By Katy Spence
If you’ve read our report on entrepreneurship in Montana, you know that we live in a hotbed of startup activity.
This year, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is watching some promising tech and manufacturing startups in the Big Sky state. Experts at Next Frontier Capital, Frontier Angels, Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, MSU Blackstone LaunchPad, and UM Blackstone LaunchPad nominated early-stage companies they are excited about to help us create this list of eight startups to watch in 2018.
To select the finalists, we looked for companies with ten or fewer employees that fit at least two of the following criteria:
- Steep revenue growth and/or are working in a high-growth sector
- Poised to launch high-potential products or services
- Own or are developing valuable intellectual property
- On track to land major clients or enter new markets
- Plan to expand operations or add a significant number of jobs in 2018
- Have management teams led by experienced entrepreneurs or top experts in their fields
Here are our picks in alphabetical order.
Cowboy Cricket Farms, Belgrade
Founders: Kathy and James Rolin
What they do: Edible insect farm specializing in research for novel insect farming techniques and technologies
Why we’re watching them: More than just a cookie company, Cowboy Cricket Farms is developing technology that other companies can use to help farm large amounts of protein on a relatively small scale.
Kathy Rolin founded Cowboy Cricket Farms in 2016 during her time at Montana State University in Bozeman as a nutrition student. She met her husband and marketing director, James, in the Coast Guard.
Last year, Cowboy Cricket Farms won first place in the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge at the University of Montana, supported by the Blackstone LaunchPad at MSU. The team also earned the People’s Choice Award, the Intent to Launch Award and the Manufactured Product Award at the Startup Challenge and won second place in the 2017 Montana Small Business Development Center’s Shark Tank competition. James was named as one of Bozeman’s top 20 under 40 for 2018.
On Feb. 6, Cowboy Cricket Farms announced that they will be implementing automated modular bins into their operations. Not only will this technology increase efficiency, precision, and data tracking, but it has the potential to be purchased by other aspiring cricket farmers who hope to enter the fast-growing space of edible insects.
Founders: Fanny Astruc-Diaz, PhD, and Philippe Diaz, PhD
What they do: Biotech with an emphasis drug discovery in dermatology
Why we’re watching them: After procuring a contract with skincare company Rodan + Fields, DermaXon (pronounced der-ma-zahn) is about to start studies for new acne and anti-aging treatments for the multi-billion dollar company.
Founders Fanny Astruc-Diaz and Philippe Diaz are active research scientists at the University of Montana. Both natives of France, they previously held senior leadership roles in pharmaceutical research and development at Galderma and MD Anderson Cancer Center and are co-inventors on dozens of patents.
DermaXon recently hired their first CEO, Michelle Huie. A native New Yorker, Huie holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Huie has spent over 15 years in the healthcare industry in leadership roles in marketing, sales, and business development, and founded Vim & Vigr, a Missoula-based compression socks company.
DermaXon has received more than $900,000 in non-dilutive funding to advance two novel compounds. One compound is for neuropathic pain in cancer patients and the second is to treat ichthyosis, a rare skin disorder. With high-profile research in the pipeline and a stellar management team, DermaXon is going to break into the scene in a big way this year.
Elebase.io (Old Town Creative + Interactive), Whitefish
Founders: John Frandsen, Jennifer Frandsen, Noel Whelan, Austin Saucier
What they do: Backend as-a-service and content management system with geospatial capabilities
Why we’re watching them: Ten years ago, Whitefish-based Old Town Creative + Interactive released a mapping-integrated content management system which gained the company notable clients such as the National Geographic Society.
The company will be pivoting to Elebase, its new cloud-based, API-first Content Management System and ‘backend as a service.’ Elebase powers advanced web applications and mobile apps, and facilitates the creation and management of geospatial content. It allows developers to build advanced applications and websites faster.
The product is now in private beta, but it has already gained traction with new clients such as the European Union, UNESCO, and the National Park Service. The official travel planning site for the State of Maine, VisitMaine.com, is powered by the company’s technology and won best travel website in America from the US Travel Association.
CEO John Frandsen said Old Town Creative + Interactive is ready to make Elebase available to the general public in the summer of 2018.
Founders: Nick Shontz and Kyle Pucko
What they do: location-based marketing software
Why we’re watching them: While working for the University of Montana in Missoula, Kyle Pucko and Nick Shontz wanted a way to personalize web content for high school students visiting the school’s admissions page from different parts of the country. When they couldn’t find a tool to do it for them, Shontz, a software developer, and Pucko, a digital marketer who earned his MBA at UM, built the service to do it themselves.
GeoFli won third place and $5,000 in the 2015 John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, and Pucko attended Techstars Training Camp in New York City in November 2017 after being nominated by the UM Blackstone LaunchPad.
While GeoFli initially focused on providing personalized content and geotargeted marketing solutions for higher education, they’re branching out into different industries such as tourism and automotive retail.
To date, GeoFli has bootstrapped their business, focusing on providing an elegant user experience for clients and demonstrable conversion. Since its founding in February 2016, GeoFli has seen 180% growth year over year. The company is anticipating continued growth in 2018.
Founders: Jay Evans, PhD, David J. Burkhart, PhD, Helene Bazin-Lee, PhD, and Kendal Ryter, PhD,
What they do: Biotech company focused on the discovery and development of new therapeutics for allergy, autoimmunity, infectious disease, and cancer
Why we’re watching them: In 2016, a group of highly experienced scientists from GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines in Hamilton, Montana, launched their own company, Inimmune. In partnership with the University of Montana in Missoula, they retained more than $20 million in National Institutes of Health research contracts and equipment.
Inimmune has two full-time employees and 15 part-time employees through the University of Montana. The company anticipates significant hiring in 2018.
Co-founder and CEO Jay Evans is a Research Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences and Director of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana. Evans said Inimmune’s therapeutic platform can potentially treat many conditions, including allergies and cancer.
Inimmune has an active contract research business as well as early and late-stage pre-clinical research programs. In 2017, Inimmune won a $130,000 state grant from the Montana Department of Commerce, which was transitioned in 2018 to a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant of $176,000 from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
PinnaCal, LLC, Corvallis
Founders: Mike & Jessie Ellis
What they do: Calibration Services/Metrology
Why we’re watching them:
The Federal Aviation Administration requires aircraft tools to be calibrated every year and aviation companies spend a fortune sending the tools out-of-state or bringing someone to Montana to calibrate them
Mike Ellis came home from his job as an airplane mechanic one day and told Jessie that with her previous experience calibrating construction materials testing equipment, she should make the shift to aircraft tools. Now, PinnaCal is the only commercial calibration lab in Montana.
Since 2012, the Ellis’ have been slowly growing their company in Corvallis, ensuring that their brand has become synonymous with high quality and high precision. PinnaCal is considering hiring their first employee. With the guidance of Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, PinnaCal will start the ISO accreditation process later this year, which will allow them to expand into more industries including the calibration of manufacturing and medical instruments.
Founders: Joel Martin and Henry Vinson
What they do: Ticketing software
Why we’re watching them: Have you ever bought a ticket for an event months in advance only to realize the week before that you wouldn’t be able to make it? When you try to resell the ticket, you’re faced with a number of logistical complications that make the entire process a headache. Avid concert-goers Joel Martin and Henry Vinson decided it was time to fix the ticketing process.
With their new app, Sellout, users can buy tickets, resell them for face value, or join a waitlist to purchase a ticket, all in the same platform. Not only does this streamline the ticket purchase process, it entirely disincentivizes scalping.
The platform has the potential to gather user data, provide customized attendee experiences, and expand to other ticketed events like festivals, conferences, or athletic events. Martin and Vinson both attended Montana State University in Bozeman and bring business and marketing experience to their new venture.
Supported by the MSU Blackstone LaunchPad, they’re working closely with a team of developers in Missoula to develop the Sellout platform. Sellout’s beta client is Bozeman music venue Live from the Divide, and there are already plans for Sellout to service Bozeman’s annual Run to the Pub in March 2019.
Triple Tree, Bozeman
Founders: Sam Lucas and Paul Burton
What they do: Software Development and Product Management
Why we’re watching them:
Software companies often need support when launching new products. Sometimes, there’s an internal disconnect between development and business teams. Without proper communication and robust product planning, a business may end up going in two different directions.
This is the niche that Montana State University graduates Sam Lucas and Paul Burton are servicing with Bozeman-based Triple Tree. Burton is a full stack software developer, and Lucas brings a product management and business strategy background to the team. Together, they have identified a number of opportunities in software process and product management across the country.
Assisted by the MSU Blackstone LaunchPad, the team landed their first big client in RedOwl Analytics, a Baltimore-based cybersecurity analytics startup which was recently acquired by Forcepoint, a company based in Austin, Texas.
Officially founded in 2017, Triple Tree had exceeded six figures in revenue by the end of their first year. Lucas said the company is on track to triple that number by the end of 2018.
About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.
About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.