Dover startup wins $225K Amazon accelerator prize
DOVER – Serial entrepreneur Chris Morris was working on his latest idea when he received an email informing him of a new Impact Accelerator program targeting Black founders that was launched by Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“I was actually shocked because it’s not something that you often see. There’s not a lot of programs like this that are specifically for Black founders,” he said.
AWS, the website hosting and development services of e-commerce giant Amazon, launched a $30 million commitment for early-stage startups led by underrepresented founders, plus the first program, the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders.
After reviewing thousands of applicants from across the country, Morris’ year-old Rush Roto was selected as one of just 25 startups selected for a $125,000 cash prize, $100,000 in AWS site credit and training by Amazon officials. This week, he and co-founder/Chief Technology Officer David Asbery are at Amazon headquarters in Seattle for that training.
The Dover-based Rush Roto aims to give small business owners the tools to produce product videos suitable for social media promotion via a user-friendly smartphone app.
“One of the things that we noticed was how extremely cost-prohibitive it is just to be able to do things that are promotional as a small business,” Morris said. “And coming from the African-American community, resources are always scarce.”
Morris didn’t attend a high-tech training program to design apps – he started when he was 15, teaching himself using guides and manuals from the internet.
As an entrepreneurial teen, Morris ran a local recording studio in his Philadelphia neighborhood. Seeking to make his products stand out to buyers, he discovered a niche.
“I found out that you could code video onto an audio CD, and I went about figuring out how to do that,” he said, noting that buyers of his CDs could play them on their stereo, but also pop them into a DVD player to watch promotional content and music videos.
After that discovery, Morris became hooked on learning more and eventually became trained in app and product development, working for Fortune 500 companies.
About eight years ago, the Philly native moved his family to Smyrna to take advantage of Delaware’s cheaper cost of living. Morris was developing a different app that accidentally led to Rush Roto.
He explained that he was working on a mixed-reality app that would allow users to view a musician or performer as if they were 3D in front of them.
“As a result of that idea, I needed to have a software that could cut the background out and leave just the subject,” he said, noting that paying for the design proved too expensive so he built it himself. “I showed it to a bunch of people, and they weren’t that excited. So, I took that and asked myself, ‘What else can I do with this?’”
The answer was in his own home, as his wife runs a successful Etsy shop. They used it to feature some of her products in short videos for popular social media sites, and found the results looked great and were getting views.
Recognizing that most small business owners like his wife don’t have large ad budgets for Facebook or Google, and largely depend on their own social media posts to sell products, they sensed an opportunity to reach an untapped market.
“They need repeat videos that are slightly different or things that are more interesting and dynamic for users who are going to be scrolling on social media,” Morris said.
They are preparing to launch a beta version of the Rush Roto app in about three weeks, and, after weeks of testing and feedback, hope to launch the full commercial version of the app to the public this summer.
With $125,000 in seed funding now in tow, Morris said he anticipates growing Rush Roto’s small headcount – aside from Morris and Asbery, they employ a user interface and experience designer in Nigeria who they met in another startup founders’ program. At least initially, new roles would center around product design as they create additional backgrounds and templates to help small businesses feature their products.
Morris said he was excited to be recognized in such a large nationwide competition and hoped that the win would produce long-term growth here.
“I felt like this is a moment when I could realistically make a big impact on my family and start to leave a bigger legacy,” he said. “We want to put some stakes down and grow it in Delaware.”