This article first appeared in Journal of Business on September 8, 2022 by Kevin Blocker.
What began as a college project among three classmates at the University of Idaho in 2016 has turned into a company with annual revenue now in the millions.
Tim Ledford, the 28-year-old CEO of Post Falls-based SafeGuard Equipment Inc., is a main driver behind the company’s meteoric rise. SafeGuard now has its utility worker, hardhat clip-on device—named Compass—in 58 countries.
“We have gotten our product in nearly every utility in the nation,” he claims. “But the coolest statistic is we’ve helped save more than 48 lives now.”
The device, which is no bigger than the size of a human hand, has the ability to detect and notify a utility worker of unseen, nearby sources of electrical charges, preventing potential electrocution, he says.
“SafeGuard is one of the fastest-growing startups in the Pacific Northwest, in the 96th percentile (on PitchBook) for growth rate compared to startups across the U.S.,” says Cyndi Donahue, community engagement director of Ignite Northwest, in Ledford’s Rising Stars nomination letter.
In addition to SafeGuard, Donahue notes Ledford is an adviser and mentor to several local startups, including Quantum Star Technology, and a founding member of Inland Northwest Private Equity Group. He also previously sat on Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ subcommittee, WA-05 Tech & Innovation Coalition.
Ledford co-founded the company with Brandon Bledsoe and John Thompson, who remain among SafeGuard’s co-owners. The trio launched its product in August 2018, and the company was profitable by October the same year. All three come from a family of electrical workers.
The Compass device first prevented an electrocution of a utility worker in the field in 2019, claims Ledford.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates more than 200 utility worker electrocution deaths occur annually.
Ledford declines to disclose specific revenue figures but says the company is on track to reach $100 million in annual revenue in as little as five years.
Ledford’s family moved to the Inland Northwest from Seattle in 1997. He graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School before completing an undergraduate degree at University of Idaho.
He accepted a position as an industrial engineer for Boeing Co. after earning a 4.0 GPA in college. He worked on a handful of projects for the company, one of which he says helped the company save $70,000 per week in operating costs, and another saving $50,000 per week, he says.
For those efforts, he was placed in an accelerated leadership program at Boeing. At the same time, he submitted his application to Harvard to complete an MBA.
Ledford accomplished all this while working on SafeGuard with Bledsoe and Thompson, who also had secured full-time employment with other companies out of college.
“I had this crossroads moment of going on with (SafeGuard) or pursuing this incredible opportunity with Boeing,” he says.
Financial commitments from angel investors, which included Avista Foundation, Spokane Angel Alliance, and Cowles Ventures LLC, persuaded the SafeGuard triumvirate to move forward with their collegiate project, Ledford says.
Safeguard currently is operating in 15,000 square feet of space in a series of offices in the Tedder Business Center, at 4454 W. Riverbend, in Post Falls. Ledford says the company has 30 employees and expects to add 10 more by the end of this year.
He says he’s not completely surprised at where the company stands today.
“There were a lot of unknowns when we first started,” he says. “But we had the vision, and we had the skillset.”
This is a press release from Greater Spokane Inc., released on March 14, 2022.
(SPOKANE, Wash.) – The Washington State Department of Commerce has awarded a $500,000 Innovation Cluster Accelerator grant to Evergreen Bioscience Innovation (Evergreen Bio) to build a bioscience innovation cluster in the Spokane region. The successful team is led by Greater Spokane Inc. in partnership with SP3NW. Washington’s Innovation Cluster Accelerator is one portion of work supported by a $15 million CARES Act Investment by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration.
The grant dollars will grow an industry-led business development organization and drive initiatives to build a world-class health and life science contract service industry in the region. Evergreen Bio’s mission is to make the Mountain Northwest and Washington State a magnet for companies providing and consuming expert life and health science contract research, development, and manufacturing services. They will do this by promoting industry “co-opetition,” prioritizing projects to address industry needs, and acquiring, developing, and retaining top talent.
Multiple organizations and key champions have been instrumental in the success of this award, including SP3NW, Katrina Rogers Consulting, Health Sciences and Services Authority of Spokane County, Clear Solutions Biomedical, VectorPoint Ventures, Johnston Engineering, and Alturas Analytics/Needham Scientific.
“This is a very exciting opportunity that is building on a lot of the community’s great work. Evergreen Bio is what comes next from VISION 2030, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, SP3NW, and new investments from Jubilant HollisterStier and Selkirk Pharma. Contract services across the region has been identified as a gap and Evergreen Bio can lead the economic advantage of local supply chain sourcing for pharmaceutical and medical device contract services companies. We will have the opportunity to catapult our community into one of the leaders in life science services,” said Stacia Rasmussen, Health & Life Science Business Development Manager of Greater Spokane Inc.
Evergreen Bio is focusing on five key initiatives to promote bioscience innovation including a Thriving Industry, Total Mountain Northwest Supply Chain, Global Entrepreneurship Hub, 21st Century Talent, and a World-Class Cluster. Evergreen Bio will be the home for synergistic regional initiatives across these focus areas.
“Growing life sciences in Spokane requires a strong entrepreneurial community supported by financial opportunities. SP3NW is proud to be a part of the team bringing Evergreen Bio into existence. We already have strong interest from the private sector, entrepreneurs, finance, government, and education from current work with parallel aims of the FIRE grant programs. The grant will give us the ability to grow on this success,” said Michaele Armstrong, Associate Director of SP3NW.
About the Evergreen Bioscience Innovation
Evergreen Bioscience Innovation (Evergreen Bio) is a corporate industry-led, member-based organization that includes partners from the five economic segments of government, capital, academics, entrepreneur, and corporate. The mission of Evergreen Bio is to make the Mountain Northwest and Washington State a magnet for companies providing and consuming expert life and health science contract research, contract development, and contract manufacturing services of medicines and medical devices, by enhancing workforce development and services to pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Evergreen Bio’s purpose is to develop and promote collaborative relationships facilitating regional business growth by prioritizing and assisting in funding projects that increase our collective value as an integrated biosciences supply chain, which will expand name recognition and awareness of contract services provided within our region.
About Greater Spokane Inc.
Greater Spokane Inc. (GSI) is the Spokane region’s business development organization. GSI creates the place where organizations come together to advocate for the region, drive strategic economic growth, and champion a talented workforce. GSI is funded through a combination of private and public investment, including over 800 private-sector members; Spokane County; Washington State Department of Commerce; and the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley, Cheney, Deer Park, Liberty Lake, Airway Heights, Medical Lake, Millwood, Newport, and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. For more information visit GreaterSpokane.org.
About SP3NW and the FIRE grant programs
SP3NW is an early-stage, life sciences incubator located in the University District of Spokane. In alignment with the land grant mission of WSU, SP3NW supports the bench-to-business and business-to-consumer paradigm. Through the four programs of our EDA-supported Flexible Infrastructure for Resilient Entrepreneurship (FIRE), we help to grow companies with innovative new products across Washington, Idaho, and Montana. For more information visit sp3nw.org.
Spokane-based Spiceology has secured a $4.7 million round of Series A funding, led by grocery and retail executive Ty Bennett with participation by Kickstart Funds III and IV, a group of angel investors and the Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.
“I have been an investor in Spiceology since the early days and had the privilege of watching the company elevate above the thousands of small spice purveyors in the market,” Ty Bennett, founder and former CEO of Jacent, said in a statement. “I look forward to bringing my retail and grocery experience to the table to help Spiceology continue to delight customers and find new ways of meeting customers where they shop.”
The privately held spice company will use the funding to bring process automation to its SpiceLab operations, and advance its sales and marketing efforts. The SpiceLab is where spice blends are formulated and packaged with the company’s trademarked “periodic table of flavor” labels, according to a company release.
Series A funding is the first round of investment funding after seed funding. It typically involves venture capital firms and is for startups that have established growth.
Spiceology, founded in 2013, was recently named to Inc. Magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the nation. It ranked 1,081 on the list with a three-year revenue growth of 423%.
The company has steadily grown its operations by creating recipes and how-to videos for customers as well as collaborating with chefs and food influencers on new product lines.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Spiceology experienced an uptick in spice sales as more people began preparing meals at home.
Bennett has joined Spiceology’s board of directors. The company also hired Roger Landrum as senior vice president of global supply chain and operations, the release said.
Landrum was formerly the senior director of supply chain, risk management and procurement at Litehouse Foods, a Sandpoint-based $300 million salad dressing and herb manufacturer.
“Spiceology’s formula is focusing on quality and innovation at scale. By doing so, we’re bringing life into a very tired category that’s sorely in need of a fresh alternative,” Chip Overstreet, president and CEO of Spiceology, said in a statement.
“There’s nothing more core to our lives than eating, and we bring smiles to people’s faces when they realize how much better every meal can be with a simple sprinkle of Spiceology goodness.”
Mark Pond received very few questions from visitors about starting a business at the reference desk when he began a career at the Spokane Public Library in 2006.
“I just sat at the downtown library at the reference desk waiting for business questions to come to me. It was complete radio silence,” said Pond, the library’s business reference librarian. “People didn’t know what the library had to offer. I didn’t know how to market what we had to offer, and the tools we had available weren’t necessarily anything close to the toolbox we have now.”
Pond jumped into action and led an effort to provide resources to entrepreneurs at the Spokane Public Library. By 2016, the library’s business offerings had expanded to include the Level Up Coworking Space at the downtown branch that provides meeting rooms, Macs with Adobe Creative software and access to a Bloomberg Terminal.
The Spokane Public Library is the second in the nation – the New York Public Library being other – with a Bloomberg Terminal, which provides access to financial news, analytics and charts.
In addition to providing one-on-one business consultations and conducting workshops on various business topics at local organizations, Pond maintains resources at spokanebusiness.org that help people research market information, find potential customers, develop business plans and take online job-training courses.
“One of the primary drivers in opening up the Level Up Coworking Space is the gig economy. It gives them tools and resources to figure out how to do their jobs,” Pond said. “Having those kinds of ongoing education and learning opportunities for the Spokane workforce can be huge in terms of business retention and expansion.”
Becoming a business research librarian
Pond, a Kettle Falls native, graduated with a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Washington in 2000. He worked as a reference assistant at the University of Washington library while attending college. After graduation, Pond was hired as a reference librarian for the Seattle Public Library, a position he held for more than six years.
Pond said he was drawn to library work because of the opportunity to help people with a range of questions and subjects.
“One of the things that appealed to me about the library world is – if you want – you can get super specialized, but sometimes just sitting at the reference desk taking whatever questions coming your way is really fascinating,” he said.
Pond and wife, Maggie, contemplated a move back to Eastern Washington in 2006 to be closer to family and raise their two children. Within hours of discussing the potential move, Pond saw a job posting for a business research position at the Spokane Public Library.
Although Pond had some experience with business research while working at the Seattle Public Library, he was a little concerned at first that the position would be too specialized and might not be a good fit.
“But I love it,” he said, adding it’s a combination of specializing in business topics while also providing the opportunity to answer many different questions from a variety of entrepreneurs.
“At the same time, there’s some common threads in the business research world – who you are selling to and what’s your business model. So those things, (the library) can really help them,” he said. “I enjoy being able to work with a whole span of different businesses around town. I find that really fascinating.”
It took more than a decade for Pond to develop business resources for the downtown library branch. He said the idea to improve the offerings was planted when he met a man who created a device that assists with safety checks for tractor-trailers.
Pond shared with the man some of the library’s business research tools and directories, and compiled a list of trucking companies on the West Coast within seconds.
“The guy said he paid $1,800 for the exact same list two days ago,” Pond said. “So, I had a couple of interactions like that for the tools we have. They are in need and of value to the business community.”
Technology has changed how people access information at the library. More people are gravitating toward digital access to books and reference materials, Pond said.
“I realized it will be a thing of the future and thought, ‘I have to get outside of the library and meet businesses on their own terms,’ ” he said.
After Startup Spokane – a program of Greater Spokane Incorporated – launched in 2015, more entrepreneurs began seeking Pond’s assistance for market research.
About half the businesses Pond works with are startups, and he recently assisted teams of students with business research for the upcoming Northwest Entrepreneur Competition.
“Even today, people don’t realize how incredible the resources and options he’s created for startups and small businesses,” said Mark Gustafson, director of innovation and strategy at Avista Corp. and managing partner of Mind to Market LLC. “For a startup, there’s no way they would have access to this rich of a system in their company.”
Mind to Market LLC is a program by Avista that connects startups with experienced coaches to prepare them for early-stage investments.
Mind to Market participants find business resources – especially PitchBook – useful at the library, Gustafson said.
The Spokane Public Library, with Pond’s help, became the first library in the country to secure a subscription to PitchBook, a venture capital and private equity database.
“Most mom-and-pop businesses in town aren’t looking for venture capital funding, so it doesn’t address them,” Pond said. “But, for the companies that are looking for venture capital funding, it’s really helpful to have the industry standard tool available to them when they come in and consult with me.”
University of Washington’s CoMotion Labs provided grant funds to cover a one-year subscription for PitchBook, totaling more than $18,500 per year.
Pond said the Spokane market and its location in Eastern Washington and proximity to Gonzaga, Whitworth and Washington State universities appealed to PitchBook.
“The universities don’t have a subscription, but I can present it to MBA classes and when they go back to their hometowns, they are aware of PitchBook,” Pond said.
Greater Spokane Incorporated, the Health Sciences & Services Authority of Spokane County and the Spokane Angel Alliance donated more than $13,000 toward a second-year subscription for PitchBook.
“It seems like the library is really well-positioned to be a crowdsourcing hub for access to more resources, even if they might be kind of industry specific, like PitchBook,” Pond said.
A win for the economy
Although the Spokane Public Library’s downtown branch is closed for renovations, Pond is continuing to accept online and phone consultations.
Pond said during the downtown branch closure, the Bloomberg Terminal will be moved to the Spokane Academic Library at the Riverpoint campus.
Prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to restrict gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pond was holding several meetings at local organizations such as small-business resource SCORE, a volunteer mentorship program, to help people with writing a business plan and other topics.
Pond aims to continue working to provide resources for Spokane businesses and entrepreneurs.
“We are spending $100,000 per year just for business research tools. There’s zero startups anywhere in the nation that are going to spend $100,000 on market research,” he said. “The library can step in and reduce that scope of risk for our local businesses. It’s a win for them and it’s a win for the Spokane economy.”
Among the databases available through the library are:
- Washington State Legal Forms, offering state and federal forms.
- Statista, with market data, market research and market studies.
- Reference USA, with market research, competitive analysis and sales lead generation.
- Microsoft Imagine Academy, with online courses for Microsoft technology.
- Demographics Now, offering demographics, consumer expenditures and interactive maps.
The national coworking culture is now fifteen years old. Successful coworking spaces know they need to be more than just secure wifi, free coffee and meeting rooms.
“Coworking spaces have to go above and beyond to stay competitive and thrive—developing niches spaces for certain businesses (legal, fashion and beauty, blockchain, film production), offering unique experiences such as coliving or childcare, plus getting creative by opening spaces in underutilized real estate like hotel business centers or within stores.”
—Madison Maidment, COO of Coworker
One novel idea is an app that connects you with another local option: your neighbor’s living room. Codi, a new startup launching soon in the Bay Area of California, turns apartments and houses into temporary, affordable coworking spaces during the day.
“I used to work from home, and it’s very isolating. When you go to coffee shops, they can be very distracting. And there were no working options close by, and downtown coworking spaces are very expensive.”
—Christelle Rohaut, CEO/founder of Codi
LiquidSpace is a national online network that connects people with spaces. Users can search for meeting rooms, coworking space, private office suites, brainstorming-ready spaces, event spaces, and, dedicated desks. Searches can be customized to neighborhoods or specific properties to be the first to know of new space availability.
The list of coworking spaces in the Inland Northwest continues to grow, as rural communities recognize the need to attract flexible workforce and encourage a startup culture.
IDAHO CO-WORKING SPACES:
Bonners Ferry: The Plaza Downtown
Coeur d’Alene: The Innovation Den, SpaceShare CDA, Rockford Building
Hayden: Panhandle Area Council Business Incubator
Sandpoint: The Office Sandpoint
WASHINGTON CO-WORKING SPACES:
Liberty Lake: Liberty Lake Portal
Pullman: Crimson Commerce Club (C3)
Harrington: The Post & Office
Spokane: Niche Coworking, Fellow Coworking, Level Up, Regus, and StartUp Spokane