UK grads win with touch-screens

By Kelsey Caudill

One large touch-screen and the decision to take a risk gave several UK students the opportunity to get their feet wet in the business industry.

A company started by UK graduates placed first runner-up in a state-wide business idea competition held by the Business Innovation and Growth Center at Kentucky Highlands on Monday, Jan. 10.

AwesomeTouch of Lexington received $5,000 and six months free rent in a semi-private work space for its software applications designed for large touch-screens that enable users to interact with life-size multitouch displays. The company focuses on delivering intuitive software for giant touch-screens in public places.

“It’s a system for downtown Lexington where you can find info on shops and businesses, including phone numbers, social networking reviews and other details,” Product Manager Patrick Kelly said. “It’s much more direct and intuitive. It’s similar to an iPhone or a touch- screen; if you tap an icon it pretty much does what you expect it to do.”

Kelly graduated from UK in 2010.

AwesomeTouch started as a senior design project pitched to students by Awesome Inc., a business incubator in the Lexington area that promotes technology, creativity and startup companies.

The idea began with a map project using giant touch-screens and expanded when Nick Such, director of Awesome Labs, discovered there was a real market for the product and advised students to keep working on it. Such is a 2009 UK graduate and is now the CEO of AwesomeTouch.

“Starting something like this is really about noticing an opportunity and finding a way to provide a solution,” Such said. “Touch-screens like this are going to be everywhere in the next few years. Visitors are already using them in hotels. University students will soon use these to promote and find events on campus. Retail provides lots of branding possibilities. The only question is whether these screens will be running our software, or someone else’s.”

A 14 member team of UK students and alumni launched AwesomeTouch in 2010. The company is now staffed by Such, Kelly and five other members of the original team: Nolan Lancaster, John Kiffmeyer, Chris Allen, Brian Raney and Ryan Copple.

Kelly said that competitions like the one at Kentucky Highlands have been pivotal in improving AwesomeTouch.

“Going and sharing your idea with as many people as possible allows you to be very critical and get a lot of great feedback,” Kelly said. “It has been very influential in how we’ve shaped the project and how we’ve changed our business model.”

While AwesomeTouch has received recent acclaim for its innovation, Kelly said the road to success has not been easy.

“I thought I worked a lot when I was in school,” Kelly said. “I went through college taking a full course load and working full time, but I’ve actually had to take a second job to pay the bills.”

Lead software developer Nolan Lancaster, a 2010 UK graduate, said he faced a difficult decision in whether he should help launch AwesomeTouch.

“Personally, the challenge I had was deciding to stick with it,” Lancaster said. “I had a couple of job offers as I was graduating, but I thought this was an opportunity that I didn’t really want to pass up. I just kind of decided whether I’d want my own business or my own cubicle, and the answer was kind of obvious after that.”

Lancaster said that running your own business is similar to being a college student, only time management plays a larger role.

“The thing is, there’s no professor or teacher to crack the whip over you anymore or to establish deadlines; there’s really nobody to hold your feet to the fire,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster encourages students who are interested in startups to trust their instincts.

“I’d just like to encourage students to actually take a shot like this,” Lancaster said. “It was difficult for me, but I really don’t regret it at all. It’s been nothing but a positive experience.”

The winner of the Kentucky Highlands business idea competition is INVEN LLC, a Louisville-based dental health company whose technology allows root canals to be performed more effectively and efficiently. The second runner-up is Old Kentucky Logs of Corbin, recognized for manufacturing artificial logs that look antique and are made out of molds of 150-year-old logs.

Such said he is pleased with AwesomeTouch’s performance in the competition, but that the award is only a stepping stone on the company’s journey to success.

“Getting funding for an entrepreneur really isn’t success, but like oxygen for a scuba diver: it enables us to keep searching for the real treasure,” Such said.