Tech startups sprout on the Midwest's Silicon Prairie

Kansas City StarJuly 31, 2012 

There’s no drought in Kansas City — at least when it comes to tech start-up companies.

A growing list of entrepreneurs is working on apps for tablets and smartphones. Others are developing services and devices, including ones that keep a remote eye on an aging relative and offer a new type of pacifier that gets premature babies on the right feeding track.

The surge in aspiring companies won’t turn Silicon Prairie into Silicon Valley, but the area has shown it can produce tech leaders. Ryan Weber noted the area had made a “massive disruption” in certain business sectors, through companies such as GPS leader Garmin and medical software maker Cerner.

“I think we’re just more humble in the Midwest,” said Weber, the president of KCnext: The Technology Council of Greater Kansas City.

Across the country, second-tier cities are competing to be the next big tech hub, but Kansas City doesn’t quite make that list yet. At least that’s the view of Joel Kotkin, professor of urban futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who said Kansas City trailed such cities as Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City and Austin.

“It’s not doing badly, but I think it could do a lot better,” Kotkin said, noting the area’s relatively low cost of living and inviting mix of urban and suburban areas.

Kansas City also has institutions trying to make it a great place for start-ups. The Kauffman Foundation’s mission is to nurture entrepreneurs anywhere, but it provides advice and events to help local businesses. And making Kansas City “the most entrepreneurial city” is one of the “Big 5” goals of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Together, and with other organizations, they’ve put on single events and continuing series that foster tech entrepreneurs.

Every Wednesday morning, the 1 Million Cups program at Kauffman Labs has two entrepreneurs present their ideas for start-ups.

And some emerging tech companies talked about their plans and progress during One Week KC, held in June. The nine-day event was designed to help refine ideas and business plans, and let entrepreneurs pitch their companies and connect with advisers, mentors and partners.

Here’s a sampling from the One Week KC companies, plus some others, that are hoping to become the next tech success story:

Klink Mobile

Jessie Bishop knows her Kansas City company, Klink Mobile, has lots of competition in its field of mobile banking. Many companies are trying to figure out what’s the most profitable and efficient way to pay for goods and services using smartphones and other mobile devices. “This is a really emerging space,” she said.

But instead of trying to outdo high-tech developers’ banking apps for the latest devices, Bishop has focused on the developing world in countries such as Afghanistan. Her service would allow people to transfer money through regular text messages so that users who live in more underdeveloped countries don’t have to use smartphones.

Bishop said Klink Mobile started in October of 2011 and has three full-time employees. Bishop also uses several consultants on contract.

Amp’d App

Steve Revare of Prairie Village was at a concert and trying to share the experience with friends through social media and by sending pictures. But then he realized he was missing the show because he wanted to share so much information himself. So Revare created Amp’d App in September 2011.

“It’s designed to be used by fans during a live performance,” he said.

Revare works with artists before a show so that the app gives audience members information such as venue details, the set list and artist information. And a concertgoer can share a quick Tweet, photo, Facebook post or other social media message. The app also can be set up to let concertgoers buy and download songs they’re hearing, and even vote for what they want played during the encore. When it’s encore time, the app also provides a cigarette lighter flame picture to hold up.

Though it was built primarily for concerts, Revare said the app had been used for other live events. So far Amp’d has been used at seven concerts, Revare said, who considers the app’s “sweet spot” to be bands that have between 200 and 7,000 fans.

“I have no doubt that somebody’s on our heels,” Revare said.

Revare and his partner, Dave Epstein in New York, are the company’s only employees.

eVents

Kaele Stock’s eVents offers a web-based service for sharing peoples’ experiences before, during and after any type of event. Stock said she got the idea from some academic research that found people commonly used social media when they were at events.

Stock’s service creates a website with a unique URL address for each event, which lets people instantly share texts, photos and social media posts.

An eVents client — such as a band giving a concert, or a company giving a seminar — also could incorporate what the event site was sharing onto other existing websites.

The company was started in March by Stock and her father, Tom Stock. It has three full-time employees and a part-time employee, and is based in Kansas City.

Prodigy Arcade

Carrie Royce knew her son had a knack for programming, but when she tried classes to help him learn more about it, he was bored with their lack of interactivity.

So Royce came up with the idea for an online game to teach kids about programming as they played. Along with three other people she met at a start-up weekend gathering in April — Eze Redwood, Coty Beasly and Adam Arredondo — she created TutHoppers. The Web-based game got its name from letting kids “hop” from one tutorial to another, with each part teaching a different aspect of programming.

They eventually decided a name change was needed and came up with Prodigy Arcade, to better describe what their company would offer. Next, to improve their games and get them launched, the Westwood company is planning to hire two video game developers to be its fifth and sixth employees, and to launch a fundraising campaign in four weeks.

In return for donations, people will get rewards ranging from having their names listed in the game credits to having a character named after them in a game, Redwood said.

Stackify

What do app developers do when their apps have problems? Matt Watson’s hoping they’ll turn to his new company, Stackify, for help. Watson said app developers, once an app is out on the market and able to be used, often find there is no easy way to troubleshoot issues that arise.

“The problem we solve is that developers don’t have access to the servers their applications are deployed on,” Watson said. “We provide a cloud-based web application that gives the developers visibility to their applications no matter where they are deployed.”

Stackify also can help administrators of servers or corporate systems by taking responsibility for giving developers only the troubleshooting access they need.

“We have local data clients here in town right now that we’re working with, and we’re looking for more,” he said.

The Kansas City-based company has 10 employees and five beta testers, Watson said.

Leap2

Mike Farmer wanted to make mobile Internet searches easier but also more effective and comprehensive. His Kansas City., Kan., company, Leap2, created Leap2 Navigator, an app that organizes web search results based on how people use their mobile phones, and on their location.

The app also pulls in what people are saying about the search term on social media outlets, which Farmer said allows people to see what’s currently going on about a topic, instead of just getting the news results about it.

And a second version of the app, Leap2 Living Search, gives users the ability to get updates sent to their phones about topics they have previously searched, Farmer said.

Farmer is Leap2’s only official full-time employee, but the company has seven contracted employees, some of whom work full time.

Caregiv

Three years ago Jeff Pfaff’s father was hospitalized for six weeks. And of his five other siblings, he was the only one in town to care for his aging parents. To communicate his father’s status to his siblings, Pfaff made an iPad app his mother used that let other family members listen live when doctors were discussing his father’s health.

Pfaff named the app Caregiv and now is moving it from his iPad to the market. He said he hoped the app would help ease tension and distance often involved in family caregiving by allowing for easier video and audio conferencing.

It will also enable remote monitoring, by a doctor or nurse, family member or other caregiver. To do all this, the program will use Microsoft Kinect, developed as an Xbox game add-on that can monitor people’s movements, and also will be able to work with a webcam. That also means someone can use the system essentially by using a remote control and watching their television — equipped with a Kinect or Caregiv software — rather than learning a whole new form of technology. That’s different from programs such as Skype, Pfaff said, because Caregiv is more like watching a new TV channel than learning a new technology.

Caregiv has three full-time employees and also uses contractors.

EyeVerify

Passwords can be a pain to remember, and even the most intricate ones still can be hacked or stolen.

“Everybody can identify with the hassle of passwords,” said Toby Rush, founder of EyeVerify, whose app enables the use of eye-vein patterns instead of, or in addition to, passwords.

And unlike expensive retina or fingerprint recognition systems, EyeVerify can use images from a cellphone camera or other basic scanning or photographic devices.

So an individual user could add the eye-photo security to access to their laptop, cellphone or other device. Or they could add it to protect access to sensitive files or programs, from company software to a Facebook or email account, or mobile banking app.

Rush is also talking to companies about using EyeVerify in place of passwords.

The Lenexa-based company has five full-time employees and seven contractors. It’s also the third start-up for Rush, who has been working in the mobile tech industry for 15 years. EyeVerify has raked in $1.4 million in capital investments so far, he said.

Lantern Software

Aaron Sloup started Lantern Software to help small businesses attract customers with deals offered on a smartphone app. The Android version started in May, and the iPhone app should be ready soon.

The app is designed to let merchants easily offer discounts, and users of the app reserve them on their smartphones and then redeem them. Lantern makes a dollar per customer the app brings in, and merchants control all the other pricing. For consumers, the service is free, and they can use the app instantly, he said.

Sloup said the largest difference between Lantern and a company like Groupon is the level of control and pricing. For instance, on a slow night it would take a restaurant just a couple of minutes to post a big discount for the next few hours, open to a large number of people.

The app divides deals into six categories: restaurants, entertainment, bars and nightlife, shopping, beauty and relaxation, and health and fitness. Restaurants are the app’s “bread and butter” so far, Sloup said.

Sloup said he eventually hoped to expand outside the Kansas City area. He wouldn’t say how many customers or small businesses Lantern had so far, but said the Overland Park company has six employees and Sloup.

KCBioMedix

Kansas City start-up KCBioMedix is marketing a high-tech pacifier that helps premature infants develop their ability to feed on their own.

The pacifier and its technology, called NTrainer, were developed from research at the University of Kansas, KCBioMedix CEO Michael Peck said. The company’s founders, Michael Litscher and David Stalling, are fathers and have medical device backgrounds, Peck said. They saw a need for this type of technology, he said, because difficulties with oral feeding are a common problem in preterm infants.

The pacifier and its supporting technology monitor and assess an infant’s sucking ability, Peck said, and can send impulses to treat their inability to do so.

As premies “grow and develop, that mechanism is often lagging,” Peck said.

KCBioMedix is based in Shawnee and has been growing, with 13 employees and 18 customers.

Efforts to encourage entrepreneurs also have been growing, Peck said, providing more development tools and free resources.

“I think in the last 10 years there has been a better recognition of the entrepreneur,” Peck said.

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