One in an occasional series
By GRACE GAGLIANO
SARASOTA — Fuchsia-painted walls might be too loud at any other corporate office.
But Trey Lauderdale is a young and adventurous entrepreneur.
Two years ago, the then-26-year-old traveled to San Francisco to pitch his business idea at a sold-out software developers’ conference for which he had no ticket.
That didn’t stop him from heading to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Lauderdale took a week off work to hop on a $600 flight, stay four nights at a $250-a-night hotel and try to find a software guru willing to build the technology for Voalté, a hospital communication system for iPhones.
Lauderdale spent the week — and nearly $2,000 — scouring the city for professionals with Apple badges slung around their necks.
“I went to Starbucks, I went to bars in the surrounding area looking for people wearing those badges from the conference,” Lauderdale said. “I probably bought 200 beers for different engineers pitching my idea.”
Turns out the journey was well worth it.
Voalté, a Sarasota-based startup (pronounced volt), has been making great strides in a gruesome economy since Lauderdale recruited technology buff and biomedical engineer Ben King in 2008. King, whose own company at the time built mobile web browsers and applications, turned out to be the ideal person to develop the iPhone application for Voalté.
Eight hospitals have signed contracts to purchase Voalté’s smart phone software and services, which enable nurses and doctors to page one another via voice calls, text messages and alarms.
Of the eight sales commitments, four hospitals are already using the product, including Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Lauderdale, who would not disclose sales figures, estimates 12 hospitals will be under contract to purchase Voalté’s technology by the end of the year. And he predicts Voalté should quadruple its sales in 2011.
“We are trying to create an experience in the health-care industry that has never been created before,” Lauderdale said. “We feel we have a really cool technology.”
Voalté’s high-tech software is replacing bulky pagers and noisy hospital intercoms with iPhones and Blackberrys, and Lauderdale sees no reason why his company’s product can’t reach a majority of the 7,000 hospitals nationwide and 2,500 in Canada.
“We’ve got the right solution to help doctors and nurses be more effective at their jobs,” Lauderdale said.
Local officials feel the same. The Suncoast Workforce awarded Voalté with a $3,900 training grant, and the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County is also keeping tabs on the firm.
“We are very high on Voalté,” said Kathy Baylis, president and chief executive officer for the Sarasota EDC. “We are very excited about that company and we think they’re going to do great things for this area. When I heard about this company I said, ‘This company is going to go far,’ and obviously we want to support them in any way we can.”
Voalté’s expansion plans make the company a favorable candidate for future economic incentive funds, Baylis said.
For starters, Voalté will create jobs — and high-paying positions at that, with salaries ranging between $50,000 and $150,000.
Voalté, which started with four founders in November 2008, now has a staff of 20 high-tech professionals. By the end of 2011, Lauderdale projects the company will grow to 40 positions, possibly 60.
EDC officials also like that Voalté has withstood the recession’s odds. The company started in November 2008 just a month before the recession was declared.
During the time of its startup, most all the economic factors were in the wrong direction: real gross domestic product fell .3 percent in the third quarter of 2008, consumer spending dropped 3.1 percent, manufacturing output declined and unemployment was on the rise.
The National Federation of Independent Business also released a survey in the third quarter of 2008 that stated: The next three months are not a good time to expand operations, to hire new workers or to invest in new capital projects.
Voalté could go global
Voalté’s founders appear serious about launching the product on a nationwide scale — possibly even international. As a result, they expect they will need to raise between $7.5 million and $10 million to expand.
“We think this is a solution every hospital in the country can use,” Lauderdale said.
Danielle Reid, a registered nurse at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, says Voalté has been a welcome change to her job.
When she checks into the nursing station on the third floor, she’s assigned an iPhone for her 12-hour shift. Two quick taps of Voalté’s hot pink icon and Reid is logging in to check any staff messages regarding her patients for the day.
“It’s quick, easy and very effective,” Reid said. “If there’s something I need to let everyone know about at one time, I send out a group message to reach every single one of our nurses instantly. It’s exactly what we need.”
Sarasota Memorial was the first hospital to adopt Voalté. The hospital agreed to be the testing grounds for the service, and as a result got a “significant discount” on the undisclosed cost of purchasing Voalté’s software, and routine maintenance and service fees.
“Sarasota Memorial was a huge, huge partner in allowing us to be able to build this product,” Lauderdale says.
Sarasota Memorial started using Voalté in June 2009, and since then the company has been able to fix errors and fine-tune the product to gain new sales.
This month, Voalté announced three of the eight contracts it’s signed with hospitals: Wahiawa General in Oahu, Hawaii; Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.H.; and Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Concept started in college
It’s fitting that Lauderdale is the brains behind Voalté.
His previous job was selling wireless pagers to health-care workers as an area sales manager for Emergin from June 2007 to August 2008.
“I always thought, ‘Why can’t a company build a software set to leverage these smart phones for point-of-care communication?’ ” Lauderdale said.
He started developing the idea for Voalté while earning his master’s of science in entrepreneurship at the University of Florida.
After graduating in spring 2007 and working at Emergin, Lauderdale realized the potential of his business plan. But he needed a veteran business professional to help put the business together.
Lauderdale reconnected with Rob Campbell, a board member for the UF’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, who agreed to serve as Voalté’s chief executive officer.
“It struck me as the right idea at the right time,” Campbell said.
Lauderdale saw Campbell as the right fit given his impressive resume.
Campbell, 59, has started five companies and worked at both Apple and Microsoft.
Campbell has since helped Voalté raise startup financing from venture capitalists to match the undisclosed amount of money collected from friends and family to launch the company.
“I’ve been through the startup phase a number of times,” Campbell said. “I know most all the pieces it takes to make the idea a reality.”
David Blumberg, program assistant for UF’s Center for Entrepreneurship, said he and board members at the center saw much success in Voalté as Lauderdale worked on it in the entrepreneurship program, which is typically limited to 40 students a year.
“A lot of times students in this program are in it because they didn’t get into law school,” Blumberg said.
“When Trey came around he wasn’t trying to go to law school, he was looking at how our (entrepreneurship) program could help this idea that he had and put it into fruition. Nowadays people here still talk about it.”