Shirt tailor, drink maker, cure seeker: Palm Beach County startups

One entrepreneur is marketing dress shirts from his parents’ garage. Another sells organic drinks at Wal-Mart. A third startup operator is pursuing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and pancreatic cancer.

With big dreams and an enviable work ethic, Palm Beach County’s budding entrepreneurs are a diverse group — even if they’re aware that they’re launching in a region that’s not in the fast lane for startups.

The county’s economy could use a jolt of job growth from startups. By some measures, the region is thriving. Palm Beach County is home to the highest-paid workers in Florida and two Fortune 500 headquarters. But average wage is below the national average, and job growth here lags the pace being set elsewhere in Florida.

Proponents of startups acknowledge that Palm Beach County’s business climate is missing some of the building blocks for entrepreneurship. With a dearth of software engineers, few investors backing startups and no elite university, the region lacks the buzz of innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and Seattle, said Nick Mohnacky, co-founder of Startup Palm Beach.

“The good news is that more and more of these companies are coming out of the woodwork,” said Mohnacky, who owns Mohnacky Marketing in West Palm Beach. “Once you get some critical mass, all of a sudden this becomes a place of interest for investors.”

The harsh reality is that most startups fail. But Palm Beach County has some success stories, too. Modernizing Medicine, a Boca Raton-based company that makes software for doctors, has raised $87 million from venture capitalists in recent years.

A look at three of Palm Beach County’s startups:

The shirt maker

For Matteo Ferrer, inspiration came as he sweat through a dress shirt in South Florida’s humidity.

“You have all these very traditional cotton button-down shirts,” Ferrer said. “They leave all these unsightly sweat marks. So I was thinking, there has to be a better way.”

Ferrer, 27, this year launched Versattire, a company that aims to bring breathable, moisture-wicking materials to dress shirts. After testing hundreds of polyester blends, he settled on a fabric that keeps wearers cool and looks professional.

“They’re indistinguishable from a classic shirt you’d wear to work,” Ferrer said.

The garments are made in Chicago and sell online for $98 apiece. Versattire shirts are available only in white and black for now, but Ferrer hopes to add blue button-downs to his offerings.

Ferrer has no employees, and to save money, he runs the business from his parents’ garage in suburban Lake Worth.

“It’s your typical garage set-up right now,” Ferrer said. “There’s no shame in that.”

Before he began selling shirts this year, Ferrer spent five years working on his brainstorm.

In classic startup fashion, Ferrer needs a day job to support his business. He works for the city of Fort Lauderdale and devotes nights and weekends to his business.

The healthy drink seller

Jupiter entrepreneur Jeff Robbins makes Sneakz, an organic drink aimed at children — or, more accurately, it’s targeted to parents who wish their kids would eat more vegetables. The shakes’ ingredients include organic skim milk, pureed carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, beets and spinach, a veggie-rich concoction that’s sweetened to appeal to kids’ palates.

Started in 2012, Sneakz is surging past the startup stage. The company has secured distribution deals with Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market, and Robbins expects revenue to triple next year.

“2017 should be our biggest growth year,” Robbins said.

Sneakz sells its shakes in eight-ounce containers. Prices vary from $6.99 for a four-pack on the Sneakz website to $6.99 for a six-pack at Wal-Mart. The mammoth retailer lives up to its reputation for pinching pennies, Robbins said.

“Yes, they are difficult at the very beginning to make sure they get the best price,” he said. “But once you get past that point, they work really well with startups.”

Sneakz has four employees at its Jupiter headquarters, and Robbins says running a startup means balancing the risk of a flop with the potential reward of creating a hit product.

“There’s a high failure rate across almost everything in the food and beverage industry,” Robbins said. “But we’re all eating and drinking on a daily basis.”

With sales poised to pick up, Robbins is eyeing new niches. He’s working on an almond milk version of Sneakz, along with a powdered product.

The cure seeker

Biotech startup Jupiter Orphan Therapeutics sees big potential in resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red wine, grapes and berries. Scientists believe the compound might slow the aging process.

The company’s name refers to its strategy of using resveratrol to treat so-called orphan diseases — rare illnesses like Friedreich’s ataxia, which afflicts children and shortens their lives.

But Jupiter Orphan Therapeutics also hopes to use resveratrol to treat Alzheimer’s disease and pancreatic cancer. The company has raised $2.5 million for clinical trials, said Christer Rosen, the startup’s chairman and chief executive.

Jupiter Orphan Therapeutics is working with Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia and other research organizations. The small company has four employees and four consultants.

“We’re very virtual,” Rosen said.

Jupiter Orphan Therapeutics’ team of consultants includes Dr. Claes Wahlestedt, a former Scripps Florida researcher who’s now an associate dean at the University of Miami’s medical school.

Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 wooed Scripps to Florida with $310 million, a sum sweetened with $269 million from Palm Beach County. Bush and county officials envisioned that a thriving startup community would emerge from Scripps.

New spinoffs have been slow to emerge, but Rosen is undeterred.

“I don’t think it’s any harder for a company in Florida to raise money than a company in San Francisco,” Rosen said.

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