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Friday, 15 November 2013 16:31

Varsity News Network wins $500K top prize in Accelerate Michigan competition

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The $500,000 that Ryan Vaughn and his partner won in a statewide business competition will help their business expand its web-based platform for high school sports news and information across the country.

Grand Rapids-based Varsity News Network LLC won the top prize at the annual Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in Detroit. The money will enable VNN to expand nationally and develop a mobile app platform, co-founder Vaughn told MiBiz.

"This is a huge deal for the work the whole team is putting in," said Vaughn, who describes a VNN site as "the espn.com for high schools sports."

VNN provides a web platform for high schools sports departments to connect with athletes, parents and the community.

"Ultimately, professional teams and collegiate teams are really successful in marketing themselves and in celebrating what their achievements are and what their athletes are doing because they put so much effort, time and money into marketing and into sports information," Vaughn said. "What we're doing is creating tools that allow high schools to do that as well, and to create the sort of media content that can really celebrate what student athletes are doing on the field and even in the classroom."

Coaches and parents can upload schedules and information on their teams, report on results from games and events, and post images and videos. Each site is branded to the individual high school it serves and essentially becomes its official athletic site that acts "as a clearinghouse for everything," Vaughn said.

Students, parents or anyone interested in information on the local high school team can have content automatically delivered to their email, posted to a Twitter or Facebook account, or sent to their phone via a text.

"Everything to know about a school's sports team is in one spot," he said. "Our software simplifies the process of creating all of that content."

A Grand Haven native, the 28-year-old Vaughn and partner Matthew Anderson of Saginaw started VNN in late 2010 through Momentum, a venture accelerator for entrepreneurs started by Rick DeVos that was a predecessor to Start Garden. The two spent the early months "figuring out what the product needed to be" and then "really started kicking it into gear" in March 2012.

VNN, with a present workforce of 21 employees, is now licensed for use by 240 schools in 13 states, a majority of them in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. VNN generates revenue by charging an initial fee to set up a site, then sellS sponsorships and splits that revenue with a school.

The Accelerate Michigan award is the latest investment in VNN. The company previously raised about $1.5 million from private investors and angel groups, including Start Garden and Grand Angels.

A team from Grand Valley State University, Soletics, won $25,000 in the student competition at Accelerate Michigan.

Kevin McCurren, executive director of GVSU's Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, considers VVN winning the grand prize at Accelerate Michigan a "win for the community" and the local support network for entrepreneurs.

VNN "is one of those companies that, I think, we have a chance at birthing really big," said McCurren, who mentored Vaughn when he was a graduate student at GVSU and served as a graduate assistant at the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

"I would see (VNN) as a role model for everybody else because it came through the West Michigan support system," McCurren said.

Vaughn and Anderson were both working as sports journalists and each had his own high school sports website when they first met at the state football finals. When Anderson initially pitched Vaughn on the idea for what became VNN, Vaughn already had the same concept in mind but was "being kind of secretive about it."

"I said, 'OK, cat's out of the bag, let's get going,'" he said.

Their business is predicated on the estimated 40 million sports parents in America that they believe are underserved by traditional media outlets that are unable to provide equal coverage to all sports teams at a local high school. Football and basketball games typically get the most coverage, he said.

To Vaughn, who played basketball at Grand Haven High School, the service VNN provides is somewhat personal. He recalls all of those late nights when he shot baskets in the driveway and his mom would chase the ball "over and over and over again."

In his senior year, Grand Haven won the district title in the state basketball tournament. In the excitement after the game, as students rushed the court, his mom ran toward him and "jumped in my arms."

A photo of the two embracing on the court appeared on the front page of the local newspaper the next day. The photo serves as a reminder "of all the things that sports meant to us, and all the stuff that basketball meant to our family."

"To me, high school sports media starts conversations like that around the power of sports to transform real people's lives," Vaughn said. "The fact that the media is almost non-existent around high school sports just kind of robs us of those conversations with our family and friends.

"This award (from Accelerate Michigan) helps us tell those stories on a broader scope."

Read 3841 times Last modified on Tuesday, 19 November 2013 14:02

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