Surging ‘Seattle 10’ startups show off their strategies on supersized cocktail napkins

Seattle 10 giant napkins hang from the rafters at MOHAI at the GeekWire Gala. (GeekWire Photos / Kevin Lisota)

The idea of sketching business plans and ideas on cocktail napkins dates back decades. You quickly draw out the core components of a business on a napkin, and it helps highlight what is really important because those scraps of paper don’t provide a ton of room.

But that all goes out the window when you have 6-foot by 6-foot canvasses to serve as cocktail napkins. Back again at the GeekWire Gala this week was our annual list of 10 of the most exciting and groundbreaking startups from the Seattle region. The sketches created by each company on those giant napkins showed off not just their business plans, but also their artistic sides.

The cutting-edge companies making up this year’s Seattle 10 cross a range of industries — from cloud computing to artificial intelligence to healthcare to agriculture — and offer a glimpse into future technologies that may emerge from our region. This is the fifth year of the Seattle 10, and the napkins seem to get more artistic and descriptive every year.

Continue reading for a look at the work from this year’s class of GeekWire’s Seattle 10, along with comments from their leaders at the GeekWire Gala. The Seattle 10 is presented by MOHAI, the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, where the cocktail napkins will be made part of the museum’s permanent collection.


Wrench CEO Ed Petersen says his company, which brings mechanics directly to customers, aims to fix a real-world issue: that dealing with car problems is the worst. And while many improvements have come to the cars themselves, not much has changed in terms of getting them fixed. That’s where Wrench comes in.

“All the technology enhancements and improvements that have happened in the auto industry have all happened on the manufacturing side, happened on the parts, on the vehicle side,” Petersen told GeekWire during the event this week. “They have not happened on the consumer experience side — how I deal with fixing things, brakes, tuneups, what have you.”

The company initially limited its services to oil changes, tune-ups and basic brake repair, but high demand led Wrench to expand services to cover almost anything that a shop or dealership would provide. Wrench raised a $4 million round earlier this year.

Wrench will continue to grow its service in its four markets: Seattle, Portland, San Diego and Phoenix. Petersen said the company is adding thousands of vehicles to its platform every month.

2018 Goals: “Grow, grow, grow,” Petersen said. “The model works. Our unit economics are awesome, we’re profitable in all our markets. The demand is there, and the supply is there, meaning the mechanics, the technicians really like to work with us because we support them correctly. We treat them well. Those things are all clicking. We want to grow, and we want to grow really fast.”


Amplero only emerged on the scene last year with its AI-based marketing tools, and it has already crossed 50 employees. In 2017, the company’s revenue increased five-fold, and it closed a pair of funding rounds in an 18-month period.

Led by veteran technologist Olly Downs, who previously worked as chief scientist at AdReady, Atigeo and Mindset Media, the company is now expanding into categories such as travel, retail and consumer technology.

“We’re growing pretty significantly, trying to make sure we do it in a way that preserves our culture and where we came from,” Downs said in an interview at the GeekWire Gala. “It’s been a wild ride, really fun.”

2018 Goals: “It’s about tripling revenue, it’s about more than doubling the number of customers,” Downs said. The company is also looking to establish more of a beachhead in Europe, while growing its office space in its hometown of Seattle.


Seattle modular housing startup Blokable already has the endorsement and backing of Paul Allen, and this year it has more than doubled its workforce from seven to 20. And it’s only just getting started.

The company is helmed by ex-Amazon manager Aaron Holm, who combines experience working on the Amazon Go project with a lifelong fascination with shipping containers. He was not at the Gala, as he was down in California helping officials figure out what to do about housing in the aftermath of the wildfires engulfing the southern part of the state.

Tim Miller, Blokable co-founder and vice president of design, told GeekWire that the company’s main focus at the moment is working with a variety of builders to ramp up production.

“We now have a significant pipeline of nonprofit service providers for transitional homeless housing and market rate developers who all want to figure out how to make afford housing available faster, and ultimately we think we have the product for them to do it,” Miller said.

The 20-month-old company creates sleek and environmentally-friendly modular housing units that can be arranged and stacked to build affordable multifamily projects. Blokable’s 260-square-foot MicoBlok modular units are pre-fabricated in a warehouse in Vancouver, Wash. They sell for $58,000 unfurnished, and $85,000 for a fully-furnished unit.

2018 Goals: “The next year is all about pipeline and pushing out our MicroBlok product, which is our efficiency dwelling unit that meets all the requirements for California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and ultimately trying to get excitement around the idea of modular housing meeting housing demand across west coast,” Miller said.


More than half of NFL teams — 18 to be exact — as well as 21 college teams are now using Vicis’ helmet that features a unique design meant to mitigate the forces that cause concussions.

The Seattle startup, which spun out of the University of Washington in 2013, is up to 62 employees now. Dave Auckland, the startup’s CFO, told GeekWire that Vicis wants to be at 100 employees next year.

Vicis has raised $40 million from investors and could play a key role in curbing the concussion problem for not just pro football, but many other sports. Expanding the technology to youth football, and other sports, is a big part of Vicis’ 2018 plans.

2018 Goals: “2018 will really be about expanding our portfolio of offerings,” Auckland said. “Right now we have one helmet: it’s the ZERO1 and it’s $1500. We want to get the helmet down to the kids, so expanding the portfolio to allow us access to all markets, including high school and youth is big, plus expanding beyond football and into other sports.”


HaptX, formerly known as AxonVR, wants to make virtual experiences indistinguishable from real life, and its first product is a set of “haptic feedback gloves.”

“We’re bringing touch to virtual reality, and realistic touch at that,” HaptX CEO Jake Rubin told GeekWire. “We build wearables that let you feel the size, shape, texture and temperature of objects in VR.”

This year, the 32-person company has gone from an early proof-of-concept for its technology to creating a prototype of its first product. Next year, HaptX will begin shipping its first pairs of gloves to customers.

2018 Goals: “I think 2018 is going to be a big year for us,” Rubin said. “We have about 20 customers lined up, including a number of Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries — medical, defense, industrial and automotive, who are very excited to receive our gloves and start to evaluate them for their applications. We expect to begin shipping those in 2018 and probably raise our next round of funding, as well in 2018. Big year ahead.”


Loftium is getting a lot of buzz as buyers look for new ways to afford their dream homes in expensive housing markets like Seattle.

The Seattle startup will pay part of a down payment to those who are willing to rent out a spare bedroom in their new house on Airbnb and split the profits. It’s an innovative idea that just launched two months ago to much fanfare.

2018 Goals:  “We are planning on expansion soon,” Loftium Co-founder Yifan Zhang said. “So right now we are just in the Seattle city limits. We are hoping to open up in greater Seattle very shortly and then opening in more markets to allow people access to down payments and to buy homes in expensive markets.”


What is Kubernetes? If you aren’t in the cloud computing world, you probably have no idea. But if you are, you know that it is one of the hottest trends in the industry, and Seattle startup Heptio is right in the middle of it.

Originally built by Google, Kubernetes is one of the key building blocks in helping developers simplify how they deploy software. And Heptio builds open-source software projects designed to make Kubernetes easier to use when managing containerized applications.

Heptio was founded by Joe Beda and Craig McLuckie, who were two of the original creators of Kubernetes when they worked at Google.

In September, Heptio landed a $25 million funding round, bringing it to $33.5 million in total funding, less than a year after the cloud startup made its debut.


Former Swype leaders Mike McSherry and Aaron Sheedy last year founded Xealth, a cloud-based digital platform that allows doctors to send digital treatments like instructional videos to patients.

It spun off from hospital network Providence Health and Services and raised a $8.5 million round in June. The company is growing fast, from seven employees six months ago to 20 today. Sheedy told GeekWire that in the past year the platform has gained traction at several different hospitals.

“We went from, ‘I hope this works,’ to ‘Oh, my gosh it’s working.’ We’re deployed at four health systems now. We’ve done over 50,000 exchanges of digital health information between physicians and caregivers and patients. And that’s really our measure of success: impacting lives and outcomes,” he said.

2018 Goals: “Find more innovative health systems that need to digitize their experience with patients and physicians, try to get as many patients and doctors lit up on the Xealth ecosystem, and improve our product so that we’re better at recommending things for patients and for physicians that really make a difference in their lives,” Sheedy said.


Technology evangelists often preach about tech’s ability to improve crucial processes, and Phytelligence aims to do just that. The 5-year-old spinout from Washington State University, led by Ken Hunt, uses a proprietary tissue culture process called MultiPHY that helps grow fruit trees in more efficient and sustainable ways.

The four-step process grows trees in a custom gel blend rather than traditional soil — a method that provides all necessary nutrients without the need for water, which saves time and money for growers. The controlled environment also allows the plants to grow more quickly.

Phytelligence is coming off a strong year in which it raised $6.95 million from Cowles Company and WRF Capital in July, money it will use to continue to expand the marketing efforts of its agricultural science. To date, the 70-person company has delivered more than one million plants to growers and nurseries around the country.


Seattle startup Boundless came out of stealth mode at a contentious moment for immigration policy. The startup, which announced a $3.5 million funding round in April, has focused on helping U.S. citizens and Green Card holders apply for visas for their spouses.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang said he has been working on the idea for the company since late last year.

“As I learned more and talked to more families about immigration, I realized that it was so compelling, it was something I couldn’t not do,” Wang said.

Now at 12 employees, Boundless began rolling out its flagship product in September, a set of tools that make it easier for foreign-born spouses of permanent U.S. residents to apply for green cards. The Boundless platform guides customers through the application using simple questions translated into the user’s native language. The whole process should take less than two hours and costs a flat fee of $500. Think Turbotax for immigration.

2018 Goals: “2018 is all about, how do we take what we built and be able to provide it for a lot more people. How do we help people at different phases, how do we help with different types of applications, how do we help people from all walks of life. It’s about being able to take what we’ve been able to build so far and truly impact a lot more people.”