Gener8tor Demos Latest Startups, Growth of Local Scene

Thursday night’s closing event for gener8tor’s winter startup accelerator program in Madison, WI, was an indication of the progress made since January by its five new graduates. It was also a microcosm of how Wisconsin’s overall startup community has grown in the past two years.

More than 400 people packed Madison’s Barrymore Theatre to listen to pitches from the latest class of early-stage companies: Driblet Labs, Edison DC Systems, LivBlends, Men’s Style Lab, and Review Trackers. That’s the highest turnout so far for a gener8tor event, co-founder Troy Vosseller told Xconomy, and the fact that the program attracted a “who’s who” of Wisconsin investors, entrepreneurs, and government officials speaks to the cachet that gener8tor has built since its 2012 founding. On hand were Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. chief operating officer and deputy secretary Ryan Murray, and prominent Milwaukee investors Jeff Rusinow and Don Layden, to name a few.

Layden, an operating partner with Baird Capital’s venture capital group, has personally invested in gener8tor portfolio companies EatStreet and Catalyze, a startup that also received money from Baird. Layden met with gener8tor’s latest group of companies earlier in the three-month program, and their evolution was evident to him last night.

“The quality of the companies coming in continues to get better,” said Layden, an Xconomist.

Some Madison startups have looked to accelerators outside the state over the past few years, including Murfie, Drifty, and Snowshoe, which all participated in Techstars programs around the country. As gener8tor continues to improve, more Wisconsin companies will try to get in, but some won’t make the cut because the program will be more selective, Layden said.

“That’s a positive,” Layden said.

The accelerator took five companies out of 380 applicants, a 43 percent spike from the 265 applicants in the previous class in Milwaukee last summer.

In total, gener8tor says it has invested in more than 20 startups that have attracted almost $20 million in outside funding and created nearly 100 full-time jobs. The program is still in the early stages when compared with more well-established accelerators like Techstars and Y Combinator, and gener8tor still needs to prove itself with exits by portfolio companies.

But for now, supporters of Wisconsin’s startup community say they are glad that gener8tor is here—one of the ingredients contributing to the growth of the Badger State’s still-nascent tech scene.

“I think there’s still a scarcity of pre-revenue…early-stage startups” in Wisconsin, Rusinow told the crowd before introducing LivBlends on stage. “But it’s good to see the emergence of angel funds, incubators, and accelerators.”

Without further ado, here’s a recap of the startups’ pitches from last night:

—Driblet Labs, whose co-founders are relocating the company from Mexico to Wisconsin, has developed a patent-pending smart water meter that aims to be the Nest of the water industry. Driblet’s self-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled device measures the temperature and volume of water pumping through a pipe, then sends the data to the cloud in order to help homeowners and businesses better monitor and conserve their water supply, said co-founder and CEO Rodolfo Ruiz. But the Driblet device isn’t exclusively for water tracking. Beer-making behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev has shown interest in using Driblet to “measure how much beer is being consumed right at the tap” in bars, Ruiz told the crowd. The device will retail for $129, and Driblet is aiming to sell 10,000 units worldwide this year.

—Grafton, WI-based Edison DC Systems is trying to help solve a problem that dates back to the late 1800s and the “war of currents” between Thomas Edison, an advocate of a direct current (DC) power network, and Nikola Tesla, an alternating current (AC) proponent. “Edison was ultimately right in this discussion, but the technology and the capacity was not there to harvest DC currents” at the time, Edison DC Systems co-founder and president John Meinecke explained. Today, computer microprocessors need DC power, but they’re fed from an AC power system. Meinecke’s company has developed a patent-pending, modular AC to DC converter that delivers power more efficiently to IT server equipment, a solution that he says could save data center operators like Rackspace—which racked up a $27 million electricity bill last year—millions of dollars over time. Edison DC Systems has drawn interest from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, and Goldman Sachs, Meinecke said.

—LivBlends wants to be the “Keurig machine for smoothies.” Co-founder Matthew Udomphol, an MIT grad and robotics whiz, says the startup has created a healthy and convenient option for the on-the-go professional looking for an alternative to Jamba Juice, Naked Juice, or the sugary snacks often found in office pantries. Making a smoothie from scratch can take 20 minutes, but LivBlends cuts that to 30 seconds with its patent-pending smart blender and a single-serve cup pre-packaged with fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Insert the “LivPod” into the “LivBase,” press a button, and voila. LivBlends is focusing on selling to offices before it goes directly to consumers, and it is currently delivering 1,000 smoothies per week to seven offices in San Francisco, Udomphol said.

—Most men want to look as suave as actor Bradley Cooper, but their effort level and fashion sense often leaves them looking like Zach Galifianakis with his satchel and tucked-in T-shirt in “The Hangover,” said Derian Baugh. That’s where Baugh’s Des Moines, IA-based company, Men’s Style Lab, comes in. Men sign up on the company’s website and answer a series of questions to determine their “style DNA,” then pay up front for a package of clothing, shoes, and accessories ranging from $250 to $1,750. The box is shipped to the customer for free, and he can keep what he wants and send back what he doesn’t. Men’s Style Lab has more than 30 brands in its repertoire, including Fossil, Levi’s, and Steve Madden. It has more than 200 customers and has generated more than $90,000 in sales in the past three months. Baugh acknowledged that Men’s Style Lab has plenty of competitors, including Chicago-based Trunk Club. But where Trunk Club goes after higher-end consumers, Men’s Style Lab is selling less expensive clothing to a larger target market of “everyday guys,” Baugh said.

—Review Trackers founder and CEO Chris Campbell opened his pitch with a photo of a sign outside a New York City restaurant that had a message written in chalk: “Come in and try the worst meatball sandwich that one guy on Yelp ever had in his life.” The restaurant made light of a bad review, but it’s no joke for businesses: studies have linked a Yelp rating that decreases by one star to a 5 to 9 percent loss in revenue, Campbell said. His Chicago-based company has created an online platform that helps customers monitor and better understand the thousands of reviews and comments about their businesses floating around the Web. Review Trackers is on pace this year to sign up businesses that collectively have more than 20,000 locations, including major brands like Chili’s, Subaru, and Universal Orlando Resort.

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