EAU CLAIRE — Two years ago, Eric Boud’s daughter was born premature, requiring her to spend the first days of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Baby Claire emerged from the incubator in good health, but the experience of not being able to communicate with their daughter immediately after her birth stuck with Boud and his wife.
“It definitely changed our lives forever,” he said. “That emotional trauma spurred this idea to help parents connect with their babies regardless of where they are.”
Remembering the feelings of helplessness and loneliness he felt back then, the Eau Claire entrepreneur sought a way to let parents communicate with their babies in the NICU.
On Thursday he pitched a virtual room full of potential investors and local business leaders on Life-Line, a small speaker being designed to be set alongside a baby in an NICU. The baby’s parents could connect via a smartphone app to the speaker, allowing them to talk to their baby or play the sound of its mother’s heartbeat.
Boud said a beta version of the app is functional and a demonstration version of the speaker is being developed, but has to go through rigorous approvals to ensure it’s not too loud or overstimulating for a newborn baby to hear.
To the group assembled on Zoom, Boud said his business is seeking $250,000 to complete pilot testing and order a research study on his product to determine if it is in line with academic papers he’s reviewed on sounds that soothe newborn babies.
Life-Line was among the six business pitches made by local entrepreneurs in the first class of VentureHome-Eau Claire. Built on a local partnership between WiSys, CoLab and UW-Eau Claire, the program helps fledgling startup businesses get their ideas ready for the marketplace.
Thursday was pitch day for the program’s first class, a graduation of sorts, as they each took seven minutes to explain their business, what they intend to deliver and any help they might need from others watching their presentations over Zoom.
Jim McDougall, founder and CEO of Upstream, said businesses, schools, event centers and other buildings with a large amount of video screens can simplify how those operate. Currently in development, his wireless network-based system would control those screens using a smartphone app and cut the need for audio-visual wiring.
“We are preparing the customers for the future by eliminating the infrastructure that is holding them back,” he said.
His ask was $500,000 in investment in two phases to finish development, a pilot program and get through the first 1,000 sales.
Others in the VentureHome-Eau Claire first class pitched their own services as ways to help fellow entrepreneurs.
Beth Crowell is looking to expand her budding business known as “The Hippie Banker,” which specializes in helping female entrepreneurs get access to financing while also overcoming self-doubts they feel when approaching traditional bankers.
“Women don’t often feel empowered to push back against a lender’s objections and are more fearful of a denial,” she said.
An experienced commercial banker herself and a life coach, Crowell’s target market is women in the mid-30s to mid-50s in Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota.
Mary Cait McManamon also is focusing on female entrepreneurs as the target demographic for her firm MCMktg.
With six clients now, she’s looking to expand her marketing firm, which is intended to take care of social media for entrepreneurs as well as offer other products to help their online presence.
ALO Photo, a company created by three UW-Eau Claire alumni, sees itself as way to aid freelance photographers by putting their marketing, scheduling, billing, communication and product delivery needs into one app.
Aaron Accola, a member of the trio that created ALO Photo, said the app is already in development and is expecting to hit the market in summer 2021. To help with app development, though, he and his business partners are seeking $100,000.
The final business in the local VentureHome first class is Solar Forma, an Eau Claire company that is giving a new look to the growing solar energy field.
“The problem is conventional solar energy systems are ugly and take up space,” said Brian Graff, Solar Forma’s president of business operations.
Instead of just large rows of uniform solar panels, the company uses more artistic and nature-inspired designs that make solar technology look more like sculpture.
Solar Forma, which operates out of Artisan Forge Studios, already has made interactive troll sculptures for River Prairie Park in Altoona and is lined up to build a solar canopy for an electric vehicle charging station in Eau Claire.
The company is looking to move ahead with what it sees as its signature product lines, including the E-Cacia. Evoking the African acacia, the E-Cacia will have several solar panels arranged on a metal structure resembling branches and a tree trunk. In addition to providing clean solar power, the tree provides shade and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
To get to market in early 2021 and begin selling the E-Cacia trees, Solar Forma sought $600,000 from investors in two installments.
Following the pitches from the six entrepreneurs last week, VentureHome opened up applications for its next cohort of startup businesses that want to begin the program in January.