Come see the latest and greatest ideas coming from the Innovation Hub at Research Park.
Braxton Manley wanted to create "really cool Apple Watch bands" because his was boring and uncomfortable. Nine-year-old Cooper Williams wanted a way to track the ice cream truck so he could have his money ready when it arrived. Gage Dutkin wanted a way to make sure no more children died after being left in hot cars.
What do they have in common? They all started with just an idea – and from that idea, they achieved their goals, thanks to Red Raider Startup.
Operated by the Texas Tech University Innovation Hub at Research Park, Red Raider Startup is a three-day program designed to help first-time entrepreneurs get started. Over the course of a weekend, participants form teams around ideas, consider who their potential customers might be, create a marketing pitch then present that pitch to a panel of investors.
The annual program is happening this weekend, with final presentations scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 27) at the Innovation Hub. If you want to be one of the first to see the next big ideas coming out of the Innovation Hub, you're welcome to attend – it's free and open to the public.
Armed only with the idea that a stretchy, sock-like material would be a more comfortable watchband than the currently available plastic bands for the Apple Watch, Manley teamed up with his friend Grant Andrews – who had taken a sewing class – for the Red Raider Startup in 2016. Based on the feedback they received, they expanded their variety of patterns and colors to appeal to any customer's taste.
Three years later, their hand-sewn watchbands have become a trendy product line that's now somewhere near the $1 million sales mark, a monumental milestone for startups.
"We won the Presidents' Innovation Award grant in the summer of our junior year, and that got us workspace at the Hub," Manley said. "I would say for our first $100,000 in sales, we were making the bands out at the Innovation Hub, staying until like 4 a.m., then going to class at 9 a.m. and hustling. It was exhausting, but it was the biggest thrill I've had in my whole life."
With the pitching skills they learned in Red Raider Startup, they even got a celebrity to wear a Braxley Band. At South by Southwest in March, Manley and Andrews attended a question-and-answer session with billionaire investor Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
"I had a bunch of our bands that I was giving out to people there," Manley said. "I noticed he was wearing just the classic, plastic band that Apple Watches come with. I ask the first question. I say, 'Mark, I noticed you have an Apple Watch. I've got this elastic watchband in Dallas Mavericks colors for you. It's really comfortable. Would you like to try it on?' He says, 'Yeah! I'll try anything.'"
He did, and then he congratulated them on successfully marketing to him.
Like Manley, Williams' idea came from a problem in his own life – specifically, his frustration at missing out: "I hear the ice cream truck outside my house and by the time I dig for money, it's gone."
His solution: Freez!, an app that tracks mobile food vendors in real-time.
But it's not a one-man show. Bringing his idea to fruition means bringing together specialists in other areas. NextGen Code Company and Flint Avenue Marketing, both Innovation Hub tenants, joined together to help.
"Cooper was able to identify an everyday problem in the world and create a very practical solution, which is the goal of every entrepreneur," said Jess Davis, CEO of NextGen. "That is the very definition of creating value. We felt this would be a great opportunity for NextGen to give back to the entrepreneurial environment of the Innovation Hub that had greatly helped us in the past. As a team, we discussed what we could provide to assist Cooper in his business venture and decided to build the application, with the marketing and design help of Flint Avenue Marketing, free of charge."
Freez! is still in development, but Williams is already taking the lessons he learned from Red Raider Startup and sharing them with others.
"I love thinking and solving problems," he said. "I want to show other kids that no matter how old you are, you can do great things as long as you put your mind to it. Keep on trying with whatever you do and just don't ever give up."
Dutkin already was involved in entrepreneurialism when the concept for C-Safe interrupted – literally. He had heard about Red Raider Startup and wanted to participate, so he was brainstorming ideas when his mom called.
"She told me a hospital executive's child died after being left in a car," he recalled. "My mom is in the medical field, so it hit home. I Googled and saw how big of a nationwide problem it is. I said, 'Gosh, mom, we can think of a solution for this.'"
His idea was a pad in the child's car seat that connects to the parent's smartphone. If the pad detects the child's weight and the parent's phone moves outside of a specific range – that is, if the parent leaves the vehicle and the child is still there – the pad sends an alert to the parent's phone.
In practicing his pitch, Dutkin came up with product's name and the line that said it all:
"I was trying to come up with a solid one-liner, something they would remember," he explained. "I said, 'It's time to take the next step to keep our children safe.' Then, I said, 'C-Safe,' for 'Child Safe.'"
After participating in Red Raider Startup, Dutkin recruited friends Sean Tully, Lorenzo Gamboa and John Shearer to round out the team. C-Safe has since progressed through Texas Tech's iLaunch Competition, which it won, and the Texas Tech Accelerator. The team graduated from the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program in Austin this summer, and they have filed extensive intellectual property while waiting for industry-related government standards to be finalized. In the meantime, C-Safe is collecting data for the nonprofit Texas Heat Stroke Task Force and KidsandCars.org.
Dutkin said future entrepreneurs have to find the confidence in themselves to put their ideas out into the world – and if they can't, he hopes they find hope and confidence in his company's journey.
"I'm not an engineer, and we have a technology-based product," Dutkin said. "But if you put in the extra effort, you will succeed."