NewBoCo Launch Day in Cedar Rapids celebrates startup businesses

Local entrepreneur and consultant Scott Dix emcees the NewBoCo Launch Day event. Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

The fourth NewBoCo Launch Day event on Thursday night showcased four of eight startups that have gone through this years’ Iowa Startup Accelerator in the hopes of turning innovative ideas into a reality.

“I’m excited about the support that the community has given us,” David Tominsky, the Iowa Startup Accelerator managing director, said. “This is the fourth year and people are still showing up. It’s exciting to see other people share that enthusiasm.”

Over the past four years, the accelerator has worked with 32 companies, 19 of which are still active.

The accelerator is only part of the programming through the Cedar Rapids-based NewBoCo. The organization also provides training and support for existing businesses, trains teachers and provides camps and learning events to promote coding skills among Iowa students, has created Iowa’s only adult coding school, DeltaV, and organizes events such as EntreFEST, which celebrates entrepreneurial and innovative efforts in the Midwest.

This year, the four startups that presented on stage at Cedar Rapids’ Paramount Theatre included GOVRED, a group creating innovative law enforcement training techniques; Urbie, a platform for finding and ordering local produce and foods; Funeral Direct, a company to help educate and connect family members with alternative funeral services; and Noviqu, a platform to help manufacturers manage staff and machinery.

Tominsky said working with startups through the accelerator is a process of constant innovation, with each company bringing different needs and skillsets.

When deciding which startups to choose for the accelerator program, Tominsky said the idea that the business is based on is significant, but emphasized the importance of assessing the startup leadership.

“We think about the initial idea they have, but you very quickly get to the founders and the people who built the business,” he said, citing the importance of focus, agility, grit and execution among the startup staff.

“Today is a celebration of the work everyone has done this year,” Tominsky said.

Armani Goens, the CEO and co-founder Funeral Direct, showed photos of his grandfather during the group’s presentation — including photos of him sitting on his grandfather’s lap at the dinner table and a photo of his grandfather on a lawn mower. He said the inspiration for the startup came from having to plan his grandfather’s funeral, dealing with the expense and lack of individuality of the options available.

Funeral Direct co-founders Armani Goens and Chris Thomas spoke during the NewBoCo Launch Day event. Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

“We wanted to make something that would change the way funerals work,” Funeral Direct co-founder and CTO Chris Thomas told Little Village. “First, we made almost a Yelp for funeral homes, but the biggest problem was more personalized services.”

For example, renting out the Kinnick press box for an Iowa football fan or holding the ceremony in a local theater for a dancer or performer.

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The New York-based duo hopes to launch in Iowa, California, New York and Illinois next year, and will also work on providing educational materials to help people talk about their end-of-life plans.

“We want to make sure families have these conversations,” Thomas said. “As it stands now, it’s something that we as Americans are scared of, and the last thing you want is someone who doesn’t know you organizing your funeral.”

Another startup, Urbie, has united with three local food vendors — Urban Greens and Zaza’s Pasta in Iowa City, and Four Acre Produce based out of Alburnett, Iowa — to offer vendors a way to bring their foods directly to consumers.

“We went to a couple of farmers’ markets to talk with vendors to see if this was something there was a need for,” said Cedar Rapids native and recent Iowa State University graduate Jacy Rittmer, the co-founder and CEO of Urbie.

The nearly universal answer was: Yes. Many local food producers struggle to sell all of their foods. That food isn’t wasted. It’s often donated or used for compost, but that doesn’t help farmers’ bottom lines.

“Right now, there’s no way to sell it other than running all over the place to farmers’ markets or selling to grocery stores, which can bring other challenges,” Rittmer said.

She said the three vendors have worked with Urbie over the past few months to test out the platform and suggest features. During that time, the group also has been undergoing training and mentoring through the startup accelerator, which Rittmer said included the “gauntlet,” or pitching to about 25 groups in a week and getting feedback to hone their business plan and pitch.

Urbie will host a trial run on Saturday at NewBo City Market. Buyers can go online and place orders for pick up from 3 to 6 p.m.

Rittmer said she hopes the company will eventually expand to more locations. The company’s name, Urbie, was based on the goal of having the services based around urban hubs.