With 46 projects funded to date, Digital Sandbox KC’s support of early-stage tech entrepreneurs is no child’s play.
Executive Director of Digital Sandbox KC Jeff Shackelford
Ben Schultz is a fourth-generation electrical contractor in Kansas City. As someone who supervises job sites and a variety of contractors, he’s observed how tough it is for contractors to notify each other of last-minute schedule changes due to weather or other issues such as availability of materials. To solve this problem, Schultz created LaborChart, a mobile app where contractors track their progress on construction sites in real-time via mobile devices. It launched in the fall, but Schultz needed funding to make improvements to the initial app as it began to be used in the field and to launch and market the project. To help grow and fine-tune the LaborChart app, Schultz applied to and was selected for a program run by Digital Sandbox KC.
Digital Sandbox KC launched in February 2013 to fund and support early-stage proof-of-concept projects that are either Web- or mobile-based, with the ultimate goal to bolster the local economy and create jobs. KCSourceLink (a non-profit created to help regional small businesses) received an i6 grant from the Department of Commerce to launch its spin-off program, Digital Sandbox. What makes the program unique is that it works with tech entrepreneurs at the very inception of their ideas. “The point all along was [to help] very early-stage entrepreneurs get over the hump to get started,” says Jeff Shackelford, a former executive at Sprint Corporation and co-founder of former startup Birch Telecom, for which he helped raise $500,000 dollars. Shackelford has been the executive director of Digital Sandbox KC since its inception, bridging tech entrepreneurs with the corporate world. “We’re at the very beginning of the entrepreneurial ecosystem here. We feed the funnel,” he says. “The hope is by increasing the quality and the quantity of early-stage companies in the metro area, we will find the next Hallmark, Cerner, Freightquote…,” he says.
Among the 46 businesses that Digital Sandbox has supported are Play-it Health, a series of software that helps patients adhere to their medications and medical regimen; ShotTracker, a wearable tech accessory for basketball players that automatically tracks shot attempts, makes and misses; and XYLRNT (Accelerant) Technologies, which uses a new, patent-pending approach to processing networking application date at speeds 10 to 1,000 times faster than existing architectures and has major applications for “Big Data” operations.
Schultz, who was recently selected for Digital Sandbox’s program, is excited for what it means for LaborChart. “Anyone who’s started a business knows it’s very challenging,” says Schultz. “You have to have a lot of things go well and a little bit of luck involved. You need a lot of support from the community. Anything at all that can help, significantly increases the chances of success. Support with funding is just a huge burst of momentum that otherwise isn’t there,” he says.
To help launch these fledgling tech companies, Digital Sandbox has partnered with several local companies, including Hallmark, VML, Sprint and non-profit organizations such as UMKC, the University of Kansas and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to review and select participants and to provide support. In addition to approximately $20,000 in grant money, each entrepreneur receives mentoring by area executives, as well as marketing and business advice. “When we set out to improve the quality and quantity of early-stage entrepreneurs in Kansas City, we set out to also involve the corporate community,” says Shackelford.
This spring, Digital Sandbox received an unprecedented second i6 Challenge Grant. As part of the application process, Shackelford sought to match funding locally. The grant of $500,000 over three years will be matched with funds from the Kauffman Foundation, Missouri Technology Corporation, the UMKC Henry W. Bloch School of Management and Cobalt Ventures for a total in $1.15 million in new funding. Shackelford hopes the new funds will continue the success they’ve seen since 2013 and help early-stage entrepreneurs in one more way. “We’re trying to build in some additional features of the program,” Shackelford says. “[We want to create] a rapid prototyping program to help early-stage companies that need to physically create a first version of a prototype. [Often], they don’t know where to go, and they often don’t have the money to pay upfront for that type of work,” he says.
From prototype to final product, Digital Sandbox proves that Kansas City can play well in the entrepreneurial tech arena.
For more information visit digitalsandboxkc.com.
Digital Sandbox Stats
- 46 proof-of-concept projects funded for area startups
- 23 new KC-based companies created
- 33 companies have secured follow-on investment
- $17.7 million in follow-on funding
- 181 new jobs created with nearly $5.5 million in total salaries
- Just under $7 million in total sales
- 18 patent applications
Success from the Sandbox
The three companies below were part of the first round of funding two years ago and attribute a lot of their success to the Digital Sandbox funding, mentoring and business assistance.
Nathan Benjamin started PlanetReuse Marketplace as a website to help contractors and architects locate and acquire reusable building materials. Two years ago, Benjamin and his company received financial and business support from Digital Sandbox to create and launch a mobile app that worked with the website. “Digital Sandbox was a good connection to not only money, but to people and expertise in spaces we weren’t experts in,” says Benjamin. Now, two years later, PlanetReuse is part of Burns & McDonnell’s Global Reuse Services, and Benjamin is helping clients on a much larger scale. Recently they facilitated the acquisition of salvaged wooden gymnasium floors for use in Whole Foods’ new Olathe store. For more info visit burnsmcd.com/Services/Detail/Global-Reuse-Services.
For Abhi Ray, CEO of HeartToHeart Network, an app-based heath care monitoring system, Digital Sandbox helped create momentum for the product to move forward. His product, which enables patients and doctors to communicate such things as blood sugar levels in real time, allows doctors to immediately make adjustments to medicines or advise on medical treatments. As a year-old startup, HeartToHeart was struggling to find doctors and hospitals willing to use it on a trial basis. “When you are trying to convince someone this will make things better, the funds and the support from [Digital Sandbox] creates the credibility for hospitals to try our product,” says Ray. “Most programs are coaching programs. Digital Sandbox is focused on getting things done — getting things to the next level. It gives you a tangible output at the end of the project,” he says. Ray’s product is currently being used to monitor Type 1 pediatric diabetes patients at Children’s Mercy Hospital and a variety of other hospitals nationwide. For more info visit htohnetwork.com.
Smart Steps LLC
Cindy Fisher, a secondary special education teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District, works with young adults with cognitive disabilities. She developed a tool to help challenged young adults solve problems in crisis situations, such as a lost backpack, a missed bus or even a medical emergency. Through Digital Sandbox, Fisher received funding to create and launch Smart Steps LLC, an app to facilitate the decision-making process for challenged individuals. Fisher came to Digital Sandbox with a mock-up of an unlaunched app. “On a teacher’s salary, I didn’t have that much money to create the prototype,” Fisher said. Digital Sandbox helped her get the prototype made. Today, the app has successfully entered the market. Fisher hopes to expand and improve the app in the future, adding customizable questions to broaden its use. For more info visit smartsteps4me.com.