How 2 High School Teens Raised a $500K Seed Round for Their API Startup (Yes, It's AI)

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Just a few weeks ago, 18-year-old best friends Christopher Fitzgerald and Nicholas Van Landshut graduated from high school.

While most teenagers would be living their last summer before college or adult jobs, Fitzgerald and Van Landshut are holed up in a VC office in Boulder, Colorado.

He's spending the summer working on his startup APIGen after raising $500,000 in pre-seed investment from Vrana Capital. Fitzgerald will head to Penn State in the fall and move closer to Van Landshut University but is putting his college plans on hold to become a full-time startup founder.

The money was raised while he was still in high school when a prototype for his idea garnered a lot of interest in the large Boulder community of AI enthusiasts.

APIGen is working on a platform that will build custom APIs from natural language notation. This would, for example, allow an e-commerce business to simply ask for an API that connects its web front-end to its database, and the platform would provide it.

By API, the founders don't just mean a standard “application programming interface” that allows applications to exchange data or perform some other simple workflow function. They want APIGen to create complex custom APIs that can perform multiple or serial operations.

“We're actually developing the code for the APIs so you can get the business logic, the actual custom functionalities, inside those APIs,” Van Landschoot told TechCrunch.

In addition to web apps and databases, Fitzgerald says IoT devices are one of the target areas for his startup. He gives the example of a customer who asks for an API that allows a drone to fly around an area, take photos, and interface another application with the result. Another example is an API that uses facial recognition to build security. Once a database of face images of authenticated employees is created, the user can request an API from APIGen that allows the smart lock's door camera to scan the face of each person who comes against this database before opening the door. can check

“APIs, at the end of the day, can be as simple or as complex as you make them,” Fitzgerald said. “They can take anything from just new connectors to an entry of data, a row of data from a database table, to the entire back end. And that's what we're trying to target there, the entire IoT applications. For full web apps.

The teenagers met their school's debate team and bonded over their love of coding. His first project was a chatbot that allowed people to chat with data. They soon realized that this was not the original idea. Still, while building the app, they learned that their tech relied on APIs and that “building APIs was kind of a pain,” Fitzgerald said. “They were hard to design.”

So they focused on that. Once they developed an alpha version of their idea, a demo-level tool, they began showing it to programmers in their circle to get feedback. He knew people in his local tech industry. Van Landshut's father works in cybersecurity IT, and Fitzgerald landed a summer internship as a programmer at SoftBank through a connection with a friend's father.

And then they started sending out cold messages on LinkedIn to VCs and anyone else they thought might respond.

“We told people to destroy that pitch deck,” Fitzgerald said.

Phil Brunemann (left), Ankur Ahuja (right), Warana Capital
Image credit: Warana Capital

A VC is so impressed, he offers to invest.

One of the people who got the message — and heard about the founders through other contacts in the tight-knit Denver/Boulder startup community — was Philip Brunemann, founder of Denver's Vrana Capital. He told TechCrunch that Vrana started as the family office of Brunemann and a “very wealthy” friend, and in the 13 years since, it has grown to a firm with $400 million in institutional LP money and AUM. The firm has expanded.

Bruniman and Vrana COO Ankar Ahuja agreed to meet with the teenagers. “We went into the meeting thinking we were going to give some fatherly advice. Provide some words of wisdom,” Bronnemann told TechCrunch. “We walked out two hours after their presentation thinking it was the best presentation we'd heard in five years. We were blown away by the insight these two 18-year-olds gave.

Fitzgerald, dressed in his best sweater and with Van Landshut in a collared debate team-style shirt, leaned into his debate training and presented his company, his vision, the potential market and himself.

Instead of giving feedback on the pitch, “at the end of the meeting, they mentioned that they were actually interested,” Fitzgerald said of Vrana's partners. Bronnemann asked the youth how much money they were looking for.

Vrana did his due diligence, seeing the potential of the API market, which has spawned multi-billion dollar successes (MuleSoft bought by Salesforce, Apigee bought by Google, just to name two). And he looked at the founders' background: Fitzgerald graduated as valedictorian of a top-ranked high school in Boulder, which has a top-rated public education system. Van Landshut was such a gifted programmer that he was tutoring college computer science students from the age of 14.

Varana's partners scheduled a second meeting for the founders to demo their tech to ensure that young people are not only “good at talking but also good at delivering and doing things,” as that von Landshut described.

Young was nervous, he admitted, but the demo went well and the VC offered a term sheet: $250,000 in pre-seed money plus another $250,000 in a SAFE, a note that turns into equity if the startup later takes off. Grows. VC also provided office space.

While he was visiting VCs, Fitzgerald learned about Boulder's active AI Meetup, which has 1,400 members, organized by the father of one of Fitzgerald's tennis teammates. Boulder has a popular close-knit and cozy startup community and hosts office outposts for Amazon, IBM, Google, Microsoft and many others, along with nearby Denver.

The teenagers joined the group and demonstrated their product, and local AI enthusiasts rallied behind them and their idea.

APIGen is obviously very early. And it's not the only one working on automated APIs. Tech giants like Salesforce's MuleSoft and established startups like RapidAPI are already operating in this market, as are most of the cloud giants.

APIGen also doesn't yet have a minimum viable product, although it's getting close with a beta version that will be released this month. “We've already had some business interest, but obviously we're still pre-MVP at this stage, and just cranking it up, trying to get it out as quickly as possible,” Fitzgerald said. said

Still, Broenniman, who takes board seats with the investment, is along for the ride. He points out how the young founders have already developed a legion of eager supporters.

“APIGen may be the vehicle we're investing in, but we're partnering with Christopher and Nicholas,” he said. “It's a $7 billion-plus market. They're getting in there with some elements of competition but building their niche. The opportunity for returns from our perspective is crazy.

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