RNOX accepts trio of tech startups for spring cohort
Enrollment comes as Reno accelerator embarks on Vegas expansion under new branding
PersonaFi co-founders Kevin Baize, right, and brother Don Baize work inside their office at RNOX, the 1-year-old tech accelerator located at 10615 Professional Circle in South Reno. PersonaFi is one of three companies selected for RNOX’s 2021 spring cohort.
Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW
In early March 2020, David Espinosa threw his hat in the ring as a Republican candidate for District 31 in the Nevada State Assembly. Preparing to kick off his campaign, Espinosa, a longtime Sparks resident, was primed to knock on Nevadans’ doors and get his message out. A week later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state — knocking on doors and gathering voters together to share his platform was no longer an option. “One of the challenges we had during that campaign season was … how do we even talk to people?” Espinosa said. Espinosa, along with every candidate running for office, would have to rely almost entirely on technology to reach constituents. The longtime business executive and software engineer quickly realized that there wasn’t an optimal, cost-effective text messaging platform to do just that. So, he built one. Espinosa began working on a beta version of a platform that focused on voter message personalization, custom responses and a comprehensive reporting suite. “And it was successful,” he said. “We were able to get our message out. Unfortunately, there were some other mechanisms in the campaign that didn’t get us across the finish line. But, that specific portion was very successful.” After Espinosa lost in the Republican primary in June, the Sparks resident narrowed his focus on fine-tuning his text-messaging platform and rolling it out to the rest of the campaign world. Put another way, he aimed to monetize his innovation. Last summer, he founded the startup Alliance Forge. Soon after, he pooled together a team — including co-founders Michael Clement and Greg Bailor — to help iron out the product and make a splash in the campaign season. It worked. By November, four months after launching, Alliance Forge had clients in 16 states, including Nevada, contracting with more than 40 campaigns, Espinosa said. “What’s particularly important about the platform we built is the candidates get feedback very, very quickly,” said Espinosa, whose Alliance Text platform is capable of sending thousands of messages per minute. “In an industry where the response time is typically measured in days and sometimes a week-plus, we’re getting responses back to our candidates in less than a day, as far as how the message is landing and people’s responses.” Espinosa, however, didn’t want to get ahead of himself. He wanted to grow, sure, but he felt his startup needed guidance along the way. So, he reached out to RNOX, the Reno tech accelerator that was accepting applications for the spring 2021 cohort of its Rapid Entrepreneurial Accelerated Launch (R.E.A.L.) program. “When you have a company that has potential, you want to make sure you don’t end up falling on your own hubris and destroying something that has legs,” said Espinosa, whose company was accepted into the accelerator. “We’re looking at getting the appropriate market capital and the appropriate working capital to be able to be successful. And with RNOX, we have day-to-day mentors.”
Members of the three companies accepted into the 2021 spring cohort of RNOX’s accelerator program gather for a workshop inside the RNOX offices in South Reno. Photo: Cam Crain
Alliance Forge ended up being one of three companies accepted to RNOX’s spring cohort, which started in mid-February. The others accepted into the 16-week accelerator are PersonaFi and Major League Markets; their stories are below. MAKING INVESTING ‘APPROACHABLE’
Led by co-founder and CEO Ken Mooso, PersonaFi is described as a social investment platform that “simplifies investment for everyone.” “Our mission is to democratize investing for investors,” said Mooso, founder and CEO of PersonaFi. “We’re doing it through transparency in the markets, where we’re wanting to have people put their money where their mouth is, and let people share amongst each other their best practices, what they’re doing, and how they’re trading and investing.” Mooso said he was inspired to launch a social investment startup after working for 12 years as a financial advisor. During that time, he began to notice that investment banks were falling into “cookie-cutter type portfolios.” Mooso felt there was an appetite for more. “I said, this is not what I’m about, this is not what I think our generation is about,” said Mooso, who started PersonaFi in October 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. “I think they would like to choose their path and be empowered in how they invest, and invest on their own terms, versus ‘it’s either take this or leave it.’ “The traditional means of investing is not appealing to younger generations. In fact, they find it very intimidating. So, we thought how can we make investing more approachable?” Early on, Mooso created a Facebook group and started posting his trades to 1) see how people would react and 2) see if they would reciprocate. A year later, 14,000 people had joined the group. Two of those were brothers Kevin Baize and Don Baize, who are now co-founders and Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Officer, respectively, at PersonaFi. “I asked if they would like to join me since they’ve got tactical skills that I needed,” said Mooso, whose younger brother went to undergrad with the Baize brothers. In the process of developing their personal investment app, the three co-founders joined RNOX to have direct access to mentors in the fintech space and be in general proximity to Silicon Valley, Mooso said. “It has the accessibility to the smart money, which is imperative to be able to win the startup game,” he said. “When you look at all the unicorns, there is a large common denominator that they have the Silicon Valley access, they have the distribution channels, and the connections to be able to overtake others from even those funded by Chicago or New York ventures out there.” While at RNOX, PersonaFi is planning to test the beta version of its iOS app through Apple’s TestFlight service. By early June, the startup plans to launch the full version of the app on the iOS store. “We hope to be able to onboard tens of thousands of people, since we do have quite a reserve of people that are interested waiting on us,” Mooso said. “Based upon algorithms, and trajectories and little tests that we’ve done, we do believe that we can grow rapidly, and something that could be able to catch the eyes of Silicon Valley.” SPORTS TEAMS STOCK MARKET
Hunter Reinhart, founder and CEO of Major League Markets, is hoping to do the same. The innovative startup allows users to invest in the performance of professional sports teams, with the option of buying single-game or full-season shares. How does it work? According to the company’s website, users can buy shares prior to a game or during a game. The markets will open before the games and users will be able to buy shares at the given price, which is directly correlated to the win probability of that side and also influenced by demand. Once the game starts (and potentially before the game), the secondary market will open allowing users to cash out early or “sell” their shares back to the market. “It’s creating a stock market for sports teams,” Reinhart said. Reinhart launched Major League Markets in 2020 during his senior year at the University of Southern California. As a freshman, he started a sports betting analytics company, SportsOwl, and gave out analytics-based sports picks to his social media followers and emailing list subscribers. Reinhart had found his niche. “That organically grew to about 4,000 followers on Twitter and I had a decent sized mailing list,” Reinhart. “And then I realized in the community how hard it was for people to make money. And then I started getting into the stock market and cryptocurrencies and trading and exchanges overall, and realized that there was no real way to invest into the performance of a team. “And every bettor wants some skin in the game with their favorite team.” Reinhart said he was attracted to RNOX because its program included a sports betting vertical. Moreover, he wanted to join a small cohort that would allow more face-to-face time with mentors. Currently, Major League Markets has a fantasy version of its app available for download for android and iOS. The startup is waiting to get its gaming license in the UK, which he anticipates will come next month. “Once we get that, we will launch our gaming platform,” said Reinhart, who has team members based in the UK. “One of my main goals (while at RNOX) is to really have a successful launch in the UK.” He added that he’s also focused on the accelerator’s demo day, held June 10, which allows the founders to pitch to venture capitalists and funders. “That’ll be another milestone because we will likely be raising a seed round around then,” Reinhart said. “Hopefully, the demo day will be a great opportunity to showcase to investors what we’re doing, show our growth metrics and attraction numbers, and how the last couple of months have been.” GROWTH AND EXPANSION As for RNOX itself, it’s been a year of speedy growth and change since the entrepreneurial tech and services accelerator launched in April 2020 from its offices in South Reno. One of the biggest recent changes is a new name — “X Co” — which the company announced Feb. 8 as a way to expand its mission to better harness the Silver State’s entrepreneurial spirit and focus on the success and growth of new, rapidly emerging technology ecosystems. With that, X Co is preparing to launch LASX, a sister tech accelerator of RNOX that will be based in Las Vegas, in July or August, with hopes of running its first cohort in August or September, said Shaunt Sarkissian, founder and executive chairman of both X Co and RNOX. “We’ve seen tremendous support from a lot of executives in the Vegas area and companies in the area,” Sarkissian told the NNBW. “So, we’re excited.” Last fall, RNOX announced its interest in expanding to the Vegas market around the same time it launched its SLVR Fund, a $10 million venture capital fund focused on investing in the early-stage companies that go through its R.E.A.L. program. Of note, X Co has also expressed interest in Salt Lake City as a third location in the future. According to the new X Co company set-up, RNOX, LASX and SLVR Fund are the three main business groups under the X Co umbrella. Go to x-co.io to learn more. In related news, X Co in early 2021 also started a Vegas-based coding school, Code Legion, a joint effort with two southern Nevada military and technology veterans, founders Matt Davis and Mario Mitchell, according to a press release. The school’s mission is to drive talent in Nevada’s fast-growing tech economy as well as help retrain workers and individuals impacted by the pandemic. In the process, Code Legion provides a three-tiered coding education and gives top-performing developers direct experience through internships, apprenticeships and collaboration roles with startups and development initiatives. Go to codelegion.io to learn more.