What do you do with a big idea that could save lives? If you’re Dan Schwarzlander and Nick Bennett, you do your homework. And then you reach out to Tech Venture Studio at the UMKC Innovation Center.
Digital Sandbox KC and Comeback KC Ventures have provided guidance and funding to the entrepreneurs of VaccineAssist. These programs have helped Dan and Nick move their venture forward at a time when their pharmaceutical platform is needed more than ever.
A new platform to empower patients
Both Nick and Dan have worked in health care for a long time. Dan focuses on advising the business side while Nick is an infectious disease pharmacist. Their deep understanding of patient needs and how care is delivered helped them see where and how some people and needs fall through the cracks.
“My family owned a small-town pharmacy in Iowa,” Nick says. “We understood the important connection between the pharmacy and the communities they serve. In some communities, the pharmacy is the only immediate access point to health care.”
Health care is robust, but how it delivers care can be disjointed. Traditionally, patients have gotten information and vaccinations from physicians, but there’s been a significant shift to pharmacies. However, a lot of pharmacies don’t have the infrastructure, capital or resources to seamlessly provide this information and care in a modern way.
Nick and Dan visualized a singular platform that would allow patients to connect with providers to get information proactively. More information empowers patients to make decisions, and that means improved public health in the long term. That same platform would benefit pharmacies, providing a streamlined workflow. And so, VaccineAssist was born.
A pre-pandemic idea becomes a hot commodity in a COVID world
Nick and Dan started looking at data and exploring pain points prior to the pandemic.
“It was clear before the pandemic that there are voids,” Nick says. “If you look at the vaccination rates for adults pre-pandemic and now post-pandemic, there is such a large gap to fill that it will take multiple partnerships to get people the vaccinations they need. These rate gaps have been going on for years. We did a market analysis to see if there really was a need and executed on that feedback.”
Dan and Nick initially pitched to Digital Sandbox KC in 2021. They didn’t get funding, but they did get valuable feedback.
“[The Sandbox team] said, ‘You’re not ready; here’s what we want to know,’” Dan says. “They gave us some good feedback. We worked with Chris Rehkamp at Digital Sandbox KC, and he said, ‘Work on the feedback you got from the evaluation team and reapply.’ A big part of the value of the Sandbox is the feedback you receive.”
The insights these founders gained from their initial pitch helped them pull together lessons learned. They learned more about the vaccine market and got a pilot to commit to testing their concept. So about eight months after their initial pitch to Digital Sandbox KC, VaccineAssist was back. And this time, they received funding, as well as assistance from local mentors to help them pursue additional funding.
“Comeback KC and the SBDC are helping us explore grants, both federal and in Missouri,” Dan says. “They have the pros at grant writing.”
Although they had funding to get started, Nick and Dan could still use guidance on some of the nuts and bolts of running a successful startup. That’s where Comeback KC Ventures came in.
Mentoring and validation for KC startups
Comeback KC Ventures is designed to help launch new technologies in response to challenges stemming from the pandemic. VaccineAssist was one of the startups that joined the program this spring.
“Comeback KC Ventures is helping us figure out the best way to scope our work for our prototype/pilot client. There are people who might be able to do some of that work,” Dan says. “The other piece is preparing to raise capital. Neither of us have done that. We’re finding out what you need to do to have due diligence stuff completed — what needs to be set up, who you can target, things like that.”
Nick and Dan note that working with programs like Digital Sandbox KC and Comeback KC Ventures can open other doors.
“Other people have kicked the tires, so potential partners know you aren’t going to waste their time,” Day says. “Going through this mentorship provides kind of a seal of approval.”
Right now, VaccineAssist is getting ready to start developing its platform. It’s an exciting time, and support from Tech Venture Studio has played a significant role in moving the innovation forward.
Dan and Nick recommend other Kansas Citians with big ideas take advantage of all the entrepreneurial support available in the community.
“It’s important for people to test their ideas and access local resources,” Nick says. “Things like Comeback KC Ventures and Digital Sandbox KC are great for supporting your vetted and tested idea.”
The duo also recognize that entrepreneurship is for everyone and there’s no better time than today.
“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago,” Dan says. “The next best time is today. Figure out what you need to conceptualize and help you understand what to do next. It’s all about lifelong learning and having experiences.”
About Digital Sandbox KC
As part of UMKC Innovation Center’s Technology Venture Studio, the Sandbox supports early-stage startups not only with project funding, but also with panels of experts during Summer in the Sand, as well as founder roundtables, where entrepreneurs are introduced to peer networks of support; referrals to other transformation funding and programs, like Comeback KC, Launch KC, Pure Pitch Rally, Pipeline and others; intentional connections to regional and national angels and venture capitalists for follow-on funding; and exposure to cutting-edge technologies emerging from partner research institutions in the region.
About the UMKC Innovation Center
From whiteboard to boardroom, the UMKC Innovation Center partners with the university and the community to spark entrepreneurial efforts within our region and across the country. With a suite of high-impact programs that serve tech ventures, deliver entrepreneurial education and build our entrepreneurial ecosystem, the center helps emerging and existing business owners, including students, faculty and community members, to hone business basics, evaluate commercialization opportunities and connect with the right resources at the right time. Innovation Center programs include the Missouri Small Business Development Center, Procurement Technical Assistance Center, the Technology Venture Studio, SourceLink, KCSourceLink. Learn more at UMKCinnovates.com.