Photo caption: ParityBlu team, from left, Logan Ickert, Samuel Fitzhenry and Nick Hersperger at the August WiSys SPARK Symposium with the Innovators of the Year awards. (Submitted photo)
A team of three recent graduates who met at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have been honored for their innovation as entrepreneurs in the crowded world of technology startups.
Blugolds Samuel Fitzhenry and Logan Ickert, both 2021 graduates, and their friend Nick Hersperger, a UW-Madison graduate, are the co-founders of a wireless solutions software business called ParityBlu. The team recently earned the 2022 Carl E. Gulbrandsen Innovators of the Year Award at the WiSys SPARK Symposium.
The ParityBlu platform will provide consumers a way to manage and operate all smart devices throughout their homes on one application.
“This product will allow distinctly branded devices to be managed by one system in a mobile app,” says Fitzhenry, a 2021 entrepreneurship graduate from Oshkosh. “Smart home devices now operated by a Google app or Alexa (lights, cameras, speakers, thermostats, etc.) will no longer require multiple mobile apps.”
WiSys Technology Foundation is a nonprofit supporting organization of the UW System, serving as the dedicated technology transfer office for the 11 four-year comprehensive campuses, 13 two-year colleges and the statewide UW-Extension. The purpose is to facilitate connections between industries looking to produce and market products and the campuses where research is happening that can support or benefit that process.
The annual Gulbrandsen award goes to UW System faculty, staff, students or community members who make exemplary contributions as WiSys innovators. The ParityBlu team became eligible for the innovation award after previously winning the WiSys APPStart Challenge in 2020. Another initial Blugold co-founder, Max Bossert, was still part of the team when the app challenge took place.
From student idea to award-winning company
The idea for ParityBlu started in 2019 when Fitzhenry, then a physics major at UW-Eau Claire, found himself and Bossert brainstorming over difficulties in pairing a Bluetooth device with a robot being used in a capstone project.
“I was part of the entrepreneurship cluster at the time, and I knew we needed to find a business idea, so this interactivity between devices, models and use cases seemed like a potential idea,” Fitzhenry says.
“As we talked about it with other friends, including Nick and Logan, we just said, ‘Hey, let’s build a real team around solving this problem.’”
Fitzhenry assumed the role of lead organizer of concept. Ickert, a software engineering major, signed on as the “tech guy” and the role of “finance and legal guy” was filled by Hersperger, an economics major who eventually transferred to UW-Madison but remained part of ParityBlu.
With campus support through Ann Rupnow, entrepreneurship program manager, they applied to the 2020 WiSys APPStart Challenge, a competition to earn cash and tech support in pursuit of a tech business idea.
“We won the APPStart Challenge,” Fitzhenry says. “With that $5,000 in cash and $5,000 in development support from a Madison firm, we were able to really get serious with creating a viable business from this concept.”
Taking advantage of another WiSys opportunity, the team applied to participate in a program designed to help startups get off the ground. In February 2021, ParityBlu was accepted into the Level Up! mentorship program at WiSys VentureHome-Eau Claire.
Level Up! is a five-month action-oriented program to take scalable businesses or ideas to the next level. Participants learn to validate customer needs, identify go-to-market strategy, find early adopters and demonstrate market traction, among other important steps of launching a successful technology startup.
“That was when things really started to be exciting,” Fitzhenry says.
Not just viable, but award-winning innovation
The team of ParityBlu has gone on from that first WiSys honor to all graduate from college and continue to build the business.
- Fitzhenry, currently living in Oshkosh, serves as CEO, with a primary focus on strategy, operation and business development.
- Ickert, who lives and works in Eau Claire, serves as chief technology officer, leading the front-end development of the platform, the user-facing technology.
- Hersperger, working in Wausau, is the company’s chief operating officer, functioning as the head of finance, accounting, legal and strategy.
All three team members point to the support they received simply by being students when this started as major keys to ParityBlu taking the most crucial steps.
Ickert says that along with WiSys connections and support, he was also able to gear coursework time and credits in computer science toward this project.
“My senior year I developed an independent study course in CS,” Ickert says. “It was modeled around ParityBlu, building a mock website which led directly to the initial version of the mobile app. That was a big advantage for the tech development.”
Hersperger points to the student discount for filing an LLC as a big step that got them going on the business track.
“Any student in the UW System can file for LLC status for basically the cost of postage,” Hersperger says. “If we had waited until we graduated to do that step, it would have cost us $530 out of pocket.”
Rupnow says she is thrilled to see the ongoing success of this team, students she says truly exemplify the potential that can be reached when Blugold students take advantage of the many opportunities in front of them.
“These guys have done amazing work, and it began with those first steps as students,” Rupnow says. “In our entrepreneurship program, and in the College of Business in general, we make all students aware of connections and opportunities like WiSys, but very few follow up and take the extra steps to do them.”
Regarding the latest innovation award from WiSys, Rupnow says she sees it as another sign that this team has what it takes to succeed and has built on every possible step along the way.
“All along the way, the ParityBlu team has had more questions than answers as the project grew — that’s very typical for tech startups,” she says. “They’ve learned so much, they’ve become stronger and wiser and they have a product with real value in the marketplace. But they’re also building lasting value for themselves, which is exciting. Taking on big challenges is always a way to grow.”
Next steps for ParityBlu will be to finalize a fully functioning prototype to get in front of venture capitalists and angel investors.
“I would say that a good goal for us will be to have our first 500 users by this time next year,” Fitzhenry says. “We’ve learned so much in the last two years. It’s all a process, and maybe we can get there sooner; that would be great.”