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UMKC Innovation Center
UMKC Innovation Center
Digital Sandbox KC Q2 2022 Awardees

5 Digital Sandbox KC Newcomers Are Poised to Shake Up KC's Startup Ecosystem


Digital Sandbox KC completed its second-quarter 2022 application cycle, adding five new companies to its roster and connecting them to investors, resources and other founders in Kansas City’s startup network so they can scale their innovations.

Since the program’s inception in 2013, Digital Sandbox KC has had an immense impact on the startups it works with. With a total of over $3 million in proof-of-concept project funding, which, with these five new startups, has been awarded to a total 170 KC-area startups, Sandbox companies have gone on to raise nearly $200 million in follow-on funding. In fact, 33 Sandbox companies have raised over $1 million in follow-on funding, and 27 have achieved more than $1 million in sales, as outlined in the organization’s latest report.

“For any fund, these are significant metrics of success because they illustrate how Digital Sandbox KC provides critical, just-in-time support to help these innovations gain traction, move to market and pursue additional investment,” said Jill Meyer, senior director of Technology Venture Studio, which houses early-stage tech support and programs Digital Sandbox KC, Whiteboard 2 Boardroom and KCInvestED.

The Sandbox is, in fact, one of very few early-stage funds in the Kansas City metro, funding which helps regional innovation survive the ‘Valley of Death’ phase, where capital is scarce, risk is high and many technologies fail. It’s a precarious phase for startups, for investors—and for the promise of regional innovation.

“For our innovators, Sandbox funds are a critical investment at a critical time in their startup journey,” Meyer said. Sandbox companies leverage up to $20,000 in project funding to build their prototype, test the market, develop the user experience,  roll out an MVP (minimal viable product) and more.

The stories of successful alums of the program — and of the line-of-sight the Sandbox has provided to early-stage innovation for eight years — are stacking up. Riddhiman Das and Greg Storm went on to raise a $24 million round for their company, TripleBlind. Nomi Smith and Luke Landau of PMI Rate Pro later joined Pipeline Entrepreneurs and Techstars as they built their multimillion-dollar company. Stuart Ludlow and Dave Hulsen of RFP360 saw the company they founded a decade ago exit in 2021.

"Digital Sandbox KC was really helpful; they provided some funds for us to do some early infrastructure work that was a key pillar,” said Hulsen, who cofounded the Leawood-based RFP360. RFP360 leveraged early Sandbox support in 2014 to grow the company’s software solution, raise $12 million in follow-on funding and land a lucrative acquisition.

Meet the latest five startups to receive $20,000 each in project funding from Digital Sandbox KC for its second-quarter application cycle for 2022. Two of the companies are further supported through Comeback KC Ventures, an EDA-funded partnership between the Technology Venture Studio (of which Digital Sandbox KC is a program) and Kansas City Digital Drive. The other three Sandbox companies represent digital solutions around accessibility, business intelligence and virtual reality. 

DeskSides
Shawnee Mission, Kansas

DeskSides will be a first-of-its-kind public relations disintermediation platform. This digital platform—costing per year what a PR agency costs per month—will streamline a stale process so brands and journalists can harmoniously conduct PR without the publicist.

“Old-fashioned public relations practices and pitching have not changed, even as the media industry continues to modernize,” said DeskSides co-founder Blish Mize Connor. “Our goal is to directly connect brands to journalists for half the time and cost. Your success with the press shouldn’t be determined by where your business is based. We want brands to be successful, whether they are in New York City or Kansas City. This could ease the burden on brands, reduce marketing costs and even lessen the environmental impacts that traditional PR travel once had.”

AskSAMIE by Accessible Living
Kansas City, Missouri

Accessibility should be everywhere, so the AskSAMIE team is building a web app that guides family caregivers and health care teams through simple but clinically powerful questions to help them order the right adaptive equipment specific to each older adult’s physical and environmental needs so they can live at home safely.

Digital Sandbox KC’s funding will allow us to get our first version of the app completed and out to the public for use just as quickly as it can get built,” said Brandy Archie, co-founder of AskSAMIE. “Without this funding, it would have taken us much longer, as the whole project is currently being bootstrapped. I’m so grateful to have not only the financial backing but also the access to resources that will help us go to market successfully.”

Phog Labs
Overland Park, Kansas

Phog Labs is building unique, sports-driven games for virtual-reality platforms that will give customers fast-paced workouts from their own home. Phog Labs’ first game, “Wallball,” is best described as "3D Pong" and will be released on the Meta Quest VR platform later in 2022.

“Project funding from Digital Sandbox KC will allow us to add the necessary features to get our first VR game, ‘Wallball,’ to market,” said Phog Labs CEO James Flexman. “We are excited to launch our game on the leading VR platform, the Meta Quest 2, later this year.”

Empower Fresh
Independence, Missouri

Empower Fresh (eFresh), created by produce experts for produce professionals, is a cloud-based solution for produce department management to protect margins, reduce shrink and maximize produce sales. Empower Fresh provides customized business intelligence delivered directly into the hands of produce managers in a practical, easy-to-use format. The ideal user is the custodian of profit margins, waste management and competitive positioning. The eFresh solution delivers FreshXperts coaching and educational tips for the food handlers at store and corporate levels. It is a practical tool promising to deliver immediate return on investment while simultaneously keeping produce managers competitive in their marketplace.

“The funding we receive from Digital Sandbox KC will allow us to put into place the necessary app features for our development phase with 18 independent grocery stores,” said Anthony Totta, CMO Empower Fresh Co. “This is a very important step, as it is foundational for our entry into the market and improvement of the app.”

Venues Made Simple
Spring Hill, Kansas

Venues Made Simple is innovating the wedding industry by creating an online platform that simplifies how engaged couples find and book venues. This uniquely designed client relationship management tool will better help venues connect with brides and grooms, and the platform’s fully transparent process will simplify the lives of venues and engaged couples.

“We are so grateful to Digital Sandbox KC for allowing us to further our website’s development,” said Jessie and Jeff Pavalone, co-owners. “With this project funding, we will be able to implement more features that our venues have specifically requested, such as the ability to book new clients directly within our platform. The additional development will bring us one step closer to creating the ultimate one-stop shop for venue-client relationship management.”

Digital Sandbox KC is honored to support these five new awardees and is accepting new applications for its third-quarter 2022 cycle and presentations. Visit digitalsandboxkc.org for more information and to submit an idea.

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