EyeVerify, a Kansas City company building a customer and investor base around the globe, was founded by Toby Rush, its CEO, who went looking for a new place to invest his time and resources in early 2011.
“I came across the idea,” Rush said. “Really, the inventor of the technology is right here in our backyard at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Dr. Reza Derakhshani. He had been working on the technology since 2006-07. I didn’t come across him until 2011. I had started a previous company, exited that successfully and was talking with other entrepreneurs. They told me, ‘You should talk to this guy, Dr. Derakhshani.’ That’s how it began.”
EyeVerify sells software technology that uses the “selfie” camera on a smartphone to take a picture of the blood vessels in a human eye and transforms it into a key that can replace passwords.
Rush says his desire to bring new ideas to market is rooted in his childhood.
“I grew up in the most innovative and entrepreneurial environment that anyone could ever ask for — it’s called the family farm,” Rush said. "So my dad was quite literally the CEO, the CFO, the COO, the chief mechanic, the chief bottle-washer … and I was his lackey. Wherever he went, I went.”
In time, Rush came to have his own businesses on the farm.
“I had pigs and cows and threw hay and had my own hay crews. That was just something I did,” Rush said. “So I’ve always been into taking initiative and leadership and making things grow.”
Rush spoke with KCUR as part the Innovation KC series. Here are some of his views on the success of his company, his own leadership style, and the critical elements of success in innovation:
On his role as innovator, not inventor
I would say I’m the entrepreneur. So a great example: When I came across the technology, the technology was in the Office of Technology Transfer at UMKC. They were all excited and they were telling me about all the technology. They said they’d had a consultant come in, and did this big study. They had a 25-page report they gave me — it went through all the great things you could do in military and airports and border crossings and immigration and selling to the government and to the military. And I’m like, that sucks. I don’t want to sell to the government at all. Let’s be really honest.
But can I do that on mobile? If I can do that on a smartphone, and I can replace passwords, I can do security, not surveillance, now that is cool. That’s big. Not once in that 20-page document was smartphone even mentioned. Not once. So what I bring is understanding technology trends, understanding marketplaces and opportunities and where those intersect.
On raising capital for his business ideas
It is some really thick skin. I get the question a lot about EyeVerify, “Wow, it must be so easy to go raise money.” And I say, “You guys have no idea.” It sucks. It’s hard. It is not easy. I’ll get a hundred noes for every yes. It’s understanding how to pitch the company, the vision, the idea, it’s conveying confidence, it’s giving someone a good feeling that “I trust you, Toby Rush, and I can see the vision, and I feel like you can get this technology and this team to where this vision heading.”
On whether being a good innovator is a matter of natural talent or good training
It is a little bit of both. … I use a different analogy. People can get a little bit better. How good of an athlete are you? Are you born an athlete, or do you train as an athlete? The answer is both. The reality is there are very few athletes that can actually make a living being an athlete, but we’re all athletes. We can all be innovative, we can all be entrepreneurs, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, there are very few of us who can make a living at being an entrepreneur, at being an innovator. That doesn’t mean people aren’t innovative. I still love to play sports, but I’m not going to make a living at it.
On why he keeps his business in Kansas City
This comes back to my personality, my morals, my ethics. What do I really value in life? It’s family, friends, relationships. I could build a lot of companies. I could make a lot of money in a lot of places. If that was my sole driver I probably wouldn’t be here. Let’s be honest — this is not the most profitable place to build a company in the world. But when you look at the people and the relationships, and what at the end of my life I’m going to look back on and value and hang my hat on, it’s going to be the people I did it with, the teams we built, the impact that we were able to have. And Kansas City is a great place to both make a lot of money but do it with great people in a great environment.
I spend a lot of time in San Francisco and on the coasts. Just a couple of weeks ago I was meeting with a [venture capital investor] and they said they had recently taken a tour through a bunch of Midwestern towns and they were surprised at how helpful and congenial people were toward each other, genuinely wanting to help each other. Out in San Francisco, that is not the case at all. It is cutthroat. But in Kansas City, people generally want to see other people do well. You go out of their way to help them even if there isn’t an immediate return for yourself.
On the one thing a person needs to know about being an innovator
You’ve got to know where you get your identity from — this idea, “Who am I and am I okay with that?” I take some really big risks, and I fail, and I may fail, and I will fail. Am I still okay with who I am? People get so caught up with the idea of being an entrepreneur, the idea of being an innovator, the idea of making money, that it actually limits their ability. They start to act in ways that aren’t ethical, that aren’t moral, that aren’t the way we’re made to be. So when you really know who you are and where you draw your significance, it allows you to be far more powerful … if anything, that’s what I try to convey with other entrepreneurs and other innovators: Be yourself.
This interview was part of Innovation KC, a new series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an email, tweet us, or find us on Facebook.