Lindsey Donner is a writer and editor for small business. Follow her @lindsey_donner.
We revel in stories about overnight startup success, but some of the most disruptive ideas in business are incubated in decidedly un-sexy places: the cereal aisle of a grocery store, say, or a university wet lab. And from that romantic spark of an idea often come years of blood, sweat and (as at least one entrepreneur described it) heartache.
If there’s a silver bullet for taking a project to market, these entrepreneurs haven’t found it yet. But they all share a relentless focus on building the best possible product they can, no matter how long it takes. Here is a look at four of the best and brightest entrepreneurs from the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only membership organization that helps foster new businesses. These inventors have put everything on the line to create a successful business—and bring groundbreaking ideas to market.
Recharging Battery Technology
Inventor: Brooks Kincaid
Company: Imprint Energy, Alameda, CA
“You can launch, iterate, fix and improve things in software and mobile apps all the time. Things don’t need to be perfect,” says Brooks Kincaid, co-founder of Imprint Energy. “But in a battery that’s going to provide functionality to another product, you can’t just say, ‘Here’s Version 0.1. We’ll e-mail you an update when we improve it.’”
Welcome to core component innovation. Kincaid and co-founder Christine Ho are working to bring Ho’s technology to market—a flexible, ultra-thin, screen-printable battery technology called Zinc Poly for use in portable electronics. But getting science out of a university lab (UC Berkeley owns the fundamental IP) and into a startup is not for the faint of heart; they’re financing the intensive R&D with a combination of grants ($500,000), business competition winnings ($60,000), investments ($1 million) and customer-funded development projects ($1.3 million).
Ultimately, time will be Kincaid’s biggest investment. “The path to getting there is expensive and challenging, because the timelines are so much longer. Hopefully, I’m getting better for deciding to take the hard path. When you’re successful and you do build something that works and creates real progress, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Finding Out What’s Inside
Inventor: Neil Thanedar
Company: LabDoor, San Francisco, CA
Neil Thanedar’s first startup, chemical testing lab Avomeen Analytical Services, inspired a nagging question: Why reverse engineer a drug, cosmetic or supplement in a lab, only to give that information back to manufacturers—leaving consumers in the dark?
Hunting for an answer led Thanedar to create the first sketches of LabDoor, a Web/mobile app that turns the tables. “Our report cards explain a label simply, with a letter grade. From there, we can provide more complex information, like is there proof that taurine works at those levels? What does the FDA say?” he says. “The exciting stuff is when we reverse engineer products in our lab. For example, when we look at protein products, nearly all of them have a heavy metal or pesticide in them. That’s never on the label, because it’s a trace impurity.”
Thanedar toiled solo before selling his stake in Avomeen and raising $250,000 from angels—thereafter, his small team spent a full year on the science. Their meticulousness won them a spot in the prestigious Rock Health incubator (and $100,000 from its VCs).
Will LabDoor uncover unpleasant truths? Thanedar chuckles. “Our developers used to buy energy drinks by the case, and these are things we test now—that’s been really scary!” LabDoor’s app just launched with about 7,500 product report cards.
Grocery Store 2.0
Inventor: Andrew Hoeft
Company: Pinpoint Software, Inc. (Date Check Pro), Whitewater, WI
In summer 2010, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater student Andrew Hoeft spent three grueling hours rotating expired product in the cereal aisle of a local grocery store. According to the rotation schedule, he was due back again eight weeks later.
“Product rotation is like being a pirate following a horrible treasure map—not to save money, but to throw away expired product,” he says.
Inspired, Hoeft built a rough prototype, a piece of software that could track expiration dates by product—saving his employer $140,000 in labor in year one. With Date Check Pro, employees don’t have to manually check and re-check expiration dates, which according to Hoeft saves a lot of time. Also, knowing products will soon expire allows you to sell them at mark-down prices instead of throwing them away after expiration—thus reducing what’s called “shrink” in the grocery biz. With good initial results, Hoeft applied for a spot (and $18,000) from what’s now known as gener8tor, the incubator where Pinpoint Software was born. They’ve since raised $425,000.
But getting Date Check Pro software into grocer’s hands has not been easy. “You fight the mentality of, ‘My grandfather used to run the store this way,’” Hoeft admits. “Being able to put hard dollars on the presentation has helped a lot.”
With the initial setup/licensing cost running about $5 or $6,000 for the first store, and new industry estimates putting average annual expired product cost at $55,000, you’re looking at a triple-digit annual ROI. “Plus the soft dollar value of not selling expired product.”
Pinpoint is poised for a breakout, with 30 locations, leads in the pipeline and hard data in hand.
Safeguarding an Entire Industry
Inventor: Allison Lami Sawyer
Company: Rebellion Photonics, Houston, TX
When Allison Lami Sawyer met co-founder Robert Kester, he was working on a chemical imaging camera that attached to microscopes to aid biological research.
Over their first meeting at the Rice University student bar, Sawyer (who’d read Kester’s technical paper twice) proposed a minor detour: Taking the camera to the oil and gas industry for real-time leak detection.
“What I was pitching was that we utterly change one of the largest industries in the world,” she says. “I was 25 and he was 28, and we were broke. But we weren’t afraid for one second.”
She and Kester started entering business plan competitions and applying for grants. By the end of 2010, they were already selling their first product, the Arrow, to research labs. And over the next two years—with $1.5 million in government contracts, $700,000 in product sales, and some debt—Rebellion Photonics started building their Gas Cloud Imaging (GCI) camera. Three years later, they have their first GCI customer, BP. Installation one is going up this month. And projected revenue for 2012 is $2 million.
Sawyer’s secret weapon? Focus. “From the very first day Robby and I were in that bar, we outlined where we wanted to go. If something doesn’t directly help us get there, then we can’t do it. I’d love to hang out at parties, but instead I go to the oil and gas conferences.”
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.