Iconic: The Entrepreneurial Engine of the Chambers Ecosystem
Kyle Gillis and James Carnes grew up miles apart in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. But their paths would not cross until their junior year at West Virginia University, where they would both graduate in December 2019 with industrial engineering degrees.
For the self-proclaimed “hustlers,” it was a shared entrepreneurial thirst – not so much engineering – that brought the two distinct yet complementary personalities together.
They launched Iconic EDU, an education technology company aimed at swaying youth into the world of science with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) kits, complete with small drones. After all, the wonders of technology and engineering entranced Gillis and Carnes as youngsters living in Wheeling and Weirton, respectively. The plan was to share that passion they exuded upon the future minds throughout their native West Virginia.
That idea – which the friends carried through the LaunchLab, West Virginia Business Plan Competition and now Vantage Ventures – ultimately morphed into Iconic Air, an industrial IoT software platform that’s set to bring their company over $1 million in 2021.
Gillis and Carnes aren’t even a year out of college. And they have the entrepreneurial ecosystem within the Chambers College of Business and Economics to thank for helping sharpen their tools for success.
For the self-proclaimed “hustlers,” it was a shared entrepreneurial thirst – not so much engineering – that brought the two distinct yet complementary personalities together.
THE YIN AND THE YANG
Carnes doesn’t shy away from revealing his propensity for “nerdy engineering stuff” – 3D printers, drones, coding and the like. Gillis, meanwhile, views himself as the pitchman, or salesman, of the tag team.
Think of Carnes as the product builder, workhorse, and nose-to-the-grindstone teammate. Gillis is much like a point guard or quarterback, a big-picture guy and the sizzle to the steak.
With a personal YouTube channel that has amassed nearly 5,000 subscribers, Gillis films flashy videos with fellow students discussing their interest in engineering and STEM.
After meeting each other at a campus networking event, Gillis invited Carnes onto his YouTube channel. The partnership flourished from there.
“We heard there was a business plan competition coming up,” Carnes said. “So we took a drone I’d built from my engineering skills paired with the skills that Kyle had gotten so good at with marketing and YouTube and entered the competition with the idea of a drone-based STEM kit that students in West Virginia could build. We made it to the finals and won it. We really discovered we were the yin and the yang to each other.”
“James was doing stuff like building a website to compare Michael Jordan and Lebron James and their statistics using online data,” Gillis added. “I was more into the marketing side of science. We’re like a peanut butter and jelly type of collaboration.”
The duo came up with the idea of building and flying a drone from scratch while making educational YouTube videos. Through these kits, students have hands-on experiences that teach them STEM-related topics that they can do in the classroom or at home.
The goal is to expose students how to think like professionals in the fields of science and technology, they said.
Perhaps those intentions led to Gillis and Carnes thinking outside the box for themselves.
"THE GOAL IS TO EXPOSE KIDS HOW TO THINK LIKE PROFESSIONALS IN THE FIELDS OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY."
LAUNCHING INTO SPACE
First impressions can be overrated.
Nearly 2,000 students have been to the LaunchLab to pitch the next big idea. But many visions fizzle.
“To be honest with you, we get a lot of kids who are passionate about their ideas,” said LaunchLab Executive Director Carrie White, who’s led the internationally-recognized applied innovation center since 2016. “But sometimes those ideas are nothing to be too passionate about. And sometimes students get really defensive when it comes to advice or constructive criticism. It’s like ‘Don’t tell me my baby’s ugly.’”
Gillis and Carnes came to the LaunchLab just like everyone else. But they eventually proved, like most successful clients, that they’re cut from a different cloth.
“Kyle and James were likeable guys, but nothing stood out from the very beginning,” White said. “Then we saw how hard they worked, and that’s the one thing that differentiated them from the rest. A lot of people give up somewhere along the way. They get burned out or frustrated. Kyle and James stuck with it. They also take advice really, really well, whether it’s from us or judges from various competitions.”
The LaunchLab is a comprehensive, one-stop commercialization and proof-of-concept applied innovation center fueled by the Chambers College. It has consulted with more than 1,700 students, pushed more than 220 businesses into the pipeline and provided $95,000-plus in startup funding.
White, who has over 20 years of business, law and entrepreneurship experience as an owner of two startup companies and as a business startup consultant in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said the LaunchLab walks aspiring entrepreneurs through the Business Model Canvas.
“We give them the lay of the land of the process, from ideation to potential commercialization,” White said. “We make sure they know about all of the resources available to them at the university level.”
“On our first prototype of our product, I remember making the first drone for our STEM kit and we took in this powerhouse of a drone that you would almost be afraid to put in the hands of kids,” Gillis recalls about the LaunchLab. “We took it in there and got feedback from one of the coaches. Their eyes got big and they said, ‘No, that’s not a good first iteration.’”
“We lived in the LaunchLab for several months,” Carnes said. “LaunchLab was our first step and we were fully integrated with them for a solid nine to 12 months. Carrie and her team were very instrumental.”
PLANS A TO Z
Much like the hand-in-glove partnership of Gillis and Carnes, the LaunchLab feeds into the West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition, and vice versa. The Competition, now in its 15th year, offers college students from around the state a unique opportunity to make their business idea come to life.
Hosted by the Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Chambers College, the Competition is open to students from all disciplines and backgrounds, proven by giving a shot-in-the-arm to the vision of a couple of industrial engineers. Gillis and Carnes were named 2018-2019 winners.
The Competition awards a minimum of $20,000 each year to eager entrepreneurs willing to invest in West Virginia.
“To be successful in the Business Plan Competition, teams really need to utilize all their resources and Kyle and James did that,” said Tara St. Clair, program lead for the Encova Center who oversees the contest. “They worked with the LaunchLab and were willing to listen to what people were saying.”
St. Clair believed Iconic got a significant nudge from feedback the business received from the Competition judges.
“They listened to the judges' feedback and made pivots based on their suggestions," St. Clair said. "That helped them pivot their idea from Iconic EDU. It pivoted so many times before it morphed into Iconic Air."
At some point through the Competition, the team realized it needed to shift focus.
“As a startup, the single thing you have to emphasize over everything is the ability to be nimble,” Gillis said. “You're going to market as an engineer and you're trying to solve people's needs. If you aren’t doing that, you have to shift your feet a little.”
The STEM kit transitioned to “a drone company that monitors emissions.”
“What we quickly realized is, ‘Hey, let’s just go full data analytics with a software platform,’” Gillis added. “That’s what’s missing in the industry.”
Iconic Air was born and the duo would earn contracts with the U.S. Air Force and matching funds from the state of West Virginia.
The software works like this: It’s a data collection tool that can be used via a web-based platform or app. The software streamlines the process for collecting data for emissions compliance, a useful tool for environmental consultants and energy companies to determine if they’re meeting federal or local regulations.
“It was a very manual process before,” Carnes said. “You had people in the oil and gas industry using outdated legacy software. We basically take all the data they’ve collected through this application and offer analytics to help them make better business decisions.
“We want to help companies in two areas: Operations – how can they be more efficient at a facility level? Second, is the sustainability aspect. A lot of companies have a high-level goal of emissions reductions to improve their footprint in the environment.”
A NEW VANTAGE POINT
Before Vantage Ventures - the Chambers College initiative that supports high-impact, scalable businesses – officially launched on the WVU campus, Gillis and Carnes heard rumblings about this new effort and recognized they wanted a piece of it.
Inspired by Station F, the world’s largest start-up facility in Paris, France, the 8,000 square-foot Vantage Ventures space fosters an intersection of creative, collaborative thought and entrepreneurial engagement.
Vantage Ventures enables founders building tech-based businesses in West Virginia by providing them a systematic process to find product-market fit, determining their addressable markets, conducting proof of concepts, raising venture capital and completing other activities necessary to go from idea to scale.
“Before it was even built, we were hearing about it and checking in on it thinking ‘Wow. Who are the people who run this thing?’” Gillis said.
“Initially, I think they were looking for office space so they didn’t have to keep working out of their apartment,” Olesh said, jokingly. “We saw their potential and said, ‘Yes, you can have office space but let’s also help you grow. Sarah has helped them understand different financing options and business structure.”
Olesh and Biller also helped connect them with Apex, or Academic Partnership Engagement Experience, a group that works with the Air Force, which led to the securing of their contracts.
“It's very rare to find entrepreneurs who are that ready to go,” said Biller, who’s also co-founder of the FinTech Sandbox, a Boston-based nonprofit providing entrepreneurs access to high-quality data sets. “They innately had ‘it’ and come to us crisp in their story. West Virginia is producing intelligent, tenacious entrepreneurs and we’re seeing it. The best thing is that they’re still open to understanding what they don’t know.
”The LaunchLab and the Business Plan Competition did exactly what you would have thought they would do. A lot of the credit goes to them.”
For Gillis and Carnes, who were approaching graduation, they knew Vantage Ventures was the next logical step. It allowed them to keep them rooted in West Virginia.
“We took it upon ourselves to reach out to Erienne and Sarah,” Gillis said. “Our milestones weren’t very big at the time, but we were young, hungry entrepreneurs and engineers willing to show them that we deserved a spot in that space. It was a very big deal to us to have a full office with a basketball hoop, a Keurig and everything a startup would want. Most of all, we have access to their contacts and resources.”
“The runway used by Iconic Air – from LaunchLab to Encova to Vantage, all supported by the Chambers College – is available and growing at West Virginia University. This runway serves all students and connects startups from the outside to the campus and all of West Virginia, and is a magnet for innovation at the global scale.”
– Javier Reyes, Milan Puskar Dean of the Chambers College and Vice President for Start-up West Virginia
SQUEEZING THE ORANGE
Iconic Air continues to thrive under Vantage Ventures as it has expanded from Gillis and Carnes to a team of about seven, a mix of full-time, part-time and student workers with expertise in business and engineering.
It may seem like smooth sailing from here, but the two founders are still figuring it all out.
And that’s OK.
“A lot of people with a business idea think everything has to be polished and all figured out,” Gillis said. “It’s really quite the opposite. You throw some paint on the wall and you refine as you go.”
“Good things happen,” Carnes said. “You work hard at it and eventually something will come.”
Nowadays, even though they’re recently removed from the college experience, Gillis and Carnes give back to the Chambers College by speaking at workshops and coaching other could-be entrepreneurs.
“The great thing is that we’re still in town and can help people in the ecosystem with their journey,” Carnes said.
“For me personally, as someone who has a hard time retaining information in the classroom, these are resources and pools of information that are just as valuable as the in-classroom experience,” Gillis said. “It’s a catalyst for people who are action-oriented. We understood all the resources that were available from the university – from the LaunchLab to the Business Plan Competition to Vantage Ventures. We literally saw these opportunities as an orange, and we wanted to squeeze every ounce out of it.”
THE RUNWAY FOR INNOVATION
Javier Reyes, the Milan Puskar Dean of the Chambers College and Vice President for Start-up West Virginia, views this ecosystem much like a “runway” – a runway for innovation.
Look no further than Virgin Hyperloop, which announced in October it would build a certification center on nearly 800 acres of land spanning Tucker and Grant counties. Biller and Vantage Ventures helped leverage Virgin Hyperloop’s decision.
“The runway used by Iconic Air – from LaunchLab to Encova to Vantage, all supported by the Chambers College – is available and growing at West Virginia University,” Reyes said. “This runway serves all students and connects startups from the outside to the campus and all of West Virginia, and is a magnet for innovation at the global scale.”
Breaking down the buzzwords of innovation: Q&A with Vantage Ventures Director Erienne Olesh
Entrepreneurship comes with acronyms – especially in the area of technology transfer. Vantage Ventures Director Erienne Olesh explains what they mean, and how you can use them to propel your next big idea forward.
Q. What is the focus of your work at Vantage Ventures?
A. I focus on educating communities about what we are doing at Vantage Ventures and the resources that are available for those looking to build a product or business. There are some really powerful tools available to support innovators, and I want to make sure they know about them and understand how to take advantage of them in the hope of spurring more entrepreneurial activity in West Virginia.
Q. What are the SBIR and STTR programs, and how can they help entrepreneurs grow?
A. The Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR) are federal grant funding opportunities for tech-based small businesses in the United States. These grants were created to encourage risky, deep-tech startup growth. They are offered through eleven different federal agencies, including the U.S. Navy, Department of Agriculture, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health, to name a few. Entrepreneurs can apply for these grants to move their work further down the pipeline towards commercialization.
The grants are touted as America’s seed fund. It’s non-dilutive funding, which means when you are awarded one of these grants, no equity is taken and there is no repayment of the money – it’s just capital to get your product closer to being market ready. They are competitive (less than 15% of applicants receive a phase I grant) and ultimately reviewed by science and business experts who are looking to ensure that both the technology and business can succeed. A phase I grant award can be up to $250,000, which covers about 9-12 months of activity. If you are successful in the first phase, you can apply for phase II, which awards around $1 million. Startups who are successful with these funds may also be viewed as more attractive and less risky to investors because of the vetting that takes place during the application process and the non-dilutive nature of the money.
Q. What are some examples of household brands that have taken advantage of these seed funding opportunities and found success?
A. iRobot – which developed the popular consumer robot vacuum, Roomba –
got its start through the SBIR program with seed funding through the Department of Defense. 23&Me, which is the company that invented DNA cheek swabs to help people trace their ancestry, also grew by taking advantage of these seed funding opportunities. WVU success story Iconic Air is now in phase II of a contract with the U.S. Air Force. They really took advantage of every resource available to them so that they could grow.
Q. How can these grants fuel West Virginia’s goal of becoming a start-up state?
A. Historically, West Virginia has had a low funding rate of SBIR and STTR grants. In any given year, West Virginia might receive a handful of grants, while some of our neighboring states are receiving hundreds. If we can make more people aware that this money is out there and encourage them to take advantage of it, we drive more of these seed funding opportunities into our state and stand up more businesses.
Q. What is the I-CORPS program, and how can it help someone with an idea?
A. The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-CORPS) program is essentially training for those who are new to entrepreneurship to help them narrow in on identifying their customer and how their product can help that customer solve a problem. Participants spend about three weeks in a virtual course conducting customer discovery, and the wrap-up session evaluates whether or not your product needs to shift based on customer feedback. It’s free and open to anyone – you just need an idea. If you have an idea at the starting line and aren’t sure what’s next, this is great way to get feedback. Iconic Air is an awesome success story from this program, because they went through it, pivoted and narrowed their focus – and now they’re on a springboard to success.
I teach the course, along with three of my colleagues in the Chambers College: LaunchLab Executive Director Carrie White, Entrepreneurship Teaching Assistant Professor Bob Waggoner and LaunchLab Business Advisor Anne Jones.
Q. If someone out there is reading this and is interested in using these resources, what should they do?
A. Reach out to me so that I can help you! I can be reached at Erienne.Olesh@mail.wvu.edu.
Q. What do you love the most about your work with Vantage Ventures?
A. It’s rewarding to feel like I’m helping someone move their idea and their technology forward; their passion becomes contagious! I get to help people advance their thinking, advance their skillsets, and advance the capabilities of their companies. Working in the world of tech transfer means that I get to learn so much about so many things. It’s never boring, that’s for sure!
ADVANCING ENTREPRENEURSHIP: WEST VIRGINIA BECOMES FOURTH STATE IN U.S. TO PASS FINTECH SANDBOX LEGISLATION
West Virginia is the latest state in the U.S. to adopt a regulatory sandbox to encourage the development of new and rising industries within its borders.
It’s a move that brings great hope to West Virginia. Venture capital investments in fintech continue to rise and surpassed $53 billion in 2019; this is capital that has the potential to be infused into West Virginia’s economy as a result of the fintech sandbox legislation.
Fintech has the ability to bolster West Virginia’s outdoor economy, cybersecurity, and community banking efforts if we can use its benefits to attract start-ups focused on categories like peer-to-peer lending and point-of-sale solutions.
House Bill 4621 (the FinTech Sandbox Bill) passed unanimously in both the House and Senate in March 2020. The passage of the bill will support West Virginia’s efforts to grow into a start-up state by giving entrepreneurs testing products and services relief from regulatory costs and licensing restrictions that can be
hindrances, providing great benefit to entrepreneurs building solutions to the financial challenges faced by individuals, communities and institutions as a result of COVID-19.
The bill was brought to life by Delegates Moore Capito, Daryl Cowles, Paul Espinosa, John Shott and Ben Queen in partnership with Sarah Biller, Executive Director of Vantage Ventures. Companion legislation (Senate Bill 514) was introduced in the Senate by Senators Eric Tarr and Robert Plymale.
While this legislation is new, West Virginia University isn't new to developing fintech entrepreneurs for the future. Chambers College alumnus and fintech entrepreneur Rodney Williams has been successful in this space.
WVU will continue to work with legislative partners and community banks to build the infrastructure for the sandbox that will attract more entrepreneurs to the state.
Read more about the transformational legislation here.