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Ten Businesses to Receive Innovate Albuquerque Awards

By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
    The phrase "innovative company" is likely to conjure up images of high-tech startups striving to commercialize whiz-bang technologies on shoestring budgets.
    It's unlikely anyone would think of selling trucks.
    "Honestly, I'm surprised anybody would think we're innovative," admits John de Wolf, co-owner of Big West Truck Center, one of 10 companies, most of them high-tech, to be recognized by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce today as among the city's most innovative companies.
    But the background story behind Big West, and the creative way its founders went from big band to big business, might surprise you.
    The company is owned by members of the Pink Flamingos, an Albuquerque-based Vegas-style show band that has become one of the hottest corporate acts in the country. Like the band, which was founded 15 years ago by de Wolf and several friends with no musical background, the company decided to hire inexperienced but enthusiastic people, rather than those with truck sales and repair experience.
    "Now we have a neat group of young, developing managers, and we've all learned and become professionals together," de Wolf says, noting that when he and three bandmates bought Big West in 1997 he didn't even know what "accounts receivable" meant.
    "Like a band, you're only as good as your last performance," he said. "To us, this isn't innovation, this is just common sense."
    And it's apparently worked. Big West went from $500,000 in sales in 1997 to $6 million last year.
    This is the first year for the chamber's Innovate Albuquerque Entrepreneur/ Small Business Award, said Michael Seeliger, vice president of talent force, entrepreneurism and small-business development.
    "We wanted to honor entrepreneurship, the risk-taking individuals that are pushing the limits of what's known," he said.
    Today's Innovate Albuquerque award recipients include:
   
  • Exagen Diagnostics— spun off from materials testing firm Quasar in 2002 by veteran Albuquerque entrepreneur Waneta Tuttle. Exagen develops genetic tests to predict the course and severity of breast cancer and hepatitis C, enabling doctors to customize treatment.
        The company last year got a $5.4 million investment from three venture capital firms and expects to ship its first commercial product in 2006.
       
  • TPL Inc.— founded in 1992, specializes in two fields of business: the development and manufacturing of nano-size powders for use in electronics, and the decommissioning of military weapons.
        The company, which employs 80 in Albuquerque and at Gallup's Fort Wingate, last year bought a California manufacturer of capacitors that it hopes will eventually be a customer for its powders.
       
  • Flying Star Cafe— begun as a Double Rainbow Ice Cream franchisee in 1987. The company split from Double Rainbow in 2000 and renamed its coffee-and-nosh hangouts Flying Star.
        The company recently opened its fifth store in Downtown Albuquerque and is also building an arsenal of coffee-only shops, called Satellite, to compete with giant Starbucks.
       
  • VeraLight Inc.— a spinoff last year of Inlight Solutions that uses light to screen patients for diabetes. Based on similar technology developed by Inlight to detect alcohol and other diseases using light through the skin, VeraLight's Scout device picks up the changes to the molecular structure of skin wrought by diabetes, which affects about 6.3 percent of the U.S. population.
        Veralight aims to market the device as an alternative to conventional blood-based tests, which it says can be cumbersome and inaccurate.
       
  • Eclipse Aviation Corp.— which hopes to revolutionize air travel with a twin-engine, six-seat jet that founder and CEO Vern Raburn envisions will someday lead to a system of "air taxis" serving as an alternative to traditional airline travel.
        Furthermore, at a cost of $1.175 million, the Eclipse 500 will make jet travel accessible to pilots and other operators currently limited to slower propeller aircraft.
        The Eclipse 500 is currently in flight testing and is expected to get Federal Aviation Administration approval in early 2006.
       
  • AgilOptics Inc.— a 5-year-old company that specializes in adaptive optics, deformable mirrors used to correct distortions in laser beams and other optical devices, such as telescopes. It also makes a line of drivers and software used to control them.
        Originally founded as Intellite, the 12-person company changed its name this year after computer chip giant Intel Corp. sued, alleging trademark violation.
       
  • CoMeT Solutions Inc.— a developer of software that helps engineers blend and manage data from otherwise disparate computer engineering programs. It is aimed at companies that use several different programs for computer aided engineering— the building and testing of a product, such as a vehicle, in a simulated environment.
        In 2004, CoMeT received a $2.5 million investment from Flywheel Ventures, ITU Ventures and Fort Washington Capital Partners, which manages a chunk of the state's permanent funds for investment directly in local companies.
       
  • Avanca Medical Devices Inc.— which licenses double-barreled syringe technology from the University of New Mexico. The company recently received Food and Drug Administration approval to begin marketing the device, which it predicts will eventually replace the single-barrel syringe for certain medical procedures, such as drawing blood or cleaning a wound.
        It is organizing clinical studies around the country aimed at getting the device into doctors' hands.
       
  • Big West Truck Center— a dealer of new and used medium-duty trucks. The company also offers recreational vehicle service, truck service, parts, and truck rental and leasing.
        Founded in 1997, Big West is an authorized dealer for Isuzu, Nissan Diesel and Toyota medium-duty truck subsidiary Hino. It employs about 18.
       
  • Sole Comfort Shoes— opened in 1999 by Peggy Swisher, a pedorthist, and Janet Simon, a podiatrist, and dedicated to selling comfortable shoes. The store sells well-known brands of casual, dress and athletic shoes such as Brooks, Dansko and Birkenstock but customizes them for customers' special needs, such as by adding height to make up for a limb length discrepancy.
        "We can make all the corrections you need so you're no longer in pain or discomfort," Swisher said.
        Swisher and Simon, who has a podiatry practice in Albuquerque, have lectured around the country on the subject of foot care.
        During the same awards event this morning, the chamber will also present the 21st annual Maxie Anderson award. Named in honor of the Albuquerque businessman, philanthropist and daredevil balloonist Maxie Anderson, the award honors an entrepreneur's commitment to business and community.
        The nominees include:
       
  • Mark Harden, of Comfort Foods;
       
  • Del Esparza, of Esparza Advertising;
       
  • Bob Underwood, of Specialty Funding;
       
  • Curt Chavez, of G-Katmar Inc.; and
       
  • D.J. Heckes, of Exhib-It! Tradeshow Marketing Experts.
        And the chamber will give Cathryn Fletcher, of All-Ways Traveling Inc., its Home-Based Business of the Year Award.
        The breakfast will be from 7:30-10 a.m. at the Albuquerque Marriott.