Tag Archives: innovation

Accelerating first-time start-ups

The start-up process is messy and unpredictable. And student start-ups are certainly no exception. When teams that wow judges and win competitions move to the real world, the sheer enormity of the transition can be overwhelming. Licensing intellectual property, producing a manufacture-ready prototype, lining up customers, raising money—all critical and all daunting. The Foster Accelerator helps early-stage, student-led companies through those decisive first six months.

At  CIE, we believe it’s possible to create a TechStars-like program within a public university environment. True, we can’t pay a modest living wage to the founders. But we do look at the broad range of start-ups—and we don’t take equity.  In the Foster Accelerator, we provide six months of mentoring, a framework for achieving “reasonable but measureable” milestones, much-needed connections, and an incentive—as much as $25,000 in follow-on funding.  May not sound like much, but $25,000 can represent another three months of runway for a young company.

This year there are 10 start-ups in the Foster Accelerator.  There’s everything from consumer products (JoeyBra, Strideline,  MyPartsYard) to cleantech (SuperCritical Technologies, LumiSands, Green Innovation Safety Technologies) to service companies (PatientStream, Urban Harvest) and socially responsible companies (Haiti Babi and Microryza).

Does this work? It does!  In the last two years, we’ve worked with 10 companies—6 of which are still making progress.  Cadence Biomedical, which makes a medical device that helps people with mobility impairments walk, has raised $1.2M and is now selling a commercial product. Wander, formerly YonogPal , morphed from helping Korean students learn English via the web to a cultural exchange mobile app. And they were one of the top three 2011 “stand-outs” in Dave McClure’s 500 Startups. Stockbox Grocers just opened their first store-front location in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, selling fresh food in a “food desert.”

The Foster Accelerator started with a three-year grant of $240,000 from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to create the Jones Milestone Achievement Awards. Since then, other donors have come on board to provide additional financial support. You can follow this year’s Foster Accelerator teams on the Foster Unplugged Blog. They’ll be writing about their experiences over the next six month.

Alumnus is Pirq-ing up the daily deals market

Maybe James Sun was never the hiring type.

More of a job creator, the 1999 BA graduate of the University of Washington Foster School of Business has been one busy entrepreneur since being the last contestant “fired” on national television by Donald Trump in the season six finale of “The Apprentice.”

Sun’s latest venture is Pirq, a clever twist on the buzzing “daily deal” industry that was pioneered by Groupon.

James Sun (Foster BA 1999) is a serial entrepreneurPirq’s innovation is a smart phone app that identifies instant deals offered by businesses—initially restaurants—near your location or destination. Simply activate the virtual coupon and redeem on the spot for up to 50% off the total bill. Instant gratification.

Sun says it’s a win-win. Customers pay no upfront charge, endure no waiting period, swallow no pre-purchased coupons that never get used. And businesses get the opportunity to offer more targeted deals and the flexibility to avoid being crushed by oversold daily deals.

“Pirq shifts the way we discover and get deals by letting our smart phones help us find instant, relevant savings wherever we are—in a way that benefits both consumers and businesses,” said Sun.

UW alumni exclusive deals

Pirq recently raised $2 million in venture capital funding and is expanding rapidly from its home market of Seattle. Sun, the company’s CEO, has been busy making exclusive partnerships with a variety of organizations. The newest is with the University of Washington Alumni Association, announced in May 2012.

UWAA members have only to enter their member number when downloading the free Pirq app to become eligible for exclusive offers unavailable to the general public. What’s more, Pirq will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from each member transaction to support the UWAA.

“Pirq is an innovative business founded by a UW alum, and it provides our members with relevant benefits they can access through their phones while generating support for the UWAA,” said UWAA executive director Paul Rucker, in an interview with GeekWire. “Members will absolutely enjoy saving money with Pirq and… we’re thrilled to be working with Pirq.”

Life after Trump

Given his adventures since “The Apprentice” wrapped, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Sun would have been better off as a foot soldier in Trump’s gold-plated, real-estate empire.

After his televised dismissal, Sun leveraged his new-found celebrity to launch and host his own international TV show. “Sun Tzu: War on Business,” a co-production of the BBC, MediaCorp and CCTV, was broadcast in 20 nations across Asia in 2009-10. In each episode, Sun counseled motivated-but-struggling entrepreneurs on lessons from “The Art of War,” the iconic writings of the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Returning to business of his own making, Sun founded GeoPage, a location-based search company that helps people find restaurants, hotels and attractions in their vicinity. GeoPage built the platform upon which Pirq now operates.

Sun also is an active angel investor and strategic advisor to a number of start-ups. He serves on the board of United Way of King County and the King County Scoutreach Program, as well as Seeyourimpact.org, an organization that solicits micro-donations to support children in the developing world.

Columns magazine recently named Sun one of the UW’s “Wondrous 100 Alumni,” and he recently judged the Foster School Business Plan Competition.

There’s profit in prediction

When undergraduate Mike Fridgen started his first business in 1997, a lot of parents suffered sleepless nights. Predictably. Imagine groups of unescorted university students heading off to Mexico on spring break tours arranged by a group of college fraternity brothers. Fridgen was the driving force behind iSTours, his first foray into the travel business and, happily, the company doubled its market volume in just one year.

Today Fridgen is CEO of Decide.com, a unique web site and mobile app that predicts the optimal time for electronics consumers to buy their dream products. In a world of ever-changing prices and models, that information can save serious coinage. The company claims a 77% accuracy rate in its price predictions, saving buyers an average of $54.

Decide.com resulted from the discovery that similarly to airlines, electronic manufacturers use complex proprietary algorithms to regularly update the prices of cameras, computers, televisions, etc. Behind the easy-to-navigate user interface of Decide, over 100 million terabytes of computational power are constantly mining trillions of bits of data, looking for hints of price fluctuations.

The cutting edge “future-tense” predictive computer modeling that provides the backbone of Decide.com was the brainchild of Oren Etzioni, UW professor of computer science. At the time he developed Farecast, a travel program that predicted fluctuations in airfares, Etzioni became aware of how pricing algorithms were used across a wide range of industries. Fridgen was vice president of marketing at Farecast when it was sold to Microsoft in 2008 for $115 million.

Although he is in the prediction business, Mike Fridgen is the first to admit he has a rare advantage—one he could not have appreciated as a student entrepreneur. “I’m on my third venture-backed start-up with the same investors who backed iSTours and TripHub, [his second travel start-up]. I still work with Andy Farsje, one of the same company co-founders, and Decide is my second venture with Oren.”

Greg Gottesman, managing director at Madrona Venture Group and an investor since TripHub, agrees: “The teams that have repeat successes are unique. People who work with Mike have had a great experience and go on to build the next thing together.”

And back in the Web 1.0 days of the 1990s, Fridgen told a campus publication that there was “no better time to explore business options and receive guidance than in college.” Does he still believe that? Predictably, yes.

Informed innovation: interview with Steve Tolton of Petrocard

Guest blog post by Rita Brogan, CEO of PRR

RitaBrogan

The Brogan Blog had a chance recently to chat with Steve Tolton, the CEO of PetroCard, a leading Pacific Northwest fuel and lubrication distributor. PetroCard, specializes in unattended stations that use a proprietary card lock technology to provide fuel to commercial customers that can be as large as Pepsico or as small as the one-truck plumber down the street.

And it may be one of the largest companies you’ve never heard of.

In 2010, PetroCard grossed over $900 million. PetroCard was ranked last year as the fifth largest privately held corporation in Washington State.  It is owned by Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.  BBNC is owned by about 8,200 Eskimo, Indian and Aleut shareholders.

PetroCard started in 1997, when Steve Tolton, then the Chief Financial Officer of BBNC, was looking for promising investments.  He partnered with banker Tom Farr, who saw an opportunity to consolidate the fragmented card lock business, starting with the purchase of a small company called PetroCard.

Neither Steve or Tom knew much about petroleum.  But they knew a good business opportunity when they saw it.  In less than 15 years, PetroCard has gone from 25 million gallons to 300 million gallons of fuel sales per year and it has leveraged its base business into other compatible business ventures

Steve Tolton attributes PetroCard’s success to focus on its customer base..   Their regional customers include school fleets and taxis, as well as Waste Management vehicles.”

“We touch our customers a thousand times a day,” says Tolton.  “We stay abreast of trends so we can offer solutions to our customers before they have to ask for them.”  Innovation means knowing how to manage risk with great due diligence.

“It is rare to hit a complete home run,” says Tolton.  He noted, however that the “Clean N’ Green” fuel stations, PetroCard’s partnership with Waste Management, has come pretty close to a homerun—exceeding all  expectations.

“For the last two years, we’ve been operating commercial natural gas stations, because of the continued expansion in the area of compressed natural gas,” said Tolton.

Tolton has grown PetroCard, but  does not believe in growth for its own sake.  “We focus on our commercial customers fueling and lube solutions, even though we may see other opportunities,” he said.  “We’re better at taking a decent companies and helping make them better.” PetroCard’s venture into natural gas has been an entrepreneurial “home run,” built on a deep understanding of industry trends and changing customer needs, including the need for a cost-competitive product in an emerging market.

Rita Brogan is the CEO of PRR, a public affairs and communications firm based in Seattle, one of Washington’s 50 largest minority-owned businesses. Brogan was a recent recipient of the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center Asian/Pacific Islander Business Leadership Award. She writes the BEDC Brogan blog series monthly. Previously, she covered green economy issues with an emphasis on ways that businesses owned by people of color or women can create a competitive advantage. Her current blog topic focus is on innovation.