Breakfast Series report: Idaho Tech Trends

Sharon Fisher//February 23, 2021

Breakfast Series report: Idaho Tech Trends

Sharon Fisher//February 23, 2021

photo of boise startup week
Boise Startup Week in 2019. Photo by Sharon Fisher

We learned this year just how dependent we were on tech, when we all started working from home and Zoom became a transitive verb.

Idaho’s tech community — also known as the entrepreneurial and the startup community, because it’s not always about tech — has been one of the bright spots in the economy in the past year. People paying thousands of dollars for a sliver of an apartment in Seattle or the Silicon Valley realized they could come to Boise and actually buy a house. We’ve also seen a number of major investments and acquisitions in the past year — two big ones already this year, Kount and Appdetex.

On Feb. 9, the Idaho Business Review held a virtual Breakfast Series panel to discuss these issues and more with a group of technology experts.

The Breakfast Series Panel

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Nick Crabbs

Nick Crabbs, partner and founding member of Vynyl

Vynyl is a product development firm that works with corporations, institutions, and investors to build unique mobile, web, applications that are technically excellent, visually appealing, and create real & measurable business value. Prior to his work with Vynyl, Crabbs spent nearly a decade working for some of the nation’s largest banking institutions, local municipalities, and large enterprise environments as an IT specialist and manager. Embracing his more entrepreneurial endeavors, community engagement and tech evangelism Crabbs has worked with several start-ups, local community organizations and leadership with large-scale events to leverage his knowledge and expertise in technology, management and recruiting to judge events, offer mentorship, speak on panels, and contribute to a growing tech and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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Denise Dunlep

Denise Dunlap, co-founder and managing partner of Sage Growth Capital

Dunlap  has a record of successfully building and operating companies as well as coaching startups and entrepreneurs. Two of her former roles include CEO of an IT services company and director of Boise State University’s business incubator. She has been an active angel investor and leader in the angel investment community since 2008, and travels the country teaching angel investing courses as an Instructor for the Angel Capital Association’s Education program. She co-founded Loon Creek Capital Group in 2010 and has grown the company to provide consulting and administrative services to hundreds of angel investors across the country. In 2019, Dunlap co-founded Sage Growth Capital, a fund that makes revenue-based investments in a wide variety of companies that need growth capital but are not a fit for traditional bank or equity financing. She holds a BBA from Boise State.

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Amy Gile

Amy Gile, co-founder and CEO, Silverdraft

Gile began her career in the media and entertainment industry in multiple aspects of the industry including actor and producer.  She identified a need in the industry for a better solution for production and for the artist. The demands of rendering, animation, and visual effects required a sophisticated approach to computing. She knew that there was a better, faster way to bring complex content to the masses.  She co-founded Silverdraft and has dedicated herself to building the highest performance compact supercomputers on the market for various industries including automotive, and media and entertainment.  She is a TEDx speaker.  

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Rob Poleki

Robert Poleki, CEO and founder, Washie

Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Poleki was an elected official in Bannock County. He has worked in the government sector for over a decade, primarily in social services. He decided to take a leap of faith with a toilet seat idea he had while taking his four-year-old son to a public restroom. After filing for a patent in 2015, a patent was issued by the USPTO in 2018. He decided to quit his job as an elected official to begin his entrepreneurial journey with his new company, Washie. Washie sells and creates innovative products for public restrooms with their feature product, Washie Toilet Seat, launching 2021.

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Tiam Rastegar

Tiam Rastegar, executive director, Trailhead Boise

Born in Iran and raised in Germany, Rastegar came to Boise in 2000 and lives there with his wife and two children. Rastegar received both his undergraduate and Executive MBA from Boise State University. He has wide-ranging experience in sales, marketing, product and program management, mergers & acquisitions, and other areas at Boise startups since the early 2000’s. He currently leads Trailhead as its Executive Director, Boise’s nonprofit hub for entrepreneurship and startup incubation.

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Brad Frazer

Moderator: Bradlee Frazer, partner, Hawley Troxell

Frazer chairs the firm’s Internet and Intellectual Property Practice Group. In addition to emphasizing and focusing on all facets of internet law, intellectual property law, and information technology law, he also helps clients with related transactional work and litigation.  He has also written extensively for national legal publications and law blogs, and is a frequent speaker on internet, intellectual property, and computer law topics and is a regular guest lecturer at Boise State University on those subjects. 

Responses to the questions have been edited for length and clarity.

Amy, talk to us just a little bit about Silverdraft’s involvement in the recent Super Bowl.

Amy Gile: Absolutely, yesterday was a little bit of a stressful day. It is hard kind of sitting on the sidelines, I guess you could say, to make sure all the tech goes well, but what we have been doing, especially since code is a lot of crowd simulation and VR graphics within the live broadcast. So yesterday at the Super Bowl, our computer ran all the crowd simulation and all the VR graphics that you saw, if you actually got to watch the Super Bowl, that the amount of compute was pretty significant. Racks and racks. And basically we took a specific Demon architecture that we use for AR and we were in partnership with Silver Spoon for CBS Sports. It’s been an exciting journey to see the AR come across a live broadcast, similar to similar to what we did with Madonna when we did that at the Grammys where she danced with multiple versions of herself, but this is full crowd simulation, so most of the crowd that you saw — there was only about 20,000 in the stands, and then the rest was crowd sim and then there was some cardboard cutouts that they used from, you know, a financial incentive kind of marketing piece, but it was a fun show and it’s always good when it’s out there.

Denise, let me turn to you. If you’re able to talk about this — we’ve seen it in the press — can you talk to us just a little bit about your recent investment in eTT Aviation?

Denise Dunlap: For those of you that have been around the Boise tech scene for a while, you’re probably familiar with this company. It was started by Tom LaJoie, and he has pretty much bootstrapped the company for a number of years, and has wanted to continue with that way, which is great. He’s certainly one of those companies that could go out and get investment dollars just about any day of the week that he wanted to. But he has chosen not to do that, for his own reasons. So he approached us about funding — actually we had talked to him at the very beginning, when we launched Sage Growth Capital back in 2018, he was a part of the group and he had approached us about that, you know, so he could bring information back to that group. And we so he was familiar with what we were doing and we’ve, you know, known each other professionally for a lot of years.

So when he approached us and said, ‘Hey, you guys, would I be a good fit for this?’ we said yes. The reason that they were searching, you know, looking for funds is they had acquired another company that would enable them to increase their development capacity. And so, he really needed some funds to expand that team and really be able to take advantage of that opportunity that was presented to him. So yeah we invested. We’re super excited about it. There’s certainly a possibility that will do more with him, later on, if he needs it, and we’re pretty excited to be supporting a home grown company.

You know, every day you’re on the ground in Trailhead talking to startups. If you’re able to, Tiam, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot, what have you seen come through the door in the last few months or weeks that’s got you excited? Have you seen anything really cool come through the doors at Trailhead?

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One of Sage Growth’s investments, Killer Creamery, makes keto ice cream with no sugar. Photo courtesy of Idaho Department of Commerce

Tiam Rastegar: Matter of fact, one of the exciting developments recently at Trailhead is the return of one of our early-stage startups, Killer Creamery. So Louis Armstrong is the founder. He went through, I believe in 2016, a program by the name of ‘Idea set go’ and then followed on and completed another program called ‘Startup now.’ Long story short, he graduated out of Trailhead and launched his business and now he’s returned to Trailhead North with some recent venture capitalist money that he’s raised, and looking to approach the scaling side of his business. So it’s always nice for us to see, a member graduate, go out, build the business around the idea, you know, build the team around the business and then come back and look to scale, you know, on a similar note.

Both programs that I just mentioned in passing were launched by Jeff Reynolds, who was very instrumental in the early days of Trailhead as a program director. And Jeff and I are working on bringing back ideas that go, so it’s sort of a coincidence that both a former graduate and alumni is returning to Trailhead that benefited from those programs. But I’m really excited to announce, right here for the first time, that we’re bringing both of those programs back in April of this year.”

Nick, what’s got you excited at Vynyl? What new things have you seen in the past little while that have your team excited?

Nick Crabbs: Something that’s really great is there certainly was outside venture capital, money that that funded, you know there’s a couple of rounds there that happened this last year, but that’s a story of our community funding somebody. I mean, largely a huge pool of what funded Killer Creamery was investors, right here in Idaho. And so you know we’re seeing more and more of that behavior. We saw Fitted have two rounds and this last year, both their seed round and then also they did a Series A, with Epic Ventures leading on their Series A. And so we’re seeing more and more local companies getting funded with local money through, you know, really a patchwork of angel investors and different entities. I’m really excited to see that trend kicking up during a pandemic, right? When you would think it would be the opposite, people would be holding on their capital, not looking to make investments.

So Rob,  I’m going to ask you to tell the story you’ve probably told a thousand times. Walk us through from the conception of the idea through the invention through the launch. How did you get from that that epiphany, that moment, to now you’re ready to launch a product? 

Robert Poleki: I graduated from Idaho State University, with a social work degree. I started my career in social work. Never been in business. I have zero experience in business, and when I have this idea I just decided to dive in right? You can do this. Anybody can do this, Googling and YouTube and asking for help from people in your community and that’s how I’ve done this.

I was in politics, I was a clerk of the District Court in Bannock County and you know, I’m a guy with tons of ideas. And one day I’m sitting at my desk and I look at my idea list and I’m saying, you know what, if I don’t do this idea, somebody else is going to do it, and I’m going to be sitting on the couch and I’m going to see this idea on TV. So I decided to go at it.

I came up with the idea when I was in the Salt Lake City Airport. My four-year-old son was doing the potty dance. We were standing in line at the restroom. A stall opens up, and, you know, we encounter a dirty toilet seat. I clean it down for him, I put on a paper toilet seat cover and he’s like, ‘no, I’m not sitting on that.’ He’s four years old, right? So I grab some toilet paper and some soap and I cleaned it down so it’s clean, I put him on and he takes care of business and that’s where the light bulb idea comes on.

photo of devops days
DevOpsDays Boise in June 2019. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Nobody has added any kind of innovation, to the toilet seat or to paper toilet covers in the longest time. So I decided to make it smart as well, so now our toilet seat communicates with an app that tells maintenance crews ‘okay, I’m low on battery, I’m low on cartridge’ and it also does that with every restroom accessory, paper, paper towels, toilet paper rolls. Everything that’s in the restroom is now smart.

I never would have imagined it, right? But I went on the show Shark Tank. And I made it very far. We were about three weeks from filming, I was getting my set ready, they were going over my pitch and they had told me I needed to quit my job because I couldn’t be an elected official on the show, running for office. And so I quit my job. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m all in. If I’m going to make it on Shark Tank, I’m going to be an instant millionaire.’

That’s what I was thinking, but yeah that didn’t work out, right? They cut me. They cut me a week before I go on. You know, it was the first biggest punch in the gut that I ever had as an entrepreneur, and I was depressed for a few weeks, but I got up and you know I told myself, ‘I’m going to make this happen.’ So two years later, we are finally launching our product.

COVID, it has blessed us and cursed us. Everybody is trying to be clean now. There are so many people knocking on our doors for our toilet seat. But manufacturing and production, because of COVID, there’s been so many delays for us, it’s been so many design changes, things that I wasn’t aware of, as you know, because I’m not an engineer, and I had to do this, all by myself.

But I’ve gone through them, you know, jumped through the hoops and finally got a new product coming on a ship, so we’re there. You know, it’s been a roller coaster, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

To view a replay of this Breakfast Series panel in full, go to https://idahobusinessreview.com/breakfast-series/