Digital Sandbox funds tech startups; three are owned by UMKC faculty and students
Digital Sandbox KC, the proof-of-concept center started by the University of Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center as part of its KCSourceLink program, has funded projects for 37 area technology startups including three with UMKC faculty and student connections.
These fledgling businesses got more than just funding. Entrepreneurs received coaching, mentoring and networking opportunities through Digital Sandbox and its partners, including the UMKC Small Business and Technology Development Center.
Here’s a glimpse at three of these businesses — a commercial drug-development problem predictor, a public safety app that will be tested this summer on the UMKC campus and a student-opportunity matching service.
UMKC Biology Professor Gerald Wyckoff is chief executive officer of Zorilla Research, a computerized system that helps predict problem interactions of a drug in the early stages of development. This enables the developing company to repurpose failed compounds earlier in the process and prevent costly late-stage drug trial failures.
Currently, the failure rate for new drugs is 87 percent. That means nearly nine out of 10 chemical compounds identified as potential drugs fail at some point on the path to approval.
The current trend in the pharmaceutical industry is toward shifting risk to smaller discovery companies. Wyckoff says that is a smart choice because these companies are more tightly focused. However, market conditions have made it harder for these companies to negotiate successful deals, often even with compounds that are successful in early tests.
Zorilla Research intends to serve small to mid-size discovery companies by increasing their success rates and facilitating more efficient use of their resources. With Zorilla’s SABLE structural analysis technology, clients can predict problem interactions in early stages of development, and potentially recover compounds that have moved into later phases.
The market for computational tools in drug discovery is about $500 million a year in the U.S., and growing at about $200 million annually. Estimates for the cost of taking a drug to market range from $500 million to $1 billion per drug, with a timeline of about 15 years.
“Digital Sandbox has helped us move our product, SABLE, into a form that we can now sell commercially,” Wyckoff said. “We’re working right now to create a secure digital lobby for the software so we can start sales online. We’ve been able to work with excellent software talent because of the investment from Digital Sandbox, and this has helped turned our academic project into a business that, we hope, benefits Kansas City and the region.”
Jonathan Ruiz graduated this spring as an Entrepreneurship Scholar, a community-wide program from the UMKC Henry W. Bloch School of Management designed to prepare promising entrepreneurs with the skills and knowledge needed to launch world-class ventures upon graduation. Ruiz was well on his way with the company he co-owns, e-Beacons, which creates public safety apps.
“It sounds geeky but the name of the company and idea come from ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Ruiz said. Specifically from “Two Towers,” the second installment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, where beacons on the seven peaks of Gondor’s White Mountains are kindled one by one to warn Middle Earth that Minas Tirith has been besieged by the enemy’s armies.
“Watching that scene gave me the idea to apply that beacon system to real-life situations,” said Ruiz. “I figured something similar could be effective using web and mobile applications.”
Here’s how e-Beacons works: Using a smart phone mobile app, e-Beacons allows users to report when they need help instantly. For the web, e-Beacons shows public safety dispatchers the location and incident data in real time, filtering emergencies so trained staff can focus on the greatest need. The customizable system serves designated population areas including specific shopping centers and schools.
UMKC Police Chief Michael Bongartz says the public-safety application market is a competitive one, and he receives marketing information about such products frequently. But because e-Beacons is local and has some distinctive benefits, it will be tested this summer at UMKC.
“It has both emergency and non-emergency features,” Ruiz said. “A student could use the app on their phone to request a safe-walk escort on campus, for example. Teachers in a classroom could use it.”
E-Beacons will use the resources of Digital Sandbox KC to take the next critical steps to move their startup toward commercialization.
“Digital Sandbox and UMKC have been great,” Ruiz said. “Although we’ve got a long way to go, they’ve given me the resources to get started, including mentorship and access to potential investors.”
Evan Kirsch, another UMKC Entrepreneurship Scholar, has a lofty goal for the company he founded, FolioMatch.
“We’re trying to become CareerBuilder.com for students,” Kirsch said.
Matching students with job prospects is just one aspect of FolioMatch. It also pairs students — starting at the high school level — with volunteer, internship, scholarship and most importantly collegiate opportunities and connections.
Students sign up for free to create a digital portfolio by uploading projects and experiences through Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint, mp3 files and other formats. The electronic portfolio can be sent through email, LinkedIn or presented in person.
Students, colleges and businesses connect with each other through exclusive, private FolioMatch dashboards.
“It’s a celebration of students’ work,” Kirsch said. “Most of us have no way to document our educational experience and then turn it into a useful tool. In combination with basic interviewing skills, this really matches educational and professional experience with students.”
Digital Sandbox provided the funds for FolioMatch to create the front end of its website. Kirsch said the experience has been beyond beneficial.
“Working with Jeff Shackelford and Rebecca Gubbels, I received excellent long-term growth strategy and coaching,” Kirsch said. “With Digital Sandbox and the many entrepreneurial programs of UMKC, I received the kind of guidance and support I couldn’t have anywhere else.”
| Stacy Downs, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications