Life on the Silicon Prairie

These Lawrence-based software companies all strive to produce the best product for their clients while maintaining their businesses right here in the heart of the Midwest.

| 2017 Q2 | story by Tara Trenary, photos by Steven Hertzog

 Silicon Prairie

Silicon Prairie


If you think big metropolitan cities are the way to go when starting a new business, think again. These days, entrepreneurs are choosing to launch their companies somewhere in the middle.

According to a 2016 article in Entrepreneur magazine, “Medium-sized cities throughout the Midwest are becoming go-to spots for young entrepreneurs looking to start businesses. Great ideas stand out more, and startup costs are typically lower in nearly every aspect, making the area a better bet for entrepreneurial success.”

Dubbed the “Silicon Prairie” by some, the Midwest is an ideal location for startups such as software and technology companies for a number of reasons: lower cost of living, more affordable labor, office and retail space, more manageable shipping costs, which translates to more competitive pricing, and an overall family- and cost-friendly lifestyle.

“Another critical advantage belongs to college towns, which, by their very nature, usually offer more by way of arts, restaurants and entertainment than other places,” explains a 2016 Forbes magazine article. “This means, for the time being at least, the strongest smaller cities will be those which attract people and companies from bigger places by offering better amenities, cheaper housing, better schools, growing populations and, in many cases, college campuses—all offering a better quality of life but in a smaller, usually more affordable place.”

 Silicon Prairie

Richard & Mary Spurlock owners of Cobalt Iron

Data Protection

Richard Spurlock, CEO and founder of Cobalt Iron, agrees. “We are a global software company building industry-changing technology that happens to be based in Lawrence, Kansas, the heartland of the United States. This was a conscious decision,” he explains. “I love the Midwest work ethic, absolutely love the passion that people bring to their work here. Yet, the pace and quality of life in the Lawrence area is special.”

And being based near the University of Kansas (KU) was also a conscious decision for Spurlock. A graduate of the university with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, Spurlock says more than 50 percent of Cobalt Iron’s employees are KU graduates. “There’s good talent here; there’s great people. It’s a great ecosystem to build a business and support the families that drive this business to success.”

Cobalt Iron, based here in Lawrence, is a software technology company founded in 2013 by Spurlock that provides software to companies small and large that eliminates the complexity of backup, restore and recovery of data for businesses using a simple “pay as you grow” approach. In a more than $10-billion market, the company targets Fortune 2000 companies, large enterprises that are struggling with data protection, but also services smaller businesses. In a space where 99 percent of businesses use IT (information technology), Spurlock says systems will inevitably fail. However, Cobalt Iron’s Adaptive Data Protection software relieves the stress its clients feel about this universal problem.

After 25 years of having run multiple software companies and watching customers take an IT solution and not deploy, operate or life-cycle it effectively or efficiently, Spurlock decided something needed to change. “When you build a house with wood instead of steel, it has a different life span. It’s not bad or good, it’s just different,” he says. “Data protection is really important because this stuff’s gonna fail, and humans make mistakes. Some percentage are system failures, but an interesting percentage are human failures.”

One of the things that makes data protection important is the concept of the Cloud and the rate that people are going to it. And legacy solutions (buying a product from a large company and building your own solution) does not allow customers to simply manage, migrate and move data to and from the Cloud, as Cobalt Iron’s software does, explains Mark Ward, Cobalt Iron COO.

 Silicon Prairie

Cobalt Iron staff meeting


“It’s a web application, meaning it allows access to the key information pieces that make up data protection 24/7 around the world,” he explains. “Whether you’re on your smartphone, tablet or sitting in your office, you have web access to the application that is protecting your data and reporting on your data’s availability throughout the data-protection process. We deliver a point-and-click, drag-and-drop, available solution on Day 1.”

Ward explains that strategic partner IBM gives Cobalt Iron strength and breadth by allowing the company to reach beyond what its people can do. As a relatively young and growing company without physical employees around the world, IBM partners with Cobalt Iron to service its clients and deliver to them anywhere IBM has a presence. The software is currently in use in 44 countries around the world.

Cobalt Iron CEO Spurlock says the transformation of Cloud is aggressive and fast-paced, and the problem is it’s just a server. Somehow, he says, you still have to protect the information that’s held on that server.

“Our dependence on these IT systems is incredible,” he explains. “Everyone in this space builds a tool that goes into a customer toolbox. These tools break, wear out, get replaced over time. We are the analytics and intelligence engine that sits above and controls those. Instead of delivering another tool to go do something, we’re actually transforming that complexity and delivering it with very simple elegance to the customer.”

And Cobalt Iron is delivering this essential tool all over the world from right here in Lawrence. “We put more money back into our technology than we do into our real estate. That, at the end of the day, is what smart businesses do,” Ward says.

 Silicon Prairie

Lab technician at work in the Pinnacle Technology Inc laboratories in Lawrence.

Research and Medicine

Another software technology company based right here in Lawrence, Pinnacle Technology Inc., sells laboratory research equipment primarily for biomedical and pharmaceutical researchers at universities, research hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, government laboratories and contract research organizations. Founded by Donna Johnson, president and CEO, in 1995, Pinnacle Tech provides turn-key tools including hardware, software and all other items researchers need to study the brain more effectively.

“The tools that we have designed are being used anywhere from developing new drugs for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, epilepsy, etc., to studying how the brain responds to sleep, anesthesia, chemical-warfare gases, opiates and more,” Johnson says. “What our customers do with our products never ceases to amaze us.”

 Silicon Prairie

Lab technician at work in the Pinnacle Technology Inc laboratories in Lawrence.


An oceanographer by trade, Johnson worked for the U.S. House of Representatives and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory before taking a job in Kansas City developing technology to make chemicals and fuels from wood and other types of plants. This led to her starting her own company in Lawrence on April Fools’ Day.

“When we first opened, we were primarily working on renewable energy (wind and chemicals from biomass) and did contract engineering,” she explains. “We gradually dropped the renewable energy side of the company and began to do all the engineering and software for our own products, not for clients.”

Pinnacle Tech has 25 employees, including electrical and software engineers, chemists, neuroscientists, a sales team with Ph.D.s in analytical chemistry and neuroscience, as well as electronics and sensor technicians. Johnson’s brother, David Johnson, with a doctorate in electrical engineering and semiconductor industry experience, also joined as a co-owner in 1996. He is in charge of research and product development. Many of Pinnacle Tech’s employees are graduates of KU.

Though the company has no local clients in Lawrence, at the time it opened, it did a lot of business with groups in Topeka and the surrounding area. So, Lawrence was a good central location for the company’s home base. “Now, we have a great relationship with KU, both in terms of research collaborations and hiring graduating KU students,” Johnson says.

Today, the company sells its products in 38 countries all over the globe, including in the United Sates. Working in other countries, Johnson says, brings its own set of challenges.

“There’s a big difference between national and international customers. In the U.S., we are comfortable with the culture and customs. When you sell overseas, besides all the laws that you need to be aware of, there is the knowledge that you must have of local business customs. In some cases, it is imperative you work with distributors,” she explains.

But Pinnacle Tech still contributes locally. “We are a small business located in Lawrence that has a national/international reputation. Most people in Lawrence don’t know the company exists,” Johnson says. But research funding from small business programs and the federal government “brings federal dollars to the state and local economies.”

 Silicon Prairie

Austin Barone owner of Just Play Solutions

Sports

When you think about software technology, data and research might pop into your head immediately. But what about sports? Just Play Solutions bridges the technological gap between high school, college and professional athletes, and their coaches.

Founded by former college athletes Austin Barone (KU football) and Andy Wachter (Wichita State University and Pittsburg State University basketball) in 2014, Just Play Solutions is a software platform of digital coaching tools combined with player learning applications including playbooks, game plans, scouting reports and quizzes that creates a more dynamic learning experience for both coaches and players.

“Coaches are facing one of the largest technological divides to date between themselves and players, and we are passionate about helping them better teach and better coach this age of digital learners,” Barone explains. “College athletes between the ages of 18 and 22 were born between 1995 and 1999. They grew up on technology, and it’s a huge part of how they communicate.”

Barone played football at KU for three years and says this is where he began to see what coaches and players needed to better connect and understand each other. Players lugged bulky playbooks around like pieces of equipment. He knew there had to be a way to streamline this process.

With an accounting degree in hand and several entrepreneurial awards in tow (Pipeline Innovator of the Year “Student Spotlight,” KU Innovation and Collaboration Student Pitch Competition, Tortoise Capital Young Entrepreneurs Scholarship, the Morris New Venture Business Plan Competition), he set out to build a platform that could access all of this information digitally.

Just Play Solutions has not only 200-plus high school and college football and basketball teams as clients (KU, UCLA and Duke basketball; Villanova and Columbia football), it also boasts WNBA teams including Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Dallas Wings, Los Angeles Sparks, Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics. The company also serves several international clients.

Barone says his company is immersed in the Lawrence community, but he considers Just Play a “larger company with small-town roots. There’s a healthy mix of small-town and city attitudes within our office, which I see as a huge benefit,” he says.

“We are extremely tied into the University, as I would attribute much of our success to the guidance and support I am continually given by KU’s faculty and staff,” he says. The KU School of Business has helped the company grow in a protected environment, and Just Play has also had the opportunity to participate in The Catalyst, KU’s startup incubator, which provides resources essential to launching a new business successfully.

Barone believes technology changes the way we interact with the world, and it never stops evolving. “Coaches tell players all the time to relax and ‘just play.’ That ability to relax and to play confidently is directly attributed to being prepared.”

Barone describes Just Play Solutions as a “one-stop shop for coaches to create content and teach a generation of athletes that learns fundamentally different than they did when they were playing.” He hopes his company will help coaches and athletes become better prepared than previous generations through technology.

“With a better understanding of how technology can help students learn, and as technology becomes easier to implement, there is endless potential that technology can have in the world of sports,” Barone says.

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