“Startup” is such a simple word, but one inculcated with euphemisms and double meanings — both good and bad. 

For an entrepreneur, a startup idea is often an obsessive one. The many hours spent shaping and developing a business plan rivals the many hours spent convincing investors to write checks. For investors, a startup company is often an unproven risk, but one laced with the potential to disrupt an industry and reap huge profits.

The Eastside startups that appear on the following pages all aspire to be the next industry game-changers in ways both varied and innovative. Whether it’s helping you beat your traffic ticket, creating a richer and more immersive experience for avid gamers, or closing the connectivity gap between Earth and outer space, here are five Eastside startups to watch.

Smart Cards

Eastside startups

Illustrations by Alex Schloer

The proactive tracking of discretionary spending has long been a ubiquitous problem for companies.

Naveen Singh hopes his company, Center, can help fix that problem. Center offers budgeting software and CenterCard, a digital corporate credit card that tracks spending in real time, down to an individual’s point of purchase. The sleek metal card looks roughly the same as every other credit card, but it has a digital e-ink screen enabled with a rechargeable battery and Bluetooth technology that displays how much is left of an individual’s budget for that particular trip.

Currently, most discretionary spending is reactionary, meaning managers don’t typically see what’s been spent until the end of each month, or whenever they look at submitted expense forms. A survey of 250 U.S.-based businesses conducted by Center revealed 88 percent of respondents don’t use budgeting software at all, and another 43 percent use documents that require manual updating, like Excel, as their primary budget tracking system.

What sets Center apart from other travel spending products, like Concur — which was founded by Center co-founder Steve Singh — is its real-time approach to budget management, Singh said.

“There are many steps to managing company spending,” he said. “Travel and expense solutions, like Concur, excel at tackling things like reconciling expenses and making sure employees follow travel policy. What Center does is give managers the information they need to approve spending before it happens, and then the actual payment tool, CenterCard, allows employees to then make those approved purchases. Center works with expense software to provide a more complete system.”

Using CenterCard technology, companies can be strategic about how they’re using discretionary funds to stay on budget and ensure it aligns with their priorities.

“So, you can start to say, ‘Hey, this quarter I want to spend more money on client-facing travel and less money on non client-facing travel,’” Singh said. “With our app, you can proactively approve those things and set the direction and see the budget fall all the way down to the card in a way that’s in line with that priority.”

With the tap of a finger, employees can digitally request travel funds, and managers can approve or reject that request.

Singh said that in conversations with companies, he found the majority would cut their travel budget at the end of each quarter to control spending, which isn’t the best way to manage funds. Even though it’s discretionary spending, he said, it’s still important for the business. The mobile app allows managers to see spending across the entire company and manage funds in real time, making it simple to stay on budget.

By the end of the year, Center will roll out the  program with 10 companies as part of a controlled beta launch to work out any kinks before doing a wider launch next year. Center acts as the card issuer, and the cards are financially backed by Washington Federal, as the credit provider, and Central Bank of Kansas City, the debit provider. Corporate customers will have accounts with either Washington Federal or Central Bank of Kansas City depending on whether they are a credit or debit customer.

Mindful Marketing

Eastside startups

Nextio made headlines this year for flipping the conventions on recruiting and promotional messages — if companies want to get someone’s attention, they have to pay them for it. The professional network is similar to LinkedIn, but LinkedIn’s model has some shortcomings, said Anoop Gupta, CEO and co-founder of Nextio. Namely, it forces companies to buy a $10,000 recruiting license to search profiles.

On Nextio, users decide what’s “relevant” to them by creating topics they’re willing to receive free messages about, such as volunteer opportunities, and then set a price for unrelated messages. Recruiting messages are more likely to be acknowledged if people are being paid to receive them, Gupta said. The message fee can go straight into a user’s pocket, or be directed to a charity, and Nextio gets a small commission for each paid message.

Users also can search pathways to their dream job by searching a company and position, or check up on what fellow alumni are doing.

“Since we have the public profiles of everyone who’s, say, a design engineer at Tesla, you can tell where they came from, where they went to school, past positions, and their salary. We give you all of that in one click,” Gupta said.

Coming soon are Nextio communities where individual users can join a group, exchange messages and share information. Gupta said one already in mind is for minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). There are several groups that exist to support minorities in STEM, but they’re not all inclusive with messaging systems or directories. Users will be able to create their own groups, such as Washington teachers or alumni groups.

Speed Eraser

Three years ago, local software engineer Alex Guirguis was driving back to his home in Woodinville after a Labor Day weekend trip to Crater Lake, Oregon, when he was stopped by a state patrol officer and issued a traffic ticket. After returning home to Washington, he looked online for an app that could help him contest the ticket, but couldn’t find one.

Frustrated by the process of fighting the ticket the old-fashioned way, Guirguis had an idea and one year later solicited the help of his brother, Chris, and friend and then-Amazon co-worker, Mark Mikhail, to create Off the Record, an app that matches recently ticketed drivers with dozens of Washington attorneys (and more than 250 in 17 other states) who can fight those tickets in court.

According to Guirguis, the fees for attorneys specializing in traffic infractions prior to the launch of Off the Record could range anywhere between  $250 and $700. Now the norm, in many cases, is around $250, and that typically is what Off the Record charges, as well. And the app, which was introduced in September 2015, not only has been successful in driving those costs down, but also in helping drivers successfully beat traffic tickets.

“In Washington, we have a 97 percent success rate,” said Guirguis. “When (an attorney) accepts cases from us, we keep track of the whole process, and we know how (the attorney) resolves each case. We prioritize attorneys who are successful. Not the ones that have big name recognition, but the ones that get results.”

Being matched with the attorney best-suited to handle each case helps alleviate guesswork for the ticket holder, making the process less intimidating. A driver begins to fight her traffic ticket using Off the Record by uploading a photo of the ticket to the company’s app or website, answering a few questions, and proceeding to the checkout. Off the Record offers a money-back guarantee in every state it operates in except New Jersey: If an attorney loses a customer’s case, the customer pays nothing.

“There are 112,000 traffic tickets issued every day in the U.S.,” said Guirguis. “What Off the Record finds disconcerting is that only 5 percent of drivers contest their tickets. That means the vast majority — 95 percent of those 41 million tickets per year — of people just plead guilty and pay the tickets. On average, this is going to lead to them paying an extra $800 in insurance per year that they could have saved.”

Off the Record is headquartered in Seattle, but Guirguis, a former Woodinville resident, co-founded the company on the Eastside, where 16 percent of Off the Record’s business in Washington is comprised (Seattle comprises about 10 percent).

In the coming year, Guirguis said he plans to continue Off the Record’s growth into other markets across the United States, and the bootstrapped startup also will be launching its first round of funding this fall. Additionally, the company has plans to expand into other legal services, which it expects to introduce by early 2018.  

Stellar Connections

Eastside startups

It’s amazing to think that hundreds of commercial satellites are moving overhead (and out of sight) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), beaming real-time data down to our computers and smartphones in the form of images, weather data, and GPS information. As it becomes cheaper for companies to build and launch commercial satellites, demand for retrieving all that space-based data is increasing. That’s a market opportunity Christopher Richins identified years ago, and one that spurred him to co-found Redmond-based RBC Signals.

The problem Richins aims to solve for his customers is simple.

A satellite can transmit its data only when it orbits over a ground station, and that exact positioning happens only once every 90 minutes, when it is in a ground station’s line of sight. What’s more, a slim window exists to transfer data. The more ground stations a satellite can link to, therefore, the wider the window to ping ground stations and send down data.

Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars to build their own ground-station antennas, commercial satellite owners can log onto the RBC Signals platform to see which stations are available in the network, then schedule a time to retrieve information from their satellite to their servers using the ground station and the internet. RBC Signals charges its customer only for the service used, and pays the ground station owner for allowing the customer to briefly tap into their equipment.

“RBC Signals provides satellite communication infrastructure as a service,” explained Richins, who operates the company out of an office in Orange Studios, a co-working space in Redmond. “We are able to keep the prices much lower than would be required for a single company to go and build that infrastructure.”

RBC Signals has landed deals with the owners of nearly three dozen ground stations that stretch from Hawaii in the west to Russia and China in the east.

Asking the owner of a ground station if you can borrow his equipment for a while  — is that a delicate conversation?

“I wish everything was so easy as that conversation,” said Richins. “They have spent sometimes millions of dollars building an asset that is underutilized and unproductive, and I come to them and say, ‘I will do all of the hard work; I will do all of the technical work, and all of the customer work. All I need you to do is give me permission to use your excess capacity, and I’ll send you a check every month for all the capacity that I use.’ It just increases the productivity of an asset they are already paying for.”

After a year of testing, RBC Signals signed its first commercial contract in August 2016, and landed $1.5 million in venture capital six months later. This year, RBC Signals began to provide service to its customers from a station it built and owns in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The company is lean (no more than 10 people are on the payroll) and still a year or so away from turning a profit, according to Richins. But he’s optimistic about the future.

“It’s really about how do we help our customers, the people that are operating satellites in space, make it just dead easy and cost-efficient to move as much data to Earth as possible for the benefit of everybody,” said Richins. 

Virtual Heroes

Eastside startups

New entertainment industry prospects are hotter right now than competitive video games, or eSports.

To wit: This summer, thousands of eSports fans filled KeyArena to watch gamers compete for more than $24 million in prize money during Bellevue-based Valve Corporation’s Dota 2 tournament. A report compiled last year by a gaming research firm noted the number of global eSports players and fans increased from 90 million in 2014 to 131 million in 2016. That number is expected to grow to 180 million by 2019. Similarly, eSports revenue grew from $194 million in 2014 to $463 million in 2016. That number is expected to reach $1.1 billion by 2019. Goldman Sachs placed a $500 million value on the eSports market, and expects that figure to reach $1.1 billion in 2019.

Bellevue-based Emortal Sports is hoping to ride that wave by rolling out its own eSports platform, but with a twist. Gamers can create personalized avatars and custom weapons, as is the norm, but compete in virtual-reality arenas, all from the comfort of their living rooms on VR consoles.

“I have been in the gaming space for a long time now, and this is something that I have always wanted to exist,” said Emortal Sports founder and CEO David Ortiz, a Sammamish resident who began his game-development career 20 years ago at Atari Games, Microsoft, and went on to work at EA Sports, Sony Computer Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Games. “We’ve always had an iteration of this kind of virtual persona, but I wanted to take it to the next level. When I had my first opportunity to put on a VR headset, I thought, ‘That’s it. All the pieces are in place now to be able to do something special.’ I just feel like all the factors are in place: The tools to bring this to life and the audience’s interest to make it relevant.

It’s a strategy that might help achieve a goal for Ortiz and Emortal Sports  — that is, turning gamers into tangible stars with their own fan followings, not unlike other well-known athletes in football, baseball, and basketball. “We want to be a place where gamers will want to create their personas and become recognizable eSports heroes and superstars,” explained Ortiz. “We love watching pro athletes in other sports, and we want to produce those kinds of champions in eSports.”

Emortal Sports has two games in development  — Paradox Rift and Beasts and Heroes  — and Ortiz plans to unveil the Emortal Sports platform early next year. He has also built a team of advisers that includes former Disney executive Ed Borgerding, former Microsoft executive and Xbox co-creator Ed Fries, and Wizards of the Coast executive Ben Cammarano.

“We are building the digital superstar of the future,” added Ortiz. “That’s our elevator pitch.”