When Rise of the Rest founder Steve Case set out on a bus tour to find startups to fund in Albuquerque and Phoenix this fall, he wanted to find “great opportunities for inclusive entrepreneurship.”
He wanted to break the cycle of startup capital going to “the same kinds of people for the same kinds of ideas,” he says. “Everyone deserves a shot at the American dream.”
The AOL co-founder gave $100,000 to the winner of a pitch competition in each city along the tour, which also included Omaha/Lincoln, Denver and Salt Lake City.
But for the Albuquerque and Phoenix winners, the tale of their startups tracks back to two cities in India.
Raghu Kopalle, founder of innoBright Technologies in Albuquerque, grew up in Hyderabad, which he calls “the second Silicon Valley” of India, while Vivek Kopparthi and his NeoLight co-founder have known each other since their high school days in Chennai.
“With diverse populations, there is a real opportunity to level the playing field and provide opportunity for people of all backgrounds,” says Case.
Call it the tale of four cities, then.
Realizing a vision: ABQ’s innoBright founder a mid-life innovator
If you’re an entrepreneur, it’s good to be brave. But it’s also good to know when to be brave.
For Raghu Kopalle, founder of innoBright Technologies and winner of the Albuquerque Rise of the Rest pitch competition, bravery kicked in at mid-life.
That was after three advanced degrees and a long time soaking up the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. Growing up in Hyderabad, India, his only goal was to do his best in school and then work hard for someone else.
“My personality was not to innovate, not to question the status quo,” Kopalle says.
That changed Thursday night when Kopalle won $100,000 in the pitch competition – money that’s coming at just the right time to give momentum to innoBright, which provides fast, high-definition animation rendering. innoBright’s Altus denoiser software allows for computer-generated imagery and special effects that are 200 percent to 1,200 percent faster.
The technology is finding markets in animation and special effects, as well as architectural design, product design, manufacturing design and advertising.
Kopalle left India to come to Albuquerque in 1991 to get a master of science degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico. He worked for Intel Corp. after graduating, then got relocated to Santa Clara, California. Then it dawned on him, along about the time he was at University of California-Berkeley finishing a master’s in business administration in strategy and entrepreneurship in 2010-2012: He could start a company.
“I was always helping people realize their vision,” he says. “I needed to realize mine.”
When he had to decide where to locate his company, the choice was clear: New Mexico.
In Silicon Valley, the cost of running a business is significantly higher, about three times higher, he estimates. He knew he could find a lot of talent there, but that came with more expense.
“New Mexico truly has talent,” he says, noting the concentration of Ph.D.s and the innovation at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.
But his biggest a-ha moment was discovering ABQid accelerator. In May 2014, he had the innoBright technology and tested it with customers who called it a “no brainer.” With a product ready to roll out, Kopalle was thinking he might have to return to the Silicon Valley to find an accelerator. Then he saw the call for the first ABQid cohort starting in August 2014.
It was perfect timing. Armed with lessons learned from a first failed company, Kopalle knew this time he would need all pieces of the puzzle, not just well-tested technology. “A company, not a product,” he says.
Kopalle learned a lot from his first venture, which he describes as a Netflix for the diaspora. The market seemed huge – about 300 million people in the world are not living in the country in which they were born.
But the company didn’t come together, and he says he’s glad now, because even Netflix has had to pivot, improving its slim profit margin from streaming by adding original programming. The whole experience taught Kopalle that “you could be as passionate as you want, but you have to do something that people want and create a need, not just because it’s a cool thing to do.”
At 44, Kopalle is married with a 6-year-old son, who keeps him “quite busy” but also helps him unwind by going rock climbing or just “go jump in a pool.”
And that’s necessary, he says, because as a CEO, he describes his typical day as a fine balance between innovation, fundraising, marketing and customer discovery. “There’s no separation between personal life and work,” he says.
His big takeaway from Steve Case at Rise of the Rest was hearing the importance of getting the right team in place – when you achieve that, all complement each other.
And Kopalle has found that easy to do in New Mexico.
“Everybody knows everybody here,” Kopalle says. “In Silicon Valley, it’s so huge you can get lost. In New Mexico, you won’t get lost.”
The empathy cure: NeoLight founders hope to take medical device to developing countries
At NeoLight, the super secret weapon is empathy.
Yes, there’s the technology, says co-founder and CEO Vivek Kopparthi about what helped his company win first place in the Phoenix pitch competition at Rise of the Rest last week.
NeoLight cures jaundice in newborns using a portable, affordable device that is the size of two smart tablets. Existing technology is ineffective, bulky, expensive and hard to come by in Third World countries.
But the main problem, Kopparthi says, is that even in the United States, the existing technology takes babies away from their mothers for too long.
That’s why he says NeoLight provides care, not hospital treatment. Drawing on theory about attachment parenting that views skin-to-skin touch as vital, the NeoLight team decided to design empathy into the whole ecosystem around the device – not just how it works.
“You keep the baby right next to you,” he says.
The original inspiration sprang from empathy, too. Co-founder and chief technology officer Sivakumar Palaniswamy saw babies in a health clinic in New Delhi who needed care and couldn’t get it. Jaundice affects 60 percent of newborns worldwide, but what would be just a routine trip to a light-filled incubator in the United States isn’t readily available there.
Both from Chennai, the two friends have known each other since high school and came to the U.S. for the same reason – to attend Arizona State University.
The two of them got to work, tapping into all the resources available to them at ASU’s Tech Shoppe, manufacturing a device in 30 days. “ASU gave us seed funding, office space and free coffee – fuel for entrepreneurs,” Kopparthi says.
From there, they took the prototype to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, where they started talking to doctors.
Their focus had been on bringing the technology to the Third World, but what they heard astounded them. The United States needed it, too.
From there Kopparthi and Palaniswamy got connected to Dignity Health, the fourth largest hospital group in the United States, with 39 hospitals across the country. That led to connections with key opinion leaders, doctors and patent experts.
Kopparthi describes himself as someone with a warrior spirit. “They say it takes a village and a leg and an arm to do a startup,” Kopparthi says, then laughs a little. “I just made that up.”
They started NeoLight with no money in the bank. “We had no connections or contacts, except the school we studied in, our professors and our friends,” he says.
To define his team’s determination and ingenuity, Kopparthi turns to a favorite saying of entrepreneurs. “You jump off a cliff, and on the way down, you build a plane and you land,” he says. “We knew we could do this. We had the passion.”
For 18 months, it was all day, everyday. They watched their friends graduate and get jobs. They had standing offers for jobs, but they never opted for the easy choice.
It was because of those babies.
“What’s the most important thing?” Kopparthi asks, then answers his own question. Each day, 1,293 babies die in East Asia or Africa because of jaundice.
He knew that if he let up, when he woke up the next morning, 500 more babies would have died. That’s why he’s “evangelizing and catalyzing,” he says. “That’s where I get my warrior spirit.”
He credits the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Phoenix as key – with its access to ASU and the bioscience networks. Kopparthi wouldn’t think of locating his company anywhere else. “What you see here is the inclusivity. That’s what the city gives. That’s what we have here.”
Since its founding in August 2014, NeoLight has raised nearly $2 million in seed funding. For 2017, NeoLight is focused on federal approval and getting the device to the U.S. market, but with a real eye toward getting it to the Third World.
That’s why NeoLight has built in a conscious capital model – a one-for-one model like TOMS shoes. For every unit sold in the U.S. or Europe at full cost, NeoLight gives another unit abroad.
The founders – including Chase Garrett, vice president for business development – are entering talks with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and have already met twice with the Clinton Foundation. In March 2016, the Clinton Global Initiative University made the founders sign an oath that they would solve this problem.
Initial efforts will focus on the small northeastern state of Assam, India, which accounts for 60 percent of infant jaundice deaths in India.
The $100,000 from Rise of the Rest puts NeoLight within striking distance of its next funding goal for 2017. And it left Kopparthi very impressed with ROTR founder Steve Case.
“He’s a billionaire, and he’s the most humble billionaire I’ve seen in my life,” says Kopparthi, 26. “He talks about leveling the playing field, and making sure everybody gets a piece, not just Silicon Valley.”