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VOL. 126 | NO. 149 | Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Growing Innovation

Organizations help develop entrepreneurs’ ‘raw ideas’

By Andy Meek

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The investors have been courted. Early-stage companies are about to enroll in the next round of a local training program.

Aaron Prather, CEO, and Rachel Smith, chief operating officer, of stiQRd work in the launchpad of LaunchMemphis and the Seed Hatchery. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Customers for newly formed companies are being targeted, and new apps that promote fresh uses for everything from quick response (QR) codes to virtual graffiti are rolling out to the public.

Thanks to a large group of people – visionaries, investors, code developers and entrepreneurs both starry-eyed and intensely driven – the seeds of a tech-inspired future for Memphis have clearly been sown. It’s involved laying the groundwork the same way any gardener would and building an environment where those seeds of entrepreneurship can grow.

With a little luck and some patient cultivation, area leaders such as Eric Mathews are hoping those seeds can be transformed into a full-grown garden.

Anyone at Tsunami in the Cooper-Young neighborhood last week for the July “Memphis Tech Cocktail” would have seen many of those “planters” in action. Such cocktails and get-togethers are staged around the city to bring together innovators, entrepreneurs and the tech-savvy to talk shop.

In some respects, the future of Memphis business was in that Midtown restaurant.

That’s Mathews’ plan, at any rate.

“The journey we’re embarking on as a community is a 20-year effort. You can’t just flip a switch and say, ‘All right, this community is going to be entrepreneurial,’” said Mathews, the former associate director of corporate research and development at the FedEx Institute of Technology.

Today, he’s the co-founder and president of LaunchMemphis and the co-founder of Seed Hatchery, complementary and innovative organizations that support entrepreneurship in different ways.

“You have to build the human capital assets,” Mathews said. “They have to succeed and fail and tinker a little bit. Then they have to get capital. Some of them are going to fail along the way, and some of them are going to succeed.”

Seed Hatchery, a for-profit venture fund for tech start-ups, is gearing up for a new round of its new 90-day program that’s part training session and part Boot Camp for budding entrepreneurs.

Organizers of six innovative new companies went through the program earlier this year, culminating with an Investor Day – a series of pitches to potential financial backers – in June.

Six or so will likely go through Seed Hatchery’s next round. Mathews said applications will be released in September and that the program will accept applications for a couple of months after that.

The next batch of Seed Hatchery companies will kick off their program in January.

“It’s a three-phased approach,” Mathews said. “The first 30 days is about the discovery process around the customer, the product, things like that. The next phase is around delivering on what you discovered. The final phase is the dollar phase, and that’s around building an investable story.”

Those stories were centered around companies like stiQRd, which is signing up customers fast and furious for its mobile-phone app of the same name that uses QR codes to replace paper-based punch-card and loyalty-card programs.

Choomogo offers cellphone and digital device charging kiosks with interactive touch screens at universities and other high-traffic venues.

Krikle has created a smartphone app to let users create virtual graffiti specific to and accessible from one physical location. It lets users, in other words, leave their mark on the world – literally.

“Another use we are in the preliminary stages of exploring is city walking tours,” said Krikle chief marketing officer Angela Copeland. “Another idea that we have considered is using the technology for something similar to geocaching, or a real-life scavenger hunt.”

Work for Pie is a startup that will help score technical talent online for those seeking or offering jobs in specialized fields.

Smarter City will use a digital network to provide information about the availability of parking spaces through the use of digital sensors.

Obeedo, now called Ernie’s, will offer a drive-thru-style grocery store from which customers can pick up groceries they ordered online.

The Seed Hatchery program’s benefits also include offering what Mathews described as “rock star” mentors to the group of participants. And the participants are provided $15,000.

“So those three M’s – the money, the mentors and the milestones – represent our investment into each one of these companies,” Mathews said.

Separate from Seed Hatchery, the city’s entrepreneurial-minded community also is getting a boost from organizations such as EmergeMemphis and LaunchMemphis, the latter of which is an independent nonprofit venture Mathews also is involved with.

It’s one of really three groups in the EmergeMemphis building Downtown. There’s EmergeMemphis, which is an incubator for companies that already can do things such as pay rent, that already have funding and already have customers.

“I focus on everybody that can’t be in an incubator,” Mathews said. “Everybody that’s got a raw idea. And that’s where LaunchMemphis and Seed Hatchery come in.”

He said LaunchMemphis, which hosts a variety of events such as networking meetings and investor forums, is ramping up its systems. It’s planning more workshops, such as one in partnership with Hutchison School that will be a series of public events to educate teachers and get students exposed to entrepreneurship.

Mathews described LaunchMemphis as a kind of sandbox for innovation. And via those and related efforts, he’s inviting as many people as possible to step into that sandbox to see what they can create.

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