At Startup Showcase, Gener8tor Examines Past, Present, and Future

When it comes to placing targeted online advertisements, it’s sometimes necessary to connect the dots to identify what a user wants or needs.

Justin Hartzman is co-founder and CEO of Needls, a Toronto-based startup that serves personalized ads based on the content of social media posts. He said for his company’s purposes, there are two types of posts: those where it’s clear what someone is seeking, and those with more nuance. Needls is attempting to build a business by decoding messages in the latter category.

“When someone posts, ‘I just locked myself out of my house,’ that doesn’t have any traditional purchase intent within it,” Hartzman said. “But we’ve identified if you’re locked out that you need to find a locksmith, so let’s show you an ad for an emergency locksmith.”

Needls’s “purchase intent engine”—which uses natural language processing, machine learning, and other technologies—is what analyzes a post and subsequently recommends an ad. It currently works across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and Hartzman said Needls may add other platforms in the future.

Hartzman pitched a room of more than 500 onlookers, including scores of investors, on his company’s mission, revenue model, and growth potential Tuesday. His presentation marked the graduation of Needls—and four other companies, who also gave pitches—from Gener8tor, a 12-week startup accelerator in Wisconsin. The event was Gener8tor’s seventh “Premiere Night” since launching in 2012. This one took place at the stately Milwaukee Art Museum. (Disclosure: Gener8tor is a supporter of Xconomy in Wisconsin, but our coverage is determined independently by our editors.)

And just as Needls tries to connect the dots to better serve brands and consumers, Gener8tor’s event partly served as a road map of where the startup accelerator has been—and where it’s going.

Before Hartzman and other founders took the stage, Gener8tor co-founders Joe Kirgues and Troy Vosseller gave updates on the accelerator’s previous session, which ended in May. One of the companies spotlighted was AltusCampus, which seeks to improve continuing medical education and recently closed an $800,000 seed round.

Kirgues also mentioned Bright Cellars, a subscription wine service that raised $1.8 million in August and is now shipping tens of thousands of wine bottles each month. Bright Cellars was originally based in Massachusetts but decided to stay in Wisconsin after going through Gener8tor’s program. Kiruges paused on a photo of the startup’s employees and said each person represented a job that moved to Wisconsin or was created there in 2015, to loud applause.

Altogether, the accelerator has 38 portfolio companies that have collectively raised more than $50 million and created more than 400 jobs, the two co-founders said.

Besides bringing investors in the audience up to speed, these updates seemed to suggest that companies in the latest class could also raise large sums and gain traction in the marketplace. But we’ll have to see how things play out.

Vosseller also recognized a new home and a proposed future home for Gener8tor, which alternates its programming between Milwaukee and Madison, WI. The most recent class was the first to work out of Ward 4, a workspace for entrepreneurs and investors that he called a “center of gravity for all things startups in Milwaukee.” The next slide featured a rendering of StartingBlock Madison, an entrepreneurial center that would be located within a proposed $69 million building project just east of the city’s downtown. “Our hope is for these two bookends to serve as our permanent homes,” Vosseller said, as Gener8tor and others work to strengthen the “connective tissue” between the two cities separated by about 80 miles of I-94 highway.

Carrie Thome, director of investments for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which manages intellectual property for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also spoke briefly about WARF’s new partnership with gBETA. That’s Gener8tor’s six-week accelerator that has no strings attached and targets early-stage companies affiliated with colleges and universities in Wisconsin.

Here are highlights from the other four presentations by Gener8tor’s latest alumni:

Player’s Health: Founder and CEO Tyrre Burks said his company, which has developed a Web-based electronic health records system for young athletes, reached its $1 million fundraising goal. Player’s Health will require sports leagues and teams that license the software to have a parent or guardian of each player agree to keep his or her record up to date.

Burks said the Chicago-based startup will charge $20 for each record created, and that youth sports organizations will eventually see a decrease in their liability insurance premiums, offsetting some or all of their software costs. The company’s long-term monetization strategy is to sell some of the data it collects to researchers, insurers, and other interested parties, he said.

Tiz (formerly known as Ezra’s): The Chicago-based software maker doesn’t intend to cut anyone out of the alcohol supply chain—in which product flows from manufacturer to distributor to retailer—but rather to bring the process into the digital age. Founder Jonathan Mandell previously ran a store that sold craft spirits, wine, and beer. He said currently, the only way for a business owner to change an order or find pricing info is to contact someone representing a wholesaler by phone, email, or in person. With Tiz’s mobile platform, bars, restaurants, and liquor stores can pick the distributors they want to work with and check out with one click.

Mandell said monthly subscriptions to use Tiz’s software cost $10, $200, and $500 for retailers, manufacturers, and distributors, respectively. Eight distributors have committed to using the platform ahead of its upcoming launch. Mandell said in the next year, Tiz is aiming to to sign up another dozen distributors, plus 1,000 retailers.

Prescribe Nutrition: Co-founder and CEO Katie Jasper said Prescribe aims to be a leading online wellness and nutrition platform. She said the progress the company has made up to this point has come without any outside investment beyond the $90,000 that Gener8tor participants are guaranteed in equity investment and convertible debt funds. However, Prescribe does plan to raise a seed round in the future, she said.

The Minneapolis-based startup, whose team includes multiple certified nutritionists, provides its users with curated meal plans, shopping guides, and private consultations. But, Jasper said, what really sets her company apart are its live online discussion boards and tightly knit community. “We can connect someone in Omaha with someone in Amsterdam who has the same goals,” she said.

Over 2,500 people have signed up for the monthly service, and 41 percent of those who completed one program signed up for a second, Jasper said.

AkitaBox: Data and documents related to building equipment, like exhaust fans, pumps, and boilers, are often not as current or comprehensive as they should be, co-founder and CEO Todd Hoffmaster said. Less than 15 percent of information is actionable, he said, forcing building managers to rely on memory and experience. To address this problem, AkitaBox has developed location-based software for tracking and itemizing assets, with the goals of reducing risk and cutting costs by spotting potential problems faster.

The Madison-based company has over 300 buildings in its system, and over 1,000 users logged in during the previous three weeks, Hoffmaster said. He reeled off a list of pilot customers and well-known organizations that have committed to use the software, including real estate giant Colliers International, Baylor University, and the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.

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