By Bob Woods 

When Thomas Byrd (MBA ’16), Jason Keasler (MBA ’16) and Joe Rjeili stood before the judges in the final round of the Business Plan Competition in March, they recognized one of them, and vice versa. That’s because they’d faced each other a year earlier, when the threesome won the grand prize for AlulA Aerospace, a startup with a patent-pending technology that aims to replace the current system of retrieving vital black-box data from aircraft.

In addition to seeking out investors, the team came up with a novel self-funding approach based around developing a mobile game application that combines virtual- and augmented-reality and uses technology they developed for AlulA. They plan to raise capital to launch AlulA from sales of the game, as well as from licensing the technology they developed to other game developers.

The game is called VarDragons, which is the idea Bryd, Keasler and Rjeili pitched at this year’s competition, earning second prize. VarDragons players view real airborne planes through a smartphone camera lens, and with the digital magic of VR and AR, the aircraft morph into cartoonish 3-D dragons. Competitors “capture” and release the winged fire-breathers in virtual battles waged against one another, purchasing advanced options during their quests if they choose.

It’s been a fun challenge creating this business. “We’re engineers and business guys, and we (didn’t) know much about gaming,” Keasler says, candidly conceding that presenting the VarDragons business plan to potential investors initially took them out of their comfort zone. As a backup to traditionally raising capital, they are also entertaining the idea of creating a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. But they’re holding off on activating it until securing sufficient interest within the passionate gaming world, where most any title starring dragons “seems to get people freaking out,” Byrd says. The team is also stoking fans with a prototype of VarDragons at prominent gaming conferences such as PAX-E and South by Southwest.

Hopes are that a trailer which releases soon of VarDragons goes viral, unleashing either venture capital interest or the fan interest necessary to initiate a Kickstarter campaign. “We’re bootstrapping the game in the meantime,” Keasler says, noting that the competition’s prize money is a welcome relief while he and his partners work full time on both startups. “We tend to maximize efficiency of effort, and design many of our tasks to have applicability to both ventures,” Byrd says. “This allows both companies to continue progress until one of the two sparks. … Which will come first is the exiting part of this all.”

Spring 2017
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