See How 4 KC Startups Leveraged This Early-Stage Funding for Big Wins Later
Imagine this: You have a great scalable idea for an innovation, but your early-stage Kansas City startup doesn’t have a prototype or the traction to take the next step. And without a boost to help you land early funding, your product may not get built and your company might stall out.
Enter Digital Sandbox KC, one of the few organizations in the Kansas City region that plays a critical role in funding proof-of-concept projects for very early-stage companies as they walk the tightrope between success and failure.
In addition to project funding via a grant, companies that are accepted into the program also get connected to the broader startup ecosystem in KC; this primes them to escape the “valley of death,” a startup’s most vulnerable stage where funding is scarce and business survival is at its most uncertain. This all sets up Sandbox startups to accomplish some big things: finish a prototype, add UI/UX for launch, pivot their business model and land investment down the road, which helps them expand.
And we’ve got some amazing stories of four KC startups below, which show the ripple effect of that early Sandbox support.
But first, if you’re wondering about the big picture, check this out: With total project funding of nearly $2.5 million provided to 125 early-stage startups in the Kansas City metro region, the Sandbox has helped launch 67 new companies and 158 new products since its inception in 2013.
And that all means big results for the KC economy: More than 100 startups in the Sandbox portfolio have created over 677 jobs with more than $24 million in payroll and a collective $69 million in sales since the Sandbox’s inception. Impressive, right?
See, Digital Sandbox KC is a key part of the regional innovation pipeline and continues to bridge the funding gap for early-stage startups—and do its part to help make Kansas City America’s most entrepreneurial city.
See how four local startups have leveraged support from the Sandbox and key connections in KC to grow their innovations.
RFP360 boasts huge home-grown success
RFP360 is one of Kansas City’s top homegrown startup stories. The company has grown its own talent pool right here in KC, and it boasts 100% Kansas City funding.
Co-founders David Hulsen and Stuart Ludlow got things going in 2012 in the KC Startup Village. The early connections they made there along with the education they received through Missouri SBDC at UMKC's TECH VENTURE, put them on a trajectory for success—and one of those early wins was being accepted into Digital Sandbox KC.
RFP360 is a software platform that helps buyers and sellers streamline their request-for-proposal process. And Sandbox funds helped David and Stuart streamline and tackle a few big projects early on; in fact, their initial foundational infrastructure and one of their key integrations stemmed from the Sandbox grant.
Fast-forward to today, and RFP360 has expanded to nearly 50 employees; hired a CEO, CMO and CTO; moved to a 11,000-square-foot facility; and is growing revenue.
Stories continue below.
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Üdo founder finds tech success in 18 months
Not everyone can lose their day job, and in 18 months, build a tech company and earn the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce 2019 Entrepreneur Award. But that’s exactly what Rhonda Dolan did; she’s the visionary behind Üdo, a personal assistant app that arose out of the stress of scheduling her day as a single mother of three.
Her path to tech success in KC wasn’t easy (she’s not a developer), but one of her achievements was joining Digital Sandbox KC. Although she wasn’t accepted into the Sandbox on her first go, the goal of getting into the program inspired Rhonda to sharpen her business model and her pitching skills until she succeeded. Rhonda dug deep, participating in ELEVATIONLAB Tech Venture, working with her coach at the Missouri SBDC at UMKC, grabbing the spotlight at the Pure Pitch Rally and pivoting her business to the model that allowed her to win and to scale.
When she landed Sandbox funding, she says that not only gave her a significant leg up with funding and a network of connections but that it also helped her develop a full and working MVP of her app. That early win with the Sandbox primed her for bigger goals down the road and gave her the tools and connections to raise future funds for Üdo.
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HCI Energy’s innovation goes global
World traveler and former energy industry executive Ray Ansari saw a huge need for portable and sustainable energy. And he had a solution: the Hybrid Cube.
Ray is the founder of HCI Energy, and Digital Sandbox KC provided the initial funding to engineer one of the components on the company’s product, which pushed it toward completion. The Hybrid Cube is a portable power plant that integrates wind and solar energy with battery energy storage and a traditional generator.
Today, wireless carriers are adopting the Lenexa, Kansas-based company’s innovation as an alternative to typical tower infrastructure. On- or off-grid, the Hybrid Cube optimizes the power it produces to be as efficient as possible, reducing fuel and maintenance expenses along with the carbon footprint. Most recently, the Hybrid Cube was deployed in the Bahamas as part of the wireless infrastructure rebuild after Hurricane Dorian.
HCI’s Hybrid Cube is a match for many domestic and international markets, including telecommunications, construction, military, disaster relief and mineral extraction.
Funding yields repeated wins for PatientsVoices
Sometimes a little help goes a long way. Case in point: Digital Sandbox KC funding allowed PatientsVoices Inc., founded by Mary Kay O'Connor, to help more patients and providers.
KC’s tight-knit entrepreneurial community primed the company to land a coveted SBIR Phase I grant of $150,000 from the National Science Foundation. The funding meant PatientsVoices could begin delivering on its mission: develop an AI application that derives advanced analytics from patients’ feedback about their health care experiences. And it allowed the company to effectively compete for proof-of-concept funding from Digital Sandbox KC.
Working with the Missouri SBDC at UMKC and Whiteboard2Boardroom, the early-stage Sandbox funding was used to build the company's first digital dashboard for reporting results to clients. Mary Kay credits the Sandbox experience for helping to clarify the company's value proposition and teaching her team how to effectively choose resources that delivered results.
And the collective support she received better positioned PatientsVoices to win two additional SBIR grants from NSF totaling more than $1 million in non-dilutive funds. PatientsVoices is currently focused on scaling, activating new clients, measuring impact, expanding its services and raising additional funds.
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