On any given night in Colorado Springs, there are people with the entrepreneurial gene working into the wee morning hours on the next big business idea.
They study market research, tap out computer code and tinker in their garages, and they’ll tell anyone who will listen about how their startup will change the way business is done.
“First, you have the idea and you work it over in your mind,” said Darren Terpstra, founder of KiwiKonnect.com, a social networking site that connects people by interests. “You can’t sleep sometimes because you are thinking about different ways to tweak it.”
They are entrepreneurs and they are risking it all on their business ideas, bootstrapping their startups in hopes of catching the attention of investors.
Colorado Springs had been known as a technological hub, but the town took a hit when semiconductor firms moved out a decade ago, said Duncan Stewart, a former CEO of the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator who is now heading Grant Dental Technology Corp.
“Now, we are seeing a renaissance — people are taking matters into their own hands,” he said.
Part of the startup movement has been about sharing information, Stewart said. The 60ThirtyFive report, an economic plan developed by government and business leaders in 2010, seemed to move entrepreneurs from talk into action, he said.
“The fact that we are getting tighter, we are able to get more done,” Stewart said.
The city is abuzz with startups. The Peak Venture Group’s Pitch Nights, where entrepreneurs have five minutes to make their pitch to seasoned business leaders and investors, draw as many as 70 people.
Three local entrepreneurs launched Startup Colorado Springs, a series of coffee and happy-hour meetings where successful entrepreneurs share how they made it with the up and comers.
Groups like SCORE and the Regional Entrepreneurial Alliance are providing free mentors and business advice to entrepreneurs.
And the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator takes on clients with big ideas for a new business, one with potential to become a primary employer.
“I think we are seeing a lot more activity than we ever have before — and that is positive,” said Incubator CEO Ric Denton.
“I also think we have a long way to go.”
Colorado Springs may be five to 10 years out from the entrepreneurial vibrancy of Boulder, said Etienne Hardre, Peak Venture Group Pitch Night organizer. Boulder has gained a reputation of being the place for startups, especially as it is home to the Tech Stars, a startup accelerator that provides funding to 75 venture capital firms and angel investors.
“We’ve got a vision of what we want it to be,” Hardre said. “We need enough investors to take a chance on it.”
Here is a look at a few of the Springs startups trying to make it big.
In manufacturing, there always seems to be a disconnect between the manufactured product and how system engineers manage the product.
This gap leads to wasted time and wasted money, said Tony Feltman, 34, an engineer who has worked on contracts from high-end defense research and development to engineering water purification systems.
In January, he broke out on his own and started his own manufacturing plant, Spire, in a 7,500-square-foot warehouse. His five-employee company already has landed a Department of Defense contract in Huntsville, Ala.
“We are trying to create a true manufacturing engineering interface to a systems engineering group,” Feltman said.
Feltman took out a $700,000 Small Business Administration-backed loan to get the plant up and running and hopes to break even this year. Spire is a precision machine shop capable of making tiny parts for high-end microphones to larger parts as big as 3 feet by 6 feet.
“If we want to be competitive in the global market and get government and commercial contracts, there has to be the person who knows how to build with the systems engineers,” he said.
The flies and worms eat up food waste and leave behind a substance perfect for feeding fish or chickens, said Paris, 54, who has a background in agricultural mechanization and research and more than 30 years farming experience.
It’s part of his plan to reduce fertilizer costs for organic food farmers in a business he calls Daniel’s Garden. The plan includes making small backyard greenhouses, large commercial greenhouses, a cooperative garden and a research facility.
Organic food and beverages are a $26 billion industry in U.S. but it’s taken its toll on the topsoil. Growing season is about one-third of the year, he said. Paris created a greenhouse concept with hanging tiers of pots, which capitalizes on airflow and reduces labor.
“Our new organic production method is a unique blend of known systems for growing produce, by using waste products as the source of plant nutrients, year-round in an integrated and efficient manner,” Paris said.
Paris, who is working with three other experts in the field of research in microbiology and horticulture, said the goal is to sell the technology and the technological assistance to organic farmers. Once profitable, he would like to give the technology to mission organizations around the world. He’s shopping his idea to investors with a goal of raising $1 million this year.
“The end result is what people want — four seasons of local produce production,” Paris said.
Grant Dental Technology Corp.
The trouble is the implant never covers the same space as the molar did.
“It was like a tomato on a stick,” said Duncan Stewart, Grant Dental Technology Corp. president and CEO.
Dr. Jim Grant, who has been a dentist for more than 30 years, was tired of his patients complaining. He got together with Dr. Brad Renehan, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and created a titanium plate, as wide as the molar.
In 2009, they performed a number of successful case studies with their prototype. And, in 2010, they launched Grant Dental Technology Corporation, which designs, develops and produces the dental implant and associated surgical and restorative instruments.
Since then, the company re-engineered the product and will begin U.S. trials this year. In the meantime, the product is days away from government approval in the United Kingdom and sales there are expected to begin in August.
“I just got back from London where we had our first training seminar,” Stewart said.
The company raised about $2 million from angel investors, of whom 70 percent are doctors, and expects to go out for one more round of financing in the first quarter of 2013, Stewart said. He is projecting about $2 million in sales in the first year and $50 million in five years.
“It’s been very well received,” Stewart said. “We have several dozen customers ready to start buying.”
Janet Corniel, 41, knows. She’s moved 11 times in 16 years. Each time she found herself up late at night searching the Internet for schools, shops and doctors trying to decide which neighborhood would be closest to the services she wanted.
“It’s stressful and exhausting,” she said. “After moving so many times I realized there are limited tools online to help people transition into their community.”
Last year, Corniel, who is an urban and regional land planner, launched MovinGal.com. Her site gives newcomers, wherever they might land, direction to community offerings and useful moving tips, like changes in insurance rates or how to keep a moving diary. MovinGal also lists schools, doctors, utilities and entertainment venues, plus directions.
Corniel is building the business by selling advertisement on the site. And, in September she adds a new phase to the site: daily deals and discounts.
“The interesting thing about us and demographics, is it’s a wide net,” Corniel said. “We can arrange to help college students or help seniors downsize and find a home in a snow-bird town.”
Corniel is bootstrapping the business, and has made the rounds in some of the newly started entrepreneur groups, such as Pitch Night, in hopes of wooing investors.
“There are a lot of things that can be developed,” she said. “We are on our way.”
His desire to connect with people who share his interests got him thinking about the flaws in social networking sites. There was no place for him to connect with people purely by interest, he said.
“What if I am an ultimate Frisbee fan and my neighbor is an ultimate Frisbee fan, but neither one of us ever knew it,” Terpstra said. “We are all sort of lonely in our own way.”
He came up with a social networking site, KiwiKonnect.com, and a system he calls layering that helps people find others who want to get out of the house and go for a hike, a bike ride or jump off a bridge.
And Terpstra, who after college was deciding between joining the Peace Corps and starting his own business, is committed to giving all the profits from Kiwi Konnect to projects like building water wells or stopping human trafficking — things he might have worked on in the Peace Corps, he said.
“I felt like I should be doing something to alleviate poverty right away,” he said.
Terpstra, with two software developers, is working on the Kiwi Konnect prototype for beta testing, which will be launched in Colorado first. The business plan includes selling advertising on the site, which will be able to target specific audiences by interest, like biker riders or campers.
“Colorado is a great place to start,” he said. “Everyone is so active here.”