Betaspring Unveils First Class of Startup Groups in Providence, Plans Micro-Seed Fund Akin to Y Combinator

8/28/09

Ji Kim was able to raise $100,000 in seed financing for his ad software startup Dijipop this summer through connections he gained in a new program called Betaspring, which was launched this year to support young entrepreneurs in Providence, RI, in their quest to form technology- and design-oriented startups.

Dijipop was one of the seven startup teams that presented its business plans at Betaspring Investor Demo Day yesterday at the RI Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Providence’s Jewelry District. It was their big day to shine in front of angel investors, venture guys and gals, and other business types. Many of the team members wore suits, and some even wore ties. (My gosh, I don’t usually see ties at techie events unless something big is at stake, and even then…) Indeed, these groups represented the future businesses that could lift Rhode Island’s ailing economy and deliver jobs in high-growth sectors.

Owen Johnson, a Providence Web and real estate entrepreneur, gave me some insights into why he and colleagues Jack Templin and Allan Tear formed Betaspring. “The thinking behind it was to provide acceleration for teams thinking about going into business,” he said. He noted the teams presenting Thursday received help from nearly 50 mentors with experience in their respective fields during the 12-week program. And while this first class of teams received no seed funding from Betaspring, he said, the plan for next year is to have a micro-seed investment fund that provides somewhere around $5,000 for each group that gets accepted into the program. That would put Betaspring more on par with earlier startup acceleration programs with investing capabilities such as Y Combinator in Mountain View, CA, and TechStars in Boston and Boulder, CO.

Providence is certainly not a hotbed of startup activity like Boston or Silicon Valley, but Johnson and Templin pointed to some recent startup successes in the city to inspire more young innovators to follow in those companies’ footsteps. Zeo, a developer of headbands that detect sleeping patterns, was formed by a group of Brown University students in 2003 as Axon Labs and has since gone one to close a $8.3 million Series C round of financing. (However, like many attractive Providence startups, Zeo has moved its headquarters to the Boston area.) Another promising startup with roots at Brown is Shape Up The Nation, a Providence-based corporate wellness firm that helps offices organize teams to try to outdo each other in losing weight, quitting smoking, and other health-minded challenges.

“The momentum is building,” Johnson said. “Every day I meet people who have moved to Providence and are, in one way or another, involved in the tech scene.”

Here’s a look at the seven startup teams that were part of Betaspring first 12-week program:

Accelereach, led by Brown graduate and CEO Adam Emrich, has developed Web-based software that supports communication between health workers and patients through a combination of interactive voice responses, e-mails, and cell-phone text messages. The idea is to use the Web service to save health workers such as wellness coaches from spending long hours phoning patients for things like checking in on their progress and making appointments. Emrich said the firm has two paying clients, the Vila Serena medical clinics in Brazil, and Shape Up The Nation.

—Leotus, which is a team made up of Brown and RI School of Design graduates, is developing a better home air conditioning unit. The A/C unit is designed to fit over the bottom of a window frame, with the bulk of the unit positioned below the frame on both the inside and outside of the home. Because most of the hardware sits below the window frame, less of the machine sits above the frame like traditional window A/C units. The firm plans to initially sell its A/C units on the Web and eventually break into mainstream distribution through superstores like Target and Best Buy.

Expedit.us, founded by software developer Matt Gillooly, is dedicated to “humanizing online maps.” The firm wants to make it easier for people to find events and restaurants, as well as to navigate their way around places. Built on Google Maps, the firm’s Web-based software is designed to provide directions that come without unneeded information such as details of surrounding areas that aren’t important to the user and include things like popular landmarks that help people find their destinations. The firm has already created a site called Minivite.com that enables people to send invitations with maps of the location in short URLs via e-mail, Twitter, and IMs.

NuLabel Technologies, led by Brown graduate and company President Max Winograd, is developing liner-free adhesive labels for commercial use. By eliminating the label liners, which are removed from the adhesive side of labels before they are used, companies like FedEx could reduce the amount of solid waste they generate and save millions of dollars on label storage and shipping costs, according to Winograd. The company plans to eventually license the technology and hardware for its labels, which use polymers that can be activated into adhesives, to a printer machine manufacturer.

Dijipop, the firm that has already raised $100,000, is developing enterprise software that manufacturers and retailers would use to organize online advertising campaigns. The software is designed to automate steps in the process of developing and deploying online ads to reduce the time required for such activities. Betaspring’s Templin, who sat next to me during the startup demos, told me that one of the firm’s Betaspring mentors was impressed enough to invest in the company after working with it for six weeks.

Minds In Motion Electronics, which is led by a team of Brown and RISD graduates, wants to make sure kids don’t space out while they’re studying. The group is developing educational software that interfaces with headsets that monitor the electrical activity in students’ brains while they are using the program. The frequency of the electrical signals indicates whether a student is losing focus, and proprietary algorithms enable the software to adjust the educational activities to get the student to reengage.

Feed My Future, led by Johnson & Wales University professors Mehdi Moutahir and Brian Alves, wants to tap the powers of social media to help young adults repay their student debt. Moutahir and Alves are developing a website that would allow family members and friends of, say, a recent college graduate to make secure contributions that go directly toward paying down that person’s student loans. The team also plans to create widgets that people can put on their Twitter pages, Facebook profiles, and other social networking sites to bring people to their Feed My Future Web page.

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