Primed for a pandemic: Two Reno startups that are set up for success in the COVID era | nnbw.com
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Primed for a pandemic: Two Reno startups that are set up for success in the COVID era

Elizabeth Redmond, left, co-founder and CEO of CoWorkr, and Perry Rosenstein, founder of Icebreaker.
Courtesy photos
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a 6-part series of stories dissecting Northern Nevada's growing startup ecosystem, in addition to the entrepreneurial mindsets and funding mechanisms that are increasing in size and scope to support it.

RENO, Nev. — Teams. Hangouts. Zoom.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March — shuttering states, shutting in millions of Americans and shifting the economic landscape — these three terms likely brought to mind sports, friends and fast cars, respectively.

Fast-forward five months, and Zoom, Teams and Hangouts are now synonymous with companies and people staying virtually connected in the age of COVID-19, which forced the migration of millions of employees to work from home and created a rising demand from people who want to see their friends and relatives while in quarantine.

Simply put, the hottest market in tech is videoconferencing software. In fact, the market is expected to be worth more than $50 billion by 2026, according to new research from Global Market Insights.

Perry Rosenstein, a Reno resident who in 2019 founded Icebreaker, a video-enabled virtual event platform, saw things heading in this direction — just not this quickly. And, really, pre-COVID, no one could have predicted the gold rush in the video software space.

“Obviously, having a way that people can gather online has become more necessary,” said Rosenstein, whose startup’s platform allows users to create online events like “WFH Happy Hour” and “The Gratitude Game” that include prompt cards and conversation rounds. “It’s gone from nice to have to something that’s really, really important when you can’t meet in person.”

So much so that 90% of Icebreaker’s new users and 95% of its use has come in the last three months, said Rosenstein, adding: “We have about 50,000 lifetime users — 45,000 of which are in the last 90 days since COVID started.”

Perry Rosenstein, founder of Icebreaker, says the COVID crisis has spurred massive growth in the videoconferencing software tech market.
Courtesy photo

Prior to the pandemic, Rosenstein said two of the most important communities — school and work — were already “quietly” trending to moving largely online. Needless to say, the WFH and digital learning movements have been amplified by COVID.

“The trajectory has accelerated probably 10 years,” he said. “Where we thought we would be in 10 years, we’re there now.”

Icebreaker currently consists of seven remote employees scattered throughout the U.S. Rosenstein, who grew up in the Bay Area, where he cut his teeth as an entrepreneur, said he moved to Reno to live somewhere more calm, friendly and affordable. Plus, his best friend from college lives in the Biggest Little City, so he was familiar with the area.

Since launching Icebreaker, Rosenstein said he’s raised about $4 million in funding. He added that the company, which currently offers its platform for free, is mainly focused on continued growth before it starts charging customers.

“The companies that are set to thrive, I think, are ones that are fundamentally organized around this new reality,” he added.

SENSING A SHIFT

Another Reno-based startup positioned to not only survive, but thrive, in the “new reality” is CoWorkr. The Internet of Things (IoT) business — which fled the Bay Area for Reno in 2018 — uses sensors to help companies plan and transition to more modern, efficient and productive workplaces.

CoWorkr develops “simple sensors” that can be used to collect activity data on a single seating location or room, measuring workplace utilization by sensing movement. The small sensors — about the size of a matchbook — can be stuck to chairs and desks or mounted to the ceiling to anonymously detect activity.

Elizabeth Redmond, co-founder and CEO of CoWorkr, relocated her startup from the Bay Area to 2018.
Courtesy photo

“There’s definitely a ton of buzz in our industry,” said Elizabeth Redmond, CoWorkr co-founder and CEO. “Most organizations are kind of using this as a trigger event to transition to more modern workplaces, which is the trajectory they had been on.”

As a result, Redmond said the opportunities CoWorkr has been quoting amid the pandemic are “much larger” than pre-COVID.

She’s not kidding.

“I would say probably 500% to 1,000% larger,” Redmond said of the company’s recent quotes. “It’s a pretty significant shift in the way people are looking at using our products.”

Before COVID hit, Redmond said companies often looked to measure workplace activity in one building or a specific seat type, like workstations. All told, the number of sensors CoWorkr has been quoting has grown from 500 to 1,000 sensors for a single client to 2,000 to 20,000 per client, Redmond noted.

“They’re all basically saying, ‘OK, we need this portfolio-wide on a global level,” she continued. Notably, a majority of CoWorkr’s clients are Fortune 1000 companies that have a global footprint, such as PG&E, GSK and Swiss Re. “They’re saying, ‘we need sensors to do x-y-z, and it doesn’t make sense to just do it in one building, we have to do it across our whole campus or across our whole portfolio.’

“So, for us, it’s very exciting.”

CoWorkr’s clients start with a one-month pilot, in which the Reno-based startup helps organizations figure out how to use the data and put it into action. From there, the client typically moves into an annual subscription, eventually expanding its data collection.

Because of the COVID crisis, however, Redmond said a portion of her company’s work has been put on hold or canceled until companies “get back to normal occupancy.”

“There’s no real point in collecting data when they’re at 15% capacity or something,” she explained. “I think we didn’t really anticipate it lasting this long of our clients not knowing what to do. They’re tracking more for late fall to make some decisions. The next two months will be a game of patience.”

In the meantime, Redmond said CoWorkr, which has 12 employees, has shifted its focus to other features of the product that are especially relevant amid COVID.

This, she said, includes using its sensors to measure live occupancy data to help workers find spaces that hadn’t been used yet and are sanitized and cleaned. Moreover, she said its product can improve efficiencies in janitorial services with daily heat maps that show the occupancy and amount of use each space has seen that day.

“It’s kind of shifting the product to respond to the current situation,” Redmond said. “They’re very simple additions and implementations to get people leveraging the full platform.

“I think, long-term, our technology will definitely be core and our industry will be core to helping people manage more flexible workplaces in the future.”