The South Sound’s startup scene is on the rise, thanks in part to the presence of regional players looking to foster local innovation. Startup253 helps provide a home base for the local startup landscape, linking leaders in the entrepreneurial community, government stakeholders, venture capital, and the corporate sector in order to promote a vibrant local startup scene. Meanwhile, the RAIN Incubator is focused on growing jobs and companies in Tacoma’s biotech sector, along with empowering the next generation of local STEAM students.
In Kitsap County, regionwide collaboration Startup Kitsap works at the confluence of talent, ideas, and capital. Its six-month startup cohort, created by Seattle VC and angel investor Dave Parker, puts startup founders on a roadmap to a successful launch.
As the South Sound’s startup scene continues to grow, here are 10 startups we think you should keep an eye on.
Illustrations by Alex Schloer // Photos by Jeff Hobson
The digital market can be a tough place for small businesses. Humming intends to make the experience smoother. Billing itself as “Tacoma’s tech company,” Humming was co-founded in 2019 by serial entrepreneur Bill Herling and clinical psychologist Jill Nealey-Moore. By bringing advertising networks into a central platform, the company helps small businesses increase their reach by equipping them with powerful data analytics tools. Humming’s users can target advertisements toward a custom customer profile in order to reach the right target audience and capture their preferred market.
Tacoma-based Namatad traces its origins to a simple question posed in 2016: “What keeps you up at night?”
That’s what CEO and founder Matt Tolentino asked then-Tacoma Fire Department Chief Jim Duggan as the two sat down to discuss possible uses for a year’s worth of building sensory data insights Tolentino gathered while working at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Duggan offered a straightforward answer: He was losing sleep over how to retrieve injured or disoriented firefighters from a burning building before they sustained further injury, or worse.
In the field of firefighting, it’s known as a “mayday” scenario, and the search for a tech solution to improve stations’ responses has long plagued the field. After six firefighters were killed in Massachusetts’ 1999 Worcester fire, East Coast universities spent a decade working on a solution but ultimately couldn’t crack the code. But Tolentino, who joined UWT as a full-time faculty member in 2015, believed his building sensory data findings might hold a key to solving the puzzle.
Tacoma FD and Tolentino ultimately formed a partnership, but it took a long period of trial and error to develop a working system. “I failed repeatedly for the first year,” Tolentino said. After building approximately 15 versions of a potential system, Tolentino finally had a technological breakthrough in summer 2017. He founded Namatad the following year.
Modern fire departments are outfitted with plenty of technological upgrades: masks with LED indicator lights that provide a quick readout of how much oxygen remains and thermal imaging cameras, for example. However, Tolentino said, “As soon as a fire crew enters the building, they’re operating back in the 1800s.” Firefighters still rely on long-established methods in order to track their location within a building, such as counting the number of doorways passed or stringing out a line behind them.
Namatad aims to improve those antiquated processes. The company’s flagship project, Firefly, provides on-the-scene responders with a real-time, bird’s-eye view of people, locations, and environmental conditions. Firefly’s system consists of three pieces: small devices firefighters wear on their person and drop into a building upon entry, a server mounted onto a firetruck, and a data-visualization system that processes and presents the insights. Together, the devices create a mesh network system, providing feedback on changing environmental conditions and firefighters’ locations within a structure.
Tolentino said that Namatad aims to put data in the hands of decision-makers. Firefly’s insights can improve situational awareness as well as augment an incident commander’s decision-making. Data also can be analyzed after the fact to help departments improve response strategies.
In order to get Firefly off the ground, Tolentino had to jump through a number of regulatory hoops. Devices had to comply with both Federal Communications Commission requirements and state and municipal fire codes. Currently, Tolentino and his team are working with the National Fire Protection Association to find the best materials with which to fashion the devices.
In February, Namatad signed a contract to outfit two Tacoma FD engine s and has completed demos for departments around the South Sound. The startup also is exploring potential adaptations for emergency response and military locating and tracking.
Tolentino said choosing to headquarter the project in Tacoma has opened important doors. It was the city’s community and economic development department that first directed Tolentino to the fire department, and the close connection with Tacoma FD has been critical to testing and launching the technology. These collaborative partnerships have positioned the City of Destiny on the cutting edge of technology updates in the field of firefighting.
Launched in 2019, Boatzilla’s objective is to take the stress out of purchasing a recreational boat. Headquartered in the waterfront community of Poulsbo, the online marketplace provides a platform similar to the popular real estate website Zillow, but for boats. Founder George Sudarko brings years of experience as a Silicon Valley software engineer and honed the business through Startup Kitsap’s six-month program. The online marketplace guides boat buyers and sellers through every step of the process in order to match them with the perfect new craft.
Pacific Immuna CelKem
Part of Tacoma’s growing roster of biotech companies, Pacific Immuna CelKem is on a mission to make gains in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis research. A scarring disease of the lungs with unknown cause, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a serious condition whose medical need has long gone unmet. Those who receive a diagnosis are given a life expectancy of a few years at most. P.I. CelKem is part of a cluster of cutting-edge Northwest-based pulmonary fibrosis research labs, specializing in the proteins and genes related to pulmonary fibrosis’ immune response pathways. The lab is part of Tacoma’s RAIN incubator, a nonprofit life science incubator promoting the local biotech sector.
Another Kitsap-based startup, SecureStatus, is an online text messaging platform for B2B and B2C that helps businesses save time and money by streamlining their customer communication. The platform gives businesses tools to provide speedy status updates through secure means. Through an easy-to-use messaging platform, users can o er tailored status updates about their businesses and brands and instant SMS updates to their clients.
Tacoma-based Give InKind helps users leverage and organize their community support networks in response to moments of crisis and celebration. The company flowed directly from the experiences of founders Laura and James Malcolm, who were overwhelmed by the amount of cross-country care they received from friends looking to shower them with love after the stillbirth of their daughter. Whether in response to a loss, illness, or birth, Give InKind’s platform provides tools to coordinate community support.
Poulsbo’s Alpha Ledger is a new kind of loan and bond marketplace. Founded in 2019, the company facilitates primary insurance and secondary market trading with the use of secure blockchain technology. Zeroing in on U.S. municipal markets, the platform provides a powerful alternative to traditional trading processes. The company was co-founded by Chris Wade and Manish Dutta, who collectively bring nearly 50 years of asset management experience.
Aljolynn Sperber sees menstrual cycles as something to celebrate. The CEO and founder of Lady Box, an organic period care and comfort subscription box, said founding her company allowed her to use her love of gift-giving to turn periods into a pampering experience. “I’ve actually had someone say, ‘I’m actually looking forward to my next period.’ That’s my goal,” Sperber said.
A self-described subscription box addict, Sperber first dreamed up the idea for Lady Box in March 2019. At the time, she was working as managing director at a Los Angeles-based agency. She spent the next six months experimenting with sourcing products and conducting market research. That October — on National Period Day, to be exact — she launched Lady Box’s website.
Concurrently, Sperber returned to her childhood home of Poulsbo. One month later, she joined the six-month Startup Kitsap cohort, which helped her refine her idea for Lady Box. Of the Kitsap startup scene, Sperber said, “It’s more vibrant than I expected.” Transplants from the San Francisco and Seattle area bring fresh ideas and approaches, and Sperber said she appreciates the overall area’s commitment to work-life balance.
Currently, Lady Box offers subscribers three tiers of boxes. From “Basic Needs” to “Pampered AF,” each box contains organic hygiene products; snacks; and comfort items like bath bombs, candles, and heating patches. Sperber curates each month’s boxes with a theme in mind, often sourcing from local brands like Seattle’s Theo Chocolate or Poulsbo’s Away With Words Bookshop. Sperber also seeks to work with companies with a charitable ethos while ensuring that philanthropy is central to her own brand.
Sperber has donated proceeds to Days for Girls, a nonprofit that works to increase access to menstrual care and education for girls and women worldwide. She now is shifting her focus toward Seattle’s YouthCare, citing her desire to give back to local youth of color as well as make sure that youth experiencing housing insecurity have access to organic hygiene products.
Sperber shipped her inaugural box in February, just before COVID-19 came to Washington state. And, despite the name “Lady Box,” Sperber highlighted that her product is meant to be inclusive. It’s designed for anyone who menstruates, not just women and girls.
“I really think it’s important to recognize all people that menstruate and have periods,” said Sperber, including those who identify as nonbinary and transgender. Sperber is working on developing a gender-neutral box, and also hopes to create boxes celebrating other rites of passage — pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause. Additionally, she plans to incorporate more sustainable period products, like cups and disks, into her boxes by the year’s end.
LumiThera is a Poulsbo-based medical device company that harnesses the healing power of light. Founded by Clark E. Tedford, Ph.D. and a team of two eye doctors and two engineers, LumiThera was conceived with the goal of developing a noninvasive treatment for degenerative eye disease.
Tedford has more than 30 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, where he has helped develop both drugs and devices. He first worked with the photobiomodulation technology that powers the startup’s Valeda technology while researching treatments for degenerative brain diseases such as such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as impairments related to stroke.
While working as the chief science officer at Seattle’s PhotoThera, Tedford was approached by two eye doctors about potential uses of photobiomodulation— a technology that uses light to stimulate cells, improving energy production and blood flow—to treat degenerative eye disease. At the time, Tedford was unable to take on the commitment. But a year later, the doctors presented a small study at a conference demonstrating improvements in patients’ vision using photobiomodulation. Tedford was intrigued and learned that one of the doctors had relocated just down the road — to Bainbridge Island.
The two came together to form LumiThera shortly afterward, in April 2013.
LumiThera’s flagship product is its Valeda Light Delivery System, a device that uses photobiomodulation to treat dry age-related macular degeneration (dry AMD), the leading cause of blindness for adults ages 60 and older. Tedford said the disease can be quite debilitating.
“You lose your ability to drive a car, your ability to have conversations across the table from people because you have difficulty seeing them, to read a book. So, the quality of life becomes very impacted by this disease.” Currently, dry AMD has no recognized treatment.
Valeda works to counter the disease using a noninvasive light therapy to stimulate cells in the back of the eye. The goal is to stimulate and strengthen tissue to make it healthier. Ideally, the treatment would be used to address degenerative diseases before irreversible vision loss happens.
The device’s earliest prototypes were developed with funding from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. Funding continued through the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute. Another $1.5 million grant from the institute, awarded in August, will allow the team to expand its research into diabetic retinopathy.
The Valeda system was approved for treatment in Europe in 2018. The following year, the team started treating patients in five European countries as part of a trial and in select retinal centers throughout Europe. The company is currently enrolling U.S. patients in another study. In July, LumiThera closed a Series C round of funding to complete its clinical trial enrollment and pursue regulatory approval in the United States. Its European sister study is ongoing and will have results by early 2021.
Pixatel Systems is a social enterprise developing technology to target literacy and basic education abroad. The Olympia company partners with nongovernmental organizations and governments around the globe in order to reimagine educational possibilities in rural and urban environments alike. Since its 2011 founding, Pixatel Systems has put state-of-the-art tools into the hands of teachers and students in the Global South. Its innovative web applications and tablet-based learning platform, developed in conjunction with the U.S. Agency for International Development, are transforming educational environments around the world.