Full Speed Ahead
Launch Pad Generates Opportunities for Young Entrepreneurs
What does it take to successfully launch a startup? If you ask someone who’s done it, they’ll tell you at some point during the conversation about the people who helped them along the way. The process of moving a concept to a fully functioning business can be daunting for young entrepreneurs whose resources may be limited, and it’s nearly impossible to accomplish alone.
SEMA’s Young Executives Network (YEN) considered this issue when developing the Launch Pad competition, a platform for up-and-coming entrepreneurs that was offered for the third time in 2015. It complements the association’s emphasis on developing a new generation of automotive industry leaders (as members of YEN, all of the competitors are under the age of 40).
“The goal is to increase awareness of our best and brightest via competition of these next-gen enthusiasts and to reduce the gap between the juggernauts who started this industry and the young professionals who will continue on carrying that torch—so that we’ll stay relevant for many years to come,” explained Bryan Harrison, SEMA’s director of networks.
Throughout the program’s life span, dozens of young businesspeople have found a platform to present their ideas. The contestants’ ultimate hope is to earn a prize package designed to increase the exposure and credibility of their companies, including free or discounted services related to marketing, PR, shipping, and even a free 10x10 booth at the next year’s SEMA Show.
According to Harrison, head-turning entries and excited entrepreneurs have been abundant throughout the program’s lifespan. Overall, the feedback he’s received from finalists is that the competition opened doors for them. Even the runners-up are rewarded with experience and new connections—a structure that, by design, addresses key obstacles faced by young entrepreneurs.
The 2015 finalists represented several different niches within the specialty-equipment market.
Robert Vogt (far left), CTO of Voyomotive, presented VOYO, the winning connected car product.
Aleksandr Basalilov is the co-founder and COO of Parts Detect, a company that developed and distributes a mobile app to help mechanics and do-it-yourselfers find, order and have parts delivered. The app searches local, real-time inventories to find the lowest price. Basalilov was the lead for developing the back-end systems on the app, which includes features for VIN scanning, supplier selection, parts selection, order and delivery tracking, as well as sorting by price, availability and warranty. The Parts Detect app has completed security testing and is available in the Apple and Google app stores.
Jeff Lee drew on his background in racing to lead the marketing efforts of HammerHead IRS, a company that he co-founded in 2010 to manufacture high-performance differentials for modern American musclecars, sports cars, hot rods and race cars. The first-generation HammerHead went on sale in 2013 and uses 12-bolt GM components inside a cast-aluminum housing. The company used Launch Pad as a platform to introduce a new model called “Megalodon,” which is cast in nodular iron and features larger and heavier-duty internal components designed to withstand 1,500 hp and 1,500 lb.-ft. of continuous torque. Megalodon is set to hit the market in spring 2016.
After competing in 2014, Roger Peterson, founder and CEO of MG Research LLC, entered the 2015 edition of Launch Pad and proceeded to the final round for the second year in a row. The company’s focus is on marketing research, and the product is The Enthusiast app, which is currently available as a free download in the Android and Apple stores. It is a mobile specialty-parts search engine, user-managed DIY library, events locator and social network, all in one. As enthusiasts use the app’s features, MG Research gathers data and learns more about the industry.
Todd Purcell is the co-president of Superior Industrial Threads, a company that is already known in the quilting and sewing industry. Purcell and his team developed SewGlow, a polyester upholstery thread that glows in the dark, and he entered Launch Pad with the hope of establishing the product for automotive applications. SewGlow creates a unique touch by mimicking a standard white thread when exposed to light and transforming into a green or blue glow-in-the-dark thread when the lights go off. Because the glow agent is incorporated into the thread fiber, SewGlow avoids flaking and melting issues.
Finally, Robert Vogt represented Voyomotive, where he is the CTO. The company’s Voyo product is a plug-and-play, connected-car platform that is designed to give users control while improving vehicle safety, security, convenience and fuel efficiency. Voyo can be paired with wireless relays to control the engine, including a start/stop system. It uses CAN bus data, reads generic and proprietary trouble codes from almost all controllers, and communicates with the Cloud through a phone app. This impressive scope of features creates endless implications for various uses of the information collected.
Vogt was initially attracted to the Launch Pad competition by the potential product exposure. It was a close race to the end, but he left the stage as the ultimate winner.
“We thought of [Launch Pad] as a good opportunity for us to showcase the product, and it has been,” he said. “It was a really neat competition, a great bunch of competitors, lots of very interesting products in lots of areas that I didn’t even know existed. It was a great experience overall.”
Although Vogt won, Basalilov and Purcell both said that their participation was extremely valuable. The Parts Detect team saw the competition as a way to start a conversation with potential partners and found that their involvement lent a new level of credibility. It also helped bolster their marketing efforts.
“Even if you don’t win, the returns in terms of publicity and credibility are worth the effort,” Basalilov said. “And they make it easier to have a conversation with people who don’t know you from anyone else on the street. When we reach out to people who want to download the app or who want to work with us as vendors or integrate with us in terms of technology, they don’t know that we were in Launch Pad. We bring it up and they ask about it. It’s a great way to show that we are part of a new phase or generation of entrepreneurs.”
The 2015 judging panel consisted of Ron Coleman of COMP Performance Group; Jessi Combs, builder and TV personality; Doug Evans of Luken Communications LLC; Wade Kawasaki of Coker Group; and Myles Kovacs of DUB Publishing. After hearing presentations from each of the finalists, the judges asked questions and selected the winner together.
“We feel like we have these top dogs who are willing to help out,” shared Purcell. “I’m just some 30-something newbie who likes thread and fiber. I’m kind of a geek, but I get to rub shoulders with these big guys who say, ‘Here’s my business card. Call me and I’ll help you.’”
Purcell knew that he needed advice from the pros, and he isn’t exaggerating about the judges’ eagerness to offer their assistance. Coleman has been a Launch Pad judge since the program’s inaugural year. A current ownership partner, president and CEO of the COMP Performance Group in Memphis, Tennessee, he also calls on his background in the legal arena, his small-business involvement and his SEMA Board of Directors experience to offer a wealth of knowledge to the Launch Pad competitors.
Coleman continues to participate because of the potential he sees in the program to benefit the industry as a whole. From his perspective, the judges’ role is two-fold: identifying a catchy concept led by a talented individual, and encouraging the up-and-comers. Coleman also makes time each year to participate in a roundtable meeting that brings together participants from current and past years with the judges.
“It’s an informal time to offer suggestions,” he explained. “It’s also a time to swap ideas and give a roadmap to the contestants. And [the judges] have also talked to some of the competitors later on. We’re always glad to help. I think everyone in the industry wants to see everyone else succeed.”