Future Focused

Founding a web-based company requires a visionary premise, exhaustive research, a devoted team and a gift for gab. Oh, there’s one more necessity—a daunting leap of faith. Meet five Iowa companies that are up and running strong.

Written by Colleen Bradford Krantz

Driving past industrial neighborhoods, I’ve often wondered about the companies whose consonant-packed, futuristic-sounding names are attached to the buildings. When asked by ia magazine to report on Web-based businesses popping up around Iowa, I got an unexpected chance to satisfy my curiosity.

Before long, I realized that those neighborhoods housed some farsighted, tech-savvy entrepreneurs—people whose launches were known across the country and even the globe, but not to me and perhaps not to many other Iowans. Here are five prime discoveries.

1. Syncbak Inc.
Marion

By 2009, Jack Perry, now 48, had held tech positions at various companies and run his own software-related business. He concluded that the one big, desirable feature missing in a world increasingly filled with mobile devices was Internet access to live broadcast television. He set out to change that. However, broadcast television is a tangle of licensing rights and network arrangements and deals with local advertisers. To bring local news and other live programming to mobile devices, Perry had to persuade all the interested parties—and there are several hundred—to agree to his scheme. He founded Syncbak Inc. as its CEO, and went to work. Perry recalls meeting with stakeholders at networks and studios for a solid year: “I’d say, ‘Here’s my plan, and if you like it, I’ll build it.’”

Perry made an agreement with his wife that if anyone told him no, he’d shut down Syncbak and get a real job. Because he never was turned down, he faced the challenge of bringing his plan to life. Syncbak’s technology is meant to “localize the delivery of television on the Internet, and make sure the advertising you see is from advertisers around you,” Perry explains, talking by cellphone from his fifth-grade son’s track meet at Marion’s Indian Creek Elementary School.

Hulu.com, a popular site, provides access to television programs but doesn’t include a full schedule of live shows. Many of Perry’s competitors who’ve tried to launch live Internet television have been stalled by legal troubles. Syncbak, on the other hand, is already helping 70 stations in 40 metro areas complete the early stage of becoming Internet broadcasters. These stations’ viewers will be able to watch live programs on their tablet computers or mobile phones. And currently, another 198 stations are ready to come on board. (In Iowa, the Cedar Rapids/Waterloo market will probably have the first access to live broadcast television.)

Industry pundits have vetted Syncbak: Harry Jessell, editor and co-publisher of the website TVNewsCheck, posted a story last May about how viewers will soon be able to watch live television on their mobile devices practically anywhere. To make this all work, Jessell wrote, “broadcasters have to come up with a mechanism restricting their online signals to their over-the-air markets. … Fortunately, I think there is such a mechanism—the technology developed by Syncbak.”

The company’s work force numbers around 20, but by the time you read this, Syncbak probably will have hired another 30 people. Media like the Financial Times and USA Today have begun calling Syncbak lately, eager for updates. “Finally, the world is waking up to the fact that Internet television is a reality,” says Perry.

2. GlobalVetLINK LC
Ames

It used to be a daunting process to move animals across state lines. Required health documents varied from state to state, creating a lot of extra work for veterinarians or owners.

In 1999, Kevin Maher founded GlobalVetLINK LC to replace traditional documenting processes with new, digital animal-health software. Maher certainly had the background for his venture. He’d spent three decades in animal production and related animal-health technologies. For six years, he served on the National Institute of Agriculture’s board of directors.

In 2001, GlobalVetLINK established a Web-based system in Florida to provide the legal documents required for transporting animals. As of two years ago, it had persuaded the rest of the states to join. Heather Van Lin, the company’s food animal product manager, says GlobalVetLINK needed to get all 50 states’ approval because they impose the requirements and are responsible for tracking disease outbreaks. That approval process took 10 years.

Next, the company hopes to expand from the United States toward global animal-health reporting, with a digital system for any necessary paperwork. “We don’t offer any global products yet, but they’re definitely on the horizon,” Van Lin says.

Other companies and government agencies are doing something similar to GlobalVetLINK’s software, notes Dr. Randy Wheeler, Iowa’s assistant state veterinarian. But GlobalVetLink supplies a few advantages. Unlike the federal government¹s system, GlobalVetLINK provides a help desk that is available at any time, Wheeler says. And at this point, he continues, “they’ve set the standards.” GlobalVetLINK now holds the health records of 172 million animals.

3. BettrLife Corp.
Clive

Before he conceived BettrLife Corp., Don Schoen, 60, had developed an inventory-tracking product for grocery stores and built a company around it. So when smartphones came on the scene, he thought he’d be well-positioned to create a food-shopping application for consumers.

In June 2010, he pulled together a team to work at what was then called BuyerCompass. The group came up with an app and showed it to grocers. But then, says Schoen, all those retailers announced that if they didn’t get exclusive rights to the app, they’d develop it on their own.

Schoen and his team wanted users of their app to be able to shop at a variety of grocery stores, not just one company’s. Instead of giving up on that idea, they decided to revamp and rebrand it. Early in 2012, they announced a new company: BettrLife Corp.

A beta version of the BettrLife app was available for free downloading as of this magazine’s deadline. It combines an array of features that other apps offer only one or two at a time. These include menu planning, grocery lists, food logging, pantry contents tracking, exercise logging and a fitness profile that encompasses everything from allergies to preferences for foods with specific nutrients or health features. The BettrLife app also “learns” its users’ shopping habits and gives suggestions or reminders based on those.

Adam Introna, a Coralville chiropractor who also works with his patients on general nutrition, has tested the beta version of the app. Introna, who writes a blog called “Functional Nutrition Doc,” says other programs exist with similar features. But BettrLife has one outstanding option, he believes: Users can list him along with their other doctors as an adviser. That listing permits him to go online and look at a quick-glance chart. He can check up on patients there—and send them encouraging emails.

4. WebFilings LLC
Ames

WebFilings LLC was founded in 2008 with the idea that companies could purchase its cloud-based product to simplify their external financial reporting. This product makes it possible for multiple users to work simultaneously on documents required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

WebFilings’ premise might sound elementary, but this start-up is gaining attention—and clients. CEO Matt Rizai says WebFilings now serves 35 percent of the companies ranked among the Fortune 500. In one year, it has expanded from 170 staffers to more than 430. Rizai and his group are preparing to build a new 60,000-square-foot headquarters to house future additions.

The SEC requires publicly traded companies to file quarterly reports. The documents involved in those filings are complex and typically require input from a large number of company employees. In the past, the tedious need to pass the documents from person to person left room for errors if changes made by one contributor weren’t noted by others. Because WebFilings’ technology lets all contributors see what their colleagues are writing, they should spend less time completing SEC materials.

Rizai, 56, hails from Chicago. He and some of his cohorts at WebFilings previously ran Engineering Animation Inc., an Ames-based company that, among other things, produced animations to illustrate testimony in court trials. Engineering Animation went public and was acquired by Unigraphics Solutioins Inc. in 2000.

Their previous experience proved invaluable as Rizai’s group developed WebFilings. Support from the state of Iowa—grants and other financial incentives—also helped. Rizai feels the state’s investments are paying off: “We’ve performed really well for them in terms of growing our company and making hires.”

Does the impressive roster of corporations signed up for WebFilings’ product mean that more major players will fall in line? Peter High, president of Metis Strategy LLC, a business and information technology advisory firm in Chevy Chase, Md., observes that businesses vary widely when it comes to embracing new technology. High, author of “World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs,” says companies or professionals surrounded by other, perhaps competing tech innovators tend to jump in more quickly. Such boldness won’t always pay off financially, but sometimes it does—in a big way.

5. Mechdyne Corp.
Marshalltown

Mechdyne Corp., founded in 1996, claims several major “firsts” in the area of high-end visualization, which is the creation of computerized, photo-like representations that are often difficult to distinguish from the objects they depict. The company, viewed as a champion in the arena of three-dimensional imagery, is expanding its arsenal as more competitors enter the 3-D fray. Mechdyne now describes itself as a general technology provider, using its signature visualization solutions along with freshly conceived ideas to address a wide range of business problems. “We work with our customers interactively,” says Senior Vice President James Gruening. “Sometimes we recommend a software solution, sometimes a hardware solution. Often, it’s both.”

Gruening says Mechdyne tells its customers, estimated at 500 businesses, to think of them as a 21st-century IBM—a trusted, deeply proficient adviser on technical components. Some customers have responded that Mechdyne isn’t a lot like IBM. It’s appealingly smaller, at about 130 employees, and much more nimble. Allison Doyle, marketing manager at Iowa State University Research Park in Ames, is familiar with Mechdyne and agrees with its clients. She says the company’s expanded applications do indeed result in greater flexibility for tackling customers’ challenges.

Gruening, 41, founded Mechdyne with three other men who worked part time at Engineering Animation while in graduate school. CEO Chris Clover’s father owned a building in Marshalltown where they could get started. Today, about half the company’s work is outside the United States.

Colleen Bradford Krantz is a journalist, author and filmmaker. She wrote and co-produced a documentary, “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation,” that was nominated for a regional Emmy award. Krantz also wrote a companion nonfiction book of the same name (Ice Cube Press, 2011). She has recently founded SkewTutor.com, a website that examines bias in journalism. Follow Colleen on Twitter @BradfordKrantz. Her personal website is ColleenBradfordKrantz.com.


Who needs Silicon Valley?
Iowa’s tech sector “is in an absolutely boom phase,” says Leann Jacobsen, president of the Technology Association of Iowa (TAI). “Iowa employers state that there is zero unemployment within certain job titles.”

The following numbers are from 2009, but “I would suspect the numbers are similar today, as this industry survived the recession better than others,” Jacobsen says. The TAI plans to commission an updated study within the year.

Key figures:
Nearly 77,000 people work in Iowa’s technology industries, representing
3.8 percent of the state’s total workers.

Jobs at technology firms on average pay $50,779, which is 48 percent more than the state norm for all jobs. Total employee compensation is nearly $4 billion.

The state’s technology companies generate about $14.3 billion a year in revenue.

Technology firms have a total economic impact on the state of about $22.7 billion.

Source: “Estimating the Economic Impact of Iowa’s Technology Industries” (2009), by Dave Swenson, associate scientist in the department of economics at Iowa State University.

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