Rodney Morris

Welcome to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. My name is Rodney Morris. I’m an Associate at Valor Ventures. I’m joined by Lafayette Julius, would you please introduce yourself, Lafayette?

Lafayette Julius

Hey, Rodney, thanks for having me. I’m Lafayette Julius, also an Associate at Valor Ventures and we’re excited to host another Atlanta Startup Podcast.

Rodney Morris

We’re joined today by LaVonda Brown of Eyegage™. How are you doing today, LaVonda?

LaVonda Brown

I’m doing well. Thanks for having me.

Rodney Morris

Great! We want to congratulate you on being a finalist for this recent cohort of Startup Runway. It’s definitely no small feat. You beat out a number of other qualified applicants and we want to congratulate you on that. Could you please tell us about Eyegage™?

LaVonda Brown

Definitely. Eyegage™ is developing truck drug screening technology to help transportation and construction companies prevent fatal accidents by using computer vision to analyze the employees’ eyes before operating heavy equipment.

Rodney Morris

Got it. We’re going to shift a little bit to Startup Runway and your experience with its most recent cohort. Could you tell us how was your experience? Would you recommend it to others and why? 

LaVonda Brown

Sure. Startup Runway allowed me to connect with like-minded founders. It was the first time that I realized that we all had similar struggles with regard to bootstrapping, or finding funding, or investments, and building a strong team. Now I know that it isn’t that great that we have these problems, though, but it was a bit of a relief to see that it was not only me. Since then, I’ve gained a new level of confidence when walking into these rooms. I explained how my business Eyegage™ will change the world. So to answer your question, in short, I definitely recommend Startup Runway to other founders, the pitch competitions are held regularly. Even if you’re not able to pitch, just log in to the competition and join the conversation. There were presentations from industry professionals, venture capitalists, fellow founder testimonies, connections made, and private messages during the event. We also learned that VCs are not one size fits all. Each VC has their own area of interest, experience, and passions. It was important to find a good fit, you know, someone you can relate to on a few levels, even if it isn’t an ethnicity, race, sex, or gender. Because the harsh reality is that there aren’t a lot of VCs that look like us. And so yes, sign up for Startup Runway.

Rodney Morris

Got it. Thanks so much for that authentic answer. That was great. We’re glad that you enjoyed your experience and it’s definitely great for founders to connect with other founders and share those mishaps, those successes, and everything in between. We’re very grateful that you were able to connect with others. I think Lafayette has something to add.

Lafayette Julius

I think it was definitely a shift and a challenge for every founder, especially during COVID. You know, to switch to the virtual experience pitch event versus an in-person pitch event. I think you mentioned that too, LaVonda, that it was a better experience for you, virtually. But what were some of the things that the VCs kind of said to you during that pitch that landed with you the most?

LaVonda Brown

Well, some of the things, a lot of the beneficial information that I received from the VCs was during the mock board meeting. That was some one-on-one time with some VCs and I was able to present one of the issues that we were having within the business. That was whether or not we should move from targeting law enforcement as a customer and position them as a strategic partner. There were about four or five VCs on my board. One of them in particular had extensive experience within law enforcement and government. She was able to provide some very clear feedback on how long the process is going to take trying to penetrate law enforcement and essentially, there was a unanimous decision that we should move forward moving them to a strategic partner because, in order to have law enforcement and police departments, in particular, use our technology, there would need to be a Supreme Court ruling for the device to even be admissible in court. Now, of course, we would love to have police officers as a customer but for now, until we’re able to hit those strides, they’re better off as a strategic partner. So, having that board meeting and talking to VCs and the importance of bringing in revenue now versus years from now, was very insightful, to say the least. Outside of the board meeting that we had, I was also able to connect to a few angel investors as well, which provided a lot of insight about Eyegage™ and those were through direct messages during the Startup Runway competition. Since then, I’ve connected with Joe Beverly in particular, he’s been very beneficial in helping craft the business. I’m in his Cranium Incubator, which is geared towards prepping underestimated founders for investments. I say that to say without sorrow, one way these connections would have happened to these VCs and angel investors who are interested in the business.

Lafayette Julius

That’s great feedback, LaVonda. I appreciate that. I guess you can say that, that panel kind of helped you shift your focus as to what customers you’re currently looking for now. I think that probably helps you get a feel for what you want your customers to kind of think and feel about Eyegage™. Would you say the same?

LaVonda Brown

Yeah, I definitely agree. Yes. We have a whole, well, I wouldn’t say new, but we have narrowed down our target customer segment, or we’re looking specifically at transportation and construction companies who operate heavy machinery.

Lafayette Julius

Great.

Rodney Morris

Well, we’re grateful that the experience was that helpful for you. The definition of Startup Runway, being able to connect you with other founders, investors, and people that can help you accelerate. As far as the experience goes with the pitching environment, we wanted to get your feedback. In the virtual pitch environment, for you, was that a better or worse experience? Usually, there’s an in-person pitch that happens every year. But of course, because of the current predicament that we’re in, with COVID, it was all virtual. So, how was the virtual experience for you?

LaVonda Brown

I enjoyed the virtual experience, but I do have to say that the business was established during the pandemic. It was established in May. All I know are virtual pitches. I know that there are two types though, you can have the one where you’re pitching live over Zoom, or some type of video conference call where your internet connection is in control of the fate of your presentation. Or you can have a pre-recorded voice that is submitted and then shown live and so Startup Runway was pre-recorded. I feel like those types of pitch competitions are a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because you can take your time and perfect the pitch before you submit it. But it’s also a curse for the same reason you can take your time and perfect the pitch before you submit it. They have developed a few tools that you can use to record your face talking next to the slides. I knew initially that that wasn’t the case, so that’s great now moving forward. I guess it can be a huge time sink to record your pitch over and over. I had to learn very quickly that good enough was acceptable, and that my good enough is someone else’s perfect because I tend to be hard on myself. I enjoy the virtual pitches and I’ve had a great experience thus far.

Rodney Morris

Great, great. Thank you for that feedback. I definitely think you could sit there and practice your pitch over and over, you could definitely always find something else to perfect. It’s just one of those things. I’m interested in hearing the mission and your passion for building Eyegage and where does that come from? What is that factor every day that pushes you to want to build a business?

LaVonda Brown

That’s a deep one right there. In short, I’m fascinated with the eyes. I began studying eye behavior in 2012 as a part of my Ph.D. research in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech. I developed the Robotic Tutors engaged children during math education. It was during this research that I discovered that eye gaze and pupil size could be used to determine engagement levels. I graduated in 2015 and I joined Emory University’s Alzheimer’s Research Center as a postdoc doctoral fellow. It was my responsibility to develop a study to analyze if eye tracking is a viable biomarker for early-onset Alzheimer’s detection. I developed the front end and the back end of the software that the clinicians will use to collect this eye data by viewing a slideshow of images. It was a long term study, and the results are still pending. However, there is a strong correlation between suggesting that how we scan an image with our eyes is correlated to mild cognitive impairment, or our memory basically. To me, it’s just very fascinating, just learning about eyes. That’s more so my technical reason and expertise why I’m in this space. But my passion is because, well, it’s more of a personal story. I ended up in the drug screening domain because I’ve had experience helping a loved one with a drinking addiction. I witnessed the full spectrum of how the characteristics of your eyes changed as the level of intoxication increases. I guess the things like the pupil size, how it responds, how quickly it reacts, how red your eyes are, and those are just essentially large red blood vessels, how glossy your eyes are. It was a combination and I was able to notice those things, right, because I’ve been studying eye tracking since 2012. I endured the emotional pain associated with being constantly worried about a loved one’s well being. I even sought assistance from Al-anon family groups, which are a nonprofit organization focused on providing help and hope for families and friends, and alcoholics, so I understand what it’s like to live with a loved one with an addiction. I’m committed to saving lives so that Eyegage™ technology, and that all of that together is what drives my passion for developing the technology is impacting the community in a positive way.

Lafayette Julius

Wow. I would say that’s amazing. Just to see someone like you come from a background and just have true grit, as an entrepreneur, I think that’s amazing. I want to kind of piggyback on that and just kind of go with what drives you as an entrepreneur and kind of dig in a little deeper. How different is it just from a woman and just being a minority founder, is it to build a product and a company like this and scale it? Just a few tidbits and experiences?

LaVonda Brown

Well, technology is important, from my experience. Having a non-biased technology, something that you can do in private. So I’m more so speaking to the last situation I mentioned, it’s easier to hear that you have a problem from a non-biased indicator, like a mobile application versus hearing it from somebody who loves you. And they make it seemingly nagging at you telling you to call an Uber and things like that. The purpose of having mobile technology is so that it can be received well, and actually working with psychologists to make sure that it is received well for this type of population. As far as being a female entrepreneur, and how that plays a role, I do think that allows my emotional connection to show. I do allow that to drive some of the customer discovery when I’m interviewing different potential customers and having these conversations and connecting with them. I think that that brings that level of transparency that some founders aren’t able to do.

Lafayette Julius

That was perfect. Great. Rodney wants to add a few things.

Rodney Morris

Absolutely. You’re pretty early on in building your business as you just started this year. Congratulations on getting to Startup Runway and the success you’ve had thus far. Looking ahead, what do you think, are some goals that you want to hit in 2021? What are you most excited looking ahead to?

LaVonda Brown

Oh, yes, goals. I’m very excited. We’re gonna release the first version of our mobile application in December. We want to start off by engaging individuals who will believe in the business. They’ll be beta testers, and they’re willing to support our cause by assisting with data collection, and so the mobile app is just a resource to collect data. When I say collect data, their eyes don’t even need to be under the influence. We want regular eyes. I’m very excited to launch this app and just get our supporters on it and who are willing to share their data with us. Now, I’m so interested in eyes under the influence, but it is not a requirement for these beta testers to join the app and test it out. To join the to become a beta tester, just go to the website and join the mailing list, www dot h calm. So that’s our first step, which I’m most excited about because that’s gonna bring that home to 2021. December is actually National Impaired Driving Prevention Month. We’re planning to launch a campaign leading up to December because Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve are the most fatal days for impaired driving accidents. We want to kind of a play on that and get people excited about it. People can use this technology before they decide to get behind the wheel. So as far as 2021 is concerned, that’s when you want to start bringing in these large enterprises who operate heavy machinery. We’re having conversations with them now. Different airlines, trains, truck driving delivery companies, boats, rideshare. We want to be able to have their employees use our technology before they actually operate this vehicle, and or construction equipment. We’re excited about that because the beta testing will allow us to be able to launch it into these different companies. Those are our plans for 2020 into 2021.

Rodney Morris

Got it. That sounds exciting. I definitely agree. There’s definitely going to be a lot of activity with impaired driving for this upcoming holiday season. That sounds opportune and definitely a great challenge for that. How can people reach out to you to learn more about Eyegage™ and if they want to be we a beta tester or potential customers or have that conversation?

LaVonda Brown

Yes, so the beta testers sign up on our mailing list on the website. There’s also a contact form there if you’re interested, or you have more questions about how we can cater to your business in particular, or you can send me an email at lavonda@eyegage.com. Between the website and my email, we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Rodney Morris

Got it. Lafayette, did you have any questions?

Lafayette Julius

No, I think that pretty much does it. I appreciate your commitment LaVonda to diversity and just tackling such an innovative market. And just to see that much traction and growth in such a short period of time is amazing. A lot of entrepreneurs can learn from your experience at Startup Runway, and I’m glad you were able to tap into such a large network of VCs and learn some truths from a real entrepreneur. I appreciate that and we appreciate that.

LaVonda Brown

Thank you. I’ve learned a lot from Startup Runway as well, and I built relationships that will go on forever. So, thank you.

Rodney Morris

Got it. Thank you so much, LaVonda for joining us today on Startup Runway. We want to thank you again for applying. I congratulate you again for being accepted into the cohort.

LaVonda Brown

Thank you!

Lisa

The Atlanta Startup Podcast is produced by Valor Ventures as a service to the startup and investor community. We couldn’t do it without the support of our sponsors–Atlanta Tech Park, the global innovation center, and Write2Market, Atlanta’s favorite tech, and healthcare marketing firm. If you’d like to get your information on the Atlanta Startup Podcast, our share a message with our listeners, visit us online and check out our affordable rate card. All advertisements here are tax-deductible donations to the Startup Runway Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investor.