Participation in the first business accelerator program in southern Colorado proved to be "life altering" for a Colorado Springs startup - and a learning experience for all of the companies involved.
Catalyst Accelerator launched in January at the Catalyst Campus for Technology & Innovation in Colorado Springs with a focus on weather data and the military; predicting the weather and its impact is a key challenge for the military. The intensive, 12-week program was aimed at, among other things, helping the six participating companies understand potential markets. Representatives from the companies engaged with Air Force stakeholders - ranging from pilots to meteorologists to engineers - to learn about current and future weather operations of the military.
But it wasn't all about the military. One intent was to determine if the technologies the companies were pitching were compatible with both military and commercial markets, said Rebecca Decker, Catalyst Accelerator director. By the end, she said, "all of the companies determined there was a dual use." At the Demo Day that wrapped up the program last month, the teams made pitches to both government and commercial investors.
The pitch Brandon Tripp made wasn't one he envisioned at the start of the program. He entered the accelerator as chief operating officer of XplotraX, one of two Springs companies in the program. His focus was on XplotraX's Weather Rock, an autonomous, solar-powered weather data station designed to operate anywhere in the world.
Then came the bad news. During the accelerator's market discovery and research phase, Tripp learned there was "a faster, better, smaller and government-accepted" version of the Weather Rock already out there and accepted as "a program of record."
The result of that initially devastating discovery, he said, "was a great example of adapting and overcoming." In brainstorming with his fellow teams, they realized the real value of XplotraX's technology was its ability to send and receive data globally - and not just weather data.
"One thing we found is everyone wanted a different sensor," Tripp said, from weather to seismic to radiologic. By taking the brains of the technology and making it "sensor agnostic" - a sort of "plug and play" device accepting different sensors - "now you've got a global, secure, self-powered data station that can send and receive any kind of data. That was very interesting to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, the Air Force, everybody."
Thus was born the LynkMod, with envisioned uses ranging from oil and gas fail-safe switching and status tracking to secure Department of Defense communications and personnel tracking. But Tripp made that pitch on Demo Day not as COO of XplotraX, but of Aerolynk. The name change also resulted from the market research,
"The name XplotraX was very confusing to people," Tripp said. "It had no ties to what the product was doing. Aerolynk just rolled off the tongue easier. The government liked that name a lot better and commercial customers could understand the link with aerospace and linking satellites to devices. It just made more sense."
An intense experience
The accelerator is a collaboration between Catalyst Campus, the nonprofit Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization, the Boulder and Pikes Peak Small Business Development Centers, the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center and the local chapter of SCORE. For the first cohort, Catalyst Accelerator partnered with the Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate, which serves as the Air Force's "Center of Excellence" for space technology research and development.
Each team received immediate capital of $15,000 from Space Capital Colorado, a Catalyst-endowed accelerator fund. The other Springs company taking part was Adaptive Systems, with a focus on weather intelligence and data integration products. Two other companies were from Colorado - Longmont-based Guidestar Optical Systems and Boulder-based Advanced Radar Co. - and the final two were from California.
The Catalyst Accelerator used an Economic Gardening-based curriculum provided by SBDC-Boulder. The semiresidential program saw company representatives coming to campus every other week. For three days on those weeks, they engaged in workshops, fireside chats with experts, a roundtable and more, Decker said. On the other weeks, the companies had homework and worked virtually with mentors.
"It was incredibly immersive and intensive, much more intense that I assumed it would be initially," Tripp said.
For Robert Lancaster, CEO of Adaptive Systems, the biggest benefit of the accelerator was developing skills to improve and grow the business, from finding new funding sources to learning marketing strategies.
"When we first started out," he said, "we were a bit skeptical, but man, it proved instrumental in just about everything that we are trying to accomplish as a company."
His pitch concerned weather's impact on aviation.
"If you look at NTSB reports," he said, "weather is the most lethal factor when it comes to accidents."
So Adaptive Systems is developing the Aviation Weather Intelligence and Assessment System, which, among other things, correlates weather information with flight performance and objectives to provide recommended courses of action to pilots. While aimed toward commercial aviation, Lancaster sees the system as a good fit for the Air Force as well.
A standing-room-only crowd of government and corporate investors, weather experts, venture capital organizations and angel investors were on hand to hear the pitches by Adaptive Systems and others on Demo Day.
Reflecting the companies' newly learned skills, "for anyone who witnessed the pitches at the kickoff in January, they saw a huge dramatic shift in the pitches that were conducted on Demo Day," Decker said. While the initial pitches tended to be more tech-oriented and perhaps even confusing to the audience, she said, the Demo Day pitches were more refined, with more storytelling. "I think everybody knocked it out of the park," she said.
While nobody was handed a check on Demo Day, opportunity awaits. All of the companies, Decker said, will apply for a $50,000, three-month Air Force Small Business Innovation Research Grant, or SBIR, to create a report on how their technology could be used and what a prototype would look like. That could lead to a second-phase, $750,000 grant to develop and demonstrate the prototype system.
In addition, a group of Air Force weather users, stakeholders and decision makers is looking at the technologies that were pitched for prototype funding via Other Transaction Authority, Decker said. OTA funding was developed as a quick way for the government to support innovative new ideas without elaborate contract requirements and masses of red tape.
And, finally, she said, there is the possibility of money from commercial investors who have continued to engage with the companies to get a further understanding of the technologies.
With the military, said Tripp, who's a former Green Beret, "the hardest part isn't necessarily getting the interest, it's how do we get funding. They have to create a funding mechanism to reach us."