Companies to keep an eye on

Greater Madison boasts some impressive fast-growing companies, all of which deserve our attention as they work to become the ‘next big thing.’

From the pages of In Business magazine.

When it comes to fastest-growing companies nationally, what Wisconsin lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality.

The 2019 Inc. 5000 — Inc.’s annual guide to the 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S., and how they reached their lofty heights — includes 50 companies from the Badger State. That’s an increase from the 43 companies Wisconsin boasted on the 2018 list.

Many of those companies are from the Greater Madison area — 14 in 2019, up from 11 in 2018. Last year, Madison-based logistics and transportation company SwanLeap was the overall No. 1 fastest-growing company on the Inc. 5000 list with an incredible three-year growth of 75,661 percent and $99 million in annual revenue. This year, SwanLeap was still the top Madison-area and Wisconsin company with an overall ranking of No. 35 on 6,383 percent three-year growth and $162.6 million in annual revenue.

For this first-time look at local “companies to watch,” IB picked three of these leading companies from the Inc. list, along with two additional early-stage companies on the rise that are ready to make waves in their industries, to profile their rapid growth and learn why we should expect big things from them in the future.

Keen eyes

EyeKor was founded in Madison in 2012 by Drs. Christopher J. Murphy, Yijun Huang, and Ronald Danis. The company is an imaging contract research organization (CRO) that provides management and analysis services for ophthalmic clinical and preclinical studies through its EXCELSIOR platform, which allows unprecedented ability to track study progress and share data among sites, reading centers, CROs, and sponsors.

“… we saw the market trending toward an influx of clinical-trial projects in the Asia-Pacific region.” — Dr. Yijun Huang, president & CTO, EyeKor

According to Dr. Huang, president and CTO, the company’s three founders saw an opportunity to provide a cloud-based software coupled with superior field service to serve the ophthalmic clinical trial marketplace. The founders believe the company provides added value to complex clinical trial projects with a product developed with the help of strong scientific expertise. “The team has deep and extensive knowledge and experience in evaluating images and has extensive experience with retinal diseases and disorders,” notes Dr. Murphy, who serves as CEO.

Since 2014, EyeKor has participated or is currently involved in 94 clinical trials in ophthalmology, more than 36 of which are large phase-III projects. It now has more than 10,000-plus users and has certified over 1,300-plus clinical sites in 47 countries, while hosting more than 20 million images. “Having this large repository of clinical sites places EyeKor in a unique position to advise study sponsors on potential site availability that are already fully qualified and certified within the EyeKor Excelsior platform in the study of appropriate imaging requirements,” explains Dr. Danis, chief scientific officer, “thus making site initiation faster and more efficient for the study sponsor.”

In its first year, Huang notes, EyeKor had no revenue, and the company didn’t hire its first employee outside of the three founders until 2014, when it posted its first meaningful revenue of $400,000. Now, the company has 40 full-time equivalent employees and many additional contractors, and last year it posted revenue of $5.6 million.

On April 17, EyeKor opened a new office in China to enhance the company’s capability to support clinical trial sponsors and sites in China and the Asia-Pacific region. “The decision to open a China office came about because we saw the market trending toward an influx of clinical-trial projects in the Asia-Pacific region,” says Huang. “We anticipated there will be significant amount of studies originating from the Asian countries, as well as the requirement of having local support in the covered time zone.”

The China office will mirror the corporate structure of the U.S. headquarters, with similar functional groups. EyeKor management anticipates their resources and the responsibilities of the China office will mostly cover the projects in China and APAC regions, and the resources and responsibilities of the U.S. office will cover other global projects.

Over the next five years, Dr. Murphy expects the company to continue to grow organically by approximately 25 percent a year. Thus far, notes Danis, EyeKor has achieved growth through “word-of-mouth” marketing, not through large expenditure of sales and marketing activities. How long that continues is anyone’s guess.

“We suspect each young startup has its own gradient for success,” adds Huang. “However, we think focusing on what we do best and striving for success every day is what’s needed to achieve our goals.”

Rewarding endeavor

Founded in 2013 by Wes Schroll, Fetch Rewards started as a simple idea. “It was after my sophomore year of college, when I moved out of the dorms and began shopping for myself, that I realized how difficult it was to save money on groceries,” notes Schroll. “The only way to save was by being in the right store at the right time with the right coupon. I knew that there had to be an easier way.”

“It is so easy to get swept up and lost in making big changes or lost in how to just grow.” — Wes Schroll, CEO, Fetch Rewards

The company’s philosophy is indeed simple: Consumers should be able to save anywhere they like to shop, and they should save on the brands they’re already buying. With Fetch Rewards, shoppers can just scan their receipts and Fetch does the rest of the work for them.

But making his idea a reality wasn’t as easy. Schroll talked to anyone and everyone he could with knowledge about the grocery industry, but he kept hearing the same thing: The space was too large to tackle, too slow to innovate, and far too complex for a 19-year-old college student to navigate.

Needing funding to get his idea off the ground but running into roadblocks from the more traditional financing avenues, Schroll discovered a business plan competition at his college with a deadline just 10 days away. Burning the candle at both ends, he made the deadline and won the $25,000 grand prize.

With that momentum, Schroll entered his idea in business plan competitions all over the country. In total, he won over $180,000 in cash, office space, and other prizes, and although his winnings came with no strings attached, Schroll doubled down on his idea — and his belief in himself, despite what others said — and he dropped out of school in 2013 to build Fetch Rewards full time.

Fetch has since grown to over 110 employees, brought in over $45 million in funding, and changed the way companies reward shoppers for their loyalty. Fetch Rewards has formed strategic partnerships with some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world, representing over $100 billion combined in annual U.S. sales. In five years, Schroll expects one-fifth of households will be using the Fetch Rewards app to save on their purchases.

“Fetch Rewards has an innovative business model, supported by an innovative technology,” says Schroll. “Prior to Fetch Rewards, there was not a program available that rewarded shoppers for buying items regardless of where or when they were purchased. For example, every single time you buy Doritos, or hundreds of other brands, from any store, you get rewarded. It’s a game-changer for shoppers because it makes it so easy. No more scouring coupons or clipping offers. The underlying technology also processes your receipt in real time, showing how much you earned within seconds.”

Schroll says other young startups can learn from Fetch’s early success by focusing on doing the small things right and letting the big things take care of themselves. “It is so easy to get swept up and lost in making big changes or lost in how to just grow. Instead, focus on the small things that impact your business day after day. If you do those right, the rest becomes clear and the systems won’t fall over while working on the big changes and plans.”

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No leap of faith

During stints as a freight broker and shipping consultant, SwanLeap founder and CEO Brad Hollister saw firsthand how the systems that big manufacturers and retailers used to manage their shipments were wildly outdated.

To save them time and money, he started SwanLeap in 2013. The Madison company uses artificial intelligence (AI) to make sure every parcel, container, and truckload goes out under the best available rate. Custom software integrations give shippers a level of visibility into their supply chains they’ve never had before. SwanLeap says its customers that had been spending seven or eight figures per year on freight are now saving an average of 40 percent thanks to its services.

“If people are willing to take the time and the energy to poke holes at what you are doing, you know you are on the right track.” —
Brad Hollister, CEO, SwanLeap

SwanLeap’s technology platform takes into account the service requirements of each potential customer. In the B2B environment, if you have a customer that has a small bike shop down an alley, a trucking company can’t send a full semi truck down there, so it needs information placed upstream in the process so that option can be eliminated. Armed with that information, the trucking company can ship materials or products in the precise way they need to be shipped.

The AI component is a vital one because, as Hollister explains, every company and every supply chain operator works with a development plan and an “implement-the-plan-for-the-next-year” mentality. “I often joke that we don’t even have the ‘I’ figured out yet in this industry, let alone the ‘A.’ It’s a very antiquated space. Businesses that are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are still managing their global supply chains with Excel spreadsheets.”

Asked if SwanLeap’s automated platform leaves anything for human beings to do, Hollister says the point is to leave decision-making to the machines. “It’s pretty much down to the point where there is no decision-making happening,” he says. “The value for humans is to look at the graphs and charts, and then they can fix operations accordingly. Although we can automate this, too, humans have to print the labels and put them on the packages. It’s just the idea that the machine can make the decisions for you. We shouldn’t leave that to humans.”

The value proposition is that a typical company ships about 8 percent of its revenue, and Hollister says the SwanLeap technology puts roughly 2 percent of that revenue back into the company “so the savings can be used for further expansion, capital improvement, and staffing.” For larger employers, that means millions of additional dollars can be applied to business development.

Looking to the immediate future, Hollister says the company has started partnerships that will propel it to become a major global provider, which brings unique challenges. Meeting those challenges starts with coordinating an international effort, which SwanLeap has begun to do with offices in the Philippines and Mexico.

With fierce competition for a diverse pool of labor, Hollister says he’s learned to capitalize on criticism. “If people are willing to take the time and the energy to poke holes at what you are doing, you know you are on the right track. Nobody needs to devalue a worthless idea. Take that criticism and use it to make yourself and what you are doing better.”

Blessed with early success

Speaking to Erin Tenderholt, it’s clear the young CEO and co-founder of Blexx Technology is bursting with enthusiasm for her fledgling company.

Tenderholt, who only recently graduated from UW–Madison, hatched the idea for Blexx in the fall of 2016 as a college sophomore when a family friend who struggled with diabetes shared with her the challenges he faced. Surprisingly, the hardest part was disposing of the needles he used to administer his insulin. The more research Tenderholt did, the more she realized the unsafe disposal of used medical needles was actually a public health epidemic.

“To understand how you can use your talents to better society, you must first know what those talents are and what drives you.” —
Erin Tenderholt, CEO, Blexx Technology

In the simplest of terms, Blexx Technology is a medical waste disposal company focused on the disposal of “sharps,” which includes any device or object used to puncture or lacerate the skin. But its technology actually sounds like something straight out of science fiction.

“We have developed a product that sterilizes and disintegrates hypodermic needles on-site, in less than a second,” explains Tenderholt. “The user base for Blexx are individuals who use hypodermic needles and need to dispose of them, as well as companies that would like to provide their customers with the convenience of quick and safe disposal.”

Tenderholt notes that while hypodermic needles often administer life-saving medicine, insufficient means of disposal is causing an epidemic across America, regardless of the industry. Americans use upwards of 7.8 billion needles a year, but struggle to ensure these needles are safely disposed of. Typically, sharps have to go through a long process of storage and transportation — think of those red plastic containers on the walls of public restrooms and doctors’ offices — before they neutralized off site.

As a result, the current process is expensive, dangerous, and harmful to the environment. What Blexx provides is a safer and more sustainable alternative to the conventional disposal process by eliminating hazards immediately and on site.

Blexx is already generating forward momentum. The young company won first place and the “People’s Choice Award” in November 2018 at the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Elevator Pitch Olympics, part of the group’s annual Early Stage Symposium, and then Blexx took top honors in the business services category at the 17th annual Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest this June.

It’d be easy to take this early success for granted, but Tenderholt continues to travel the country, winning startup competitions and earning precious financing and industry recognition as Blexx looks to open its first official offices in Madison.

“In my mind everything comes down to stewardship,” says Tenderholt. “In order to understand how you can use your talents to better society, you must first know what those talents are and what drives you. My faith is at my core and my work is offered to God so that I may help my community in the way that my vocation calls me to. As a Catholic, I believe that what Pope Benedict XVI said is true: ‘The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.’ The success I achieve is God’s and it is difficult to be complacent when my vocation and mission to help others has not been fulfilled.”

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Hard-headed about safety

Another young company that presented at the Wisconsin Technology Council’s 2018 Elevator Pitch Olympics, where it finished second, and also progressed to the third phase of the 2019 Governor’s Business Plan Contest is UCHardChip. The startup came from co-founder Ulysses C. Dinkins’ desire not to see another friend die as the result of an on-the-job injury.

Dinkins, a carpenter with decades of experience, also serves as vice president of construction technology. He says it was his friend’s death, along with its fallout, that led him to realize there had to be a better way for contractors, skilled laborers, and construction workers to perform their duties safely and protect them on the worksite.

Founded in 2016, UCHardChip has designed and produced sensor and microprocessor-embedded personal protective equipment (PPE) and supporting software for construction and other industries that function on Bluetooth technology.

Broadly, UCHardChip products, which are in the beta stage of testing, are designed to improve safety, productivity, and quality in construction, which is perceived as among the most dangerous economic sectors in North America, and one that’s also contending with labor shortages.

Specific UCHardChip applications include sensing environmental conditions for safety hazards and for necessary conditions of certain work; sensing worker activity levels and biometrics, which may indicate health emergencies; coordinating workers and the materials and tools they need in an often chaotic workplace; and enabling hands-free communication between workers, crew leaders, and supervisors to resolve task uncertainty before work is performed incorrectly — all in real time and with the clarity derived from accurately identifying the location of each worker.

Dinkins says the company, which currently has six full-time employees, still has a little fuel left in its tank from its original $20,000 equity and term-loan angel round of financing, which it’s using to get as far as it can in developing its beta version of the product and begin piloting it this fall. But fundraising continues as UCHardChip seeks to progress further to market. Notes Dinkins: “We need $160,000 to $200,000 to achieve a competent location solution and working models for piloting.”

The full slate of Madison-area companies ranked on this year’s Inc. 5000 list is as follows:

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