TechStars Boston Demo Day: Four Startups Taking Innovation Offline

TechStars Boston has officially unleashed its latest group of early stage companies, 14 startups with well-practiced pitches and big hopes. And this time around, several companies stood out for their focus on tackling real-world problems with software and online tools.

That shouldn’t be a big surprise for a couple of reasons. First of all, we are in Boston here—a city that has produced major robotics and hardware companies, next-generation rental marketplaces, and more examples of innovation that aren’t confined strictly to the digital world.

Moreover, startups tackling “offline” problems by using the power of networked software are cropping up all over the map.

Some of the bigger names taking this approach are Airbnb, which lets homeowners rent out their properties to other people; Uber, Hailo, Sidecar, Lyft, and others tackling cars-for-hire; and Indochino and Warby Parker, which use Web storefronts and far-flung supply chains to deliver affordable, fancy apparel.

TechStars, which runs three-month startup bootcamp programs in cities all over the country, is a prime hunting ground for startup trends like this.

The organizers sift through hundreds of applications from ambitious founders from all over the world, looking for smart entrepreneurs. I’ve noticed that their selections are often a mix of current hot trends, newer takes on more established models, and some out-there ideas that could wind up being way too early.

Here are my takeaways on the four TechStars Boston companies using digital DNA to tackle problems in the real world:

Neurala says it “builds brains for bots,” using technology that mimics the function of the human brain to help machines learn about the world around them. CEO Max Versace, who is also director of Boston University’s Neuromorphics Lab, says that means Neurala can help a robot learn both the territory around it and the faces of people it might need to interact with.

So, for instance, a “telepresence” robot might be able to drive right up to you in the office and start a videoconference with a far-away colleague. There are bigger possibilities, too: Versace says Neurala has already pulled in $1 million in financing from NASA and the Air Force, and is working on an application that could help robots navigate around other planets by mapping out hazards and learning safe routes around the landscape.

Versace contrasted this software and machine learning approach with the tack taken by Kiva Systems, which uses a series of scannable stickers to create a “highway” on warehouse floors, allowing an army of small robots to move items around efficiently. Although that worked out pretty well for Kiva—Amazon bought the company last year for $775 million.

CONSTRVCT (pronounced CON-struct) is attempting to modernize the process of clothing design with easy-to-use online software. The founders have experience in the fashion industry and in engineering, including former work with 3D printing company Shapeways.

Co-founder Mary Huang says that with all of the advances in digital technology, “you would think that there’s software to help you design clothes.” But the only tools out there are industrial-level, really hard to use, and very expensive, she says. Meanwhile, people looking to express their own creativity and design sense are still using paper patterns. “The D.I.Y. generation is stuck with the same starting point as their grandmothers,” Huang says.

CONSTRVCT’s 3D design software allows users to type in their own measurements to get a custom fit, and add their own graphic designs, like photos they’ve taken, to be made into a print. The design is then split into its individual pieces, and the images digitally printed onto the fabric, which CONSTRVCT says produces much less waste. Then the pieces are cut and sewn into a finished dress, shirt, or pair of pants.

Freight Farms converts shipping containers into self-contained mini-farms. What does that mean? By using “vertical hydroponics” and compact LED lights, the system can raise crops without any soil in an urban environment. Growing crops this way is much more efficient in both resources and space—co-founder Brad McNamara said the Freight Farms unit can grow an acre’s worth of crops in just 320 square feet.

The current product can grow leafy greens like basil and lettuce, and McNamara said the startup has a deal with Tasty Burger to grow lettuce for its restaurants in a pair of rooftop units. Freight Farms also has generated some public interest in its idea, raising more than $30,000 on Kickstarter to finance construction of its first test unit.

In the past three months, McNamara said, the startup has booked $450,000 in sales, and has an agreement in place for regional distributor Katsiroubas Bros. to purchase Freight Farms crops. The startup also has landed approval from the USDA to help customers finance purchase of units with a low-interest loan.

PillPack was conceived by a pharmacy student who recognized that, among the vast population of pill-taking Americans, there was room for a lot of confustion: tiny print with technical language on pill bottles, hand-to-hand pharmacy refills with little privacy, and a mess of homebrewed solutions for making sure the right doses were taken at the right time.

“The whole end-to-end process of managing multiple medications is totally broken,” said CEO TJ Parker, who is now a registered pharmacist. PillPack’s solution is a home-delivery service that sends patients their medications in custom, individual packets with easy-to-understand instructions—with a glance, you could tell that you’re supposed to rip open this pouch and take these pills at 10 am on Monday, for instance.

The startup also includes online medication management, ordering, and even personal consultation with pharmacists over videoconferencing. It’s pretty slick-looking in a demo, and Parker says the company recently was licensed as a pharmacy by the state and linked up with a home healthcare agency to deliver prescriptions to 1,000 people. But it’s not cheap, at $50 a month.

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