TechStars Boston: 13 New Startups, from Super-Springs to Baby Makers

11/15/12Follow @curtwoodward

It’s no surprise to hear someone running a startup accelerator praise their latest flock for tackling a broad set of problems. But when TechStars Boston managing director Katie Rae praised the latest class of graduates for the diversity of their ideas, it turns out she wasn’t just reciting the standard speech.

On Wednesday night, that fresh crop of TechStars graduates showed off their hard work to a packed Boston theater. Like all demo day events, it was full of slick pitches and plenty of hoots and hollers from the energized crowd—investor Fred Destin aptly described the atmosphere on his blog, predicting “a spectacular display of pitching bravado and entrepreneurial glitz.”

There were plenty of the standard startup demo clichés: Shorthand descriptions of a startup as being “like this for that,” the description of some impossibly large multibillion-dollar target market just ripe for the taking.

But I sensed there were more than just well-practiced pitches here.

The 13 companies selected for this round of the accelerator program were covering an awful lot of territory—from healthcare and small business software to mobile apps and wild-sounding advanced materials. Tellingly, only one of the companies made something that you might think of as the kind of classic consumer app/Web service that has been so prevalent in the past few years.

The broad cross-section tells you something about what the TechStars honchos think about the future of the tech startup market, and about the kind of talent and mentorship kicking around the Boston area technology community. As money continues flowing to early stage startups, leading to some worries about a crunch for growth financing, this kind of diversity is a good thing.

Here are a few key takeaways from last night’s TechStars demo day:

Early Money
As Xconomy’s Ben Romano noted before the TechStars Seattle demo day recently, you can definitely see more investor cash is being put into these startups before they’re even done with the accelerator program.

Most of the startups that presented last night at TechStars Boston’s demo day said they had some portion of their first fundraising round committed, most of them well beyond the obligatory $118,000 they can get just for making it into the TechStars program.

One startup, CoachUp, had already raised a lot of money toward its Series A round—CEO Jordan Fliegel says the Web software service for private sports coaches has corralled $2.2 million, led by General Catalyst and Breakaway Ventures.

The fundraising announcements made at the demo event were worth in the neighborhood of $6 million, according to the tally kept by Kyle Alspach at the Boston Business Journal. That’s a rough figure, since some of the startups just gave a general figure onstage, such as saying they’d raised half of a seed round of a certain size. And some who didn’t talk about their financing could have already had some commitments (or maybe collected a few by the end of the night).

Forces of Nature
Two of the startups that presented last night reflected the strong materials engineering pedigree of the region, and they both happened to be working on technologies that hope to harness some of the most powerful forces in the natural world.

NBD Nanotechnologies uses a combination of advanced materials to draw moisture from the air in a super-efficient way—the company’s name comes from the Namib Desert beetle, a bug that “harvests” moisture from water vapor to survive in a harsh environment.

The startup, led by co-founders with backgrounds in chemistry and biology, plans to use the technology to provide potable water in extreme conditions, such as third world countries or military depoyments.

In a sea of bold claims, Urban Hero makes one of the boldest: The startup says it is revolutionizing the spring for the first time since its invention some 250 years ago. It does this, CEO Arron Acosta says, with a “patented mechanism that bends carbon fiber in an unprecedented way.”

If the spring technology does what it’s supposed to, there are obviously industrial, aerospace, and military uses ahead. But Urban Hero is focusing first on making consumer products for the “action sports” market, that crowd of younger folks who take their daredevil athletic inspiration from the worlds of skateboarding, skiing, and freestyle biking.

An early video posted online shows a wild-looking pair of prototype boots that give the wearer a jackrabbit-like spring in their step. At Wednesday’s demo, Urban Hero got everyone to sit up in their seats and lean forward as one of the team members demonstrated a springboard-like contraption—he gingerly hopped on its springs, and was launched up a good five feet in the air, landing on top of a big black box onstage.

Software for Healthcare
Three of the 13 companies were focusing on some kind of software application or data analysis (or both) to help improve a piece of the healthcare system. And with President Barack Obama newly re-elected and his Democratic Party holding onto its majority in the U.S. Senate, there were plenty of mentions of the drive for greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness in healthcare spending, a big feature of Obama’s health care overhaul.

Careport Health, founded by former Harvard medical students, is developing a Web-based software system that promises to connect hospital staff and patients with rehab clinics, nursing facilities, and other parts of the disjointed healthcare system that patients often need to navigate on their own after leaving hospital.

BetterFit Technologies employs data analysis to help patients and doctors avoid problems with drugs. By comparing a patient’s specific conditions and other information to a database of other people, and linking that profile with troves of clinical trial reports and FDA data, BetterFit says it can create an ever-improving system for tracking drug interactions. It also plans to continue monitoring patients with a text message-like system that improves the database over time.

Ovuline is a consumer application, squarely aimed at women and couples trying to conceive. There are already plenty of apps and books and programs for tracking your body and health and pregnancy, of course. But Ovuline says it can do them one better by building a personalized, machine learning system that predicts the best times for getting pregnant.

And it’s based in a real-life example—co-founder Alex Baron wrote a machine-learning algorithm to help him and his wife conceive faster, and she’s due to give birth any day now, CEO Paris Wallace says. The startup plans to extend its service from getting pregnant into pregnancy monitoring.

That’s just a sampling of the topics covered onstage. If you want to learn more about the companies participating in this latest class, check out the TechStars blog for links and thumbnail descriptions.

And stay tuned for more—there’s another class in the works, with applications being accepted for next spring’s Boston class.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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