The fourth-annual TechPitch competition in San Luis Obispo saw a company grown in the SLO HotHouse come out on top.
Superior Solutions Manufacturing, a startup that has been building its LiftGator product in the incubator space, took home both the $5,000 grand prize and audience choice award at the Oct. 22 event.
Six companies presented in all, narrowed down from a group of 25 applicants, with other finalists including Salty Girl Seafood and FuelBox from Santa Barbara and Tandemech Engineering, The Cardboard Guys and RVPlusYou out of San Luis Obispo.
Superior Solutions grabbed judges’ attention with the marketability and built-out business model for its LiftGator, a pick-up truck attachment that eases heavy lifting for which it had already raised $25,000 of its initial $55,000 seed round.
President Justin Russo said the design is far less invasive than current solutions, which is a permanent modification that requires the back end of a truck and its rear bumper to be cut off for installation. The LiftGator, meanwhile, slides into a pick-up’s existing receiver hitch, drops its support legs to the ground, and can then be unfolded to lower or lift 1,000 pounds at the push of a button.
“Right now, there’s no cost-efficient way for the vast majority of people to safely and efficiently load their trucks,” Russo said. “It’s hitting the bottom line through increased labor rates, injuries and workers’ compensation premiums.”
The team has a patent pending on its quick-mount technology, which allows the LiftGator to be installed in less than three minutes, as well as for its proprietary underlying drive system, which the company believes has applicability outside its product.
Russo said with heavy lifting being a common problem nationwide, the LiftGator has broad market appeal to “basically anyone who uses their truck for work.” Target sectors include construction, agriculture, industrial and retail, all the way down to the plumber that goes to a site to replace a water heater.
Russo, along with partner Marty Affentranger, began building the company about two years ago. Both were graduates of Cal Poly’s mechanical engineering program and had a history of working in back-breaking fields.
“It started out as just something I needed for myself,” Russo said. “I was working on a ranch and it was just a common thing: ‘Oh everyone went home and I need to haul an air compressor. Gotta call all the boys back.’ ”
Affentranger, originally from Bakersfield, has a strong agricultural background. “We’re the guys that use it — literally take it home and use it at home,” he said. “We understand how it works and the market.”
Superior Solutions is currently selling LiftGators at $3,000 a piece, with production costing half as much. It projects production costs could lower to $800 with rising demand.
Russo said the company hopes to be making 8,000 units annually within five years, which the firm projects would generate $20 million in revenue.
The team is already in the product placement phase with customers including the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, which Russo said is looking to purchase 10 units. Next, the firm will look to expand to retail and direct-sales channels.
Eventually, the company hopes it can partner with auto makers such as General Motors and Ford to include the product as an add-on when customers purchase their pick-ups. It may also explore partnerships with shipping and moving companies like U-Haul.
In hopes to covering the remaining $25,000 of its first funding round, the team will pitch its product in Santa Barbara in November to Tech Coast Angels, the largest angel investment group in the U.S.
Other promising inventions included Tandemech Engineering’s wall-climbing robot, which it hopes will cut costs and save time for industrial inspectors. Business Development Lead Tyler Dycus, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Cal Poly, displayed the company’s first prototype, which was designed to perform aerospace manufacturing tasks for a Boeing subsidiary.
Currently, to inspect, say, a storage tank, weeks of time and thousand of dollars must be invested in erecting scaffolding. But Tandemech’s wireless bot can spider around surfaces at a speed of around 4 mph with 70 pounds in tow and, although originally engineered for smooth-surface warehouse work, Dycus said the team sees the technology as a means to access nooks and crannies on any large structure.
“You can take the tooling and the equipment that you need to any height” in construction, military and manufacturing industries, Dycus said, to “even washing the windows on skyscrapers.”
Meanwhile The Cardboard Guys, also out of SLO, have been hoping the box can still be better than what’s inside for today’s tech-savvy children. Its Cardboard Kids Furniture Set enables children to build, design and decorate their own house wares.
“Kids are growing up with their eyes glued to screens and playing other people’s creations. But, we know that when we give kids the tools to be creative … they can do truly amazing and fun things,” company co-founder Jake Disraeli said.
The set’s chair can be constructed by a child within 10 minutes and support more than 500 pounds, according to Disraeli, though he didn’t say whether structural integrity had been inspected by Tandemech’s robot.