ICELab’s Catapult companies catch attention of outdoor market

First outdoor-specific program finishes strong

By Katherine Nettles

The ICELab’s newest program, the Catapult Outdoor Accelerator, graduated its first class at the end of last month and may prove to attract new businesses to the Gunnison Valley. The 12-week program brought the ICELab’s startup team together to work with new or expanding outdoor industry brands and collaborated with outdoor adventure market companies Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Moosejaw Mountaineering, Active Interest Media (AIM) and Outdoor Retailer (OR) to assist and guide the program.

The first Catapult cohort began in March, made up of three businesses that have taken on a solution to an outdoor challenge met often by recreational enthusiasts.

Geyser Systems, founded by Jonathan Ballesteros of Houston, Texas, has created a portable, lightweight shower that provides hot water using just one gallon of water, which can be used for cleaning people, pets or gear. Ballesteros says he found inspiration while exploring Australia and living out of a van. “Out of food, gas, water and beer, it was always water that ran out first,” he says.

Hustle Bike Labs, founded by another Texan named Craig Payne, uses powerful rare Earth mineral magnets on a flat bike pedal to achieve clipless pedal performance. Payne says the idea came to him several years ago on a trail in Moab.

“I had a little mishap, found myself crashing and found myself hanging off a cliff about 200 feet above the Colorado River. That day I was in clipless pedals, and it could have ended very grim. So I thought there has to be a better way,” he says. As he realized how common his problem with clipless pedals was, he decided he would make a product not just for himself but for others as well.

Gearo, co-founded by a husband and wife team in Denver, has created an outdoor gear rental app that connects customers to retailers. “We are the Open Table for outdoor rental gear,” says cofounder Justine Barone. She says she and her husband, Andrew Barone, got the idea from trying to rent gear such as paddle boards and struggling with the process.

“Experiencing the pain points, I just realized how difficult it was,” says Barone. The company’s app helps consolidate local retailers into one platform, she says, and also gives retailers the tools they need (via software) to streamline their rentals. Barone says this is easier for retailers whom Gearo has generally found to be otherwise using pen and paper for their “rental systems.”

ICELab director David Assad said in May that after spending time in Gunnison, the two Texas teams were looking into the possibility of moving not only their families, but also their company operations to the Gunnison Valley.

“Nothing is finalized yet but they are definitely exploring options to make this happen,” he wrote by e-mail. “The welcoming business community that is always willing to pitch in and help has convinced them that Gunnison County is a great community in which to grow a business.”

Hustle Bike Labs, which intends to officially launch at the end of the year, is currently in talks with one group about partnership, and Payne says they hope to relocate to Colorado. “Let’s just say that where you’re at is where we want to be,” he said. 

Assad also said in an interview that the Catapult teams have been received well within the industry, which Catapult and its partners have exposed them to repeatedly throughout the program.

“Our sole mission in forming this coalition is to support innovation and opportunity in the outdoor industry by seeding small business growth,” wrote Jonathan Dorn, AIM’s chief innovation officer, in a press release. “As veterans of this space, we’re driven to give back, which is why we’ve all put skin in the game in the form of financial, staff, marketing, logistical or networking support. It’s also why we’re not taking equity from any of the companies we select, which is very unusual in the accelerator world.”

Assad also said the businesses are catching a lot of attention. One of the teams had an offer from a larger company to do a buyout, said Assad, although the company did not wish to disclose its name and opted not to sell at this time.

The program held a pitching event for the three businesses on May 13 in Boulder, as part of Boulder Startup Week. Assad described it as attended by “reporters, investors, people interested in startups and anyone in the outdoor industry who provides services.”

Gunnison County local Anthony Poponi, who runs a public speaking business called Humour Us, helped the cohort prepare for the pitching event by helping to coach the three teams.

The event itself was, in Assad’s words, great practice for the businesses. “Gearo got some attention there,” he said, “and Geyser made its first public announcement that they are working on a deal with REI,” said Assad. The shower is soon to begin selling in the outdoor retail giant in 2020.

Holland and Hart, the large law firm that has also partnered with the program, has offered input on copyright and other legal considerations for startups.

After Boulder Startup Week came investor finance week, which Assad says is akin to “investor speed dating.” This is an event for the ICELab’s regional accelerator program, and Catapult teams also got to participate. This brought together the businesses and potential investors, which Assad describes as, “People from banks, people with angel capital and Gunnison River Partners, a local Angel VC [venture capital] firm.

Assad said that while it certainly could lead to an investment deal, the arrangement was set up to give the businesses practice for the real world. “They each talked about their company, and what they needed for funding. It gives them all the opportunity of learning from these investors: Here’s my pitch, what’s good with it, wrong with it, what should I fix, etc.,” says Assad.

Assad himself was formerly the financial director for a multinational tech company, and says he is now bringing that experience to helping the teams with their financial modeling.

In addition to the curriculum and the events they attended, the Catapult teams also had the opportunity to experience Gunnison County together. The ICELab provided housing for the term within Gunnison County, which gave the teams a chance at bonding as they shared living spaces.

In June, the Catapult program culminated with the teams attending the Outdoor Retailer Summer Show in Denver to prepare for having their own booth space and fully representing their businesses at the Innovator OR show in November. AIM, which provided a lot of “in kind sponsorship,” will continue to work with the teams to get ready for November, says Assad.

“We won’t do the work for them but helping them form that strategy is super helpful for these companies,” he says. The teams will continue to have an annual ICELab membership.

Barone said her company, Gearo, certainly benefitted from the program, and that she enjoyed collaborating with the other teams.

“It went great. There’s some incredible connections that came out of the program and some valuable resources that we’ve been able to benefit from,” she said. Among highlights for her were the “press given through AIM” and the prospect of having a booth at the November OR show.

“It’s a really incredible community, and there’s been a plethora of learning,” she said.

Payne echoed those sentiments. “The program simply was amazing. The people involved, the relationships built…the key thing was that they immersed us in the outdoor industry. And that’s hard to do. When you sign up for something and they drop you right in, it’s changed the trajectory of Hustle Bike Labs tremendously. Thanks to ICELab, and the partners, for opening the doors and for all their knowledge. It was hard, but it was worth it,” he reflected.

Ballesteros said among the many ways Catapult is a standout program among accelerators, and “a real disruptor for the industry,” he appreciated the involvement and attention from industry bohemoths like AIM. “If we were just any other company, it would be very difficult to get their attention. But thanks to this program, we got it,” he said.

Assad says the Catapult folks have been good role models for the rest of the ICELab’s cohorts as well. “It’s been really beneficial for our regional accelerator teams,” he said, and the influence of Catapult’s first go-round might help mold the future of the other accelerator programs as well.

“We are looking at shifting more toward having a product [already in place] for the accelerator. That line to draw, at least to me, is having a product,” says Assad.

“The other thing is, it doesn’t need to be new companies. It could be a company that has been here for 10 years but is ready to take the next step.”

The ICELab is holding an advisory meeting this month to discuss priorities for its curriculum going forward, and the best way to help Gunnison County attract high paying jobs to prospective workers or creating solid ground for emerging businesses.

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