When Brendon Lee and Chris Thibault were high school students in tiny Alma, Ark., in 2008, they wanted an easier way to do their math homework. So they developed an iPad app that speeded everything up, allowing them to ditch the notebooks and pencils.
“We didn’t want to take our backpacks to class,” said Thibault, 22. It was the first of many apps they would develop to pay for their college education.
For the uninitiated, an app is an “application” — a tool downloaded from the Internet that solves problems, entertains, educates or informs through a smart phone or tablet computer.
Now, the whiz kids from Arkansas are taking their talents big time with a new startup company spawned out of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator.
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They want to write your app. And they want to write one a week for 52 weeks and split the profits with the people who come up with the ideas.
“People have great ideas, but they don’t have the technical skills we do,” said Lee, 21.
The two presented a Steve Jobs-style launch event in Columbia last week to introduce their new company, 52apps. It was followed by their first “idea day,” where the two spent the afternoon interviewing folks who have ideas for apps. They will winnow those down, and decide which ones to dive into. They then plan to knock out an app every five days for the next year, with the help of their young University of South Carolina-based staff.
They call it an “app factory.”
“These are two- to three-month projects,” said Steve Leicht, who serves as 52apps’ chief executive and part of the management team put together by the incubator and Columbia venture capitalist Don Tomlin. “These folks pull it off in a week.”
The company is the type of start-up that USC, Columbia and the region needs to recruit more aggressively, said Ron Loewen, the incubator’s executive director.
In order to create high-paying, high tech jobs in the Midlands, businesses, universities, governments and others have to seek out young talent, attract and keep it, Loewen said.
“We have to get more aggressive with start-ups like this,” he said. “There are 100,000 app developers in the world and not one came up with this idea.”
Presently, the incubator — at 1225 Laurel St. across from the city transit station — hosts 32 companies.
“And the goal is to have 20 more by the end of the year,” Loewen said.
Lee and Thibault built and marketed apps together as undergraduates — Lee at Central Arkansas University and Thibault at USC after his parents moved to Columbia. They worked together — and funded their education with a little extra left over for spending money. The apps sold for anywhere from 50 cents for a download to $2.99.
Enter Bill Kirkland.
Kirkland is an entrepreneurial coach at the incubator. One day, he was taking notes on his iPad during service at The Harvest church in Lexington. A woman approached him and asked what app he was using. He said whatever came with the device. She told him her son wrote apps. It was Thibault’s mother.
Kirkland and Leicht met with the two — Lee through Skype and Google+ Hangout, Thibault at Starbucks.
“We quickly realized we had two prodigies on our hands,” Leicht said.
Kirkland sold USC engineering and computing dean Tony Ambler on the idea of bringing Lee to USC and forming a company around the two.
So Lee and Thibault, with Thibault’s mother in the audience, on Friday launched their first official app as a company. It’s called Tap Notes, downloads for $2.99 and helps executives, students and others record meetings and notes and replays specific points of the conversation without having to listen to the whole recording.
And that afternoon, they heard 30 ideas pitched from 20 people for next week’s app.
“We don’t have a best one yet,” said Lee Friday afternoon, well into the meeting.
How long will it take to make the decision on their next major launch, he was asked – a launch which could make or break their new company.
“About another hour and half,” he said.