Fostering technical innovation is a key goal of the annual Robotics Alley Conference & Expo, hosted most recently this past December in Minneapolis. In that spirit, the 2015 event fielded a new competition for tech start-ups to pitch their business plans to gain publicity and possibly secure investment capital.
Three entrepreneurs presented their business plans to a panel of four venture capital judges in the inaugural edition of the “Invest in Innovation” competition. The event proceeded in a brisk, businesslike manner. Each of the three aspirants won encouragement and a promise from panel chairman Tommy Kenville for individual reviews and referrals to venture capitalists in their business sectors. Kenville represents Valley Angel Investment Fund, an angel investment group headquartered in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Other panel members were Rick Lowenberg, President-Owner of RSR Electric, LLC and President of Minnesota Elevator, Inc.; Emily O’Brien, President, Center for Innovation at the Dakota Venture Group; David Russick, Founder, Managing Director, and Board Member of Gopher Angels, LLC.
Competitors were allotted 12 minutes each and presentations were moderated by Lynne Osterman, Managing Director of NanoVox. The entrepreneurs fielded questions from panel members and the audience at the packed breakout session.
Entrepreneurs vying for investment dollars were Scott Schwalbe of NimbeLink, a Plymouth, Minn., company that employs cellular modems for Internet of Things-capable devices; Gary Wishnatzki of Harvest CROO, a Florida strawberry farm owner with suppliers in multiple southeast and northwest U.S. states seeking funding for a robotic berry-picking device; and Sameer Kumar of HabitAware, a Minnesota-based start-up that markets a proprietary bracelet designed to help people modify body-focused repetitive behaviors such as hair-pulling or skin-picking.
Kumar lead off the presentations, introducing the electronic bracelet designed to alert users when they are engaged in a behavior they have identified as undesirable. Kumar said an individual’s stress-related incidents of hair-pulling lead him to design the device, which provides feedback to the user to help them discontinue the behavior. He expects to officially launch the business in 2016 based on pre-sales gained at a recent trade show. Kumar asked the investors for $600,000 to help fund operations and development.
Persons who engage in body-focused repetitive behaviors often are unaware of the event while it’s happening, Kumar said. Once the bracelet is calibrated, it monitors the incidents, and buzzes to alert the user that they’re engaged in the undesirable behavior. These reminders and background analysis of the context when the behavior occurs help the user to curtail the behavior, he said.
Gary Wishnatzki of Harvest CROO Robotics introduced his robotic strawberry harvesting device. He said he represents a growers group that produces about 13 percent of the U.S. strawberry harvest. A prototype machine is already being tested at a growing site in Florida. The self-propelled robotic device features vertically mounted picking wheels designed to harvest berries gently, without bruising. Sensors select only ripe berries for harvest. Strawberries ripen on plants about every three days and, once picked, do not ripen like some other fruits. This demands a harvesting schedule sequenced at precise intervals. Harvest typically requires an average of 40 passes per season.
Strawberries are treated as an annual plant and the device also is configured to plant strawberries at spaces for optimal growth, he said. The industry needs a solution because berry harvesting represents one-third of production cost and there’s a shortage of farm workers.
Wishnatzki said his next prototype will have 16 picking heads, effectively replacing the labor of 25 workers. He predicts his berry-picker will result in a 10-percent yield increase, with less bruising and reduced use of pesticides and plastics. Startup investment thus far has been $10.3 million and his team has applied for two patents. He asked the panel for $1.5 million in Round B funding to advance development. Each berry-harvesting unit is priced at $400,000, is diesel-powered, and manufactured in Tampa, Florida.
Scott Schwalbe from NimbeLink showcased his company’s core product, the Skywire cellular modem designed for use in multiple remote monitoring settings. His product is already on the market.
While the Skywire cellular modem is the company’s centerpiece, 30 percent of NimbeLink’s 2015 business came from customized applications, he said. Schwalbe requested $2.5 million from the panel, for which $1.5 million would be allocated to sales and marketing, $600,000 would be used for commercialization of verticals, leaving $400,000 as a cushion for ongoing business needs.
Panel Chairman Tommy Kenville thanked the participants and congratulated them on their tightly structured presentations. He also invited each to confer with him for potential funding or referral to venture capitalists from their respective business sectors.