The Best of Startup Paradise
Meet the 27 winners and finalists of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association awards.
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and flourishing in Hawaii, aka Startup Paradise. A total of 27 companies and individuals were honored at the Hawaii Venture Capital Association’s annual awards dinner on March 1 at the Waialae Country Club. The honorees are young and older and cover a lot of industries, from ag and food to tech and tourism. Consider these profiles a preview of Hawaii’s business future.
Deal of the Year
Entrepreneurs of the Year
People’s Choice Startup
Social Impact Entrepreneur of the Year
Clean Tech/Ag Entrepreneur of the Year
Corporate Intrapreneur of the Year
Startup Paradise Champion
Investor of the Year
Island Innovator of the Year
Tech Entrepreneur of the Year
Student Entrepreneur of the Year
CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) Entrepreneur of the Year
Celebrating the Birth of Startup Paradise
The Hawaii Venture Capital Association, which turned 30 last month, played a big role in the growth of Hawaii’s tech and innovation sector. The group plans to keep growing that mission over the next 30 years.
By Marcia Kimura
The Hawaii Venture Capital Association was formed in February 1988, when technology and innovation were tiny parts of the local economy and the word “startup” was just beginning to gain traction in everyday conversations.
Today, Hawaii’s tech/innovation sector – nicknamed Startup Paradise – continues to grow and appears poised for further leaps forward.
“There’s no greater place to start a business or invest in one than Hawaii, our own backyard, a rich source of talent, diversity innovation and deal flow,” says Bill Spencer.
Spencer was and is a key player in the blossoming of Startup Paradise. He was president of HVCA from 1999 to 2014 and remains an active principal in the investor group Hawaii Angels and in his own firm. Looking back at those early years, he singles out another key player.
“Gov. George Ariyoshi was keen on, and deserves the credit for, establishing a tech sector,” Spencer says about the man who served as Hawaii’s governor from 1974 to 1986 and continued to advocate for technology after he left office.
“He believed that technology, innovation and software were clean export industries exporting intellectual property that would balance our dependence on the defense and tourism industries,” Spencer says. “The realization was that the University of Hawai‘i, as well as our own communities, were rich sources of intellectual property, of inventions that could be commercialized.”
A state agency called the Hawaii Technology Development Corp. was launched in 1983 and others followed, including the Manoa Innovation Center, the Maui Research & Technology Center, the Pacific International Center for High Tech Research and the Hawaii Strategic Development Corp.
HVCA was launched to foster networking among entrepreneurs, investors and the general business community. One of its early ways to bring people together was a monthly brown bag lunch at the Manoa Innovation Center in which an entrepreneur would present his product plan to three expert judges, who offered critiques and suggestions for marketing and product improvements.
One of the first inventors was UH professor Rob Yonover, an oceans and volcanoes expert, paddler and surfer. He invented the See/Rescue Streamer, a lightweight device about the size of a mobile phone that expands to increase the visibility of those lost at sea or in the wilderness.
The streamers were eventually licensed to a manufacturer and sold to the military and the public. “He had a great idea, needed some direction, we put him on a particular course, and he did very well,” Spencer says.
Over the years, Spencer has been delighted to see more women and young people involved in the innovation sector, a huge growth in the number of deals made, more interaction between Hawaii and Asia startups, the birth of accelerators such as Blue Startups, Elemental Excelerator and Mana Up, as well as the overall growth of the entire ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs.
HVCA’s president since 2014 has been Meli James, one of the founders of Mana Up, which is helping to turn small local companies into global brands. One of her big efforts has been to win support for the innovation and tech sectors at the state Legislature.
“We really need to be in sync with the Legislature to make certain we get funding and support for these startups, and it’s really important that government is behind this. We’re also trying to get the corporate sector more involved.”
She has also turned HVCA’s annual awards event into a big gala. “We highlight tangible successes of the previous year’s innovators and startups, so that people can look to and be inspired by them,” she says. “A lot of people say, ‘Nothing’s happening in Hawaii,’ so I think it’s really important to showcase the winners as prime examples of the best of the best in Hawaii.”