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UI grads develop safety device to reduce electrocution risk for utility workers

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 20, 2017, 10:58 a.m.

Safeguard Equipment CEO Tim Ledford (far right) talks about the company’s product with co-founders Brandon Bledsoe (second right) and John Thompson. At left is Tom Simpson, president of Spokane Angel Alliance. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)
Safeguard Equipment CEO Tim Ledford (far right) talks about the company’s product with co-founders Brandon Bledsoe (second right) and John Thompson. At left is Tom Simpson, president of Spokane Angel Alliance. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

Three recent University of Idaho graduates have developed a device to help linemen and construction workers avoid electrocution.

The device, scheduled to hit the market in late December, clips onto a hard hat. It alerts workers when they’re close to energized lines and other sources of electricity.

“Our company vision is to save lives, give back and encourage others to innovate in their communities,” said Safeguard Equipment’s chief executive, Tim Ledford.

Ledford founded Safeguard Equipment with Brandon Bledsoe and John Thompson. The men, all in their early to mid-20s, told the company’s story Thursday at the second annual Triangle Venture Expo in Spokane.

The event brought together startup companies, venture capitalists and local business leaders to talk about how the region can support entrepreneurs.

“You’ve got the beginning of what is an absolutely amazing entrepreneurial community here,” said keynote speaker Diane Fraiman, a partner for Voyager Capital in Portland.

Fraiman pointed to the Inland Northwest’s eight colleges and universities as strengths. The region also has resources to help young companies grow, such as Ignite Northwest, Coeur d’Alene’s Innovation Den and the Toolbox, which focuses on manufacturing and product-based startups.

The area’s active group of angel investors is also an asset, Fraiman said.

The nonprofit Spokane Angel Alliance, which organized Thursday’s expo, has more than 100 members. Alliance members have invested $26 million in 35 companies, which employ more than 1,000 people, said Tom Simpson, the president.

But the road to startup capital can be a challenging one, Fraiman cautioned. Voyager Capital funds only software startups. She evaluates about 120 proposals each year and typically selects one or two.

“This is a dating game,” she said. “There is a lot of time and due diligence before that first check comes.”

All three of Safeguard Equipment’s founders had family ties to the utility industry and knew of workers who had been killed by electrocution, said Ledford, the chief executive. The founders wanted to create a product that would improve the industry’s safety record.

Safeguard Equipment raised $300,000 to bring its device to market. Ledford said the company just got its first large order for the product.

Besides Safeguard Equipment, six other local startups shared their companies’ stories and prospects for future growth.

Spiceologist was founded by a former chef, Pete Taylor, who figured he could provide better selections of spices to restaurants.

MotoTrax sells kits that let off-road motorcycle enthusiasts ride their bikes in the snow.

SportsScope Video sells end zone cameras and instant replay systems to football programs at high schools and small colleges.

Two of Thursday’s presenters were from the medical field. Gestalt Diagnostics, a spinoff of Inland Imaging, is working on digital pathology.

“We’re taking scans of tissue and getting it in front of physicians digitally,” said Dan Roark, Gestalt Diagnostics’ chief executive.

TMS Solutions markets neurological treatment systems to doctors, who use the equipment to treat patients with biological depression.

Phytelligence is a plant biotechnology spinoff from Washington State University’s College of Agriculture.

Fraiman encouraged community leaders to keep thinking about ways to grow the number of entrepreneurs in the region.

“These are people who wake up every morning and take really big risks,” she said.