Startups to Watch: Managing funding and personnel challenges

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

Editor’s note: The City Wire has consulted with people closely affiliated with Northwest Arkansas entrepreneurial programs to compile a list of the five entrepreneurial startups to watch in 2014. Our goal with this effort is to document as much as possible about the ups and downs and other directions a new venture may take as it struggles to prove a product, service or both. Link here for the initial story in the series.

Travel, office moves and adding product lines have kept the days busy for the management at Picasolar, DataRank and Ecovet – three of the five startups followed by The City Wire in 2014.

Travel has been the name of the game for Picasolar executive Douglas Hutchings since The City Wire’s last update on the Fayetteville-based solar startup. Picasolar’s focus is on technology for N-type solar cells.

“We visited our equipment partners (Roth & Rau which is part of the Meyer Burger group), presented our work at the SunShot Grand Challenge (as a SunShot awardee), and attended Intersolar (a major industry event). We are participating in the state-wide Energy, Jobs and the Economy workshop for candidates and elected officials of the Arkansas legislature which is taking place in Bentonville, Arkadelphia, West Memphis and Little Rock in the coming weeks. To top it off we will be making a road trip to visit our partners at Georgia Tech at the end of the month with a stop in Tennessee to meet with a potential investor,” Hutchings said as he caught his breath.

He sees the company’s participation in the workshops as a way to engage decision makers at the state and local level to raise awareness of the jobs in the advanced energy sector.

Hutchings shared that the technical part of the business has also been fast and frantic but has resulted in some new opportunities and a few challenges. He said the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a third party have validated the company’s ability to use less silver with its N-type solar cells.

“Will get final reliability testing in the coming days and have developed a full cost model for equipment that we would like manufacture locally,” Hutchings said.

He said closing the funding round is taking longer than he had hoped.

“We are working through the details with top-notch folks inside and outside Arkansas and anticipate it being finalized before the next update,” Hutchings said.

Picasolar recently recruited Rick Schwerdtfeger as its new chief operating officer “who has successfully executed our business model in an adjacent industry,” according to Hutchings. He said the startup continues to look for talent to add to its small team.

“We are starting to run into resource restraints to take advantage of all the opportunities that have arisen due to the progress above. We have had to focus on the highest priority partnerships and avoid spreading ourselves too thin,” Hutchings said. 

DATARANK
The past two months have been busy for DataRank CEO Ryan Frazier and team who recently moved their big data firm to uptown Fayetteville, from a smaller location on the downtown square.

Frazier said the company continues to add new supplier customers to its growing client base each month.

“We are finishing up a new dashboard application and plan to launch that product subscription in August,” Frazier said

The dashboard feature will integrate online consumer data from social media feeds, to chat and blog forums that helps suppliers and retailers hone in consumer attitudes and sentiment about certain products, stores and shopping experiences.

ECOVET
Ecovet management said the company continues to add new sustainable furniture products which are handcrafted by veterans while they continue working toward college degrees.

“Our sales are increasing since getting our furniture on SamsClub.com and we continue to add a few new products to the mix. We are working to get the product in other retailers, but it’s too early to report on that at this time,” said Andrew Bogner, manager of the Springdale manufacturing center for EcoVet.

He said the company continues to do road shows with Sam’s Clubs and is looking at growth potential outside of Northwest Arkansas.

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Because the business model uses reclaimed wood from discarded semi-trailers, finding enough trailers locally has been challenging, Bogner said.

“We are looking other facilities expanding to Las Vegas and along the Mid-Atlantic region from the Carolinas into the Northeast, where there is an abundance of veterans and discarded trailers,” Bogner said.

He said the company is looking for a second location in Northwest Arkansas. Ecovet has custom furniture pieces on display at Mixed Manner in Springdale, located at 103 West Emma Ave., and several products are also sold online at Sam’s Club.

Link here for the recent update on Fayetteville-based Oh Baby Foods and Overwatch, a company managed by a recent high school graduate.

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