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Delaware’s Black entrepreneurs are growing

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Von and Nicole Homer, founders of HX Innovations, are branching out and putting their neuroergonomic software in the hands of shoe companies and professional sports teams. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Many of the world’s great inventions and advancements started with an entrepreneur who had an idea.

We have lightbulbs thanks to Thomas Edison, most manufactured products thanks to Henry Ford and at-your-doorstep delivery of nearly any consumer item due to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Opportunity for entrepreneurs has not historically been equal though, as Black and Brown founders have inequitable access to capital to scale their operations and to networks to grow clients and suppliers. The COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed many from offices to remote working, has made the challenge of growing a business as a minority entrepreneur even more difficult.

But not impossible.

In fact, after a significant decline at the outset of the pandemic, Black-owned businesses grew by 38% between February 2020 and August 2021, according to UC Santa Cruz researcher Robert Fairlie, even while white and Asian businesses fell by 3% and 2%, respectively. The Kauffman Foundation also found that more Black Americans started businesses in 2020 than in any of the previous 25 years.

Merchant Maverick, a comparison site that reviews small business software and services, recently surveyed all states on their Black-owned employers, their payroll, and other state employment data to rank the best states to grow a business as a Black entrepreneur. Delaware was ranked No. 5.

We connected with five Black entrepreneurs who have found success building their companies in the First State.

HX Innovations

Von and Nicole Homer are opening a new innovation lab at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Founded in 2019 by Von and Nicole Homer, HX Innovations takes Von’s career work in neuroergonomics and biomechanics to develop a sensor-laden system that will help athletes – and eventually maybe even the general public – avoid injuries by finding appropriate footwear.

After developing technology to help himself overcome a serious college football injury, Von Homer spent years consulting for shoe companies before deciding to start his own company.

“I just found it would actually be more lucrative for me to kind of bring it to market in the way that I would want to bring it to market,” he said.

Today, the HX team of five collects data from athletes that it can commercialize to sell back to sports teams and shoe companies, though it hopes to one day develop and patent the entire system.

HX Innovations has been able to grow in less than three years in part due to the support of state grant programs that support entrepreneurs and minority-owned businesses. It received $50,000 from the state’s Delaware Technical Innovation Program, which supplements federal innovation funding, and won $60,000 from Startup302, a competitive grant program funded by the state and for-profit partners to advance work by underrepresented communities.

HX Innovations recently solidified a partnership with the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, home to the Delaware Blue Coats and a training facility for the Philadelphia Union, to establish an experimental station to advance its work.

One way that Homer aims to help grow the company’s brand is through hosting a Feb. 17 high school football combine at the Fieldhouse, where scouts from 30 universities will attend, including some from big Division I programs.

“I found that [Delaware has] a lot of ranked players in the nation that still aren’t signed, so I wanted to be able to give them a platform to perform and also give us an opportunity to demonstrate the overall effectiveness of our technology in a real applied sense,” Homer said, noting that the scouts are excited about the program. “They feel like it can be a gamechanger for the state.”

Desikant Technologies

Desikant Technologies, founded by Kwaku Temeng (center) has received state funding like an EDGE grant, presented here last year by Gov. John Carney (right). | PHOTO COURTESY OF DSB

Founded in 2019 by Kwaku Temeng, an experienced garment and materials innovator who spent time at sportswear giant Under Armour, Desikant Technologies is working on a problem that everyone can relate to: sweat.

The team is developing a proprietary technology built into clothing that will help regulate heat stress, a byproduct of trapped heat and wasted sweat that can lead to heat exhaustion. By helping to move sweat away from the skin and move air around the body, the garments could lower body temperatures to aid those at risk.

The company is currently targeting the surgical field as a market entry point, as gowned surgeons working on long cases often suffer from heat stress. The U.S. Army has also expressed some interest in the technology to one day help keep soldiers wearing bulletproof vests cooler on the battlefield.

Like HX Innovations, Desikant benefitted from Startup302, winning the inaugural program’s top $75,000 prize, and also received a state Encouraging Development, Growth and Expansion (EDGE) grant.

Temeng said that his firm hasn’t had to seek out capital funding yet – a historical weakness for minority-owned businesses – but that the pandemic has made growing the business more challenging with in-person meetings largely prohibited. He also noted that his firm falls outside of Delaware’s historical strengths of chemistry and bioscience, making networking more difficult. Those challenges are offset by Delaware’s perfect geography between New York City and Washington, D.C., though, Temeng said.

For now, Desikant is preparing to soon get its prototype in the hands of surgeons who can provide valuable feedback on its real-world effectiveness. The sky may be the limit for its potential applications, with Temeng saying it could be used in just about anything that deals with trapped heat and sweat.

Elyte Energy

Jalaal Hayes founded Elyte Energy after completing research at DSU. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ELYTE ENERGY

Founded in 2020 by Jalaal Hayes, a Delaware State University grad who was the youngest person to earn a doctorate in applied chemistry, Elyte Energy seeks to reduce the world’s dependence on oil by making hydrogen a better renewable fuel source.

Using proprietary technology patented during his doctoral studies at DSU, Hayes’ team of five is building a hydrogen-powered fuel cell that would split hydrogen and oxygen molecules from water and store the hydrogen chemically for use as fuel.

Seeking a market entry point, Elyte Energy began eyeing the recreational vehicle market, which is exploding in popularity amid the pandemic, but has only a nascent renewable energy segment. Hayes said they plan to first introduce a portable camping generator that runs on their technology to develop some brand awareness and will then work to integrate it into powering RVs.

“We can hit the millennial and Gen Z market that want to be mobile, but also are more eco-conscious in their spending,” Hayes said.

Elyte Energy has benefited from both Startup302 and the state’s EDGE grants to raise more than $100,000 in seed funding, which has helped Hayes build out his team and produce a prototype. It hopes to release that prototype by the third quarter of this year that could run on just a few gallons of water.

“As a minority, Delaware has been extremely helpful in my journey as an entrepreneur in this particular space, giving me so much support and some clarity on how to move forward,” he said.

TheraV

Amira Radovic founded TheraV after working through UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship program. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THERAV

Founded in 2015 by Amira Radovic, Wilmington-based TheraV has developed a vibrating unit that reduces “phantom pain” in amputees, or the pain triggered by the brain when it cannot sense a missing limb.

“We found that by using mechanical stimulation, we can basically help overcome that,” she said, noting that it essentially closes a signal loop from the brain.

Radovic developed the unit after spending time at an amputee clinic as a University of Delaware student and learning that many patients were seeking a drug-free treatment alternative. Horitius Jen Lee, an amputee military veteran and member of the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team, became an advisor to TheraV after benefitting from the product.

The firm currently doesn’t have much competition in the space because most focuses on amputees lie in treating pain with prescription drugs and investing in cutting-edge prosthetics that can cost thousands of dollars, Radovic said. Their niche has proved very popular in the amputee community though.

“We got an overwhelming demand for the beta device and at one point, I just kind of cut off orders,” she said of the more than 100 units shipped in 2018.

Ever since, interest in the device have spread by word of mouth and TheraV’s outreach in the national community. A list of interested buyers for an updated unit that would also track a patient’s pain level, scheduled to be released this year, has been growing, Radovic said.

As the firm’s only current full-time employee, Radovic has been pouring recent grant wins, including $20,000 from Startup302, $25,000 from UBS’ Project Entrepreneur, and a state EDGE grant, into her manufacturing costs. After launching her first commercial unit, she hopes to add additional full-time staff.

As a young Black entrepreneur, Radovic said she has felt particularly supported by UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship program, crediting it with guiding her journey in creating a company as part of its first Summer Founders cohort.

“They were really the main reason why we ended up staying in Delaware, establishing ourselves in Delaware and until today we still keep in contact with them and they’re always sending opportunities our way,” she said. “I can’t speak enough about how great that program and its staff and leadership have been.”

She did note that venture capital opportunities in Delaware are difficult to come by, however, and Radovic is increasingly looking out of state to find investors, as evidenced by her Project Entrepreneur win.

NERDiT NOW

Markevis Gideon of NERDiT NOW has delivered about 6,000 computers to those in need last year. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NERDIT NOW

Founded in 2015, Markevis Gideon’s computer recycling and repair company NERDiT NOW may be among the most well-known minority-owned businesses in Delaware. That’s due to its 2019 pitch on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” which catapulted Gideon and his company onto local decision-makers’ radars.

In 2020, NERDiT NOW was named the Pete duPont Freedom Foundation’s Reinventing Delaware award winner, coming with a $2,500 cash prize and access to consultants.

What started as four employees in a startup with a small Stanton storefront has since blossomed into 18 employees working in three locations. Prefaced on the goal of giving back to communities in need, NERDiT NOW also donated a few hundred computers a year in its early years, but 2021 saw it donate 6,000 refurbished units, Gideon said.

The company recently became Delaware’s only certified recycler of IT equipment, allowing it to receive bulk shipments of aging units that can be refurbished for further use or stripped for their valuable parts. That certification also led to a partnership with the Red Clay Consolidated School District, the state’s largest public school system, to help convert old units to functioning new ones for students and staff.

As word of their work spread, so too have the potential clients.

“We’re still getting requests for between 500 and 800 computers every single month,” Gideon said. “We don’t have the bandwidth to handle all of that right now, but we’re working to serve as many as we can.”

In the near future, Gideon hopes to find new warehouse space to hold the company’s rapidly accruing storage of recycled computers and has plans to move NERDiT NOW’s nonprofit foundation to 212 W. 9th St. in Wilmington.

Aside from its product work, NERDiT NOW has also launched a growing IT training program that taught about 60 apprentices last year.

“We recently had a huge win when a trainee who lives in Sussex County and drove up here to go through our program was recently hired to be a school network administrator for their IT department,” Gideon said, adding that they hope to expand courses to Sussex County where there is a need.

Gideon said there is still “a huge barrier” for minority entrepreneurs in access to capital, resources and networking, but he’s found community partners and programs like Leadership Delaware that have helped to bridge the gap.

“They helped move some of the barriers to make it a bit easier to climb over,” he said.

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