Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
COLUMBIA, Missouri — An AI-driven startup using real-time motion capture animation to reimagine virtual meetings aims to remove surface-level judgements, its founder said, stressing personality and intellect over appearances.
“So much of the world is wrapped up in your identity, and assumptions are made as soon as we walk into a room; avatars are a way to get rid of all of that and emphasize who you really are on the inside,” said Bryan Pratte, who co-founded Hallway alongside Brett Koonce. “That’s what matters.”
Now boosted by the Columbia, Missouri-based Scale accelerator fund and venture studio, Hallway’s artificial intelligence- and machine learning-generated tools produce professional-grade motion capture animation for anyone wanting to build custom avatar identities in the digital world, Pratte explained.
“We’re at this cusp of technology being good enough to allow people to tell their stories in 3D. People can tell stories and be characters just like in Pixar and DreamWorks films, and we’re building the technology to allow anybody to do that,” he said.
Using Hallway is as easy as turning on a camera, Pratte said.
“It’s an application that you can download on Mac or on Windows, and then when you go on Zoom, instead of selecting your FaceTime camera, you can select Hallway — then your avatar,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Based in Columbia — with a presence in San Francisco — Hallway is one of the eight companies accepted into the third cohort of Scale: an accelerator, fund and venture studio launched by EquipmentShare co-founders Willy and Jabbok Schlacks and Jai Malik, who also founded Countdown Capital. Hallway is also backed by Sequoia Capital’s Arc.
Founded in 2021, Scale is an accelerator fund and venture studio investing monetary and social capital in early-stage tech founders. Scale focuses on the founder’s characteristics, skills and habits — rather than ideas. Scale’s goal is not to eliminate struggle but to help cultivate the required skills and mindset to prepare for it.
Click here to read more about Scale.
In its third cohort, Scale received double the number of applications to join, said Brett Calhoun, the managing director and partner at Scale.
“We had 150 applications for cohort two, and then 300 this time around,” Calhoun noted. “Our first two cohorts were also very heavily weighted in FinTech and PropTech, whereas this cohort has a much more diverse portfolio of companies.”
A little more than 30 miles south of where Pratte lives in San Francisco: another company in Scale’s third cohort, Brownstone. Based in Palo Alto, California, Brownstone is pioneering affordable community home sharing with pod-style living, said co-founders James Stallworth and Christina Lennox.
“We transform regular single family homes to shared living arrangements by putting the sleeping pods that Christina designed into the homes,” Stallworth said. “What this allows for is to have more people share a home comfortably while still preserving their privacy.”
With rent costs consistently rising in California and across the country, the duo quickly saw how people were unable to pursue higher education or internships because they could not afford housing.
“We started this company because we believe that housing should not be a barrier to opportunities,” Stallworth said. “… In our Palo Alto location, we have 14 people living in a regular three bedroom, two bath house. We charge $800 a month — utilities and everything included — whereas the typical studio in Palo Alto goes for over $3,200 a month.”
The sleeping pods can be installed into homes without construction to the existing house, keeping costs low for landlords, Lennox explained.
“We personally lived in the Palo Alto house for a year to try it out,” Lennox recalled. “We lived with the other residents and loved it. For me, the pod is my favorite bed that I’ve ever slept in, and then you’re also in a community with all these other people. You get exposed to all different cultures and I think it’s pretty incredible what we’ve built there.”
Along with living at the Palo Alto house as a test trial, Lennox and Stallworth lived there out of necessity, they added. Despite both working as California state auditors prior to founding Brownstone in 2021, the rent in Palo Alto was too costly to live anywhere else, Lennox noted.
“We are both very passionate about helping put an end to the housing crisis,” Lennox shared. “We know there are people who have children and elderly people who have housing needs as well, so in the future, we plan to offer different types of products for other individuals out there.”
Brownstone has another location in Bakersfield, California, that is 100 percent occupied. Through Scale, Brownstone is doubling its number of pods to 50 total with a Los Angeles location, Stallworth said.
“Scale really helps you narrow down the practical ways that you can 10x and 100x your business,” Stallworth said. “It’s not just them telling you stuff — they ask questions then offer insight on how to develop a business model that is sure to grow.”
For Pratte, Scale’s emphasis on solving problems and reflecting on tough questions has been a valuable takeaway, he shared.
“Willy [Schlacks] talks about the dialectic, where we are always trying to search for our truth — that truly applies to startups,” Pratte said. “In startups, we’re trying to find product market fit. We have to ask, ‘Are we solving an actual problem?’ A lot of times as founders, we get so much of our soul wrapped up into wanting our [startup] to work, but it’s hard for us to ask the truly terrifying question of, ‘Is it actually needed?’”
Scale’s third cohort is expected to culminate Jan. 19 with a Demo Day in Columbia.
Click here to apply to Scale’s fourth cohort, which kicks off in April 2023.
The other six startups in Scale’s second cohort include:
- Caralyst Health (St. Louis, Missouri) — Caralyst Health is a physician recommendation engine based on personal characteristics and preferences. The company uses A proprietary machine-learning algorithm to foster high-quality therapeutic relationships between patients and doctors.
- Celcy (Baltimore, Mayland) — Celcy is building the kitchen appliances of the future, starting with automated at home meals. Celcy’s first product is a robotic IoT freezer and oven that cooks from your phone.
- Kaveat (New York City, New York) — Kaveat is a contract review platform for creatives. Kaveat uses NLP to provide contract insights for creators to have the negotiating power of legal professionals.
- NameDrop (Salt Lake City, Utah) — NameDrop is a localized social networking platform that connects people based on interests within a pin dropped radius.
- Ruminant Robotics (Columbia, Missouri) — Ruminant Robotics is building a vertical lawn care service business powered by electric autonomous lawnmowers.
- ScanRite (Columbia, Missouri) — ScanRite is an algorithmic-based SaaS platform for physicians to accurately assess a patient’s imaging needs and boost communication with the imaging departments.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.