A local startup is trying to forge a new market in esports, with a little help — such as nearly half a million dollars — from Indiana University.
“‘Healthy gaming’ is not an oxymoron,” Jeff Thinnes, co-founder of SummaForte, told The Herald-Times.
In July, SummaForte, a company that produces health and wellness products for competitive video game players, received $460,000 from the IU Angel Network. The network connects IU-affiliated investors with startups that have ties to the university.
This is the largest investment from the network to date, according to executive director Jason Whitney. It also marks the second investment from the IU Angel Network into SummaForte. Last year, the network invested $35,000.
The story behind SummaForte
Since founding SummaForte in 2020, Jeff and Murtagh Thinnes have made a series of life changes. Jeff decided to “wind down, shutter and moth-ball” his 20-year consulting company. Murtagh quit his other job to work for the company full-time. The father-son team moved to Bloomington and opened a new office inside the Dimension Mill.
“We sold our family home of 25 years, picked up stakes and moved back to Indiana because I know Indiana. I grew up here. Murtagh studied here. It’s a unique place,” Jeff said. “The support that we’ve gotten is even beyond our wildest dreams, both from the university and the local businesses.”
Whitney said the substantial increase in investment mirrored SummaForte’s growth over the past year. According to Whitney, the startup was able to reach several milestones — such as physically making and packaging products as well as creating a network of partners in the gaming market. Locally, Jeff said SummaForte has recently co-sponsored a tournament for the IU gaming club and partnered with Beastcoast, an esports organization that is also within the IU Angel Network.
But it was the products that really spoke to investors.
“I think the biggest thing was several members of the network were actually able to use the product and see the efficacy that it had on overall health,” Whitney said.
Gaming at home: How to elevate your experience at home for next-gen console gaming
Currently, SummaForte has two products on the market, both using cannabidiol, a hemp extract commonly called CBD. SummaTape is a performance tape designed to prevent inflammation and joint swelling in key problem areas such as the back, shoulders, leg, hand and wrist. SummaMix is a daily drink mix aimed to sustain a person’s energy and vision health.
Jeff said he has always been interested in the science behind how CBD can be used as a health product. With the guidance of SummaForte’s advisory committee, the company hand-selects the exact strain of hemp and additional nutrients that go into the products.
“Most CBD companies are buying their product at the end of the production line, slapping their own label on it and saying, ‘This is how we’re different — we look different’ or whatever,” Jeff said. “We have been actively engaged in the production line of our products literally from the seed science stage.”
Esports performance market
While Jeff has taken the reins on the CBD aspect, Murtagh was the one to first introduce the esports angle.
“The esports space really excites me because there is no health performance brand period. So if you look at how gamers are leveling up their performance, they’re really just binge-drinking energy drinks, and we’re all aware that with an energy drink, the end result is a crash and that crash can have a negative impact on your performance,” Murtagh said.
With SummaForte being in a new market, there is still a lot of ground to cover to reach the public.
“We are the first CBD brand in this esports space so we’re having to do a lot of educating not only on what it means to live a healthy lifestyle but what are the benefits of CBD for a gamer and how it can help them live happier, healthier lives and also elevate their performance at the same time,” Murtagh said.
Esports arena: Cedar Point’s parent company is developing an esports arena with 200 gaming stations
According to Jeff and Murtagh, this recent funding will go toward building up inventory, marketing and personnel.
“We need to start building that personnel and infrastructure, and we’re going to do that here in Bloomington,” Jeff said.
Jeff described the town as “the best kept secret out there” for its cultural diversity, great entertainment and signature “Indiana hospitality.”
Working with the IU Angel Network
Currently, SummaForte has six full-time employees and three interns. Jeff’s wife also works at the company and another one of his sons has interned over the summer.
“It has really started out as a family-owned, family-run business with all hands on deck,” Jeff said. “We just recently started to hire people from the outside, so the family’s growing now.”
Jeff said he hopes SummaForte will add at least 10 more employees next year. The company is interested in hiring locally, with one recent hire being an IU graduate.
Whitney said the IU Angel Network has been a resource for companies like SummaForte in more ways than just funding. The network is able to share contacts in the industry and offer educational sessions for leaders. For SummaForte specifically, the network has lent help in marketing and business development.
Level up: Improve PC gaming with a sweatproof mouse, high-speed keyboard and other gear
“It’s not just a financial commitment to supporting a company. Everyone wants to dig in and use their own personal networks to support that,” Whitney said.
Jeff said the IU Angel Network gives out “smart money” that includes monetary value and personal guidance.
“You can’t quantify that value. You know, you can quantify how much they put in our bank account, but that additional value that comes from expertise and insight and wisdom is really what makes a difference,” Jeff said. “A lot of companies get funded, but they don’t get that intangible benefit of the wisdom and experiences that come with our money.”
SummaForte is still in its $2 million seed round that is set to finish early next year.
“We feel like we’re on the German autobaun — no speed limit, nothing between us and the goal. We just need fuel and that fuel is the money.” Jeff said. “Depending on how much money we can raise, that’s how far we’ll grow.”
Contact Rachel Smith at [email protected] or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.