Southern Colorado launches first tech accelerator

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Tom George is founder and CEO of California-based SaraniaSat.

Southern Colorado’s first accelerator program launched its initial cohort Jan. 30, boosting novel technologies along with prospects for startups from Colorado and California.

Catalyst Accelerator, a defense and national security accelerator based at Catalyst Campus, seeks to advance technologies for the warfighter and guide tech transfer between the government and the commercial market, Catalyst Accelerator Program Director Rebecca Decker said.

Through an intensive 12-week program, participating companies will develop solutions for providing better terrestrial weather data and other related, commercially viable products.

Commercial application is critical to the Catalyst Accelerator approach, because it frees startups from the unpredictability of relying on contracts as a funding source.

“One of the issues [facing startups] is contract length,” Decker said. “A few of our cohort participants have struggled with very short-term contracts with the government, where they can’t constantly depend on that source of funding — because it could be just six months, 18 months, two years — and so they’re looking for a long-term strategy.”

Introducing a commercial market application allows startups to make long-term plans instead of constantly wondering when funding will run dry.

“[Through the selection process], we looked at what technologies have the greatest chance of success serving the Air Force mission, but they also had to have a commercial application and potential for long-term market viability. … Our investment company, Space Capital Colorado, looks for participant companies that are inherently driven by the commercial market rather than what the military or government needs.”

The first cohort is looking at enhancing the military’s ability to monitor terrestrial weather — “that’s weather assets or data from space; looking at what’s happening on the Earth,” Decker said.

After a nationwide selection process, six teams were chosen to participate. They are Springs-based companies Adaptive Systems LLC and XplotraX; Colorado-based Advanced Radar Co. and Guidestar Optical Systems Inc.; and California companies, Koolock Inc. and SaraniaSat.

Leaving the rat race

The idea of a Los Angeles startup coming to a Colorado tech accelerator might seem odd — Silicon Valley is right up the road — but SaraniaSat CEO Tom George says it makes perfect sense.

“California is a little bit of a rat race. In terms of a nurturing environment, there are just too many companies and not too many people who have the time and effort to take these companies with them,” he said. “You have some rapacious venture capitalists or accelerators who — Shakespeare would be proud of them — they will take more than their pound of flesh. And as a naive engineer who doesn’t know how to read all the legal small print, you get snookered into these things where you’re completely unaware of some of these nuances.

“I did go through some of those bad experiences. … Here is a completely different environment. Maybe it goes with the spirit of Colorado, but I’ve found the spirit is to help rather than to take undue advantage of a company.

“I read through the history of the set-up [of Catalyst Accelerator] … I would say it’s a rather more humane approach to nurturing companies, rather than trying to make a buck off them.”

An engineer by training, George spent half his career working in NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. He left in 2005 and, after working in senior positions for a string of small companies, started SaraniaSat in 2016.

“The idea is to use satellites to acquire data that would be useful for farmers,” George said. “In California there’s all this talk about big data and Internet of Things, but it hasn’t made a dent in agriculture yet because the chief computer on a farm is the farmer. He or she synthesizes all of this complex information to decide what to do on a daily basis.”

SaraniaSat is tackling the problem of how to take a load off the farmer-as-computer, using data to indicate whether a crop is in danger long before trouble is visible. When plants are dying, it’s too late to take action. The second part of the problem: quickly prescribing a preventive measure, like water, pesticide or fertilizer.

“The interesting part is that in order to give a deceptively simple, actionable prescription to a farmer, there’s a heck of a lot of complexity on the front end that you have to acquire,” George said.

The plan is to use satellites to take pictures in different spectral bands — various parts of the spectrum can show whether plants are in trouble, and other parts can point to why.

“You then synthesize all of that information — and this is big data, I’m talking terabytes of data — and deliver that answer that says ‘Hey Joe, the southwestern part of your field is in trouble, this is why it’s in trouble, so you might want to spray that next time you walk there,’” George said.

Handling terabytes of data, synthesizing it and delivering solutions quickly are critical pieces. It’s the non-tech parts of the puzzle George struggles with, he said, and that’s why SaraniaSat applied to the accelerator.

Genius is not enough

“You have a clever idea and you may be a genius; it doesn’t matter because unless you translate it into a product that somebody’s willing to pay for — and there are a lot of nuances that go with that — there’s no way in hell you’re going to get there,” he said.

“What most people don’t realize, because they’re so enamored with their own genius, is that it takes a village to transition an idea into something that is a viable product. In my case I’m missing the business aspects, the legal aspects, the marketing. This is an extremely well set up organization in that sense, in terms of offering the complementary skill sets that you need.”

The accelerator is a collaborative effort between Catalyst Campus; the Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization; and the Boulder Small Business Development Center, in partnership with Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center and Colorado Springs SCORE.

“It’s a phenomenal partnership between private and public organizations,” Decker said. “For us, this is one of the biggest programs that we’ve been able to produce at the Catalyst Campus using several different partnerships with organizations.”

Through the accelerator, the companies have direct access to operational weather experts from the Air Force and other government agencies, as well as the Catalyst Campus, SBDC, PTAC and SCORE National network of mentors, partners and investors. They also receive immediate capital of $15,000 from Space Capital Colorado.

Catalyst Accelerator is partnering with the Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate on the inaugural Terrestrial Weather Cohort.

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