KC wants to be a ‘sandbox’ for high-tech creativity

Digital Sandbox KC, a new effort to help entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing, announced Friday that it is open to applications and will move quickly to make its selections by April.

Jeff Shackelford, co-founder of Birch Telecom and founder of Tech Guys Inc., was named director of the endeavor, which seeks to help launch at least 10 successful new enterprises within two years. The initiative will help people with cutting-edge ideas develop them and reach a market.

The Digital Sandbox got under way at a gathering of civic and business leaders and an audience of about 300 in Union Station’s new big-screen digital theater. The sandbox refers to a place for innovators to play.

“When we say play, we mean it in the athletic sense,” said Maria Meyers, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center, which is coordinating the effort. “So bring your game.”

The Digital Sandbox is viewed as part of a larger effort to seize the opportunity being provided to the Kansas City area as the test market for the Google Fiber high-speed Internet access. It’s funded with $2.1 million in federal, state and private industry contributions.

The program will offer expertise and mentoring from some iconic and innovative businesses. Hallmark, Sprint, UMB, Cerner, VML, RareWire and others were represented at Friday’s announcement.

Civic leaders voicing support included Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, Kansas City Mayor Sly James and UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton.

The Digital Sandbox, which will soon have offices at Union Station, will not be a source of venture capital for startups.

“The best way to describe it is, someone may have an idea and maybe they’ve worked it to a certain point and they’re sort of stuck,” Shackelford explained after all the speeches. “Maybe they need to test their idea or need some help in getting it over the hump, to share the idea with people who are in the market. We will not fund businesses. We may fund the expense to help them get to that prototype stage.”

Meyers promised that market-ready applications of technology will result.

The Digital Sandbox is looking for ideas in data center and cloud operations, big data and data analytics, mobile applications and data security.

The initiative was made possible with a $1 million challenge grant from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency and was one of only six awarded.

It was matched with $500,000 from the Missouri Technology Corp. of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. A consortium of Kansas City area businesses is contributing $600,000 in cash and in-kind assistance.

The announcements were made in the Extreme Screen theater, where a new five-story screen was recently installed. A rented projection system was used Friday, but Union Station next week will install two new digital lenses capable of showing first-release 3D educational and entertainment productions. The first feature will be offered in early March.

This spring, it will be connected to 1-gigabit-per-second Google Fiber.