Hero’s Journey: A Look Inside This Year’s Class of TechStars Boston Startups

6/14/11Follow @gthuang

Incubator, schmincubator. The innovation community has had its fill of incubators and accelerators, hasn’t it? Well, this one is a little different.

As echoes of Commencement speeches die down around town, it’s fitting that the 12-week startup bootcamp known as TechStars Boston is graduating its newest class of companies tomorrow. What’s interesting about this group—compared with the two previous Boston classes, and indeed, other TechStars classes from Boulder, Seattle, and New York—might be its diversity across industry and geography, and its potential to bring fresh talent to the area.

The 12 companies presenting to investors and media at tomorrow’s Demo Day in Boston range in sector from mobile/social gaming (The Tap Lab), online promotions (Promoboxx), and alumni networking (EverTrue), to health and wellness (Ginger.io) and medical devices (Strohl Medical). Their founders come from Israel (Senexx), England (Memrise), and Estonia (GrabCAD, which just announced a seed-financing round); as well as Wisconsin (Student Spill), Tennessee (Help Scout), Texas (Kinvey), and the Boston area (the rest). I’m hearing that several of the teams from outside are planning to stay local, which should help Boston’s talent pool.

The group’s diversity is notable because tech incubators tend to draw most of their talent from founders who are already based locally—and they tend to focus on Web and social/mobile software to the exclusion of other fields like healthcare or hardware. There is still plenty of Web and mobile in this year’s crop, but its variety of startups stands out for a small incubator.

As does the group’s camaraderie, if you listen to the program’s leader. “The amount of support and help they’ve given each other, that’s really been fun for me to watch,” says Katie Rae, managing director of TechStars Boston. She calls the group “stunningly close.”

The narrative arc of a TechStars company is a classic hero’s journey—complete with a call to action, meetings with mentors, a series of tests and conflicts, and a resolution and reward. Yet this year’s companies did not enter the program as a wide-eyed or naïve bunch.

“We were skeptical about incubator programs. There’s a ton of them popping up everywhere,” says Karan Singh, co-founder of Ginger.io, which develops software for tracking people’s health and wellness by interpreting communication and movement patterns gleaned from their mobile phones. The algorithms are based on research done at the MIT Media Lab. While Ginger was already in Boston prior to TechStars (at Dogpatch Labs), Singh, an MIT Sloan MBA, is another example of imported talent—he came from the Bay Area after graduating from UC Berkeley.

Partly through TechStars, Singh says, he has learned that the key to building a business that’s based on interpreting patient behaviors is “to find partners that can help you to establish the trust that you need with the user and get you to scale.”

Meanwhile, Dave Bisceglia’s company, The Tap Lab, is a slightly more traditional TechStars company, focused on building a location-based mobile game (and eventually a software platform for driving foot traffic to stores). The game, called Tap City, pits players against each other as they build, defend, and attack virtual cities made up of real-world properties around them (like the corner Dunkin’ Donuts). It’s a new spin on the mobile check-in, and it plays out like “Monopoly meets the real world,” Bisceglia says.

Tap City evolved over the course of TechStars to become much more social, with stronger group-play dynamics that involve players recruiting friends to help defend territories or launch an attack. Some of the best feedback came from friends, colleagues, and fellow TechStars entrepreneurs, Bisceglia says. (Some avid and successful players include local investor Reed Sturtevant and Dan Koziak from Promoboxx.)

TechStars was a trial by fire—which is what it needs to be. Bisceglia, a recent Boston University grad, says, “I’d recommend it to any young entrepreneur. We’ve surrounded ourselves with people with experience who believe in us.” He adds (about Tap Lab’s experience), “Katie had a plan for us. That’s how we made it through.”

At the other end of the work-experience spectrum is Heather Keith, a 20-year veteran of the medical device industry. Her startup, Strohl Medical, makes a low-cost device for diagnosing stroke in emergency rooms. The machinery consists of a testing box and an electrode array, somewhat similar to an EKG system, which compares the electrical activity on the left and right sides of the brain and can detect key indicators of stroke. The test is designed to work accurately in less than 10 minutes.

Keith has weathered the experience of being a medical-device entrepreneur among mostly techies—and has learned a great deal from them. “The tech side of things iterates really quickly,” she says. “The sense of urgency and rush to get the feedback, improve, and get to next milestone was an excellent catalyst for the company. If I had not been in the program, I wouldn’t have had the continuous pressure of hitting deadlines.”

She also sang the praises of the group’s camaraderie. “It was much more collaborative than I thought it would be,” Keith says. “This is a connected group of companies that understands each other like nobody [else]. It’s like when people have been through a war together.”

One other theme was hammered home by everyone I talked to: the quality of mentorship in the Boston program was top-notch. “I have been shocked and delighted by the depth and commitment from all the mentors in Boston,” Rae says. “They’ve helped every company tremendously.”

It all comes to a head tomorrow, when each TechStars company will stand up and give a six-minute pitch to a room full of potential investors and partners. From there, the teams will go their separate ways; four of them are moving on to the MassChallenge accelerator program this summer, others will move into different office spaces, and almost all are looking to raise more money and sign up more paying customers.

Indeed, it’s safe to say their adventures, and grueling work, are just beginning. Yet Tap Lab’s Bisceglia is up for the challenge, and no doubt he speaks for his entire class.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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