YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – With a cash prize of $5,000 in-hand, NeverEnding is one step closer to bringing stories to life through its animation platform.
The Cleveland startup is building an online platform that allows users with no art skills to create custom illustrations and eventually animations, says founder and CEO Jamie Van Doren. The company won the Youngstown Business Incubator virtual pitch competition, which was held in lieu of its annual Shark Tank event. The result was announced Dec. 8.
“That’s a big deal for us,” says Van Doren, who plans to use part of the prize to hire one of the company’s part-time interns from Case Western Reserve University to a full-time, co-op position next semester.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the YBI was forced to hold the virtual competition this year, says CEO Barb Ewing. Startups recorded their pitch and posted it to YouTube. The winner was determined by whoever received the most likes and interactions on their posted videos, Ewing said.
NeverEnding was one of 13 applicants, five of which were from the Mahoning Valley, she notes.
“Companies like NeverEnding are what make us love being a business incubator,” Ewing says. “Watching someone chase their passion and turn their idea into something tangible is why we do what we do. And we want to see more of that.”
While always working to support Mahoning Valley startups, the YBI strives to have a regional impact as well. The incubator, part of the Northeast Ohio Startup Network, provides services to startup businesses in the 21-county region.
“While our name is Youngstown Business Incubator, our true footprint is much larger,” Ewing says. “We’re looking to support the very best and brightest from the region, and so we try to be as inclusive as possible and always pushing that message out.”
NeverEnding has a team of 14 and released in November the beta of its first module, a character builder, Van Doren says. The entire system will comprise four modules: the character builder, scene builder, story animator and social sharing platform. An updated release of the character builder is expected Dec. 22 with a new color picker and other features, he adds.
Users will be able to create custom characters and use those avatars to create their own animated features. Unlike design platforms that require users to be digital artists, NeverEnding is designed for users with no art skills.
“We believe that everyone has an amazing and interesting story to tell and NeverEnding is a way for them to tell those stories,” Van Doren says.
Storytelling is something that’s followed Van Doren his whole life. He grew up poor in Southern California with a mother who was intellectually disabled and a stepfather who was an alcoholic and a drug dealer. As a result, Van Doren spent about a year homeless when he was 13, he says.
To get him through those times, he would narrate stories to himself and use his imagination to replay things that happened. Sometimes, he gave those narrations different endings.
“I would have the characters – the people in my life – make better decisions,” he relates. “As an adult, I started realizing the power of storytelling and how impactful the stories that we tell ourselves are and the stories that other people tell about us.”
Today, the media that people typically consume isn’t reflective of their own experiences, he says. When it’s fully rolled out, NeverEnding will give users an opportunity to not only create and share their own stories, but view content from other creators.
The company is leveraging the table-top role-playing game industry as its entry into the market, he says. Van Doren, who wore a Dungeons & Dragons-branded facemask for the check presentation, says role-playing games, or RPGs, made “a huge resurgence” before the pandemic.
According to a report by ResearchAndMarkets.com, “Role Playing Games Global Market Opportunities and Strategies to 2030: COVID- 19 Implications and Growth,” the global RPG market was valued at $15.8 million in 2019. Through 2030, it’s expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.11% to about $34 million.
Amid the virus, that community of shared storytellers turned to Zoom as a way to keep playing, Van Doren says.
“We thought if there’s a way that they can make the action live beyond the table, then wouldn’t that be great?” he says. “These are already people who are coming up with fantastic adventures and stories that could be like the next great big movie. But the story lives and dies on the table.”
NeverEnding gives gamers a chance to create avatars and design scenes to keep the stories going. The company has held talks with small gaming studios and movie studios, he says.
With the platform’s social media aspect, Van Doren envisions NeverEnding quickly moving beyond gaming, particularly among youth who use YouTube and TikTok. They want to be influencers. But “as a parent you have to worry about them putting themselves out there,” he says. NeverEnding allows them to do that behind an animated avatar.
“I do not want my 13-year-old to be dancing in the latest dance challenge, or doing some practical joke that might be dangerous,” he says. “Yet, they still want this kind of attention. They still want an opportunity to express themselves.”
Other potential users include amateur screenwriters who may use the software as a way to promote their script ideas, and authors who can turn their short stories into an animated video.
To best design and market its platform, NeverEnding is working to understand the entertainment and animation industries. “We’ve researched 114 different companies that touch this space in some way, shape or form,” he says.
As art is now integrated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEAM – students could use the software to express themselves in a new way. NeverEnding recently had conversations with school systems about using the software as a tool in the classroom.
“We definitely see this as an opportunity for businesses to look in different ways to express and communicate with others,” he said.
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to fully build the platform, he says. The company has some 4,000 individual pieces of art in its library, with new art added daily.
The YBI competition is the third award NeverEnding has won in recent months. In August, the company won $25,000 from the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise fund. A $10,000 award followed in August from the Northeast Ohio Student Venture Fund pitch competition.
Winning the YBI pitch competition is “another vote of confidence from the community,” he added. “It was so great to actually get feedback from YBI periodically about where we stood. That got my team super-motivated.”
The virtual competition was sponsored by Medical Mutual, who was the title sponsor for last year’s Shark Tank competition and provided the cash prize for that event.
Other event sponsors include Vince and Phyllis Bacon, PNC Bank, and HBK CPAs and Consultants.
“It is truly through the strength of our partnership with Medical Mutual that we were even able to do this event,” says YBI’s Ewing. “We were thrilled to do the event and very grateful to Medical Mutual for offering us an alternative.”
Ben Stoffer, Medical Mutual regional vice president, was on hand to present the check to Van Doren.
“We pride ourselves on what we do with small businesses and entrepreneurships,” Stoffer says. “Medical Mutual is proud to support The Youngstown Business Incubator and their ongoing efforts to assist upstart businesses to reach their dreams of launching a successful business. Our sponsorship of the YBI Virtual Pitch Competition and the 2020 Winner, NeverEnding is proof dreams can become reality.”
If the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed at the rate that’s being discussed, Ewing is hopeful the Shark Tank event will return in 2021, but not until the second half of the year, she says.
“I think everybody will be ready by then. It should be a great event.”
Pictured at top: YBI CEO Barb Ewing and Ben Stoffer, Medical Mutual regional vice president for Canton, Youngstown & Southeast Region, present the $5,000 check to Jamie Van Doren, founder and CEO of NeverEnding.