Inventive Startups Already Rolling
Check out this portfolio of new Alabama companies off and running with winning innovations and investor funding.
Josh Sahib and a friend created software company Brewery Buddy during a Startup Weekend event.
Enterprise Software for Beer
Brewery Buddy // Tuscaloosa
Josh Sahib was having a beer at a Tuscaloosa brewery when he came up with an idea for a new company that involved – what else? Beer.
The idea came about while Sahib, 34, and a friend were brainstorming for Alabama’s first Startup Weekend event.
“Those are held all across the world — Google is one of the sponsors — and back in September 2014, it was coming to Alabama for the first time and was going to be held in Tuscaloosa,” Sahib says.
Startup Weekend is an event during which teams develop a working business prototype, demo, or presentation by Sunday evening.
“You basically have 48 hours to build a business, and my technical co-founder and I had been working on an iOS game for several months, and when we heard about this competition, we wanted to do something new and different for the competition,” Sahib says.
That’s when he realized that a software tool for the growing craft brewing industry “could be a really good fit for the competition.”
Small and independent craft brewers saw a 6 percent rise in volume and accounted for more than 12 percent market share in the beer industry in 2016, according to a recent study by the Brewers Association, and the South had a significant share in that growth.
“That’s what we proceeded to work with, and over the Startup Weekend there was actually a little brew festival in town, and we were able to talk to a ton of brewers and kind of refine the idea and make sure that this was something that they might need in the industry and what some of the problems would be and what would really be beneficial. And we actually wound up getting first place in that competition,” Sahib says.
First place didn’t provide any funding, Sahib says, but it did offer a little bit of consultation time for accounting and legal advice, “So we kind of took that momentum forward toward an official company.”
That company, Brewery Buddy, is a software company with a product called Brew Pro. It’s a web-based brewery management platform designed to help automate the brewing process for breweries of all sizes.
“Our platform works on mobile devices, desktops, ipads, all those different things, and it helps them launch their brewery more efficiently. We have seen a lot of times when these folks, who are the nicest people you will meet, started out in their garages doing home brew, and they decided one day, ‘Hey, we want to open up a brewery,’ and they may still be managing everything with paper notebooks and white boards. There’s just got to be a better way, so we try to help with some of those logistics in terms of communication, efficiency, business intelligence, all those things and that helps them brew more beer, save on some of their costs, and just have more chance for success,” Sahib says.
Then, after the Startup Weekend competition, Sahib says, “We heard about the Alabama Launchpad competition.” Alabama Launchpad, sponsored by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, fosters economic development and entrepreneurial growth and spotlights early-stage business ideas and companies.
“It was kind of a long process but over the course of several months we continued to make it through the different rounds of that competition and we were able to get some funding from that — I believe that was April 2015 — and then just this past May, Launchpad was running a separate competition for alumni members and we were able to get some funding through that alumni round of the competition as well.”
Says Sahib, “We have been really well supported at the state level from the Launchpad competition. It is a little bit Shark Tank-like and they ask you some tough questions and they grill you and you have to have your numbers down and that was a really good experience for us, being a small startup company, and kind of helped us get our ducks in a row with our business plan and all of that.
“We also, just back in March of this year, went through the city of Tuscaloosa and we were able to receive some funding through their small business revitalization loan program and that was really beneficial for us.”
Brewery Buddy software is a service company, Sahib says. “So it is very common in the industry to just pay a monthly fee for access to the system. That gives us some stability as a business as well. We are bringing value to all those breweries that are using our system and for that monthly fee they are able to have access to a tool set that really helps their business run better.
“We are not public pricing but what I can say is that we are value based. If you are brewing, say, a thousand barrels a year, we are going to be a couple of hundred bucks a month.”
Extending On Time for Parkinson Patients
Serina Therapeutics // Huntsville
The New York Times has called actor Michael J. Fox “the most credible voice on Parkinson’s research in the world.” Some folks in Huntsville may run a close second.
Tacey Viegas, Ph.D., is CEO at Serina Therapeutics Inc., a privately held pharmaceutical company at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville. Serina has developed a new technology that, when approved, will improve the quality of life of patients, such as Fox, who suffer from Parkinson’s disease or another condition, restless leg syndrome.
“So let’s talk about SER-214,” says Viegas. “SER-214 is a polymer conjugate of the dopamine agonist. So what we are trying to do with this new drug, this new innovation, is to develop a once-a-week administration of this compound to continuously stimulate the brain in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome.
“Now, the current medications for these two diseases require multiple dosing a day — sometimes two times a day, sometimes three times a day. SER-214 is a once-a-week injection that allows the drug to stay in the body for long periods of time, continuously stimulating the brain, which is important in the case of Parkinson’s disease, because you want to maintain a constant dopaminergic tone.”
Viegas says people with Parkinson’s disease experience “on time” and “off time.” Symptoms are under control during on time and the symptoms re-emerge during the off time. “When I say good quality on time, I mean the patient can move, can function, as a normal individual for long periods of time, as opposed to having many hours of off time, which means the brain does not get stimulated and the patient is lethargic and essentially sits in one place and does nothing.”’
“SER-214, also in our preclinical studies, does not cause dyskinesia, the involuntary movement of the hands and legs, without the brain knowing that this is occurring.”
So, SER-214 has two functions, continuously stimulating the brain over the period of one week with one shot, and avoiding the formation of dyskinesia.
Viegas says the researchers have finished the stage one study in Parkinson’s patients and are making plans to start a phase two clinical study that will involve more Parkinson’s patients. The medication could be on the market in anywhere from three to four years, depending on the completion of successful clinical trials.
“We have come up with a better technology than the older one. And we think that this new technology brings a new perspective to the delivery of medicine, in terms of drugs that underperform,” Viegas says.
“The HudsonAlpha Institute has created an environment that allows us to flourish and do well.”
Mobile Smarts for Trucks
Fleetio // Birmingham
According to the American Trucking Associations, there were 33.8 million trucks registered for business purposes in the United States last year, including 3.68 million Class 8 trucks. Those trucks burned 38.8 billion gallons of diesel fuel and 15.5 billion gallons of gasoline and traveled 450.4 billion miles.
And Fleetio, a Birmingham-based fleet management company focused on mobile fleet management, is in the middle of the truck traffic and growing by leaps and bounds.
“Our CEO, Tony Summerville, started the company back in 2012,” says Lori Sullivan, the firm’s marketing director. “I think that first year we had our first 100 customers or so, and he began adding new people to the team in 2013 and 2014.”
Sullivan says Fleetio is one of Birmingham’s fastest growing companies, “with right at or over 100 percent growth in terms of revenue each year.
“The company started out as an incubator company at Innovation Depot and just earlier this year, we graduated and moved to our own office downtown on Second Avenue to a great, great location that will allow us to continue to grow.
“We have grown tremendously. Now, in 2017, we have customers in over 55 countries, around the world, and we now have two products out in the market and we are continuing to grow at a rapid pace. We have a lot of partners in the industry: huge GPS companies, huge fuel card companies, but we are always looking to grow our team, to grow our talent and to grow our customer base.”
Sullivan says Summerville’s father owned an electrical supply company and Tony Summerville saw the need for a more modern and efficient way to manage fleet vehicles, assets and equipment surrounding it, so he began planning Fleetio.
“When Tony started the company, he really bootstrapped it from the ground up. There was no investor capital, anything like that. He really built it as he went along, without outside funding.”
The company has two products: A fleet management software and Fleetio Drive, a smart phone-based GPS program that tracks drivers.
“We kind of beat people to that in fleet management. A lot of what we build now, a lot of features we introduce, and really the way we tie everything together, revolves around mobile, because if you think about it, the fleet and all the people touching the fleet, are mobile by nature – vehicles and assets are moving. ”
Sullivan says many of the country’s fleet management companies use installed solutions rather than web-based solutions. “We are the modern solution to fleet management.”
“In 2016, we raised $750,000 in funding, and that was from private investors in Alabama,” Sullivan says.
ABOVE Gene Capture’s Lydia Sandy (left) and Krishnan Chittur are developing a speedy way to identify infections in the human body.
SUPERFAST Infection Detection
Gene Capture // Huntsville
Like a lot of important innovations, Gene Capture is the result of a personal experience.
Dr. Krishnan Chittur, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, was present at the birth of his daughter, who was born prematurely. The attending doctor said the newborn might have pneumonia, and she was given antibiotics as a precaution. It took three agonizing days to determine she did not have pneumonia, and that led Chittur to think “There’s got to be a faster way to know if there is a germ in the human body.”
That’s where Gene Capture and CEO Peggy Sammon came into the picture.
“Gene Capture is a product development company, and we’re specifically focused on developing a portable infection detection system,” Sammon says. “There are a lot of instruments that identify pathogens in laboratories, but we are trying to develop something that can be used in a portable area, like a doctor’s office or a clinic or a cruise ship.”
Sammon says Chittur and a couple of other co-inventors discovered “a very novel way of identifying the genetic signature of an organism, and so I joined Krishnan, and we became co-founders of Gene Capture, and we presented a business plan to Alabama Launchpad. We won the grand prize for that competition, and that allowed us to start working on a prototype.
“Once we won that Alabama Launchpad, we raised some money from investors, in Alabama and other states, and we have been validating the work that we are doing with some local clinics for a contract with the Department of Defense.”
Sammon says that with the support of the DoD, the company is continuing to develop that product and one of their objectives “is having something that could eventually be in a backpack for military personnel in war zones.
“This kind of technology will be really useful for remote areas, emergency services, pandemic management and certainly Third World applications.”
Sammon says the company’s location at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology has been an important factor in the product’s development. “Being in this scientific and innovative community has helped us accelerate our product,” she says.
Gene Capture is a couple of years away from having a product on the market, according to Sammon, and is now at the point of validating the product in the lab, after which it will be taken to the Food and Drug Administration for clearance.
According to Sammon, it usually takes three days to determine what germ is in a human body.
“Our plan is to be able to identify a variety of pathogens in a human body in less than an hour. After a physician knows what the pathogen is, their next decision is what the right antibiotic is if an antibiotic is needed. This allows the physician to move to treatment much quicker.
“There are so many problems that can happen to people while waiting to find out what germs are in your body, and if we can solve that time lag, we can make a huge impact on patient health and on antibiotic overuse and co-infection.” Co-infection is the concurrent infection of a cell or organism with two microorganisms.
Sammon, who was born and raised in Canada, is a veteran in the startup area. Gene Capture, which is seven years old, is her fifth startup. The company has been funded through private investors, government contracts and Alabama Launchpad money, but so far, revenue has not matched investment.
Bridging the Home Health Gap
MD Mobile Care // Mobile
When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), formerly known as the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), began reducing Medicare payments for hospitals with excessive re-admissions, Todd Burkhalter, president and majority owner of MD Mobile Care Inc. in Mobile, saw an opportunity.
“The company was created to help hospitals and other providers and admission groups handle their transitional care,” Burkhalter says, “so we took the innovative approach to basically go and see the patient in their home with what is called a mid-level provider, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who can actively help the patient in terms of their care immediately when they are released from the hospital. The highest re-admission rates are in the first handful of days when they are first discharged from the hospital — they don’t understand their discharge summary, they don’t understand the medications they are supposed to be taking.”
Most people go back into the hospital, Burkhalter says, “because they are taking their medication wrongly — that has the highest incidence. It is called medication reconciliation, and that is a big part of what we do.
“Hospitals are accustomed to receiving patients and processing them; they are not accustomed or equipped for seeing patients outside their walls and providing care,” says Burkhalter, 53, who has a background in health care and private equity.
Two years ago, CMS began to create billing codes to encourage hospitals and other providers to provide care through what is called transitional care management, when a person moves from one health care setting to another, say from a hospital to a nursing home or hospice.
“Part of the way they motivated hospitals and other providers to take on transitional care is they began to penalize hospitals,” Burkhalter says.
“So they created incentives to encourage people to manage their transitions, transitional care management and chronic care management. We knew doctors and hospitals wanted to outsource this part of health care, because they fundamentally had to. They are not able to do it because it is so labor intensive.
According to Burkhalter, his company looks after the patient for 30 days after the patient has been discharged from the hospital and follows up with them with nursing calls as needed.
“We have a tele-health service, where we are talking with the patients on the phone, with nurses every week trying to help them continue to manage their care, because our motto is from hospital to home to better health.
“Folks want to stay at home if they can. They don’t want to go back to the hospital. It puts them at greater risk. They don’t want to be in a nursing facility, they don’t want to be in a rehab facility. So we are helping them get better at home.”
The other side of the business is called chronic care management.
“Let’s say you have a primary care doctor that you like, have used for years, and you go to him once every six months, but he wants to keep a closer eye on you. He wants to talk to you every month, but his office can’t facilitate that, because he is just too busy.
“Statistically, it is an 18-day wait to get in to see a doctor, so that’s why these companies are popping up to help people access care. So we are partnering with primary care physicians. We are helping the patients follow the physician’s care plan.”
Burkhalter says chronic care is an all-Medicare program. “Medicare has found that they have huge cost savings when patients are having interactions with their physician every month. Patients are more compliant, they are more aware of preventative measures, they are more aware of their medication refills and so on,” he says.
The firm, which is supported through private investors, has 24 full-time employees across the health care spectrum and plans to add more. Burkhalter says he expects moderate growth and plans to build a regional presence.
“The Baby Boomers will need this care and more patients will come into the system and need this service. I think there is a lot of upside,” he says.
Artificial Intelligence for Running Water
DRiY by Arklabs // Florence
Robbie Hillis was 37,000 feet above Iceland on his way home to Florence, Alabama after attending a conference in Portugal when his cell phone buzzed.
“I was using the Wi-Fi on Delta,” says Hillis, CEO and founder of DRiY by Arklabs, a mobile water monitoring and control device that uses artificial intelligence software. The device was telling him his house was using more water than usual. Hillis says he messaged his wife, who messaged back that the kids were out of school, hence more water usage. Alert dismissed.
DRiY by Arklabs, a Florence startup company incorporated in July 2015, came through a business accelerator in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Hillis says his company is now ready to go full speed.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average residential home loses about 10,000 gallons of water a year through dripping faucets, leaking toilets and other homeowner headaches.
“I haven’t really had an issue. What really spurred this device was, my 2-year-old daughter left on a faucet, in our downstairs basement bathroom. It ran for about 14 hours. It didn’t cause any damage, but I then started looking for a device or a solution that would prevent or let me know that was happening,” Hillis says.
The DRiY device can be installed in houses, apartments, condominiums, office buildings, hospitals, university dorms and many other places.
Hillis says one device will handle a house and is typically installed by a plumber who cuts the main water line to place the device. DRiY contains a remote shutoff and is powered by artificial intelligence that can be controlled through a mobile app. It will notify the user if there is a significant abnormality in water use and can shut off the water supply while notifying the user.
“Once you put it in, you download the app, and you set it just like you would a thermostat or a home security system and you can have as many devices set as you want,” Hillis says. “It monitors your water usage for about 30 days, and that’s why I say this is what makes us unique. Your house has a completely different pattern than my house. The device looks at the water flow over that amount of time. We can tell you a toilet flushes for 18 seconds and it uses 1.6 gallons, OK. Once the system gets smart, it can literally tell you how many times you ran your dishwasher, because a dishwasher has a unique pattern.”
Hillis says the most frequent issue for homeowners is when the flap in their toilet is stuck or jammed and the toilet keeps running. “If I had a penny for every story like that I wouldn’t have to build this device,” he says.
The company is concentrating on the commercial applications now because of costs. “What you look for is what they call building intelligence. What is my building telling me that I don’t know because I don’t have sensors, I don’t have feet on the ground, in every locale? You look at the building intelligence side of things. We think we know how many gallons of water we are using but we could make ourselves smarter by knowing how many gallons of water we are using.”
Most of the company’s funding so far has been through local angel money. “We were fortunate to find people who were with us at the beginning and have stayed with us. We have not had to go out and raise extra cash. We know that is probably inevitable, because we have an idea that can scale and we have attracted the attention of companies worldwide,” he says.
The company name, DRiY by Arklabs, is intentional. “We were just sort of playing around trying to understand a good name connected to water, if you will, and it sort of became apparent that we were going to build a device that kept people from having floods in their houses.”
Bill Gerdes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover and Meripol in Birmingham.