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Startup climate is ‘hot,’ but could be hotter

As published in the Idaho Mountain Express:

People move to the Wood River Valley from around the world for the mountains and the laidback lifestyle. Entrepreneurs are no exception.

    “We’ve got individuals that are recognizing that quality of life is pretty important,” said Harry Griffith, executive director of the nonprofit organization Sun Valley Economic Development.

    Griffith, who is managing the Oct. 6 economic summit in Sun Valley, said the startup atmosphere is “pretty hot right now” in the Wood River Valley. He noted that six or seven companies are interested in moving to the area, possibly bringing hundreds of jobs.

    Griffith said a major reason that Sun Valley and Ketchum are attractive for startups is because so much work can now be done remotely, allowing business owners to have fun in the mountains while developing products for buyers worldwide.

    Rick LeFaivre, a board member for Sun Valley Economic Development, said startups are important for a healthy economy and should continue to be fostered in the area.

    “I think any economically robust area has a strong startup culture,” he said. “We’re not going to be like Silicon Valley or Seattle … but we have a fantastic lifestyle.”

    LeFaivre works as a liaison between Sun Valley Economic Development and the Ketchum Innovation Center, a startup incubator to help new companies get off the ground. LeFaivre also helps mentor startups at the KIC, which rents space to budding companies and provides guidance and a place for those companies to help each other grow.

    Currently, KIC is housing and bringing mentorship to seven companies in its new, larger location on First Avenue in Ketchum.

    “I think it’s matched my expectations and exceeded what other people believed we could do,” LeFaivre said of the KIC.

    He would know. LeFaivre not only worked as a vice president for advanced technology at Apple, but he’s worked for 15 years in the venture capital arena, starting venture incubators like KIC in La Jolla, Calif., and Seattle.

    He said drawbacks in the Wood River Valley include the lack of workforce housing and the difficulties with attracting qualified workers to the area. Often, he said, talented young people head to hubs in California and Washington.

    “[A] challenge that any small area has is attracting talent,” he said, “but again, this isn’t some random place—it’s Sun Valley.”

Tough stuff

    Jack Rutherford was one of the many who went to Silicon Valley with his startup idea. He said he moved from Sun Valley when the demand for architects like him slowed down here. At that time, he had developed highly efficient insulation for buildings and thought he could use it as a business idea in San Francisco.

    Rutherford said he ran his idea by a structural engineer, who told him he had a good idea “and it’s going to work.”

    Excited about his prospects, Rutherford said he joined a startup incubator south of San Francisco. There, he started what would become Modula S, a company designing portable, autonomous buildings for extreme weather. He said the Department of Energy later confirmed that his building’s insulation was about 100 percent more efficient than any similar available product.

    “Our buildings work really, really well in the worst climates you can imagine,” he said.

    Rutherford said that in California he found positive feedback and a direction to take his company, but moved back to Ketchum two years ago.

     “I just like this place better,” he said.

    Rutherford said he then joined the KIC and worked on some major applications. One was to design medical shelters for the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Ebola crisis.

    He said medical aid workers treating Ebola discovered that their tents were starting to disintegrate under the constant treatments with potent cleaning products. Rutherford said the Agency for International Development chose his design as the best solution. He said his air-conditioned mobile clinic creates its own energy through solar panels, little of which is needed because of the effective insulation, and has antibacterial and antiviral surfaces.

    Rutherford said he talked with one of the doctors in the field who told him that the simple act of air conditioning a unit would save lives by keeping people from “losing too many fluids because they’re too hot.”

    Rutherford said his design was shelved, but his mobile medical clinic could be used to combat future illness outbreaks.

    “People don’t realize that we can do better,” he said.

    This isn’t the end for his buildings, though. Rutherford said he will soon be meeting with Department of Defense officials at the Pentagon to talk about developing his structures for the field. He said he’ll also be sitting next to some new partners, including Caterpillar Inc. and Booz Allen Hamilton.

    All the while, he’ll keep planning and working at the KIC, which he actually helped approve on the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission years before.

Ketchum Candy

    Vita Kremenchuk created her own startup to serve a need specific to Ketchum: an events calendar.

    “It initially started out with our son,” she said.

    Kremenchuk wanted to go out and do something with him and her friends but didn’t know what was happening in town.

    Then it hit her: She could create a place for everyone to post local events, making sure people could savor the “sweetest” parts of Ketchum. She named her website Ketchum Candy.

    The coupled created their site at the KIC, working amid other startups in an environment that Kremenchuk said helped her focus.

    After about six months of web development, Kremenchuk said, she and her husband launched the site in June. The website includes a categorized events calendar, suggestions for how to spend a day in the area and even hand-picked recommendations on where to eat and drink.

     Kremenchuk’s husband, Burke Smith, even created a wine recommendation list specific to Atkinsons’ Market, including maps on where to find those wines in the store. Smith said he worked for years as a wine consultant, and he wanted to help contribute to his wife’s dream.

    Smith said a side goal is to drive people away from Yelp, which can simply reflect bad moods. He said three people once came into Enoteca restaurant, where he works, just as the restaurant was closing. They wanted wine. When Smith told the group it was too late, the three said that if he didn’t open a bottle, they would post one-star Yelp reviews.

    “That was Yelp extortion,” he said, noting that he still denied them service and took the bad ratings.

     Both Smith and Kremenchuk work at Enoteca and tackle the full-time job of parenting. Kremenchuk said can make money by charging for invitation-only advertising in their suggestions section. Otherwise, she said, she just wants people to enjoy Ketchum to its fullest.

Taking Flight

    From Airbnb to Uber, people worldwide are working with each other through connective, on-demand websites.

    AirProxima wants to take it a step further and several feet up. In what could be called “an expensive sky Uber,” AirProxima is making a way for people to bypass the airport and book flights with private pilots. Company Chief Operating Officer Dave Madaras said that, hopefully, by finding pilots in strategic places and creating a network, the company can bring down costs from tens of thousands of dollars to possibly the cost of a first-class ticket.

    “Aviation is one of the last open spots in the on-demand economy,” he said.

    Madaras also works out of the KIC. While 10 of his 12-man crew work in heavily populated areas, he said he wanted to work in Ketchum because he always loved the mountains and this was the best mountain town he visited.

Perhaps, he suggested, his work could even bring more entrepreneurs and great minds to the area by encouraging more travel. The more access to resources and people, he suggested, the more active a startup area can be.

Flying in private planes may still be more expensive than a coach seat, but Madaras said many people, including himself, just generally hate airports. He said people using his site could just drive to the airport, do some sort of identity check and verification for security purposes, and head out to the runway; no long lines, no layovers, just a cozy one-way flight.

    The company is still working through regulations, but Madaras said he hopes it can get going by December.

Other KIC companies

    Other fledgling companies at the KIC include Solu, an online platform on which users can publish their life stories through various media; C2IT Development, which renovates houses to make them sustainable, off-grid and energy-efficient; Cypress Partners, a personalized wealth-management firm; and MedCNect, which provides a way to track health care analytics through secure devices and software, even transferring that data onto a patient’s health record.

    KIC Executive Director Jon Duval echoed the sentiments of the entrepreneurs in his center and Harry Griffith. He said the area is expensive to live in and is remote, which are big hurdles. But, he said that if the KIC and other businesses could build up a venture-friendly community with more mentors and connections, startups would keep coming. While some companies may leave, Duval said, for the most part, “if people are coming here, it’s because they want to live here.”

    “What we have here is a lifestyle and a quality of life that are incomparable,” he said.

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