From hockey star to serial CEO: David Gandini's path to SOBRsafe … – The Business Journals

Denver serial entrepreneur David Gandini listed his latest company, SOBRsafe, on the Nasdaq exchange on what was arguably one of the worst days to make that sort of move.
On the day of the initial public offering, May 17, 2022, the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced its biggest decline since 2020 as traders grappled with a mass sell-off. Inflation was rising and fears of an economic recession were building.
SOBRsafe gained $5 million less from its IPO than Gandini had expected.
That day, the stock market’s volatility was among the first hints of an oncoming bear market that gripped the country in the summer of 2022. The economic downturn remained for the rest of the year and continued into 2023. The Dow’s steep decline on May 17 was only the first in a string of record-breaking bad days that followed.
Despite the bad timing, SOBRsafe, which sells a touch-based identity authentication and alcohol detection system, gained traction over the past four months in multiple markets, signed its first nationwide deal in January and raised millions of dollars more in capital following its IPO.
Gandini says the turnaround was due to perseverance, which he attributes to his first career ambition: hockey.
“In hockey, there are a lot of tough moments when things aren’t going so well, but you learn to drive through those moments,” Gandini said. “And that relates to business, too. I mean, look at what we did last year. We raised $20 million in an obliterated stock market. If I would have given up and said, ‘We can’t do this,’ where would we be?”
Hockey provides a way forward
Gandini grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in Warren, Michigan, about 10 blocks north of Eight Mile Road — Detroit’s northern border that was famously portrayed in the movie 8 Mile about rapper Eminem’s childhood home.
The town comprised mostly blue-collar workers, and the same was true for Gandini’s family. His father was a barber and his mother a stay-at-home mom to three sons, of which Gandini is the oldest. When he was young, Gandini never heard talk about the possibility of going to college. Higher education wasn’t a luxury typically discussed in his community, as it was assumed most families wouldn’t be able to afford it, he said.
When he joined his first hockey team at age 9, Gandini was thrust into new environments, and his worldview began to change.
At the time, ice hockey wasn’t as accessible a sport in the Detroit area as it is today. It wasn’t until the 1990s and a clever marketing campaign from the Detroit Red Wings that the city became known as “Hockeytown.” Given that only a few kids in his neighborhood played organized hockey, Gandini joined a team with kids from different neighborhoods and towns. His family had to drive at least 75 miles to a rink, and his team crossed the border into Canada for many of their games.
As Gandini traveled outside his hometown and got to know his teammates and rivals, his ambitions grew.
“You meet all these other kids… and you start to understand that there’s a lot more out there and people live differently than you,” Gandini said. “You start to think differently.”
Gandini was good at hockey — college scholarship good. In high school, he played for the Detroit Junior Wings, a feeder team for the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings. He was part of Team USA, which played in the World Junior Championship in Czechoslovakia in 1977, and earned a full scholarship to play hockey at Michigan State University.
Gandini initially wanted to make a career out of the sport, but when he didn’t get drafted into the NHL during his freshman year of college, he set his sights on other goals. He credits his four decades of career success to hockey — the sport that forced him into new settings and taught him discipline and perseverance.
“It was a difference-maker to get me out of my environment,” Gandini said. “Hockey has been the key to my life and everything I do.”
Navigating successful exits
Gandini stopped playing hockey after his junior year at Michigan State and focused instead on his degree in telecommunications. It was the start of the 1980s, and cable services were taking off.
After graduating, Gandini’s first job was working in customer service for a long-distance phone company. Once again, athletics served as a turning point. Gandini played on the company’s softball team, and during one game, he hit three home runs. While celebrating with coworkers at a pizzeria after the game, the president of the company — impressed by Gandini’s performance — requested to speak with him. One week later, Gandini was promoted to sales.
“I could tell a bunch of those stories,” Gandini said. “It was through being noticed in athletics that it happened.”
Gandini spent much of his career in the telecommunications industry. He co-founded Digital Signal, a Detroit-based company that provided fiber for long-distance carriers between 88 U.S. cities. SP Telecom acquired Digital Signal in 1990, and following the acquisition, Gandini moved to Denver to work for SP Telecom’s owner, Philip Anschutz, who at the time was ranked consistently as Denver’s wealthiest resident.
Anschutz would eventually spin SP Telecom into the telecommunications carrier Qwest Communications International Inc., which became his key venture and one of the largest long-distance companies in the country. Gandini said he learned a “tremendous amount” from working in proximity to Anschutz, including the art of negotiating deals. But he didn’t stick around long enough to see the formation of Qwest. Instead, Gandini decided to start another business.
Still in Denver, Gandini founded Pace Network Services, which provided telephone signaling to long-distance providers in the U.S. He sold that company to another Denver telecommunications business, ICG Communications.
Gandini later joined the C-suites of two other Denver-based companies: FirstWorld Communications, then Integrated Printing Solutions. He was the chief operating officer for FirstWorld, an internet and data center provider, and helped take the company through its IPO in 2000. Gandini served as president of IPS, which provided packaging for gift cards and other bank cards. IPS was acquired by a New York packaging company in 2014, which was then sold to WestRock (NYSE: WRK).
The several successful exits on Gandini’s resume are thanks to a combination of timing, luck and hard work, he said. They’re also the result of his seemingly unending vigor for work and change. Gandini, who just turned 65 this week but hasn’t considered retirement — not seriously, anyway — likes to be challenged.
“I don’t want to do the same thing for my whole life, so I’ve been in four or five different industries and have acclimated to those,” he said. “That’s just what I like to do. I’m always restless to learn new things.”
The chance to build a legacy
As Gandini put it, “You’re only as good as your last game.”
And the position he holds now as the CEO of SOBRsafe might be his most important yet, he said.
Gandini was introduced to SOBRsafe’s technology while working as a managing partner of First Capital Ventures, a local venture capital firm. The technology struck him as having the potential to create a positive effect on society.
“I started to learn more about the technology, and I said, ‘Boy, this could be a great opportunity for me to make a difference now by saving lives, by making a mark,'” Gandini said. “This is a whole different deal. I’ve never done something like this before.”
The venture firm brought SOBRsafe into its portfolio, and Gandini helped the startup raise its seed funding. He worked as its chairman and chief revenue officer before becoming CEO in 2021.
The company’s flagship product, SOBRcheck, is a palm-sized device that uses finger-touch technology to detect the presence of alcohol in the body by testing the humidity and vapor of the skin. Under Gandini’s leadership, the company has focused its efforts on selling the device to employers as a safety check. SOBRcheck reads a user’s identity, and within seconds of someone being flagged as intoxicated, a supervisor is notified via cloud technology before the employee can get behind the wheel or perform a work duty.
Gandini describes it as a “revolutionary, highly disruptive product” — and one that’s gained traction in the last few months of 2022 and into 2023, following its challenging entry onto the Nasdaq.
When Gandini stepped in as CEO, SOBRsafe was trading on a penny stock exchange, and he arrived with the goal to get onto the Nasdaq.
“Of course, it wasn’t our goal to go on one of the worst days in market history since 2008,” Gandini said. “But it was always our strategy to get it to the Nasdaq so we could raise the capital necessary to get the ball across the line.”
While the timing was poor, the company’s luck turned around in September of last year, when the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency tasked with investigating civil transportation accidents, recommended that all new vehicles in the United States be outfitted with blood-alcohol monitoring technology to prevent intoxicated people from driving. Because SOBRsafe develops similar technology, investors took notice.
The company went viral, Gandini said, and its stock shot up by more than 232% the day after the NTSB’s recommendation. SOBRsafe capitalized on the moment by raising millions of dollars through a securities purchase agreement.
As for installing alcohol-detection devices in vehicles, Gandini thinks it could happen, but likely not for a few more years at least. SOBRsafe plans to test its technology with prominent vehicle manufacturers in the second half of 2023, and the testing phase itself could be a multiyear effort.
In the meantime, SOBRsafe and its four-person sales team is using the company’s newfound notoriety to drive the technology into various industries.
SOBRcheck is being implemented in the oil and gas industry, and it has a foothold in the justice system, being used for community corrections and re-entry programs in place of breathalyzers. Companies in the fleet and facility industry and construction and food management are also using the technology.
In addition, SOBRsafe will roll out a new product this year — an alcohol-detecting wristband for rehabilitation programs.
“We’re extremely excited about the things that are happening in such a short period of time,” Gandini said.
While it’s uncertain whether SOBRsafe will be Gandini’s final business venture, he is sure this is the work he wants to be remembered for and his legacy built upon.
“When I’m older, and I’m sitting in my rocking chair around my kids, I could be saying, ‘Hey, I made a difference. I saved people’s lives,'” Gandini said. “That’s much different than just making money.”
Age: 65
Hobbies: Guitar refinishing and repair, playing the guitar, piano and drums and writing, producing and recording music. His genre? “It’s ’70s rock, British invasion meets Tom Petty meets Jack Cougar and possibly a handshake with Eddie Money.”
Leadership philosophy: “Trust and verify is my style. The key is, I don’t want to do anybody’s job, and I want my executives to stay in their lanes. Everybody knows their job and what they’re supposed to contribute.” 
First job: “I had my own lawn cutting and snow removal business when I was 11, and I had two paper routes when I was 13 and 14. But my first real, paying job was working as a busboy at the Sweden House Smorgasbord for $1.65 an hour in 1971.”
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