Nick and Dan have worked in health care for a long time. Dan focuses on advising the business side while Nick is an infectious disease pharmacist. Their deep understanding of patient needs and how care is delivered helped them see where and how some people and needs fall through the cracks.
“My family owned a small-town pharmacy Iowa,” Nick says. “We understood the important connection between the pharmacy and the communities they serve. In some communities, the pharmacy is the only immediate access point to health care.”
Health care is robust, but how it delivers care can be disjointed. Traditionally, patients have gotten information and vaccinations from physicians, but there’s been a significant shift to pharmacies. However, a lot of pharmacies don’t have the infrastructure, capital or resources to seamlessly provide this information and care in a modern way.
Nick and Dan visualized a singular platform that would allow patients to connect with providers to get information proactively. More information empowers patients to make decisions, and that means improved public health in the long term. That same platform would benefit pharmacies, providing a streamlined workflow. And so, VaccineAssist was born.
Research and support to back up a business concept
Vaccinations have been front-page news in the past few years. But Nick and Dan started looking at data and exploring pain points prior to COVID-19.
“It was clear before the pandemic that there are voids,” Nick says. “If you look at the vaccination rates for adults pre-pandemic and now post-pandemic, there is such a large gap to fill that it will take multiple partnerships to get people the vaccinations they need. These rate gaps have been going on for years. We did a market analysis to see if there really was a need and executed on that feedback.”
Dan and Nick initially pitched to Digital Sandbox KC in 2021. They didn’t get funding, but they did get valuable feedback.
“[The Sandbox team] said, ‘You’re not ready; here’s what we want to know,’” Dan says. “They gave us some good feedback. We worked with Chris Rehkamp at Digital Sandbox KC, and he said, ‘Work on the feedback you got from the evaluation team and reapply.’ A big part of the value of the Sandbox is the feedback you receive.”
The insights these founders gained from their initial pitch helped them pull together lessons learned. They learned more about the vaccine market and got a pilot to commit to testing their concept. So about eight months after their initial pitch to Digital Sandbox KC, VaccineAssist was back. And this time, they received funding, as well as assistance from local mentors to help them pursue additional funding.
“Digital Sandbox KC is helping us explore grants, both federal and in Missouri,” Dan says. “They have the pros at grant writing.”
Although they had funding to get started, Nick and Dan could still use guidance on some of the nuts and bolts of running a successful startup. That’s where Comeback KC Ventures came in.
Mentoring and validation for KC startups
Comeback KC Ventures is a program of the UMKC Innovation Center’s Technology Venture Studio. It’s designed to help launch new technologies in response to challenges stemming from the pandemic. VaccineAssist was one of the startups that joined the program this spring.
“Comeback KC Ventures is helping us figure out the best way to scope our work for our prototype/pilot client. There are people who might be able to do some of that work,” Dan says. “The other piece is preparing to raise capital. Neither of us have done that. We’re finding out what you need to do to have due diligence stuff completed — what needs to be set up, who you can target, things like that.”
Nick and Dan note that working with programs like Digital Sandbox KC and Comeback KC Ventures can open other doors.
“Other people have kicked the tires, so potential partners know you aren’t going to waste their time,” Day says. “Going through this mentorship provides kind of a seal of approval.”
Right now, VaccineAssist is getting ready to start developing its platform. It’s an exciting time, and since the founders are passionate about the task at hand, working on VaccineAssist after their day jobs is invigorating.
“This is something that we’re doing moonlighting, but we’re making good progress,” Dan says.
Advice and resources for Kansas City entrepreneurs
If you have a business or innovation idea, you do need to get out and, as Dan says, “kick the tires.”
“It’s important for people to test their ideas and access local resources,” Nick says. “Things like Comeback KC Ventures and Digital Sandbox KC are great for supporting your vetted and tested idea.”
He also stresses that you don’t have to quit your 9-to-5.
“A lot of people have ideas, but not a lot of people take action on them to see if they have validity,” Nick says. “It doesn’t mean you have to quit your job. Small fires can be just as invigorating as large fires.”
And while it’s probably not a good idea to mix fire and tree metaphors, we’ll give these founders a pass.
“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago,” Dan says. “The next best time is today. Figure out what you need to conceptualize and help you understand what to do next. It’s all about lifelong learning and having experiences.”
If you’re ready to think big and share your idea, Kansas City has the people and programs to support you. The KCSourceLink Resource Navigator™ lists more than 230 organizations that can help you reach your goals. And the KCSourceLink Calendar is the metro’s most comprehensive collection of upcoming classes and programs that can help you make it happen.
If you don’t even know where to begin, we’ve got your back. Our Network Navigators can create your free Personal Action Plan that’s tailored to your unique needs and dreams. (If you prefer to chat with one of our KC staffers on the phone, just call 816-235-6500 during business hours.) Provide a little info, and you’ll receive an individualized list of exactly which KC experts and organizations can help you move your business forward.
And if you’re looking to give your innovation (or innovative idea) a leg up with classes, expert-guidance and even some early-stage funding, connect with the Technology Venture Studio at the UMKC Innovation Center for upcoming opportunities. Just call 816-235-6676 or email [email protected].