TechStars’ First Class of Boston Startups Launched at Microsoft-Hosted Gala
One of the big tickets in town last night for the tech startup community was the TechStars Investor Evening at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge. (The other was a big Polaris-hosted party at Fenway Park for Woburn, MA-based LogMeIn, celebrating its July IPO.) The TechStars event, where the Boulder, CO-based venture incubator program officially launched its first class of Boston-based startups into the real world, drew a capacity crowd of 300 entrepreneurs, venture and angel investors, and reporters.
The audience heard remarks from TechStars organizers Shawn Broderick and Brad Feld, local tech entrepreneur and investor Bill Warner, and Massachusetts state government official Jason Schupbach, but the TechStars companies themselves were the main event. Each of the nine companies gave a presentation aimed at eliciting the seed investments that will help the startups prove their nascent business models and grow to the next level. Microsoft’s Don Dodge has published an informative writeup about all nine companies. [Update: Mass High Tech has posted a handy list that includes a rundown of which TechStars startups will be staying in Boston and which will be leaving, and Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe has handed out informal awards to the TechStars startup “most likely to be acquired,” the company with the “wittiest PowerPoints,” and so forth]. My summary is below.
Golf is a global obsession that generates $76 billion a year in revenues, making it larger than movies or video games. And serious golfers will do almost anything to improve their game—including buying costly GPS-based golf range finders like those sold by Skycaddie, Garmin, and Callaway. Twin brothers James and Will Sulinski of Portland, ME, developed AccelGolf as an inexpensive yet powerful alternative to these devices. Their free iPhone application serves as an electronic scorecard and a versatile course map and range finder; for $30 per year, users can upgrade to a version that includes predictive software that advises them on which club or shot to try in each circumstance based on their past record.
Baby monitors are a $350 million market in the U.S., with more than 4 million devices sold every year. But Amp Idea says today’s monitors are essentially pastel-colored walkie-talkies, built on 1970s technology. The startup wants to build what is in essence a mobile baby computer. In addition to allowing parents to remotely hear or view their baby the device would let parents snap photos for a baby journal, play soothing MP3 songs, track and predict their baby’s sleep patterns, and look up baby-care instructions. “We provide information and services when parents actually need it,” says founder and CEO Sumant Yerramilly. The company is in discussions with potential manufacturers such as Fisher-Price; it would make money by selling content and applications for the device (both its own and those written by third-party developers).
The word baydin means “foretelling the future through magic” in Burmese, and Baydin’s tool may seem like magic to any user of Outlook, Microsoft’s desktop e-mail management program. The problem with Outlook and similar tools, according to Baydin founder and CEO Alex Moore, is that responding to an e-mail frequently requires leaving the actual e-mail client to dig up information elsewhere, such as a Word or PowerPoint document or the details of an appointment. Baydin makes a search plugin for Outlook that scans each e-mail a user opens, and then retrieves related information both from the user’s computer and from SharePoint servers and larger company network. Users can drag and drop files in the Baydin window straight into their e-mails. That last point about corporate networks is important: Moore said that if he’d had the tool while working as a circuit board designer at Analog Devices, he might have discovered that four fellow employees at different Analog locations around the world were working on the same design he was, saving the company untold money and time. Baydin will sell the tool to companies on a seat-license basis, and is targeting firms with lots of “technical creatives”—think architecture or life sciences companies. Moore got the biggest laughs of the evening by displaying a testimonial quote from an IT director at a Sand Hill Road venture capital firm: “I work for a bunch of VCs who can’t find shit. I would pay $100 seat for this tomorrow.”
Founders include: Stephen Wooten, Sean Corbett
HaveMyShift co-founder Steve Wooten is a former Starbucks barista and Chicago Bears fan who says he came up with the idea for the startup when he was calling around Chicago, trying to find somebody to cover his shift at Starbucks so that he could watch the Bears play in the 2007 Super Bowl. It took hours—which helped him understand why employees who “call in sick” or just don’t show up is such a huge problem (costing U.S. employers $200 million every day, he says). HaveMyShift’s service is an online clearinghouse where hourly workers can trade shifts. The company launched in Chicago and already has 5,000 users who have traded 28,000 hours of work to date, Wooten says—-and not just at Starbucks but at other big employers like Ikea, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, Jamba Juice, Target, and McDonalds. The marketplace will expand soon to Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. It’s free to employees, but by next year HaveMyShift hopes to license the system to big national employers.
LangoLab’s brilliant insight is that Internet video sites like YouTube offer an immense, and completely free, trove of entertaining material that can be adapted for foreign language learning. The worldwide market for foreign language self-study products amounts to $32 billion, according to founder Adam Duston, but the teaching method of most of these products boils down to “boring rote memorization and drudgery,” he says. LangoLab, by contrast, takes popular TV series, movies, and commercials produced in various languages and adds transcripts so that people can learn the language just by watching. Because there’s so much online video available in English—and because ESL, English as a second language, accounts for the single biggest chunk of the language learning market—that’s where LangoLab is starting; the company’s prototype site in Italy has already attracted 10,000 users. The company plans to charge for access to the enhanced video clips, and may also license its product to language schools.
Some 14 percent of commercial websites use third-party traffic analytics services like Omniture and Webtrends, paying more than $800 million a year, according to Localytics founder Raj Aggarwal. But there are no comprehensive tools that let the developers of mobile software applications track how many people are using their software, or when or where. That’s that Localytics, a company we featured as part of our Mobile Innovation Showcase last spring, has set out to provide. After inserting some special code into their applications, Localytics clients can then go to the company’s website to track app usage in real time. (Aggarwal says one client noticed a drop-off in downloads within an hour of increasing the price for the app—and reversed the price increase that same day.) The basic tracking service is free, but for $99 a month, clients can compare how they’re doing against other app makers. For really big brands, an enterprise version is on the way. The company already has 60 clients with apps on 300,000 phones, and it expects to grow its client base 50-fold over the next year.
Laura Fitton, the author of Twitter for Dummies and the founder of Oneforty, is probably better known to Twitter users as @pistachio. She points out that while Twitter has 45 million users and twitter.com has become one of the world’s top 15 websites, Twitter itself is difficult to use, and is surrounded by a poorly organized welter of Twitter-related applications: “a real market with no marketplace,” in Fitton’s words. That’s the point of Oneforty, a “Twitter outfitter” where users will be able to browse and buy more than 1,250 Twitter apps for their PCs and mobile devices. The company will keep a cut of all transactions on the site and earn affiliate revenues when it sends customers off to services like Blackberry’s App World. Oneforty’s beta launch is coming up on September 22, Fitton says.
Sensobi caused a sensation at the TechStars event with its vision of “personal relationship management”—software for mobile devices that would help busy professionals keep track of all the people they need to stay in regular contact with, whether that means a daily phone call or one e-mail every six months. The company has built a contact-list application for Blackberry phones that prioritizes contacts based on the user’s past communication history. Naturally, the most important contacts are at the top. But users can also set the app to remind them to call people lower down on the list if, say, three weeks or three months have elapsed since the last contact. The company sees itself as the Siebel or Salesforce of mobile business—revolutionizing one-to-one business networking in the same way those companies revolutionized customer relationship management. The company offers a free version of the app as well as a $20 premium version with advanced productivity capabilities and a $100 “pro” version that stores users’ contacts on an external server. The company plans to release iPhone, Symbian, and Android versions of its application in late 2010.
Founders include: Thomas Monaghan, Michael Monaghan
TempMine’s founders say they know from experience that the temporary staffing industry is broken. Employers can’t find high-quality temps, temps themselves can’t find congenial and well-paid gigs, and staffing agencies are more concerned about filling openings quickly than about finding the right people. TempMine is launching an online temp staffing marketplace where temps will be able to create and control their own profiles and work records and employers will be able to search a larger pool of temps drawn from multiple staffing agencies. “No industry has fought harder to stay offline,” according to co-founder Michael Monaghan, but the staffing agencies should also appreciate the service, since they aren’t being cut out of the process, and a higher rate of successful placements will win them long-term clients. TempMine will earn money by taking a 1 percent cut of temp employees’ pay (compared to the 5 percent charged by most staffing agencies).
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