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CLEVER CLIPPERS: Lee and Meagan Hicks are seeking $500,000 from investors to move their autonomous lawn mower kit out of the prototype phase.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
CLEVER CLIPPERS: Lee and Meagan Hicks are seeking $500,000 from investors to move their autonomous lawn mower kit out of the prototype phase.

MowBotix among five initial pitches to latest startup funding group

Posted online

Imagine running a commercial lawn mower without multiple crewmembers on-site – or even riding on the machine.

That’s the idea of Springfield startup MowBotix Inc. But first, the robotics entrepreneurs have to get their autonomous lawn mower kit out of the prototype phase.

And that’s the idea for Ozark Angels, a newly formed network to bring entrepreneurs and investors together. Husband-and-wife team Lee and Megan Hicks were among five startups scheduled to present at the angel investment group’s launch.

MowBotix has developed a retrofit kit that converts any commercial riding lawn mower into a self-driving unit.

“It’s built in our garage,” Lee said, “and then we’ve been testing using local properties around Springfield.”

While still a student, Lee helped build an autonomous telescope at the Missouri State University observatory, he said, and then worked at BriteCore as a software engineer. Megan recently worked as estimating manager for Abco Maintenance. Both left their jobs and are now working full time on MowBotix.

“Our first paid pilot is going through the retrofit process right now,” Lee said. “So as soon as our mobile application is done, we’ll actually be deploying that.”

They want to build more kits, sign customers to their subscription model and bring the product to market, but they need one thing: more capital.

“We need to actually hire on another engineer,” Megan said. “Currently, Lee is our only engineer working on everything.”

They’ve managed to collect an undisclosed sum from friends and family, as well as a combined $50,000 from San Antonio business incubator RealCo and BriteCore co-founders Chris and Phil Reynolds.
 
Pitching investors
The Hicks discovered another funding option during a 1 Million Cups presentation by Ozark Angels founder Devin Dillon. The newly formed organization scheduled a launch event Nov. 16 at the Route 66 Car Museum, and MowBotix was one of five startups selected to pitch to an audience of individual investors.

“We’d love it if we got an investor that night, but it doesn’t really happen that way all the time,” Megan said two days before the big night. “We’re looking for smart investors. So we would like someone who we could talk to and say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about going this direction. What are your thoughts on it?’ A silent partner is perfectly fine, but we’re always looking to expand our knowledge and expand our growth.”

As a serial entrepreneur and investor, Dillon said the No. 1 struggle in the startup community is accessing capital.

“When you’re pre-money, you haven’t made a dollar or you’re spending more money than you’re making, good luck trying to get a loan,” he said.

Springfield’s small-business market is strong, he said, and there are investors looking for opportunities.

The Ozark Angels’ first event venue is owned by Guy Mace, who also co-owns venture capital group Baron Venture Capital LLC. Springfield-based Westward Alliance LLC also works in venture capital deals.

“There are some venture capital firms here in town. And there are some small, private family offices – but those are not necessarily advertising or open to the public. Nor are they all collaborating in any effort that I’m aware of,” he said. “That’s precisely what the purpose of Ozark Angels is, to aggregate and collect the larger investment community in the region and put them together with the focal point of early stage investment.”

The other entrepreneurs scheduled at the initial pitch night were Omar Galal of Carbon Cycle in Mansfield, Zach Hatraf of Anchor in St. Louis, John James of Engine in northwest Arkansas and Kevin Fryer of Job Shakers in Kansas City.

Dillon plans to host the group quarterly at various sponsored venues.

Starting out, he’s running the organization from his CIEN Solutions LLC office, 221 South Ave. Dillon established a small advisory group comprising John Schnoebelen, owner of Schnoebelen Miller LLC real estate investors and director of innovation and product development at Sugar Design Studio; Charlie Daniel, co-founder of early stage investment service CS Funding LLC; and Trevor Crist, CEO at Nixon & Lindstrom Insurance.
 
Other hopefuls
Galal also was eager to get in front of angel investors. His Enginuity LLC has formed a third subsidiary called Carbon Cycle, which processes industrial waste into oil to be used to make fuel and carbon – ultimately for use in utility water filtration or as a soil additive.

“They are normally putting it in the landfill,” he said. “This is an alternative option – an eco-responsibility option.”

He landed a $250,000 grant a year ago and built a prototype in a former Mansfield hospital, which he owns. He also raised some $400,000 from friends and family, and he’s seeking another $300,000 from investors.

Dillon found it important to stretch his startup search beyond the Springfield area.

In what might be described as Uber for boats, the organizers of Anchor are hoping to reel in funds for the mobile app service that allows users to reserve cruises with boat owners serving as freelance captains. It’s operating on Lake of the Ozarks, and in March launches in Florida. “This isn’t our first race. We’ve raised money from one angel investor so far,” said Hatraf.

Anchor currently participates in two business accelerators – St. Louis-based Capital Innovators as well as Tampa Bay Wave. The company has raised $480,000 so far, he said, and aims to gather $120,000 more.

Filling a void
Ozark Angels is not Springfield’s first angel investor group. In 2008, Springfield Angel Network was formed. About 100 pitches were made through 2014, but only about a dozen resulted in new funding, according to SBJ reporting. The group formally dissolved in 2015.

Local investment efforts were redirected toward The eFactory’s accelerator service and to 1 Million Cups, which builds a network of support and exposure for small businesses.

Brian Kincaid, associate vice president for economic development at The eFactory, said budding business owners not only need funds but also structured business development preparation – which may or may not be found in an angel organization.

“One of the keys is education, both on the entrepreneur side and the investor side of the process of these early stage investments. We’re seeing very good progress on the quality of deal flow and the rate of which the deals are transacting,” he said.

The eFactory, owned by MSU, provides low-cost office space, entrepreneurial networking groups and an accelerator program for a limited number of businesses, which includes $30,000 in seed money in exchange for 8 percent equity. It also works to identify outside investment opportunities for startups, Kincaid said, that are at the proper stage. But it does not actually broker deals.

“We are actively working within our network of individuals to make sure that we have feedback from the investor community on how to structure possible opportunities,” he said, “and then we’re actively working with our entrepreneurs to make sure that they are in a position to be investable.”

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