When successful entrepreneur Melanie Shapiro (’07 BFA, ’08 MBA) dreamed up her latest adventure, she knew just where to turn to develop and execute her idea. She called Bill Jones, then executive director of Venture Creations, RIT’s business incubator located on Tech Park Drive near campus.
She was ready, Shapiro told him, to return to Rochester and the supportive environment that she and husband Steve Shapiro ’04 (information technology) had found at Venture Creations when they developed and launched a social networking/instant messaging tool called Digsby. They sold the company in 2011.
“When I got the idea to start this (new) company, I was attracted to the RIT community because we have a really great network here and they are incredibly supportive,” said Melanie Shapiro. This time around, Shapiro wanted to develop a secure wallet for using the digital currency Bitcoin.
Shapiro is effusive in her praise of what Venture Creations has to offer: dedicated office space; introductions to potential funders; access to RIT talent; and opportunities to learn from experienced business people.
Those attributes of Venture Creations make it an “active model” of a business incubator, Richard Notargiacomo, interim director, explained.
Notargiacomo uses a manufacturing analogy to explain Venture Creations. “You’ve got raw material going in, you’ve got products coming out that are more valuable than the raw material, and you have some transformative processes inside the factory.”
Each company’s leaders are required to set quarterly goals and is assigned a coach from the Venture Creations staff, who meets with them regularly. The coach can help a company’s leaders think through ideas and challenge them, while recognizing that goals may change as the entrepreneurs learn, develop, and adjust their plans. A key, Notargiacomo explained, is that “we recognize the path from idea to startup to successful business is not linear.”
While the numbers vary as companies come and go, on average there are about 22 companies housed at or affiliated with Venture Creations at any given time. Companies pay rent and have access to copiers, conference rooms, etc.
Venture Creations’ track record is strong, having graduated 31 companies since 2003, creating more than 450 new jobs, and working with the entrepreneurs to get more than $65 million in investments.
“Measuring the unseen” is an apt motto for this company, which is making its mark in the world of brain injury science. Thanks to the company’s Blast Gauge System®, U.S. soldiers can get faster and more accurate treatment after suffering from a concussive event.
The Blast Gauge System is actually three sensors worn on the shoulder, chest, and helmet, which record pressure and acceleration from exposure to an explosive blast. By pressing a button, the sensor emits a green, yellow, or red light to indicate the level of exposure. Medical personnel can analyze data collected to determine any necessary treatment.
BlackBox Biometrics President Joe Bridgeford said the company is in the early stage of market penetration with the Blast Gauge System. The biggest client is the federal government, including a $9.4 million contract from the Department of Defense. BlackBox Biometrics also sells to other countries, including Australia, Sweden, Canada, and the United Kingdom to name a few.
The company employs about 20 people in some 4,000 square feet at Venture Creations, where the Blast Gauge devices are assembled, tested, and shipped.
Another BlackBox Biometrics product, the Linx IAS™ (Impact Assessment System), identifies player exposure to impact events and leads to better treatments of athletes suffering a concussion. The sensor weighs about the same as a nickel and is fitted in a skullcap or headband. Green, yellow, and red lights indicate the severity of the impact for quick assessment on the playing field. The sensor also transmits data that’s available via a smartphone or tablet app, so coaches and parents are alerted to all impacts to the head.
“You can correlate that data with what you are observing on symptoms and injuries, so I think we’re enabling a whole new level of research in the science of traumatic brain injury and concussions,” Bridgeford said.
The Linx IAS is being demonstrated on sports teams at the youth, high school, and collegiate levels, and is expected to go to market in 2016.
Venture Creations’ affiliation with RIT has been a big advantage to the company, Bridgeford said. Not only does BlackBox Biometrics have strong ties to RIT through its founder, David Borkholder ’92 (microelectronic engineering), but the company has had more than seven RIT students participate in co-ops, and more than half of its staff in the last four years have been RIT grads. BlackBox Biometrics also utilizes other RIT resources such as its Center for Electronics Manufacturing and Assembly.
The digital currency bitcoin is difficult to use and harder to secure, according to Case CEO Melanie Shapiro. She knows first-hand, having been a victim of bitcoin theft. Shapiro saw two key problems with bitcoin that needed to be solved: security and ease of use, because bitcoin transactions are irreversible.
Shapiro and Steve Schultz, Case Chief Technology Officer ’89 (computer science) and their team developed a product called Case, a device the size of a credit card that can be used to store, send, and receive bitcoin. Using Case involves three simple steps: pressing a button, scanning a QR code, and swiping a finger.
The security aspect involves three keys. One key is embedded on the device. When a user initiates a transaction, the device signs it with its key, and broadcasts that with minutia from the fingerprint to the Case server. Once the server verifies the fingerprint, the server signs the transaction with its key to complete the transaction. If the device should be lost, a third key sits in an offline vault, which is used to recover the bitcoins.
A key motivator for Shapiro in starting Case was ultimately to help people in countries with emerging markets that don’t have a stable financial system.
“There are a lot of people in Africa and South America who want to be paid in U.S. dollars or euros or pounds because it’s a stable currency,” Shapiro explained. “What if you had a currency that these people could use and oh, by the way, they could use their mobile device to exchange the currency.” By using a digital currency like bitcoin, people can carry their wealth with them.
Shapiro’s device can also facilitate other types of transactions, such as a notary or transferring stocks. Case’s initial offering of 1,000 devices, which are made in Upstate New York, sold out during the summer.
From transmitting images from space in order to help North Dakota farmers, to assisting in research to aid rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, FluxData’s cameras focus on finding solutions.
FluxData designs and manufactures multispectral and polarimetric imaging systems for a variety of markets, including defense, medical, agriculture, and environment. Located in the Village Gate complex in Rochester, FluxData graduated from Venture Creations in 2013.
FluxData was founded and is still led by a trio of RIT graduates: Pano Spiliotis, president and CEO (’99 imaging science and ’01 MBA); his wife, Tracie Spiliotis, CFO (’99 accounting and ’01 MBA); and Lawrence Taplin, vice president and CTO (’01 MS in color science).
When the company began, much of its business came from the Department of Defense and its contractors, due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While defense work is still a significant part of its business, FluxData has expanded into other markets, particularly medicine.
Several years ago, a University of Rochester medical researcher studying near infrared fluorescence imaging saw FluxData’s exhibit at Imagine RIT. A collaboration was born, and the result is a clinical trial to begin in the fall. Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers will have dye injected into their hands, and a FluxData camera will be used to illuminate the inside of the hands. “Our camera is very sensitive compared to the commercially available medical imaging systems that are out there today, and ours is not laser based,” which alleviates concerns about safety, Spiliotis said.
A notable success for FluxData occurred in 2011, when FluxData camera technology was used in the International Space Station Agriculture Camera (ISSAC) to take images of vegetated areas and transmit them to University of North Dakota faculty and students who developed ISSAC. The data was then used to help improve fertilizer use and invasive species management, among other issues. Although that project ended, the camera remains on the space station and NASA is considering using it again, Spiliotis said.
FluxData now has a number of customers in China, to the point that Spiliotis is hiring a director of operations to focus on maintaining clients’ automation color measurement systems. FluxData currently has 11 employees but Spiliotis plans a major expansion within the next two years, doubling or tripling the current staff of six engineers, plus growing the current office space to 10,000 square feet.