Safety Light Startup Illumagear Wins Seattle Angel Conference

Illumagear, a Seattle startup that has developed a hardhat-mounted “halo” light to improve safety on construction sites, won a $100,000 investment at the inaugural Seattle Angel Conference. And not a moment too soon—founder Max Baker says the infusion will help him get to work on a new prototype of his product, tackle intellectual property protection, and even help keep a roof over his head.

Baker came up with the concept for Illumagear after being laid off in late 2009 from his job as a project engineer at an electrical contractor. He didn’t set out to start a new company with dreams of striking it rich as an entrepreneur. Instead, Baker says, he just wanted to find a way to stay involved with an industry he loves, and visit as many construction job sites as humanly possible.

“I can’t build a bridge. I can’t design a new excavator,” Baker says. “So I thought, well, what could I build with a hard hat?”

He eventually came up with the idea of ringing the headgear with a series of lights, both to make workers more visible and help them light up the area where they’re working. Baker spent about $500 on a prototype, and took it to safety officials in the construction industry. They weren’t impressed with its looks, but said the concept was worth exploring.

Money from family and friends paid for the next version, a plastic ring fitted with LED lights that slips onto a standard hard hat, emitting light that is bright enough to be seen from a half-mile away. After some more cold calls to construction companies big and small he had more interest, including a letter of intent from international company Skanska to buy 500 of the products per year.

Max Baker, Illumagear

The conference’s judges apparently liked those early signs of market interest, along with Baker’s enthusiasm for his product. For his part, Baker was a little surprised that he won a startup investment competition with a piece of hardware.

“I honestly can’t believe we got it,” he said after the competition. “I thought it was going to be software all the way.”

It was the first-ever demo night for the Seattle Angel Conference, a new initiative in the city that blends the formats of a pitch competition and an angel investment group. Investors contribute a few thousand dollars each to an investment pool, and startups apply to be sifted by the group during a multi-week due diligence process. The angel group whittled its group of 26 companies down to six finalists, who presented at Thursday’s demo day. The winner gets the entire investment pool, in the form of a convertible note, the terms of which were posted online.

The conference was spurred by John Sechrest, a former economic development official who helped establish a similar conference when he lived in Oregon. The effort is separate from established angel groups in the region, such as the Alliance of Angels, the Keiretsu Forum, and Zino Society.

The Seattle Angel Conference’s focus is on recruiting new angel investors, something that leaders in the Seattle-area startup scene often say is sorely needed. They’re not all newbies, however—the conference’s investors include active angels like Christina Storm, Charlie Kindel, and Robert Kapela.

Companies at the first Seattle Angel Conference spanned a wide spectrum of industries, from mobile application software services to new kinds of neighborhood grocery stores. Check out the other finalists here.

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