{{ story.headline }}

{{ story.subheading }}

{{ story.timestamp }}

Groundwork Labs has new digs at American Underground @Main and a new class of 10 startups learning lean startup and building businesses there. We're here to introduce you to the bunch.

Some quick stats: One has already raised $350,000, another more than $3 million. One already counts some of the best soccer teams in the world as clients. A pair has the Department of Defense as a client. And at least two men have left finance jobs to start companies.

There are consumer-focused startups in the group, and highly industrial ones. One even involves your furry friends.

Meet the founders of the 10 companies below, and here's a quick recap of Groundwork Labs' successes to date:


Jon Hayes has already earned some press since moving back to the Triangle from New York City earlier this year. The North Carolina School of Science & Math grad who spent seven years as an investment banker at Citigroup raised a $350,000 seed round from Cofounders Capital in recent months and is prepping a January launch of his platform to help travelers get the most value out of their reward points. 

The company's founding was inspired by the experience of planning his honeymoon to the Maldives in 2013. It was difficult to calculate the best way to cover first class travel using points—Hayes thought a software application could make the process a whole lot easier. He finally left his job in March 2014, found a CTO and began teaching himself to code. 

Their mission is to make recommendations to travelers on how to save the most money while traveling on points, and to eventually make a commission when people sign up for new credit card accounts to take advantage of their point offers. The system will also let users transfer points between programs. Eventually, it could be applied to other points programs.

Hayes has used the time at Groundwork to immerse himself in lean startup methodology, to learn the ropes of entrepreneurship since he's a first-timer and to take advantage of the access to subject matter experts like marketing guru Vickie Gibbs.

After launch, he expects to hire another one or two more employees to help scale the company.

Jon Hayes RewardStock
Jon Hayes is CEO and co-founder of RewardStock. He's pictured here at an underwater restaurant in the Maldives, a trip he covered almost entirely with travel rewards. Credit: RewardStock

Fit for 90

In soccer crowds, John Cone is already a well-known coach, trainer and sports scientist. The once professional soccer player has a Ph.D. in kinesiology, a master's degree in sports physiology and a national-in-scope consulting practice on athlete readiness. Now, he's turning that knowledge into software to reach coaches of all kinds of sports and athletes of all ages. His big goal is to thwart risk of career-ending injury by better preparing athletes to play and coaches to train them. 

It comes down to personalization. At Groundwork Labs, a program recommended by Cone's entrepreneur-wife Cindy Cone, Cone and team are working on a business around monitoring athletes to determine their readiness to train. Launched earlier this year, Fit for 90 allows athletes to self-report soreness, sleep, hydration and more and then provides advice on recovery, stretching and other activities to promote readiness. Coaches can use the data about each athlete to better tailor workouts and training sessions to avoid injury. Eventually, wearable devices could be synced with the platform. 

There are also some beta customers, and they're high-profile, including the U.S. Women's National Team that won the World Cup last year, the Duke Women's Soccer Team and Wake Forest Men's team, both of which are among the best in college soccer. U.S. Club Soccer is also a partner. Cone has applied for an SBIR grant to continue his work. Until then, the company will be funded by its own profits.

Groundwork Labs is helping Cone prepare to scale his company—so far, he's gotten by on his own connections. The biggest thing he needs help with? Business development.

"The sales strategy will be key for us as we continue to grow outside the word of mouth that has driven our business this far," he says.

Fit For 90 John Cone
John Cone is founder and CEO of Fit For 90, a consulting company and software for monitoring athlete performance, training and health.


His wife's inconvenient experience consigning luxury clothing inspired Collis Arrick to create a solution. When she dropped off items at a local consignment shop, the store owner took 30 percent of the items and asked her to call back in six weeks to find out what had sold and what could be sent to another location in a different part of town. After some research, the Arricks learned of a very fragmented but lucrative industry that hadn't kept up with today's technology. 

After 15 years in finance and operations in the banking and insurance industries, and help running his wife's dental practice in downtown Raleigh, Arrick was ready to pursue his own business. He thought he could help consignment stores and consignors make more money. aLuxuRE will let stores more easily track items in their stores as well as sell them online.

Arrick has put together a team of five people with more than 75 years of technology experience, both at startups and Fortune 100 companies. He believes they'll be able to bring to market an "AutoTrader of the fashion industry", a B2B marketplace that connects stores with buyers and provides a back end system that helps them manage inventory.  

Collis Arrick aLuxuRe
Collis Arrick is co-founder of aLuxuRe, a platform for improving the organization and profits of high-end consignment boutiques.
aLuxuRe logo


If you've ever traveled with a pet, you've felt the pain of trying to figure out where to stay, eat and even play or go for walks. Frustrated by that experience and inspired by various experiences teaching and working with entrepreneurs, Jeff Kaplan became determined to start his own thing. 

Kaplan and his veterinarian wife Danielle moved to Charlotte from Florida last year. He had earned a master's degree in entrepreneurship and taught disabled veterans to become entrepreneurs at the University of Florida. When he moved to Charlotte, he wanted to work on his own venture but also learn from experienced entrepreneurs so he joined the EdTech company ProctorFree as its director of partner relations. 

Meanwhile, the lack of resources for dog-owners became increasingly clear. TripAdvisor and Yelp had no easy way to search for pet friendliness, and reviews were typically insufficient in their explanation of the dog experience at various hotels, restaurants and public spaces.

So in September, he finally launched the first iteration of his business, a blog called ManDogTravel retelling his experiences traveling with his dogs Dewey and Tallulah. And he began to outsource work on an MVP with a database of parks and restaurants friendly to pups, with directions, descriptions. It's now live here. He plans to eventually build out a better user interface with reviews and social media integration that lets people update and add to the content over time.  

A big help at Groundwork has been access to a developer-in-residence and prep for talking to investors. Oh, and help coming up with a new name. He settled on Dogphrendly just last week. 

Jefe Kaplan of ManDogTravel
Jefe Kaplan is pictured here with his wife Danielle and two dogs, the inspiration for his blog and new company ManDogTravel. Credit: ManDogTravel


After 18 years designing and selling industrial machines and systems, Justin Rothwell was determined to solve an all-too-common problem. It was too difficult too predict when a machine would fail, and always too late. He wanted to help equipment owners schedule repairs before a major problem occurred instead of reacting in an emergency situation. 

Rothwell, who recently moved here from Boston, met co-founder Elliott Poger, a former Google engineer, at a local Startup Weekend in June. They began to design a system that measures vibration and can sense when changes in vibration occur in real time. But as critical as the device attached to the machine below is the software that analyzes all the data collected and the service ProAxion can provide to equipment owners. Rothwell calls it "predictive maintenance as a service" or "a FitBit for industrial machines." Clients don't pay for the hardware, but for a subscription to the service.

ProAxion machine sample
This is an example of the type of machine that ProAxion would monitor with its software platform. The small white box is what houses the vibration sensor. Credit: ProAxion

Four betas are underway, and Rothwell hoped to secure a fifth by the end of the year. He was a finalist for the NC IDEA grant and recently secured his first angel investment from Mark Easley (the pair are pictured top when the deal was done). Meanwhile, at Groundwork Labs, he's focused on developing some go-to-market strategies and running a lean startup, as well as taking advantage of all the connections and mentors offered by the program.

Justin Rothwell and Elliott Poger are co-founders of ProAxion, an IoT startup focused on preventative maintenance for industrial machines.


The trio of engineers building a better technology for tracking packages met in the semiconductor industry. Jim Bao spent years working on cell phone components for RFMD in Greensboro, and happened to work alongside the wife of Ken Lu, who designed chips for Cadence Design Systems in Cary and then Analogue Devices in Greensboro. 

After a conversation with a friend lamenting the difficulty of keeping track of inventory in the distribution center where he worked, the men thought they could apply cell phone technology to the problem. It could replace RFID technology, which requires expensive readers and relies on the scanning of barcodes on every package. 

The men envision a software that uses proximity sensors to know what packages are present in a facility and to direct a facility manager or employee toward them. They're partnered up with NC A&T University professor and former RFMD employee Cliff Xie to design the technology and eventually launch the business.

For now, they're soaking up as much startup knowledge as possible—from Groundwork and The Startup Factory Bootcamp in Greensboro earlier this month. They're also talking to customers and getting feedback on what an easier, more cost effective solution could look like in a real warehouse. 

AisleNet cofounders
Jim Bao, Ken Lu and Cliff Xie are cofounders of AisleNet.


A recent pivot is getting All Elements the attention of human resources managers in the Triangle. After traction was slow for a consumer-focused recognition platform, the longtime IBM employee Mutuk Karpakakunjaram has repositioned his technology for corporations. Now he's got an employee engagement platform that allows teams and managers to give instant feedback to each other and to track progress against goals.

The company was inspired by Karpakakunjaram's management experience at IBM, where an employee's entire year of work was recapped in a single annual review. He wanted to make the goal-setting and meeting experience more proactive, and show how an individual's goals contribute to a team's throughout the year. All Elements is designed to encourage engagement between employees and their managers while reporting on the company's progress toward goals to HR. Executives can use the software to get a pulse of their organization at any point in time.

Karpakakunjaram originally participated in Groundwork Labs After-Hours program, but stayed on after the pivot to continue working with Austin to focus and meet potential customers. He hopes to line up pilot customers in the new year.

Mutuk Karpakakunjaram of Elements
Mutuk Karpakakunjaram is founder of Elements, an enterprise employee engagement platform.

Nexus EMC

Jeffrey Barghout started his career designing cars at Chrysler but jumped into the dotcom boom in the 1990s to found and then sell a jobs site called The proceeds from the exit brought him to North Carolina, where he worked in technology commercialization at RTI, with clients like NASA. He eventually joined Advanced Energy, forming a transportation division that handled performance and testing, as well as fuel economy. It was that experience that inspired him to join the clean tech movement.

In 2014, he partnered up with Chris Carmody, a business consultant who has spent years working in civic innovation and sustainability, most recently as executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Development, a university and chamber of commerce partnership. The pair started their business as a consultancy helping government entities and military bases scout technologies. They were particularly focused on autonomous vehicles and robotics, which could help save money and be more environmentally friendly. Over time, they saw an opportunity to develop a software product to help businesses and governments calculate their cost and energy savings as they plan various sustainability efforts, from electric vehicles to renewable energy investments. 

They're calling the software a "TurboTax for planners" and targeting it to managers of facilities in business, academia, government or the military. They hope to offer it at a fraction of the cost of a typical consultant. At Groundwork, they are talking to customers and stakeholders to begin work on the tool.

NexusEMC is a Groundwork Labs company working on software for helping facility planners determine the ROI and implementation plans for alternative energy and electric vehicle projects.

Vestal Industries

Jake Vestal is pretty hush hush about the Internet of Things invention he's building for the concrete industry. But he has a pretty interesting background that's informing his work. 

As a senior at NC State, the chemical engineering major created a paint that mimicked the topology of shark skin. It was applied the hulls of ships to keep them clean, so they'd move faster and burn less fuel. Because it was similar to the skin of a shark, it prevented barnacles from sticking to the hulls of ships. His work got the attention of the U.S. Navy and he took a job as a civil servant at the Department of Defense's Naval Surface Warfare Center. It was there that he learned his solution wouldn't work—paint can poison marine life and harbors.

He then focused his work on a data solution, a way to calculate when the speed and power were "out of whack" so a captain could know when to clean his ship. That process inspired him to focus his career on data management rather than materials. 

He finished a master's degree in engineering management at Duke University in 2013 and while pursuing some side projects, has focused on his next invention,  which he calls "an IoT play for chemical process plants." He's bootstrapping with help from his family and expects to get the product into industry in February 2016.

Jake Vestal of Vestal Industries
Jake Vestal is founder of Vestal Industries, a Durham company innovating in Internet of Things.


We profiled Rheomics last week after it won an NC IDEA grant. Here's an excerpt from that piece, but please read the full story here
It's not super clear to the average person what happens in a lab entitled 
"Computer Integrated Systems for Microscopy and Manipulation."

But a pair of physicists and a computer scientist who met in the UNC-Chapel Hill department have found one way to translate it. They're building a startup called Rheomics that uses intellectual property from the lab for a powerful diagnostic test for blood that they hope will prove 10 times more effective in identifying disease and infection than traditional methods.  

They've received almost $3 million in federal grants to perform the technical work over the last five years. But NC IDEA, though just ~$50,000, offers a different kind of validation.

Rheomics founders
Ricky Spero (middle top) met his cofounders Richard Superfine (top left) and Russ Taylor (top right) when he came to UNC to do a Ph.D. program in physics in 2005.