In November, Hannah Parsons was CEO at tech accelerator Exponential Impact, Natasha Main was CEO at Peak Startup, and entrepreneur Josh Phifer was solo at the helm of Barn Owl, the Springs-based remote surveillance startup he founded.
Just a few weeks later, Main is executive director at XI and Parsons is chief revenue officer at Barn Owl — which was one of XI’s 2018 startup alumni, and is now part of the new XI Amplify program.
It sounds complicated, but Parsons said it worked out perfectly.
“I knew when I started at Exponential Impact, way back, that I wanted to do it for two years — that was my agreement with Vance [Brown, founder of XI and CEO of the National Cybersecurity Center]. When we started, I told him I’d do it for two years — that was how long it would take to get us to the point of hiring an executive director. And two years to the day is when our first executive director [started].”
Parsons wanted to go back to the private sector — she points out that while she’s best known for her nonprofit work, it represents only a four-year stint in her career — so she started looking for the ideal role.
“I wanted to go somewhere small and in the private sector where there is a lot of opportunity for growth, where I could make meaningful contributions to the growth… ,” she said. “Knowing that Josh was entering a season of growth with Barn Owl, and I’d had the opportunity to get to know the company since they came through in 2018, I asked him, ‘What would you think of this?’”
Phifer, a former fighter pilot who still serves in the Air National Guard, was on board.
“Hannah’s obviously a huge addition to the team,” he said, “especially since we’re turning some focus towards government enterprise markets.”
Barn Owl automates the monitoring of remote and mobile assets with an AI-powered surveillance platform, and has been awarded a $240,000 Advanced Industries grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and Trade. That funding will help develop an inexpensive camera that government agencies and small- to- mid-sized businesses can use for surveillance in urban and rural settings. The aim is to have the camera ready in May 2020 and begin marketing it in the summer.
“Ultimately we want to develop a new product that’s the best-in-class solution for surveillance with a specific focus on remote industries: oil and gas, agriculture, government applications. You know, you can get great surveillance solutions for buildings like this,” Phifer said, gesturing around the XI Venture Center, “but you go outside the city and there are hardly [any] options.”
Barn Owl has intermediate revenue goals with its existing product and will still serve the agriculture industry, Phifer said, but Parsons is coming on board at the ideal time to help them explore opportunities in different industries.
“Specifically, the way I’m coming into it is to see how much we can expand revenue on the existing product through e-commerce and other distribution channels,” Parsons said, “and while we’re doing that, that gives the team time to develop the second product and start developing relationships with government partners, strategic partners, enterprise partners … to then have a market to roll that second product into.”
The expansion is possible, Phifer said, because it’s not just agriculture that has surveillance needs in remote areas.
“There’s oil and gas, there’s construction companies out there, there’s government security,” he said. “We’re starting to do some testing with the Air Force for base security. Yes, they have base security at the main base but sometimes it’s a 50-square-mile base, and there’s nothing around the perimeter.
“And that’s the world I know — I came from Las Vegas, where southern Nevada essentially is the base. There are all these highly classified, very expensive assets all over southern Nevada, and people are literally driving around in trucks every day, just to make sure there’s no trespassers out there.”
TECH: FARM TO FORK
Among the companies in the XI Amplify program, which targets more advanced startups, Barn Owl is not the only one spreading its wings.
Bytable Inc., also an XI 2018 alum, was awarded more than $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Promotion Program and an additional $600,000 in matching funds. Bytable, which aims to boost knowledge and confidence about food production by using blockchain technology to trace food from farm to fork, was one of 42 organizations awarded the funds — and the only entity in Colorado.
With the grant, co-founder Jacy Rittmer said, they’ve got “big plans to change the way Americans view the food that ends up on their plates.”
Over the next three years, Bytable will create a regionally focused food system that supports growth for food producers who specialize in ethical, regenerative and sustainable meat production.
“Bytable will support at least 20 small-scale food producers by providing them with desperately needed affordable USDA-inspected food processing, fulfillment, and marketing services, in addition to growing the ecommerce aspect of the business, Bytable Marketplace, which connects these small producers and family farms to consumers anywhere in the United States,” Rittmer said via email.
“Bytable Inc. was founded on an idea that would once have been considered a pipe dream in the industrialized American food system and supply chain we know today — comprehensive supply chain transparency, increased market access for family farms who raise high-quality, sustainable meat, and choosing to do the right thing for the consumer and the environment every single day.”
SPARK MINDSET GROWS
Spark Mindset — which graduated with XI’s 2019 cohort and is staying in Colorado Springs thanks to XI Amplify — is also expanding its horizons and finding success.
The startup, which uses technology to build bridges to cybersecurity careers for low-income and minority high school students, has just been named a Louisiana Course Choice Provider.
Louisiana Course Choice allocates funding for career and technical preparation and advanced coursework not available to schools due to limited resources.
It’s a big deal, founder and CEO Lawrence Wagner said, because schools that need Spark Mindset programs will now get state funding to cover the tuition.
“That’s not just in New Orleans, that’s all of Louisiana,” he said. “They provide us with 50 percent up front and 50 percent when the school year ends.”
The project-based programs will be available to any school, he said, but Spark Mindset is targeting low-income schools that would otherwise be unable to afford them.
To accommodate the growth, Spark Mindset will open an office in New Orleans, where in 2019 Wagner spent three months running a pilot program with high school students.
“We have this huge opportunity to grow in Louisiana and we still have this opportunity to continue to expand in Colorado — and I can’t be in both places at once,” Wagner said. “That expansion will allow us to not only target Louisiana but the surrounding states like Mississippi, Alabama — and we’re looking at Georgia, potentially looking at going into Texas.
“We’re also looking at states that have similar programs [to Louisiana Course Choice]. It’s about taking the burden off the schools and actually allowing students in low-income neighborhoods to get this training,” he added. “If a school wants to pay for it — a charter school or private school — that’s fine. But our focus is always going to be on low income.”
Low-income and minority students represent a huge untapped resource for the cyber workforce pipeline, Wagner said, and Spark Mindset is focusing on ways to subsidize costs while still allowing the business to scale and grow.
“As we look for investors, we’re looking for investors who understand that social impact is first and scale is second — they’re neck and neck, but if I’m not impacting the students, then to me, why are we in business?” he said. “Yes, we know we have to make money and I know I have to make a return all my investors’ investments, but I won’t sacrifice the impact on the kids.”
Wagner recently graduated from a six-week online accelerator program called Founder Gym, which trains underrepresented founders in raising money to scale tech startups, and Spark Mindset was named on ColoradoInno’s “20 Colorado Startups to Watch in 2020” list. His next goal: to raise $500,000 in the first quarter of 2020.
“My No. 1 priority from January to March will be really raising that money,” he said, “then hiring, building a team, and when XI [Amplify] is over, moving out into another office.”
Barn Owl is also focused on a fundraising round this quarter, Parsons said.
With the OEDIT grant, “Barn Owl is required to match at least $240,000,” she said. “The goal is to raise closer to $750,000 to $1 million in a seed round, first quarter.”
While they’re certainly open to investment from outside the Front Range, Parsons said, “a strategic angel [investor] in this region would be ideal.” And investors interested in startups aren’t as scarce, close to home, as they used to be.
“We have definitely seen an increase in the number of people who want to invest in these follow-on funds that we’re getting to work on,” Parsons said.
Some, she said, “have probably been here all along, doing their own thing,” but there are “definitely some new players.
“And for the first time, in all my time working in the entrepreneurial space, I’ve now heard people who are investors in this community talking about the percentage of venture in their portfolio — and I’ve never heard that before,” she said.
“In the last six to 12 months, I’ve actually heard people talking about having ‘a 5 percent representation of venture’ in their investment portfolio. I think that’s a huge difference, having people acknowledge that and understanding that they can do that here.”
As she takes the reins at XI, Main sees the same progress and promise in the Springs.
“XI is succeeding and growing — and gaining that traction is a huge win for us,” she said. “We’re realizing there’s some lasting power here. Our startups are doing really well in getting investment or growing on their own profitability, and we’re seeing that they are doubling down and doing well here. … The community’s really strong and we’re really starting to see that momentum and more concrete ways that startups are really able to survive and thrive here.
“I think what we’ve needed are these success stories,” she added, “for us to show that it’s possible for people to get really excited and believe that what we’re doing is working. … I think it’s the fact that we invested in the longer term version of people and that the community wants these startups to succeed as well.”