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Digital Sandbox’s proof-of-concept program helps launch Kansas City startups

In a startup ecosystem as large as Kansas City’s, it can be difficult for an entrepreneur to know where to start when looking for resources to help them launch their vision.

Five years ago, Digital Sandbox launched as an answer to that hurdle.

Digital Sandbox’s mission is to provide proof-of-concept resources to support early-stage commercialization processes, including access to technology, business and market experts, and funding for early-stage market validation, prototyping and beta testing services.

“We define ourselves as a proof-of-concept program,” said Jeff Shackelford, Executive Director of Digital Sandbox. “Most of the applicants who come to us don’t have a product built and don’t have customers. We’re early, early stage.”

Since 2013, Digital Sandbox has heard over 540 pitches and funded 100 concepts. Shackelford said the evaluating team looks for scalable concepts and wants to make sure that the timing is right for funding.

“If we think they have a high probability of success, then we’ll offer them a project development funding,” said Shackelford. “The evaluating team that we’ve put together is really astute at separating those on the track that can move forward, and those that need more study and market evaluation.”

If an entrepreneur or team doesn’t receive funding after their pitch, they’re encouraged to address the evaluators’ concerns and then come back to pitch again later on.

“We try to be that early-stage sounding board and give back open, honest and meaningful feedback,” said Shackelford. “We’ll give them specific feedback on why they weren’t ready yet for a project fund so they can come back the next quarter.”

So far in 2018, Digital Sandbox has had 22 early-stage concepts pitched and invested in four.

“About 20% of the ones we see receive funding,” said Shackelford. “We offer on average $22,000 of funding so they can go and get an early-stage version of their product or service built. The goal is to get them ready to go raise equity.”

Shackelford said that if a company can raise money, they can hire people.

“Our mission is to help [companies] move down the road and create jobs,” said Shackelford.

Digital Sandbox’s 2017 annual report states that 66 percent of projects funded by Digital Sandbox have gone on to raise more than $44 million in follow-on funding from angel groups, private investors and capital investment funds.

“That number exceeds even my wildest expectations,” said Shackelford. “It’s really a credit to the evaluating team and the resources in and around Kansas City that continue to help with those.”

Shackelford said that last year, three of the 10 winners of LaunchKC’s $50,000 cash grants were Digital Sandbox alumni.

“We’re using the ecosystem here to get them started ‘in the sandbox,’ and then move them down the robust path of the KC ecosystem,” said Shackelford.

Digital Sandbox also sees high diversity in their founding teams, especially for the technology space.

Twenty-four percent of their founding teams include people of color, 34 percent include women, and 5 percent include veterans.

“I think those areas are still untapped so we can drive those numbers even higher,” said Shackelford. “What we’ve managed to do is build a program that is inviting. At the end of the day, I think there’s a need for this.”

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Christine Burright McGuigan is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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