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Nicklaus: Acquisition should speed Disruptel's path to viewers' TVs

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Alex Quinn of Disruptel

Alex Quinn is founder and CEO of Disruptel, a smart-TV startup in St. Louis.

David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Alex Quinn is passionate about improving the television viewing experience.

The 23-year-old began working in high school on artificial intelligence software that can make smart TVs smarter, able to answer viewers’ questions about what they’re watching and serve up ads that are relevant to their interests.

A deal reached this month, Quinn believes, puts his technology closer to reaching living rooms across the land. “This definitely accelerates things,” he said. “I’d be surprised if it is not deployed next year, and with a number of manufacturers.”

Quinn sold his St. Louis startup, Disruptel, to Samba TV of San Francisco, a leader in audience analytics and targeted advertising. Samba TV’s software is already running on 46 million TV sets made by two dozen companies, a scale that would have taken Disruptel years to reach.

Quinn said he approached Samba TV last year about a partnership, “and it didn’t take long for things to advance beyond that.” When the idea of an acquisition was floated, he said, “It excited me as a way to not have to work on this alone.”

Samba TV’s co-founder and chief executive, Ashwin Navin, liked Disruptel’s technology but was most impressed by Quinn himself.

“We are most interested in the Disruptel team, who are like-minded entrepreneurs — hungry and ambitious and ready to change the world,” Navin said in an email. “It reminded me of our company when we were just getting started and everyone was betting against us as a small startup trying to establish itself in the massive TV industry.”

Quinn will remain in St. Louis and will lead a team working on artificial intelligence for Samba TV. The company introduced its Samba AI content-recognition product this year and Navin said it expects to unveil new features as soon as January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed but Frank Hopper, managing director of the Capital Innovators accelerator fund, said Disruptel investors are “in a position to do well.”

Capital Innovators invested in Disruptel in 2019, less than a year after Quinn graduated from high school in Red Bud, Illinois. Hopper recalls meeting an entrepreneur who was young but highly motivated.

“It felt very much like a Silicon Valley prototype, someone who was going to work on a startup rather than go to college,” Hopper said. “He was a visionary, he was really bright, and he quickly grew into the CEO role.”

Part of the credit for his rapid success, Quinn said, goes to his mentors and backers in St. Louis. After landing the investment from Capital Innovators in 2019, he won a $50,000 Arch Grant in 2020.

At T-Rex, the downtown technology incubator, he met fellow entrepreneurs and venture capitalists such as Brian Matthews, co-founder of Cultivation Capital.

“Talking to people who had been through this really accelerated my progress,” Quinn said. “It was a huge motivation at my age to meet people like that.”

Now, with a successful exit behind him, Quinn gets to remove some of the many hats he’s worn as a startup founder. He can worry less about things like as marketing and finance and concentrate on making the technology work.

Like most tech companies, Samba TV will hire people wherever it can find them, but Quinn hopes to find some machine learning and artificial intelligence talent close to home. “I’m not going anywwhere, and assuming we can find the right candidates, I would love to expand in St. Louis,” he said.

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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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