MassChallenge Matures: Breaking Down the Final 26 Startups & Their Accelerator Experience

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 10/14/11. See below] And then there were 26. Startup teams competing for $1 million in cash prizes, that is. Welcome to the final stage of MassChallenge 2011.

MassChallenge, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a Boston-based startup accelerator program now in its second year. It may very well be the world’s largest incubator of its kind. The nonprofit program and business competition kicked off in May with an announcement of the 125 finalist teams (out of 700-plus entrants). After a three-month mentorship program, it is now down to 26 teams who are giving their final pitches this week. The whole competition culminates in an awards ceremony on October 24.

The goal of MassChallenge is to spur Boston-area innovation by attracting entrepreneurs and connecting them with peers, mentors, funding, and other resources. It’s one of several big efforts to rally the local startup community and make it more competitive as an innovation hub. “We are on the verge of a renaissance,” MassChallenge CEO John Harthorne told me earlier this year.

If this year’s crop of finalists is any indication, the program has become more effective at engaging founders, connecting them with mentors, structuring their mentorship, and generally managing and communicating the logistics of such a huge (and hugely ambitious) program. Startup founders I talked to in recent weeks said the program was “really well organized” and that there was “nice camaraderie” amongst the teams. That seems to have helped them with the difficult work of early-stage company building.

“Technically I’m pretty strong, but I’ve never run a startup before,” says Bruce Robie, the founder and CEO of ARO Medical, one of the final 26 teams, based in North Andover, MA. ARO has developed an implantable device to help stabilize the spine of back-surgery patients.

Robie credits MassChallenge with improving his pitching skills and introducing him to key advisors. “Working with our mentors was a really positive thing,” he says, and “each brought a different perspective”—whether it was how to talk with potential partners or how to brand the product. “I’m an engineer by training, so my ability to name stuff is not going to set the world on fire,” he says.

Roy Rodenstein, the co-founder of Cambridge, MA-based SocMetrics, another finalist, says, “I’ve been very impressed this year. Last year was pretty good, but it was the first year. It’s progressing well as far as the level of support.” Rodenstein, who served as a mentor in the 2010 program, adds that “the quality of companies is up a bit,” similar to the recent trend for other incubators like Y Combinator and TechStars.

Several other finalist teams say the program helped provide the foundation and connections to advance their business. “We started MassChallenge with not much more than the idea. Over the course of the accelerator ArtVenue was able to become a fully operational business,” says ArtVenue co-founder Dan Vidal. “The amount of resources that are at your fingertips during the program is absolutely amazing.”

“The multiple rounds of judging also helped us immensely,” adds Casey Rankin, another ArtVenue co-founder. “Our pitch coming into MassChallenge and leaving it are miles apart.”

Ben Jabbawy, the founder of Privy, points out that the accelerator brings together young startups and veteran entrepreneurs and business people who otherwise might not meet. “This town is full of seasoned entrepreneurs, and [MassChallenge] now serves as a filter for them to identify and connect with budding companies like ours, and vice versa,” he says.

One thing that struck me—similar to last year—is the sheer diversity of the finalist companies. Sure, there were plenty of technology and Internet startups, but there were also lots of interesting teams tackling problems in healthcare, cleantech, and retail. This is super important, as sometimes techies (especially) need to be reminded that starting Facebook or Zynga is not the only way to change the world.

So here’s how the final 26 MassChallenge companies break down, in terms of sectors:

Tech/software/media: 15 (Artaic, ArtVenue, Circumventive, Driveway, Drync, EverTrue, Finalta, Her Campus Media, Invup, Pintley, Privy, SocMetrics, The Tap Lab, Tinfoil Security, UberSense)

Biotech/healthcare/life sciences: 4 (Alkeus Pharmaceuticals, ARO Medical, Bioarray Therapeutics, Therapeutic Systems)

Cleantech/green tech: 4 (PK Clean, Resolute Marine Energy, Sanergy, SmarterShade)

Retail: 3 (Casa Couture, Cocomama Foods, Lynx Sportswear)

And drilling down a little more, here are some subcategories I’ve noticed:

Mobile: 5 (Driveway, Drync, Pintley, The Tap Lab, UberSense)
Marketing: 5 (EverTrue, Her Campus Media, Pintley, Privy, SocMetrics)
Social/online community: 4 (Drync, EverTrue, Invup, Pintley)
Financial tech: 3 (EverTrue, Finalta, Invup)
Security: 2 (Circumventive, Tinfoil)
Art: 2 (Artaic, ArtVenue)
Drinking: 2 (Drync, Pintley)
Gaming: 1 (The Tap Lab)
Green toilets: 1 (Sanergy)
Video: 1 (UberSense)
Shoes: 1 (Casa Couture)
Bras: 1 (Lynx)

Founder with best Star Wars character in his name: 1 (Ben Jabbawy, Privy)
Founder with best chess-related name: 1 (Daniel Benoni, Invup)
Founder you don’t want to tackle at the goal line: 1 (Brent Grinna, EverTrue)
Founder who sounds like Steven Seagal on the phone: 1 (Bruce Robie, ARO)…

[The following comments added on 10/14/11–Eds.]

I heard from a few more finalists in the past day and wanted to share their thoughts on the program as well. “What really sets MassChallenge apart is the experience of being surrounded by like minded people: other entrepreneurs going the same peculiar stresses and challenges you are,” says Will McLeod from SmarterShade, which makes technology to adjust the transparency of windows and mirrors for privacy and energy efficiency.

The accelerator program “provides the duct tape we all need to hold together ideas for raising money, pitching, sales, product innovation,” says Brian Mullen of Therapeutic Systems, which is developing a sensory vest to help soothe autistic kids. “Being around so many other passionate entrepreneurs on a daily basis and be able to learn from each other has been the hidden gem.”

We’ve certainly heard a lot about the mentorship aspect of the program. David Auerbach from Sanergy, which is working on sustainable sanitation, relayed the story of how one of his company’s MassChallenge mentors drove an hour to meet him at a coffee shop to rehearse his pitch. That plus lots of late-night phone calls and e-mails to help with the startup’s business plan seems to be par for the course.

Lastly, Tim Noetzel of Pintley, developer of a beer-marketing app, said he did have one complaint: that the three-month program ended too soon. “I could have done this for six months,” he said.

All in all, it’s a motley crew of companies all striving to make their businesses work—and maybe change the world in the process. Congratulations to all the participants, and best of luck in the final round.