Ten Startups Share Their Wares at TechStars Demo Night
You can’t throw darts at a calendar this month without hitting at least a couple of technology events in Boston. Tuesday night it was Angel Boot Camp, and last night it was the MITX Technology Awards and the TechStars Demo Night. Maybe that’s why they’re calling June Innovation Month in New England.
There was definitely plenty of innovation on display at the annual TechStars gathering, held for the second time at Microsoft’s plush New England Research and Development (NERD) Center in Cambridge. The sold-out event brought together venture and angel investors from across New England to scrutinize the 10 teams of young entrepreneurs who have just completed TechStars’ 13-week startup incubator program, which is now in its second year in Boston.
Presentations by the startups’ CEOs formed the meat of the event, although there were also speeches by TechStars Boston executive director Shawn Broderick, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki, TechStars co-founder Brad Feld, and leading Boston-area angel investor Bill Warner. Each speaker remarked on how the Boston area seems to be gaining momentum when it comes to high-tech entrepreneurship, with TechStars’ program as both a symptom and a contributing factor.
I’ll dive right into my descriptions of the 10 TechStars startups, which formed an even stronger group this year, in my opinion, than the TechStars Boston class of 2009. It wasn’t hard to imagine several of these teams leaving the event with checks from angel investors in hand. In fact, I sat next to one Vermont-based angel investor who said he was going to try to get in on Cambridge, MA-based Marginize, which gave one of the strongest presentations.
CEO: Daniel Sullivan
Appswell is a little unusual for a TechStars company, in that the startup got underway well before the incubator program began. In fact, I profiled founder Daniel Sullivan and his idea for tapping iPhone users for ideas for new iPhone applications back in October 2009. The company has evolved quite a bit since then. With help from CTO/software developer Rudi Seitz (who also runs a cool word-game site called Quadrivial Quandary), Sullivan has turned his crowdsourcing app into the foundation for a customizable platform that almost any company can use to launch interactive marketing campaigns. Imagine that Ben & Jerry’s wanted to hold a competition to let customers pick the next new ice cream flavor. For about a quarter of what it costs to develop a mobile application from scratch, Sullivan says, Boston-based Appswell could build them an app that customers could use to suggest flavors, vote on other customers’ suggestions, and share their favorite ideas via social media.
CEO: Brandon Casci
Back in 2007-2008, serial entrepreneur Brandon Casci spent a lot of time in Washington, DC, lobbying against the hikes in music royalty rates then under consideration by government regulators. A compromise was eventually reached, allowing Pandora and other nascent Internet music services to stay in business. And Casci went on to found Loudcaster, an online service based in Wilmington, DE, that makes it easy for people who are passionate about music to set up 24/7 Internet radio stations. For $25 per month, budding DJs simply fill out a form describing their station, upload a bunch of audio content, and start broadcasting. They can switch at will between an automated music feed or live, real-time shows that allow audience interaction. So how is Loudcaster different from Pandora? “Pandora is amachine, and you continually feed it preferences and you get back a personalized radio stream based on those preferences,” Casci says. “Our machine is full of human DJs and they have built connections with artists, record labels, and listeners. It’s a real-time, shared experience. We are a social radio platform.”
CEO: Ziad Sultan
If I had to write a check to just one company from TechStars’ 2010 class based on their presentations last night, this is the one I’d bet on. Marginize locates the social-media conversations going on around specific articles and pages on the Web and presents them right alongside those pages, using a special browser plugin (available so far only for the Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers). Social Web annotation schemes have been tried many times before—Third Voice, which had a short run from 1999 to 2001, was probably the first. But these previous attempts failed because they couldn’t solve the chicken-and-egg problem, says Marginize CEO Ziad Sultan, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Longworth Venture Partners (which is already an investor in Marginize). As he puts it, “You need great content to get thousands of users, but you need thousands of users to get great content.” The startup solves that problem by populating the Marginize popup screen associated with any given page with existing comments relating to that page from Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz. It then draws more users into those conversations by adding that page’s address to any new comments that users add using the plugin. You sort of have to see this in action to understand it—but trust me, it’s cool, and it’s exciting to me as a Web journalist because it has the potential to reunify social-media conversations with the objects of those conversations, such as news articles.
CEO: Kevin Menard
If you’ve ever spent days slaving to make your website look perfect in the Firefox browser, only to find that it looks completely different in Internet Explorer or Chrome or Safari, you’ll understand the need for Mogotest. It’s a Web-based service for testing the look and functionality of websites across multiple browsers, and even multiple platforms such as PCs and mobile devices, including Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone smartphones. When a user feeds in a site address, the Mogotest software automatically discovers all publicly accessible pages in that site and tests them for inconsistencies. When it finds problems, it can highlight them in side-by-side windows or by overlaying one site on the other, semi-transparently. Not only that, but the software will isolate the portions of the website’s HTML code that seem to be causing the inconsistencies. Priced at $45 per month for individuals, or $200 per month for workgroups, Mogotest’s system will be available to Web developers everywhere starting next month.
CEO: Francesca Moyse
Seeking: Not fundraising yet
Some problems, like analyzing the trail of behavioral data that Internet users leave behind by clicking through the Web, are so data-intensive that they require more computing power or more expensive software than average professionals have on their company servers, let alone their laptops or desktop machines. Monkey Analytics lets users offload their big data-analytics jobs to the cloud. If an engineer needs to run an extensive numerical computation using MathWorks’ MATLAB program, for example, he or she can simply launch an instance of that software on Amazon’s EC2 computing service through Monkey Analytics’ website. Already, the startup is gaining customers in finance, life sciences, small businesses, and research universities. “Data professionals are frustrated with their tools, and their IT infrastructure is usually old,” says CEO Francesca Moyse. “Monkey Analytics is breaking down those barriers.”
CEO: Leon Noel
The founder and CEO of SocialSci, who has the palindromic name Leon Noel, is a recent Yale graduate who says he used to waste hours on campus quads begging his fellow students to stop and participate in social-science surveys. Doing scientific surveys online would be an obvious alternative, but researchers can’t use existing tools like SurveyMonkey, because—among other things—they lack mechanisms to prevent subjects from answering multiple times, or to ensure that respondents are recruited under the guidelines laid down by review boards for the use of human subjects. SocialSci is an online survey platform designed to meet all the requirements of scientific researchers. It lets researchers design surveys using a simple drag-and-drop interface, and comes with a built-in recruiting system that uses a point system to reward users for participating while screening out repeat visitors. Researchers are already beta-testing the system at Yale, Harvard, MIT, and other universities, Noel says.
CEO: Nick Tomarello
Nick Tomarello, Sparkcloud’s founder and CEO, says the mission of Sparkcloud is simple: to “help you meet awesome people.” The company has built a software platform that makes it easy to develop mobile apps for the iPhone and Android phones that provide friend suggestions based on physical proximity, shared interests, or overlapping acquaintances. For example, one of the first apps built on the Sparkcloud platform is called Fate; it’s an iPhone app that introduces users to 12 other Sparkcloud users per day, based on information they’ve supplied (“sparks”) about their likes and dislikes. The startup plans to earn revenue by selling the apps, as well as virtual items and targeted ads. “Facebook is the best tool for finding your existing friends, but not for introducing you to new people,” says Tomarello. “Sparkcloud does one thing well, it gives you new ways to meet people safely.”
CEO: Jeremy Levine
Jeremy Levine majored in entrepreneurship at Syracuse University, and apparently his education served him well. Shortly after graduating he fulfilled his dream of launching StarStreet, which is intended to be an online market where sports fans can buy and sell “shares” in their favorite teams and players. (So far the company has been testing its technology using play money, while it awaits the capital it needs to hire a lawyer to certify that its trading system is legal.) Levine, who scored a feature on CNN yesterday, acknowledges that this sort of thing has been tried before—San Francisco-based OneSeason launched in the fall of 2008 and raised $3.5 million in venture funding from Waltham, MA-based Charles River Ventures before shutting down in 2009 as early adopters cashed out and share prices plummeted. Levine says OneSeason’s mistake was, in effect, inflationary monetary policy—issuing more shares to meet demand. But StarStreet will be a zero-sum game, he says: Every time one trader makes money, it means another trader is losing. (But StarStreet will win by keeping 2 percent of each transaction.) Levine thinks word about the StarStreet market will spread virally as traders broadcast their win-lose stats over social media.
CEO: Greg Belote
Many popular websites, such as LinkedIn, are actually so complicated that they can scare away first-time users, says former TripAdvisor engineer Greg Belote. He founded Tutorial Tab with Gabe Warshauer-Baker to make it easy for non-programmers at Web-based companies to build interactive tutorials that explain things like how to sign up for a social-networking, stock-trading, or other type of site and how to get the most out of it. Using a Web-based, drag-and-drop interface, tutorial builders can specify where pop-up dialogue boxes should appear and what they should say, without having to write any code. Belote says Tutorial Tab is a better way to introduce users to complex sites than traditional solutions like FAQ sections or live webinars, because the startup’s tutorials don’t take users away from the actual pages at hand. “They’re right there on the page, not off-page, out of context,” he says.
CEO: Stephen Sprinkle
UserMojo is introducing the idea of “emotional analytics” to the practice of Web design and development. It’s easy to track what Web users do while they’re on a site—what links they click on—but it’s harder to figure out why they do what they do, or how they feel about it, points out CEO Stephen Sprinkle, the former director of e-commerce for Diet.com. UserMojo’s software makes custom commenting tools appear on top of an existing website. By clicking on a “feedback” tab near the bottom of any page on the site, visitors can activate a feedback interface that offers them a range of pictures of smiling, frowning, puzzled, or frustrated faces to indicate how they felt about something on the site. (If users discovered that Amazon was charging $575 for the same model of iPad that they could buy direct from Apple for $499, for example, they might leave a frowney-face on the price portion of the Amazon page.) Behind-the-scenes tools let site owners see what comments users left, which can help them figure out what to change to keep users browsing or buying.