boston

Project 99 pushes for dramatic workplace diversity change

By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

Early morning meetings, traveling from Boston to New York: It sounds like a jet-set life for the well-traveled recent Babson grads, who have amassed impressive resumes working for the likes of Accenture, Goldman Sachs, EY and more.

They easily could have gone the corporate path to success. Instead, they detoured to social entrepreneurship, which hasn’t been easy for Yulkendy Valdez and Josuel Plasencia, co-founders of Project 99. They know, if you’re pushing for 30 percent workforce diversity by 2030, you have to start early—and work tirelessly.

“Young professionals want to be at the forefront of cultural change at their companies,” says Valdez. “Yet one in five find the workplace grueling or threatening—that’s not just millennials.”

Valdez and Plasencia have seen firsthand the problem of acclimating to corporate culture, where young professionals of color are three times more likely to quit than their counterparts. The problem is not just cultural, says Plasencia. It’s financial, too. American companies are losing $64 billion a year through retention failure—and spending another $8 billion to combat it.

But dealing with such sensitive topics as race, gender and identity has been what Valdez calls “taboo in the work place,” and so, effective communication is often legally charged, fear-driven and complicated.

“There has been a lot of questioning of whether diversity initiatives can work. At Project 99, we believe they can work if you address the elephant in the room, which is equity. It is tough, but if you’re a growing company and you want ROI, you have to leverage diversity,” Valdez says.

The diversity and inclusion dilemma is a much-discussed topic of late, with companies attempting to hire a more culturally diverse team, only to lose them once they’re hired and trained.

Black and Latinx young professionals feed a massive talent pool, but very little exists internally to support the growth and success of these workers. So Project 99 offers an array of corporate training that Plasencia and Valdez say cultivates safety, authentic conversation and action.

“In terms of our approach, it’s a different model,” Plasencia says. “We want to engage and retain talent, so our programs are born out of our own experiences. Young people are craving to go deep about their identities. We want to help them have these conversations. We do it peer-to-peer, so everyone in the room is learning from each other, and experiential, giving the onus to the people who can make change.”

Working with large companies presents a challenge, because each is in varying stages of understanding how diversity affects culture and their bottom line.

“We meet these companies where they are,” says Plasencia. “Some of these large, multinational companies, they are at ground level with these issues. At the foundation, it’s a new language for them. That makes (diversity and inclusion training) a totally different conversation. We want everyone to feel safe at work.”

Project 99—so named for the Human Genome Project that identified DNA as 99.99 percent the same, and 0.01 percent unique—finds commonality and leverages the collective power of a diverse work force while celebrating individuals’ distinct abilities and perspectives.

The duo has its sights set on a big goal, announced after their participation in Babson’s Summer Venture Program: the 30by2030 Summit. It’s described as a first-of-its-kind event to help advance black and Latino professionals into leadership positions.

“We want 30 percent racial and ethnic diversity, and we want people talking about that,” says Valdez. “Right now, we are too far from that, it’s only at 3 percent. We expect people to go, ‘Whoa, that’s a lot,’ so we can say, why is it not realistic? How can we expedite this?”

The 30by2030 Summit is Project 99’s official company launch event, slated to take place at WeWork South Station, Oct. 18 from 6-8 p.m. “We believe everyone is part of the 30by2030 goal, and we want to bring everyone into the same room on Oct. 18,” says Plasencia.

Valdez says talking frankly, listening and getting in action is key to creating a new kind of work place where identity isn’t left at the door, but rather, used to its full potential.

“First, we do have to talk about race, to listen to these younger professionals and then act on (what they share). Project 99 is about developing the innovative solutions to the problems they’re facing.”

She likens workplace inequity to any other business challenge, which means it can be solved using the same thought-critical processes.

“If you treat racial inequity as a business opportunity, you start to develop ideas like we do for hunger or the water crisis,” she says. “And in a way, diversity and inclusion issues are the reason we have hunger and a water crisis. At the root of diversity in the workplace, we have a lack of access, to education, to food systems—everything. That’s where the ripple effect is created.”

“This is a global challenge,” says Valdez, “one that started hundreds of years ago. If we want to solve it, it has to be about coming together and exploring solutions.”


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Rainbank founder to cities: Take the risk to test anti-flood tech

Steve Culver cries with his dog, Otis, as he talks about ‘most terrifying event in his life,’ when Hurricane Harvey blew in and destroyed most of his home while he and his wife took shelter there in Rockport, Texas. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO BY JOE RAEDLE


By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

As video footage of Houston residents wading through Hurricane Harvey’s watery swath becomes more familiar, a thought floats to the surface: Why is this still happening?

We have the technology, says entrepreneur Kevin Dutt, founder of Rainbank, the 2014 MassChallenge company that uses storm data and innovative water storage to prevent flood damage. But a pervasive fear of failure from our cities’ leadership keeps flood innovation from protecting those at critical risk.

“You need to create that environment where decision-makers are allowed to take risk. They don’t have it,” Dutt says. “Anybody in those positions, they agree the technology is necessary. But they say, ‘I’d lose my job if I tried Tech X, because it could fail.’ Until that fundamentally changes, it’s going to be tough.”

Texas emergency response officials are now calling Harvey the worst flood disaster in U.S. history, reporting that more than 300,000 residents have been displaced, and the death toll has risen to 14 as of Tuesday morning. They also predict more will die, as rescue efforts are hampered by more rain and surging waters. Still a named storm 72 hours after making landfall, forecasters have called for another 20 inches of rain by the end of the week, as the storm pivots toward the already embattled southwestern Louisiana. Stunned residents sit atop their sodden homes and in branches of trees, dodging filthy floodwater and tweeting out rescue pleas.

Since Hurricanes Sandy in 2012, Ike in 2008, Katrina in 2005, Ivan in 2004—all the way back to the historic Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992— it’s hard to understand the implementation lag, especially while China has engineered sponge-based concrete and the Netherlands is known for its intricate drainage systems.

“Nobody wants to take a risk. It is frustrating but you can see how it comes to this. They don’t (address the problem) till they have to,” Dutt says.

In a time of increasing historic storms, where past performance has proven an unreliable metric, real-time storm water information like Rainbank collects is growing exponentially in value.

“We have all the data on water for each storm,” Dutt says. Rainbank creates technology for “blue rooftops” that can hold up to half a million gallons—basically, rooftop-installed trays with small holes that allow water to slowly drain off. “We’ve done all the tests to determine weight. The computer tells the drain to close, or let 2, 3 or 4 inches of rain trickle down. It can hold all the water up there till we tell it to release.”

The company has been steadily proving an innovative business model that moves it out of direct sale with municipal governments—another obstacle to scale that Dutt says scares off investors—and brings private business to the table to create solutions.

“We work with flat-roof locations like Home Depot, factories, big-box stores, to rent us their rooftops. Home Depot is perfectly happy to get a check for $52,000, it’s a revenue stream for them. That way, the risk on the city is way less,” Dutt says.

Rooftop rentals became easier, Dutt says, with the increasing accuracy of web search. “We used to struggle to find buildings that span 18 acres—how much water could that hold? The hard part was always finding places to store that much water. Now we can just look at Google Maps.”

Catastrophic damage from Harvey reportedly already surpasses that of Hurricane Katrina and subsequent Hurricane Rita in August and September of 2005 that hit the same area less than a month later. The 2005 storm system cost more than $91 billion total and remains one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, with deaths exceeding 1,800 in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The final cost of Harvey could exceed $100 billion, according to Bloomberg.

“There is always a lot of money for cleanup,” says Dutt. “That’s a tremendous amount of money. Disasters happen, and now we have to respond to that. We’re still just so shortsighted. There are so many technologies that could save these lives and the money preventively, especially given the nature and magnitude of it. The problem is enormous.”

Although property insurance can cover wind damage, most are shocked to discover they are not protected from flooding. And according to the Insurance Information Institute’s 2016 figures, only 12 percent of coastal residents hold flood insurance.

The National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program managed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the single source of flood insurance for most Americans, is already under water itself, owing nearly $25 billion to the U.S. Treasury. It was bailed out by taxpayers already once, post-Katrina, to cover claims. The NFIP backs separate flood policies sold and serviced by such private insurers as Assurant, Allstate and others.

“Secretly, we carry this hidden debt and we haven’t made it easy to test out new technology,” Dutt says.

He points out the challenges of being a first-mover with an unproven technology. “There isn’t a lot you see that comes from a place of trying something different. But the other side is the risk. They were hoping Houston would never happen,” Dutt says. “We’re conditioned to be firefighters, not preventive. We have to start working on prevention.”

If prevention were the goal, he says, you would see a lot of cities testing new technology in a controlled way, working out best practices. That is happening faster in other parts of the world, like China, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, where protecting lowlands and mitigating floods are urgent concerns.

“In certain areas, where there are huge issues, governments are making quicker changes in how they prioritize (flood mitigation). And some do take risks because they know what’s at stake. That is a relief,” Dutt says.

“Taking these risks is worth it. We’d rather hear cities say, ‘We did try. It cost $1 billion, but we tried (to save these lives).’”

It’s time to solve bigger problems with our technology

By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

OPINION

Entrepreneurship is not the same as innovation.

“Always be in beta.”

“Iterate, iterate, iterate.”

“Fail fast.”

“Hustle and grind.”

*Eye roll* 

It’s all talk, and we know it. But we nod appreciatively, despite constant proof that these adages of modern entrepreneurship have taught another generation to pose and talk in catchphrases while building very little with impact. The number of companies that make it to $1 million in revenue? Less than 4 percent. The number that build useless, first-world solutions? IMMEASURABLE.

Our poster boys for entrepreneurship in hoodies and Rollies–our sharks and serial role models–they Instagram their way to brand status, and revel in the adulation. But the ripple effect is deadly.

Their protégés aspire to the fame but don’t want to climb the mountains–or raise others up with them. The apathy is astounding.

Where is the actual innovation? Less and less, it’s coming from our entrepreneurial circles. People solving other people’s real problems have to subsist for years and hit impossible proof points before they find support.

Yet, look at what does make it, it’s all the same. We fund curated food delivery while people are starving. We support social networking apps but people stay isolated and poor in spirit. We growth-hack our way through martech, location-based gaming, photo-sharing, and on-demand everything while people are jobless and scared.

We mostly shrug and build and fund more AI-based-enterprise-Uber-for-who-cares, just like everywhere else. Boston is supposed to be the Hub of the Universe, the deep end of the innovation pool. So why aren’t we taking the biggest swings and using it to differentiate our ecosystem? We talk about solving problems but it isn’t actually happening. The world’s problems are still waiting for us.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have clean water on demand? Health care is still a desperate need, the environment is melting, the economy is fractured, education is fragmented and failing.

Tell me again how entrepreneurs win.

We say we want entrepreneurs to solve a problem–but that’s not really borne out in the typical process of launch, build, fund, scale. Not yet. Our unicorns are not solving the world’s problems.

The next shift has to merge our best technology with our biggest challenges. Otherwise, what good is it?

The next phase of entrepreneurship has to start with enormous empathy and vision–from founders and funders. The visionary has to have his or her sights locked onto a problem and especially onto the people who suffer for it. Then run through literally thousands of possible ways to solve it. And finally, enlist an army of others to get behind the process and push, with all their skills, experience, time and sense of commitment and responsibility to work for the greater good.

When our words match the commitment, and the thesis matches the scope of real problems, and the solutions that get funded quickly use our best technology and expertise to solve what we’re capable of solving, only then will we truly earn the right to wear the Innovation Economy badge.

Innovation is for solvers. Solve bigger.


Shelagh Braley is the editor-in-chief of FoundersWire. Are you solving an actual problem? Please send more information to  shelagh@founderswire.com or apply for coverage at GetCovered@founderswire.com.

Saving time means saving lives for GEMS team

IN THE BOX THINKING: The GEMS team, after their CAMTech hackathon win, from left: COO/ Chief Medical Officer Ted Liao, CEO Andrew Schwartz, CFO Annie Feldman and CTO Jeffrey Lipton. Courtesy Photo


By ALLISON HUBER
@founderswire

BOSTON—In the United States, the average emergency medical response takes up to 12 minutes—crucial, life-saving time that GEMS CEO Andrew Schwartz and his team plan to make even shorter.

In Boston, according to EMS, Priority 1 response averages about half this time, at 6.3 minutes as of 2016. But even that brief time delay has caused permanent brain damage for victims of overdose in particular.

With the deadly opioid crisis spreading threefold in just a decade and 15 million Americans now diagnosed with food allergies, Schwartz says empowering bystanders to respond to emergencies can make all the difference.

Their solution: GEMS boxes, full of medical supplies and located around the city like U.S. mail boxes, can be remotely unlocked so bystanders can be guided by 911 to save a life.

“Our boxes aren’t just for opioid users, these are public preparedness boxes,” Schwartz says. “So just as someone who overdoses on oxycontin or heroin would use (the naloxone in) this box, a child stung by a bee could use an Epipen.”

In 2015, 33,091 Americans died from opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control—nearly triple the number claimed in 2002. Now, the North American opioid market, which accounts for 70 percent of global consumption and valued at $12.4 billion in 2015, is expected to hit $18.5 billion by 2024, according to pharmaceutical research firm PharmExec.

GEMS boxes contain naloxone (more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan), epinephrine and hemorrhage-control products. Emergency response dispatchers can unlock these boxes and guide callers through their uses, turning bystanders into first responders, saving valuable time and hopefully, lives, says Schwartz. GEMS, winner of the $10k Opioid Epidemic Post-Hack-a-thon Award from CAMTech, in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital, is a current finalist in MassChallenge. Schwartz and his team of doctors and technologists hope to make the next cohort of PULSE, the healthcare-oriented division of the incubator, in December.

Schwartz, Jeffrey Lipton and Annie Feldman have now been friends for nearly a decade, Schwartz tells FoundersWire. With a diverse set of backgrounds—Lipton, a postdoctoral research associate at MIT, Schwartz with a master’s in government and Feldman, an MBA from Babson—the team complements each other’s strengths. The team collaborated with Dr. Ted Liao, a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and now COO/chief medical officer, who earned his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine, and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford. They group began collaborating over what kinds of supplies to store in the boxes.

“There’s a whole list of things you can put in there, but they have to meet some requirements. One, easy to apply without any medical training, and two, items that would not kill someone if administered incorrectly,” Schwartz says.

Once an individual sees an emergency and dials 911, the operator would receive his or her GPS coordinates and direct them to a box. Because the boxes will have different compartments containing Narcan, tourniquets and Epipens, the caller will be given a pin code to unlock the necessary medical device.

“I’ve been thinking about the idea of assistance in emergency situations for a while,” Schwartz says. “Once I found out about Narcan and how easy it is to implement it and how there are no side effects—you can have no medical training—I thought it would be the perfect application, along with Epipens or tourniquets for hemorrhage control,” he says.

Dr. Gabriel Wishik-Miller, an internist and primary care provider at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, has seen the devastating effects of addiction pass through his clinic for the past seven years. Wishik-Miller works as a backup physician for The Supportive Place for Observation and Treatment (SPOT), a program that engages people in the midst of overdose, provides medical treatment for over-sedation and connects patients to treatment programs. The program is part of the Boston Care for the Homeless Program, one of the 19 original pilot Health Care for the Homeless programs founded in 1985. In 2016, SPOT faced 3,852 overdose encounters.

“What we’ve been seeing since I got here seven years ago is the overdoses happening on the street and in our building. The substance use, the activity—everything has been going up every year,” Wishik-Miller says. “People are injecting and overdosing, sometimes not very far from us, and it’s tragic. These are people we know and who we take care of, and if they’re dying on our watch, it seems wrong.”

Wishik-Miller says he attributes the rise in overdose to the appearance of synthetic drugs on the market, which are faster-acting and higher risk. In order to combat overdose, he insists that Narcan, a nasal spray, is safe and easy to use for the average bystander in cases of emergency. “Narcan is a very safe medicine, it can be used by anybody if it is in the proper formulation. It can start the reversal process immediately. You don’t have to wait for 911 to get there for EMS to arrive. So to have a bystander with Narcan available when someone is dying can be life-saving.

“In our public spaces, that’s where most overdoses happen. Anybody who is on the street in the public space should have Narcan available to use if they have seen somebody that has gone out, and so I think having them in boxes on the street is a fantastic idea. It would be very, very useful,” Wishik-Miller says.

In addition to cutting down EMS response time and saving lives, Schwartz says GEMS may eventually educate the public about health through videos and advertising campaigns. “One of the real beauties of our system is that you don’t even need to know what it is to use it.”

Currently, GEMS is seeking communities to pilot the boxes. Schwartz says he aims to complete this initial study this year, moving one step closer to implementing the boxes in municipalities across the country at an affordable price.

“We hope to get to the point where we can shorten response even five to seven minutes, and it would be a dramatic life saver. Save lives. That’s our No. 1, 2 and 3 goals.”


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CliqBit pivots to link companies to Gen Z

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: CliqBit co-founders Hannah Wei and Olivia Joslin have taken their funny social network in a new direction, connecting brands with research and meetings with their young base of users. PHOTO PROVIDED BY CLIQBIT.


By JULIETTE FAHEY

BOSTON–For brands, understanding their youngest consumers is anything but funny.

So two years after the successful launch of CliqBit, a humor-based social media app, co-founders Hannah Wei and Olivia Joslin have shifted their focus to connecting companies with Generation Z.

The market potential for Generation Z is significant, according to a 2014 study by Goldman Sachs, which shows Generation representing 22 percent of the U.S. population. By 2020, they will account for 40 percent of the consumer base. These digital natives, the oldest of whom are now 18, are reportedly burdened with the shortest attention spans. But according to new research, their brains may have developed an adaptive filter that allows them to process online content and decide in seconds whether it has value to them.

How can brands connect in less than eight seconds? This is the kind of data CliqBit is now harnessing for clients.

“We wanted to see how we could take our knowledge of Generation Z and implement certain viral tools to help them,” says Wei, president of CliqBit.

At CliqBit, Wei and Joslin study Generation Z, their trends and purchase behavior, and share their insight with brands attempting to break into this burgeoning (but ad-resistant) market. Joslin, CliqBit’s CEO, speaks to an even greater challenge of locating Generation Z’s online presence.

“They’re really struggling to not only have Gen Z fill out their surveys, conduct their research and pay attention to it online, they’re struggling to find out where they are,” Joslin says. “It’s becoming harder for companies to grab at them for insight and just connect with them at another level.”

CliqBit has been developing this foundation of research on and connection with Gen Z since 2015, starting with the now-defunct social media app that targeted this demographic, they say. The women, rising seniors at Wellesley as well as participants in the MIT bridge program, successfully completed the 2016 Babson WIN Lab, the Boston-based accelerator for women entrepreneurs. In the process of working with the cohort, they saw the need to pivot into enterprise and decided to go for it.

“(WIN Lab) pushed us along in our transition, because when we entered, we were still a social app. And then by the time we came out, we were making revenue as a market research type of platform,” says Wei. “WIN Lab helped us because the women in it are powerhouses. We have so much respect for them. They were like, ‘OK, so now that you’re not raising this money any more, what’s next?’ ”

They saw value in the research they had conducted and decided to leverage it for this next iteration. The duo is currently working on expanding their offering while participating in the 2017 Babson Summer Venture Lab.

“A core part of our success with the CliqBit app was definitely the focus groups, the interviews that we conducted with Generation Z,” Joslin says.

“(With) quantitative data, you can figure out the what,” she says. “What is it that people don’t like or what is it that people do or don’t do? When do they drop off? But (brands) can’t figure out the why just through analyzing their metrics.

“And so, this is really where we come in, because now they know that something isn’t working, but they have to figure out why,” Joslin says.


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Latino empowerment good for the whole ecosystem

By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

OPINION

We should all be slightly Latino right now.

With Boston’s Latino population continuing to blossom, now at 20 percent, it’s way past time to pay attention.

“Boston’s population would be back to 1980 levels if the community hadn’t grown from the Latino base. They’re a big part of growing the community and economy,” says Betty Francisco, well-known local entrepreneur and co-founder of Latina Circle.

What action do you take to shift power for any demographic that has historically had little agency or representation?

Launch a movement, according to Francisco and her co-founder, attorney Eneida Roman.

Nuestra Voz: Amplifying Latino Power, Impact and Influence, (AmplifyLatinX), held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, is one wave of many planned for this movement, the founders say. This conference focuses on practical ways to increase civic engagement and political leadership, co-hosted by Latina Circle and the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy.

The historic event is prepping to accommodate more than 250 local and national leaders, plus 30 community organizations ready to create actionable, innovative ways of bolstering Latino civic participation, especially for the younger generations.

“This is such an important conversation because we’re contributing to the economy. Where 1 in 5 people in Boston is of Latino heritage, we are a force,” says Francisco.

“But the numbers (of representation) haven’t changed much,” Roman says. “Three years have gone by, our demographic keeps going up and yet we’re not making a dent. There are always going to be opportunities and challenges.”

FoundersWire is a partner in this event (full disclosure), and for good reason: When groups like Latina Circle organize and energize their base to empower the next generation of leaders, I can’t help but see the parallels within the startup community. They deserve support—from all of us, not just those who know the Latino experience firsthand.

Much like the “lean in” initiative started by Sheryl Sandberg, where men can act to empower women in the workplace, we need those beyond the boundaries of race, gender and culture to support this LatinX movement to make it work.

We certainly understand the negative effects of a monoculture, in theory. We all talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion. When we only see, hear and validate one perspective, education, experience and the wealth gap stay static. This is as true in entrepreneurship as it is in politics. A lack of engagement becomes a missing voice, which translates into a lack of power. It impacts policy as well as participation, and for our community of diverse founders, it has a huge impact on funding.

The startup world has much to learn from Amplify LatinX’s bold moves.

“How do we create the sense of urgency? How do we, across sectors, come together in a collaborative way around a shared mission?” asked Roman.

Their answer in Boston starts with this conference. There’s still time to join in. Come find out for yourself why you should support the changing face of growth in the city. They represent all of us who deserve to be heard.

“If we can have this demographic prosper, then we all benefit,” she said.


The event kicks off at 8 a.m. Saturday, with programming planned until around 3 in the afternoon. Tickets, $50-$15, are available HERE.

Have an issue you want to discuss in the greater community? Send your submission, 500 words or less, to GetCovered@founderswire.com, along with your contact information. We welcome all opinions. 

Moon Selfie lights up MIN #99 in Roxbury

BIG WINS AT MIN: The top teams from the MIN #99 showcase celebrate their pitches Wednesday night. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO


By JARIANA OLUKOGA

BOSTON—Four companies shone bright Wednesday night as they emerged winners of Mass Innovation Nights #99—but one was especially over the Moon.

Moon Selfie, Donii, Black Girls Nutrition and CEDE won audience votes to take the top four spots over a full slate of African and African-American founded tech startups.

Moon Selfie, “the world’s most advanced selfie light,” won the night as the “top fave,” with a product designed to fit any smartphone or tablet for better illuminated selfies. Moon Selfie products, created by Edward Madongorere and Dishen “Dixon” Yang, retail for around $49.

Founders took the stage at the Thelma D. Burns Building in Roxbury, hosted by MIN in collaboration with the Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, showcasing African and African-American founders of tech companies.

“We are very excited to support diversity in tech and bring visibility to startups looking to be heard in the noisy tech space,” said MIN founder Bobbie Carlton. “I love to see the community come out and support each other. But my favorite part was when someone would say ‘Oh my gosh, this is just down the street from me so I had to come,’ ” she said.

In addition to featured experts, networking and presentations from winners of online voting, companies represented included BeautyLynk, Dolume, Kids in Tech, dot Teach, FABLabs for America, IncluDe, Pulse24/7, Quality Interactions and UZURI Health and Beauty. There was also a student startup from Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Accelerate program, Occ Youth Unleashed, the Roxbury-based, youth-led nonprofit startup that aggregates community program information to keep kids engaged.

Kyle Colon, co-founder of Occ Youth Unleashed, said his team started with initial funding of $1,000 from United Way. After proof of concept, they returned to pitch United Way in June 2016, winning an additional $10,000. Now they are currently competing in the 2017 MassChallenge accelerator program.

“This has been an amazing experience—and we’re young, only 18 years old. Everyone else is double or triple our age,” Colon said. “All we really want to do is keep teens off the street. We don’t get paid for this at all. We do this on our own and with the money in our pockets.”

Final four competitor Black Girls Nutrition launched when the founder felt ready to make a big change in her life.

“It started 12 years ago because I weighed 350 pounds,” said CEO Katia Powell. “I went to the grocery store down the street and got honey buns, hot pockets, cheesecakes and came back home. I was about to watch Love Jones and I caught my reflection in the mirror. I felt like time actually stopped. I needed to make a decision to save my life.”

“We are a company centered on helping women of color connect and find healthy ways to live their lives through nutrition, fitness, mindfulness and stress awareness,” said Tangela Kindell, digital marketing strategist for Black Girls Nutrition. “We are also working on an app that makes all that easier and can fit in the palm of your hand.” BGN, according to Powell, is “the first nutrition company that specifically focused on black women.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke to the group, sharing his thoughts on the crucial problem-solving entrepreneurs must do to be successful. “Focus on one issue at a time and try not to let outside influencers bother you,” he said.

He also encouraged the founders to ask for help and to take criticism freely, without fear. “I think people often take criticism as a bad thing, criticism is not a bad thing. Sometimes criticism is a good thing and you can learn from it.”

“I think there are a lot of people who could be great entrepreneurs that are just a little worried about going for it and asking for help,” he said.


The next MIN, a milestone evening at number 100, is scheduled for Wednesday, July 12, at the Museum of Science. The theme will be space technology. Find out more and RSVP HERE.

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Capital W convenes over female funding gap

By LAURA C. VARGAS

BOSTON—Has the state of getting female founders funded gone backwards? Capital W founder Sheryl Marshall said as much at the annual female-focused venture summit at District Hall last week.

“In prior administrations, there was an emphasis on advancing women at all different levels. We are going backwards,” she told FoundersWire before the daylong gathering of pitches, panels, awards and networking. “Before, it might have been that firms might have been concerned to invest in women, but now I think, who cares?”

Thus, she said, the need for Capital W and other initiatives like it is greater than ever.

Marshall, concerned that the current political environment puts hard-won gains for women at risk, said the goal of the conference is very clear: “Getting women funded! Getting their companies funded. That’s it. That’s all we care about.”

Investment in female entrepreneurs continues to show gender-based disparity, according to 2016 data: $1.5 billion in venture capital funding compared with nearly $60 billion in male investment. A Harvard Business Review article, referenced by several speakers, served as a hot topic for part of the day. Research based on private conversations between venture capitalists in Sweden shed light on the way gender plays a role when making funding decisions. Women founders were perceived as untrustworthy, inexperienced and lacking credibility while men with comparable experience were seen as the exact opposite.

Babson College researcher Lakshmi Balachandra reflected on the media’s representation of entrepreneurs as exclusively white men, and joked about how women are only featured in special editions of tech publications.

But, she said, “women, once funded, are more likely to raise additional venture capital funds and more money on subsequent rounds, and had better rates of liquidity than men.” She also pointed to numbers that female entrepreneurship is on the rise worldwide, as proof that women are having a profound impact on their communities investing in education, employment, and supporting other businesses.

Inspired by the results of Babson College’s Diana Project, which showed a deep divide in funding companies founded by men versus women, Capital W provides awareness and education around these issues in Boston. Throughout the day, female founders were selected to pitch their businesses, including CozyKin CEO Tatyana Gubin; Novopyxis’ Madhavi Gavini; OWL Life Technologies founder Suzanne Mitchell; Evermind’s Claudia Zayfert; FutureFuel CEO Laurel Taylor; Unruly Studios Bryanne Leeming; Teenlife founder Marie Schwartz; Green Pinata’s Shiva Kashalkar; WatchRX’s Jayanthi Narasimhan; Folia Health CEO Nell Meosky Luo; Nix’s Meredith Unger and Gentreo founder Julie Fry.

They received feedback from business leaders and investors including such local luminaries as Yumin Choi from Bain Capital Ventures; Jason Rhodes, Atlas Ventures; Liam Donohue with .406 Ventures; Coppelia Marincovic, Solvay Ventures. Omar Simmons of Exaltare Capital; Nilanjana Bhowmik from Converge and Mike Troiano of G20 Ventures joined in as well. Panel moderators David Chang and Jodi Goldstein led the discussions.

One of the great surprises of the day was the Ada Lovelace Award presentation, given to the no. 1 investor in women-led companies for the year. Last year’s winner always presents the award to this year’s winner, a secret Marshall wouldn’t relinquish until Zaffre Investments Managing Director Leah O’Donnell stepped up to deliver the prize to the new winner. “You did it again,” Marshall said to a shocked O’Donnell amid a laughing crowd. “You’re giving yourself the award.”

Lisa Rometty, vice president of global markets at IBM Watson Health, addressed the role women must take in their own success. “There’s responsibility on your end. . . to self-reflect,” she said, acknowledging the courage and boldness needed to succeed in a startup.

“Culture is the most important thing to focus on, and I would tell you that the secret sauce of a healthy, strong culture is the embracing of diversity. Not only gender diversity, but cultural diversity, diversity of experience, diversity of opinion,” she said.


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Syncthink, Twiage, Rendever snag prizes at PULSE Finale

CURTAIN CALL: The startups of PULSE @MassChallenge and their champions gathered at the Wilbur Theatre to celebrate their awards ceremony this week. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO


 By ALLISON HUBER

BOSTON—The historic Wilbur Theatre played host to a different kind of drama at Tuesday’s PULSE@MassChallenge Finals, as 31 companies showcased their healthcare solutions to investors and spectators alike.

The group was selected from a pool of 430-plus applicants and represented 30 states and 20 countries. PULSE@MassChallenge, run by the Boston-based global accelerator MassChallenge, is a six-month program dedicated to pairing startup digital healthcare organizations with experts, institutions and resources. Unlike MassChallenge’s main accelerator program, which accepts up to 128 startups annually, PULSE participants are accepted through a match-making program with one or more of PULSE’s 32 champions (or partner organizations), including the City of Boston, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Microsoft, Boston Children’s Hospital and many more.

Syncthink took the $100,000 grand prize for innovation in eye-tracking technology products that give medical professionals objective metrics for visual attention. Syncthink CTO Daniel Beeler attributed the startup’s success both to its persistence and the unique opportunity presented by PULSE. “I’m shocked, surprised, delighted: It’s wonderful,” Beeler said. “PULSE is a very unique experience. We get paired with a real corporate champion. We get embedded in their clinical apparatus, and it’s simply something that would not happen otherwise.”

Twiage, a HIPPA-secure mobile and web platform that bridges communication between ambulances and the Emergency Department, took the second place prize of $60,000. Founder and CEO YiDing Yu gave special thanks to the PULSE champions. “The 60 EMS agents and the 14 hospitals who believed in what we were doing to help accelerate life-saving care took a risk. I admire them, and I think they are part of the pillars of this community, and we need more of them.”

Rendever, virtual-reality software designed for elderly people in assisted living, took third place honors with the prize of $40,000. Co-founder and Product Manager Kyle Rand described his own commitment to improving the way people age because of his own grandmother’s struggle in assisted living. “An individual goes through having huge, amazing life experiences and then it, all of a sudden, shrinks. We think that virtual reality is the perfect application to re-expand that world and re-connect them. If they’re missing a family event—a family member is getting married on the West Coast—this will allow them to actually sit in that wedding.” Rand and his co-founder spent time living in these communities and understanding how VR could be used to alleviate friction between the elderly and new technology.

Rendever wasn’t the only startup in attendance that was concerned with end-of-life planning. Suelin Chen, CEO and co-founder of Cake, spent her entire career in health care and felt that the biggest problem was end-of-life care. Through the PULSE program, Chen was able to connect with Steven Fink of Harvard Pilgrim to further the development of her company.

Florence Furaha, co-founder and managing director of Meetcaregivers, accredited her passion for health care to her personal experience in the industry. “I worked as a caregiver and a care manager. I saw how many families were struggling to find home care for their aging parents, so that’s how the idea started,” she said. Through PULSE, Furaha and her team developed their online platform to connect families to qualified caregivers at an affordable price.

In addition to the first-, second- and third-place awards, the audience and the startups themselves had the opportunity to vote for their favorite companies. The MACP People’s Choice Award and cash prize went to ACT.md, a platform that connects all care team members through a cloud-based platform.

3Derm, an imaging system that captures and delivers high-quality photographs of skin abnormalities directly to dermatologists, was awarded the Sunovion Startup’s Choice Award. Founded in 2012, 3Derm focuses on improving access to dermatologists to expedite treatment of such serious conditions as skin cancer.

Jeff Leiden, chairman, president and chief executive of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, underscored the importance of teamwork, especially in the realm of health care. “The 31 startups and more than 81 partner companies demonstrate perfectly the impact an ecosystem can have when it comes together to support its newest members and the tremendous innovations that emerge from this community to improve human health.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, who jokingly compared the PULSE incubator to “an American idol for startups,” announced a special surprise for the PULSE program: an additional $170,000 in future funding for the PULSE incubator and $80,000 for the Baystate Health Technology Center located in Springfield, Mass. Looking to further the necessary staffing, programming and cost of startup incubators, the governor reiterated his commitment to expanding Massachusetts’ role as a leader and pioneer in the realm of digital health care.


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Startup Coalition experts point way to the Exit

OPENING DOORS: Startup Coalition co-founder and event moderator Jim DaSilva introduces Successful Exits experts (from left): Andrew Lau of Nanigans, Jay Batson of Acquia and John Nguyen of ScreenEx. Each took a different path to exiting their companies. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO


By MIGUEL HERNÁNDEZ MERCADO

BOSTON—Stories abound on both sides of the spectrum: On one hand, there are wildly successful founders who scale their startups into companies that sell for millions of dollars. On the other, there are great ideas that never fully develop because the business side never quite takes off.

The outcome of any startup, however, can be more than just these two options, according to experts at Wednesday night’s panel on successful exits, hosted by the Startup Coalition.

The event, the culmination of a series of monthly discussions, fittingly focused on exit strategies. Panelists Jay Batson, John Nguyen and Andrew Lau, all of whom have founded companies and exited in a different way, shared their insight.

“We have three different panelists with individual experiences, with exits in three different ways,” said Jim DaSilva, the event’s moderator and a co-founder of the Startup Coalition. “One of them sold to a new owner for $800 million, another one took the company to a certain point before handing it over to a new CEO but retaining equity in the business, and the third one was acquired after a couple years of being in business and then went to work for the acquirer.”

“This offers three different scenarios to these entrepreneurs sitting in the audience to realize that not every exit means selling for millions of dollars—you can exit in so many different ways. Maybe you only earn so much financially but you reach a great outcome for your product, which most of these entrepreneurs are very passionate about,” he said.

The panelists spoke to an audience of about 60 people gathered at WeWork South Station, which ranged from startup-curious college students trying to get their first taste of the business world, to members of different small companies taking the opportunity to learn and network, to a handful of local founders and entrepreneurs. The three panelists offered them their personal advice and knowledge gathered from years of experience building and scaling several companies.

Nguyen, a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and founder at ScreenEx, a mobile applications company, recalled the moment when he first took money off the table for his company, as opposed to waiting to sell the whole thing. He recommended it as a way of “escaping the all-or-nothing tension.”

“It really helps to not make it all or nothing anymore. The tension is always, ‘My God, I could always exit now, even if it’s not for what it is worth.’ But if you have the option to take 10 percent equity, even if it’s not at the price you wanted, then you at least get something for the company. You can never get nothing and I think that helps a lot,” he said.

Batson, who besides founding three other companies was the founding CEO of Acquia, an open-source web content management system, talked about learning his limitations and embracing his strengths as an entrepreneur. This led him to relinquish the CEO position once he felt the company needed one “with skills more suited for a later stage.”

“The question becomes not only of the exit of the company but also of the exit of the entrepreneur. From a million to $10 million in revenue is one kind of CEO. You reach $10, $15, or $20 million, and the way you operate as a CEO changes. Not always can that original CEO make the shift. In Acquia, I had a discussion with the investors up front, I want to be let known when I’m not helping the company anymore. I’m more of an early stages kind of a guy, and we went and found another CEO once we reached a threshold, and he did a great job,” he recalled.

Lau, a founder at Nanigans, an advertising-automation software, talked about motivation and pointed out that the final goal does not always have to be wealth creation.

“When we started talking to the media and outlining our company, we found that it was less about finances and more about the product itself. When you’re doing PR or press or any sort of marketing, it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he said.


Startup Coalition is offering a Pitch Review, where members review pitches from local startups, scheduled for July 19. If you are a founder and would like to be considered, APPLY HERE. Monthly discussions will pick up again starting in September.

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Student Stars Pitch VIPs at BUILDFest

ALL CHARGED UP: Winning team Double Charge celebrates with its super-sized check at Tuesday night’s BUILDFest.


By JARIANA OLUKOGA

BOSTON—Student entrepreneurs and their benefactors got a double charge of innovation at Tuesday night’s BUILDFest.

BUILD, a nonprofit that teaches entrepreneurship skills to students in under-resourced communities, spent the evening at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel celebrating the accomplishments of this year’s young founders.

The top four teams pitched a VIP panel that included former Gov. Deval Patrick, Jerod Mayo, former New England Patriot and now VP of health tech firm Optum, Ernst & Young Managing Principal Jane Steinmetz and LogMeIn CEO William Wagner. Members of the entrepreneurship community gathered to sponsor and support the student-run businesses. Steve DiFillippo, chef and CEO of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, emceed the event.

The team from Double Charge walked away with $2,000 in prize money for their water bottle that also charges a smartphone, besting competitors Razzle Dazzle, Roll n’ Go and Orphan Socks. The winning founders, CEO Elvis Rodriguez and CMO D’Ahmen Holloman are ninth-graders at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury.

“The night was inspiring,” said Patrick, now managing director of Bain Capital’s Double Impact program. Looking back on his own childhood, Patrick said he did not possess the entrepreneurial skills of the BUILD students at their age—he had the interest but not the mentorship or encouragement, which makes a huge difference.

“It was wonderful to see young people doing positive and constructive, real-life things. And above all, being shown by so many positive adults how to look up rather than down,” he said.

The evening, according to BUILD Boston Manager Will Leitch, was a transition from the usual annual gala, switching the focus from swanky party to pitch competition, allowing students to stand in the spotlight for their hard work. It raised more than $70,000 in the process.

A standout for the night was Amy Choi, director at Silicon Valley Bank in Boston. She accepted the award for Mentor of the Year.

“It was an incredible evening and I could not be more proud of the students’ accomplishments,” Choi said. “It has been a life-changing experience to be a part of the BUILD community for the past two years, and I feel blessed to work at a company that so strongly supports BUILD.”

Boston’s BUILD program launched in 2011 and has incubated more than 300 young entrepreneurs. The nonprofit’s goal is to enhance entrepreneurship education as a way to decrease dropout rates and prepare the next generation for financial and professional success.

In the lead-up to the Pitch Challenge, BUILD students in ninth to 11th grade showcased their innovations for the crowd. Products included handmade clothes for dolls, soaps, lip balm, sunglasses, candles and more. Some entrepreneurs were as young as 14 years old, and already displaying the entrepreneurship skills learned through the BUILD program.

Nyah Jacobs, a ninth-grader at Another Course to College (ACC), showed off her team’s creation, My Doll. “The dolls are multicultural, representing every kid around the country to prove that there’s more than just a Barbie doll on the shelf,” she said. Jacobs, along with her team members, decided to create dolls that reflected their own cultures.

Malik Albert, a ninth-grader at Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH), is one of the creators of Chappies lip balm. “They’re organic, they make your lips softer, it’s cheaper and most importantly it gives you less cracks when it’s cold outside,” Albert said of his product.

Before the winning team was announced, Rebecca Fracassa, director of community investment for Comcast stepped up with a surprise: Each student in the final four teams was awarded a free laptop plus a free year of internet service.

Mayo, the linebacker turned tech exec-in-residence for Optum, a division of UnitedHealth, said he found the evening filled with innovative ideas. “These kids are far beyond where I was at when I was 14 and 15 years old,” he said. “They have a head start in life, so stay out front and keep doing the right thing.”


BUILD Boston accepts donations of time and funding. Get involved HERE.

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Babson Lab leaders create win-win for female founders

IN STRIDE: WIN Lab Boston Director Ashley Lucas and Global Director Heatherjean MacNeil are taking growth to a new level for the women-focused accelerator. (FoundersWire Photo)


By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—The Babson College Women Innovating Now Lab (better known as the WIN Lab) has made its reputation incubating female founders and their businesses.

Now its leaders have taken a page from the growth strategies they teach and applied it to their own model.

“Our big vision is to be the No. 1 accelerator for women around the world,” says Heatherjean MacNeil, global director for the WIN Lab. “I think we’re very ambitious in terms of how we’re going to get there. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.”

In the course of a few months, MacNeil and her team of supporters, coaches and sponsors have executed some intricate plans, including christening Babson’s downtown campus at 100 High St., and expanding operations to its first remote campus in Miami.

Just last week, Boston’s 18 WIN-ners were whittled to a final three, with Own The Boardroom, Wanderful and LoveLeaf coming up in the money, pitching before a crowd of about 300 at The Atrium at the Davenport in Cambridge. Growth founder and CEO of ZappRX, Zoe Barry shared her message as keynote speaker, “Let’s get more XX in tech and more female founders funded.” Judges Smaiyra Million, David Chang, Sharon Kan and Patricia Forde made the final call for the cash. Million is one of the program’s entrepreneurs-in-residence. Chang, a local investor and growth advocate, was recently named the head of Babson’s summer venture program.

And a week before, Miami’s cohort celebrated its finals, with Zuke Music, Pierce Plan and Palmpress Coffee founders accepting prizes.

“Miami is the perfect ecosystem for us for a number of reasons. One, it’s emerging, so it’s raw, it’s early stage,” says MacNeil. “And there was a funder that recognized the need for a player to intervene early to create more of a gender-balanced entrepreneurial ecosystem. So it’s just been a great place for us to plant our roots and really become part of that movement of becoming.”

The Miami WIN Lab set up in the Cambridge Innovation Center, sited on University of Miami Life Science and Technology Park in Overtown, with Director Carolina Pina taking over the helm in February.

With so many companies applying to incubators and accelerators, deciding which ones to admit to the program is a challenge—but also a source of pride for the program’s supporters, she said. The WIN Lab’s mandate is to advance women entrepreneurs, so including companies at different stages and watching them develop becomes part of the value, where the women share the lessons they’ve learned with each other, stage to stage.

“It’s a little bit like the process of building an investment portfolio. We always have a nucleus of companies that we’re like, ‘Yeah, they’ll probably thrive. They check all the boxes.’ And then we grab our outliers, or we’ll meet an entrepreneur at that super-early stage, but you just want to sit and talk to them for five hours, because their passion is contagious and you believe in them as a human,” MacNeil says. “So we have a few of those. And some of them end up being our success stories, honestly. And then from a community perspective, we’re always looking for: What is that group dynamic going to look like and who will add value from that perspective, too—which I think makes us a little bit different.”

Boston director Ashley Lucas says the program has shifted in terms of the business stages they admit or “allocate seats to,” because the WIN Lab’s criteria differ from other accelerators. “We see a diverse group of people come into the program. And I think that Heatherjean has done an incredible job developing the curriculum so that you can lay it on top of an entrepreneur no matter where they are in the business.”

At every stage, female-led companies are still lacking support, the women (both former entrepreneurs themselves) say, despite a tide of evidence that women on teams create consistently successful growth patterns.

“There have been a series of wakeup calls, both from a gender and a minority perspective. The Diana Project run through Babson looked at women in relation to venture capital. There’s a phenomenon that’s happened, where suddenly the data is forcing people to look at the fact that only 2.7 percent of women founders raise venture capital, and that stat hasn’t changed in 10 years,” MacNeil says. “You can’t turn a blind eye to that. It’s so glaring.”

But it’s not as simple as getting investors to write checks to women. The history of entrepreneurship comes with a generations of subconscious bias—from how a woman presents, down to what kind of business she even chooses to build.

“We’re trying to solve it but we’re perpetuating it. And I think we’re very self-effacing about that,” Lucas says. “We’re really trying to figure out how to be gender-balanced in everything that we do so that we’re creating the right optic and creating the right setting that brings justice to the founders that we’re trying to serve, too. Because in many ways, it’s still a man’s world.”

She says the WIN Lab exists in a silo where men and women alike contribute to the program as investors and experts. “But they’re all coming from the perspective of, ‘I’ve been successful. I’ve lived the barriers. I see the barriers and I want to give back.’ And so we’re really good at curating a community of people that get the WIN Lab value proposition. They love working with our founders.”

As the WIN Lab continues to grow, eyeing the Asian market and a few others for expansion, they will continue to champion the women who attempt to conquer the innovation economy on the home front and abroad.

“We still need to figure out how to change the mind-set, change the behavior of the VCs, of the seed investors, of the power holders,” Lucas says. “And simultaneously, we’re trying to train women founders to walk into a room and understand where to go to build relationship capital, how to pitch, how to feel comfortable—which is the role of WIN Lab—and bringing those parties together to seek real change.

“I think those two things are still happening in silos, and so I think our work is really trying to figure out how to educate both sides, but educate them together so that there’s real change happening.”


The Boston WIN Lab program is open to Babson undergrad and graduate students and alumni. In partnership with the City of Boston’s Women on Main initiative, the program also offers five tuition-free fellowships to Boston-based entrepreneurs. The Miami program is available to any female entrepreneur from that region.

Boston and Miami are now accepting applications for their next cohorts. If you are a female entrepreneur in either of these communities that meets the criteria, apply HERE.

Push ‘little pebbles’ aside to accelerate growth

The Shift is a series of interviews by FoundersWire and its partners that explore the issues, challenges and possible solutions that accelerate scale. Our first Q&A features Steve Snyder, partner and entrepreneur-in-residence at Gesmer Updegrove LLP. He meets, above right, with fellow Gesmer colleague Chrissie Lee and Boston design entrepreneur Katie Burkhart. (FoundersWire photo)


FW: You started out not only as a lawyer, but as a tech entrepreneur yourself. What appeals to you now about working with entrepreneurs?

A: Practicing law was never my passion. Building businesses always has been. So the opportunity to meet with two, three or four entrepreneurs every day and help them with their business challenges is extraordinary.

What value do you add that’s unique, beyond the necessary/obvious legal support?

The focus of our firm is working with entrepreneurs to ensure the success of their companies. We focus on the business, not just the law. We provide valuable business advice and guidance as well as legal advice and guidance. In my role, I focus only on business. For me, it’s about finding ways to drive revenue, increase profitability and help entrepreneurs succeed, all at no charge.

You’ve worked with many hundreds of founders and CEOs while they’re scaling. What do you see that they all have in common? What’s one marker that says, yes, this one is going to make it?

That’s a fabulous question. Most of our clients are tech companies so the CEOs with whom I have worked are really smart. That’s a given. The most successful CEOs are thoughtful and considerate; open to advice and guidance; good listeners; truly aware of their areas of strength and want to supplement or complement those areas by building a team around them; and able to process information and make decisions.

What pitfall do you often see that you wish founders were more aware of?

I wish I had been more aware of this early in my career but, as the saying goes, “Hindsight is 20/20.” Scaling a company is really hard. There are hundreds and hundreds of little details that we think about every day. It often feels like we’re being bombarded by little pebbles. It’s those little pebbles that divert our attention from the “big boulders,” the big stuff that we need to focus on to achieve our goals. Push those little pebbles aside, prioritize, delegate, but most importantly, focus on the big boulders.

Building a startup is stressful. Scaling one is even more challenging. What advice can you offer founders to find peace of mind, even after they realize they don’t have all the answers?

Wow, I wish I could offer that kind of advice. The best I can suggest is to surround ourselves with really smart, experienced, thoughtful advisors. That way, we don’t need to have all the answers.


Do you have a lesson you’ve learned while helping entrepreneurs scale that might help others? Let us know. Have a question that Steve might be able to help with? You can reach him directly at steve.snyder@gesmer.com

Four Asian business trends happening in real time

CHANGING MARKET: Company briefing in business incubator and accelerator in the heart of Hong Kong (Photo by Gregory Stoller).

By GREGORY STOLLER
@GregoryStoller

Multiple times a year for nearly the past two decades, I’ve been fortunate to bring MBAs or undergrad business students to Asia to either meet with different companies about their business practices, or consult with them on strategic planning projects. In my latest trip, we visited more than 10 companies in Shanghai and Hong Kong, in industries ranging from financial services, food and beverage, manufacturing to health care.

Different trends emerge every year and 2017 didn’t disappoint: Many of the firms are ditching long-term strategic planning in favor of speed and agility, in order to obtain short-term profits and keep competitors at bay. This is a departure from prior years where many companies sacrificed market share and earnings, provided they were positioning themselves for long-term strategic planning success.

Asian business used to have a unique, homegrown approach, often shrouded behind formidable cultural cloaks. Deals had long lead times to closure and required elaborate support mechanisms, such as formal company dinners, golf outings and drinking parties. Although many of these legacy cultural norms are still in play, I was struck by how many firms had instead become transaction focused: needing to close the deal and collect the money, rather than paying homage to supporting the long-term relationship.

We formed these conclusions after our 20-person delegation got to know each company extremely well. Before departing from Boston University, and to prepare for each visit, the students worked in teams. They pulled five or more articles on each of the companies and their competitors, presented in-class strategic overviews and then wrote one-page summaries that we then we brought along to Asia. At the end of each day, we collectively debriefed on the various visits, and then after coming back to the United States, each student completed a 10-page research paper analyzing a single company’s strategy. Here are some lessons we learned:

  • People needing money are price agnostic: One of the hottest startups on our docket was a peer-to-peer lending company in China. They operate a de-facto online marketplace matching lenders and borrowers, and get paid through commissions and fees. People who need immediate money to pay for cars, business expansion or seasonal loans are willing to pay interest rates in the mid 20s. By comparison, a state-owned enterprise could obtain financing in the single digits, but with reams of required paperwork. The lending firm concedes its offerings are nearly identical to competitors, so the only differentiators are honesty and volume. Their brand needs to be trustworthy and regulatory compliant, to avoid incurring the wrath of government minders. Its loans are measured in months, rather than years, thus their avoidance to focus on long-term planning. During Q&A, our host was actually unable to articulate where he predicted the firm would be 12-18 months from now, except to say likely in rapid growth mode. Well outside of the corporate boardroom, and to the customers needing money, the funds were only a few clicks away.
  • Ask for the deal terms you need: No longer are firms pursuing a one size fits all strategy, in order to maintain parity with other clients. A startup credit hedge fund in Hong Kong has doubled its assets under management in less than 12 months, and since inception three years prior, has returned a CAGR in excess of 10 percent. Its business model is through either secondary lending or bond placements, with deal flow sourced throughout the Pacific Rim. None of the 50-plus lending deals they’ve completed has been standard. The only commonality has been thorough due diligence and expedited closings. On the investor side, they utilize the same nimbleness, operating an open-ended fund with contractual, on-demand funding from their limited partners. They’re willing to sacrifice consistency provided profitable deals get completed and meet their hurdle rates.
  • Executives are now evaluated through what they actually get done: A global U.S. food company with operations in Shanghai is willing to profitably operate in a handful of Chinese cities, rather than checking off the box that it has a comprehensive presence throughout China’s entire eastern seaboard. For them, short-term accomplishments often beat execution against a longer-term vision and they now tether this approach with executive compensation. Though they acknowledge this might give international competitors and/or local Chinese companies a toehold in the locations they’ve passed on, at least they can better understand the cause-and-effect of their own expansion efforts. In another departure from letting the strategic tail wag the dog regarding the development of a customized, long-term “China strategy,” this firm has imported existing data analytics from similar product rollouts in Europe and Latin America to benchmark its success locally. No longer do they consider China a work in process requiring a different set of metrics; it’s treated like anywhere else.
  • Watch today’s cents in order to manage tomorrow’s dollars: A multinational manufacturer in Shanghai now reviews cell-based production techniques on a weekly basis, as carefully as an asset manager might study her prior day’s stock trades. They meet as a team in a bunker adjacent to the shop floor, not only to discuss the prior week’s runs but also to make immediate changes for the following week. Except the personnel around the table aren’t just highly paid supervisory executives; they’re the hourly laborers themselves. The company translates into Chinese renowned publications on techniques such as 6-Sigma, and offers courses on manufacturing theory free of charge to each team. They return some of the achieved cost savings almost immediately to the groups that developed them. The implemented techniques are kept in a database so they can be tweaked on a weekly basis, and benchmarked against other production cells companywide. This is in stark contrast with U.S. firms, which review their manufacturing quarterly or annually, when headquarters staff visits Asia.

Classic strategic planning is, of course, still important for long-term business success. Not everything can or should be solely viewed through a compressed time-frame lens. However, the world has become a smaller place. My students were shocked how quickly “new” concepts they had studied in BU’s Questrom School of Business as early as last semester were already being fully implemented at our visit sites in Hong Kong and Shanghai. It’s so easy to forget that with only a few keystrokes online, everyone now has access to global best practices. Coupled with the need for immediate gratification by the millennial generation, companies are willing to put these into instantaneous practice, even as unique test cases.

Additionally, we noticed that gone are the days of corporate denizens barricading themselves in ornate conference rooms, while being myopically focused on executing against five-year plans adroitly developed by highly paid, external management consultants. The conference rooms we used were open air and brightly lighted, while the executives were warm and welcoming. This is yet another example of positive change in the Asian business climate and stories of success based on thoughtful, short-term execution. With nearly 20 years of past company visits and consulting engagements under my belt, seeing these changes concurrently unfold across so many diverse industries, and through such newfound, agile pragmatism was extremely refreshing.


Greg Stoller is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He is also an entrepreneur and co-founder and host of the Language of Business ®, an independently produced weekly news magazine.

Curriculum Associates CEO: Be of service

By SHELAGH BRALEY

N. BILLERICA, Mass.—More tech companies should come pre-loaded with a good “citizen chip,” says Rob Waldron, CEO of Curriculum Associates.

“The important part for all CEOs is, what are they doing with their citizenship? I view the fact that someone chose me to run the company as a little Waldron luck more than anything else. So I have a responsibility to be of service to those that I must lead, including educators, employees and everyone else.”

Waldron, who joined Curriculum Associates in 2008, has grown the 48-year-old print-to-digital education publishing business exponentially. And while expressing surprise that his values would elicit praise, he continues to tout “decent decisions,” like raising minimum wage to $15, as necessary for a successful company culture.

“One way to ensure a civil society is to make sure people who are running businesses have a big citizenship chip in them. I think tech companies should view their work with citizenship in mind, not just maximizing shareholder return,” he says.

He has proven he can do both, with Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready product alone adding another 1 million-plus students to its user base since September (now at 4.2 million total). It adds up to what he calls, “as far as I can tell, the leading edtech company in the United States without taking any outside capital.”

“A lot of people want to start with a product first, then figure out how to sell it. But I knew if we had the distribution, and good service, which this company had, that it would be an important platform, and we could do the product part,” Waldron says in a recent sit-down with FoundersWire. “All of us—the industry wasn’t serving schools as well as we could.”

Growth by values

In the lobby of its enormous headquarters, a huge TV screen flashes the number of students using the i-Ready platform for their lessons. While it adds levity to the space, along with the “study buddy” cartoon characters on the walls, the display also serves as a real-time reminder that providing those children with value, both economic and societal, is the goal—ensuring these students in mostly under-resourced school districts stay competitive and succeed.

CA Hallway Feb 2017

That kind of mission requires leadership, and character that Waldron says began with founder Frank Ferguson, an “optimist” who launched the company in a garage in 1969.

“(Frank is) an optimist, and always has been. He took the long-term view and rejected short-term thinking. He didn’t sell the company and take money out. That takes great character. And having those elements in his company to give the company character, I think, was essential. It’s because we had the values to do it right and get it right … that led to great acceleration,” he says.

READ MORE: Education is personal for Curriculum Associates chief

Now those same values will generate value for future generations, since Curriculum Associates unexpectedly transferred the majority of its ownership to the Iowa State University Foundation in January. When the foundation sells its shares, a percentage of proceeds (reportedly estimated at more than $28 million in value) will also go to the Boston Foundation. “And if I do my job, they’ll be worth more than that,” Waldron says, laughing.

“We decide as CEOs whether we’re going to pollute, whether we’re going to offer bad benefits, whether we’re going to sell technology that doesn’t quite work yet for the classroom,” he says. “People want to know their business leaders have an eye for their citizenship.”

Cracking the ‘engagement’ code

Given the changing needs of this new generation of students, the pressure is on to create personalized, adaptive tools that keep these digital natives tuned in and learning. That requires a delicate balance of gamification and quality content, Waldron says.

“If you just read, your ability to understand that reading and to be able to use complex texts and recall complex texts is much higher. So the problem is that people provide resources like that, but the kids bow out because they get bored. So you have to focus just as much on time-on-task as you do on the efficacy or the pedagogy of how they engage with the content,” Waldron says.

“Some people just focus on these game-based experiences that actually have very little learning.”

The ideal, he says, is providing both in balance, so they’re engaged by both—and then providing choice within that framework. “By giving them more power, we’ve increased time on task and deeper understanding of the content. It’s a matter of letting them decide, rather than being told to do these lessons.”

Associate Product Manager Marilynn Willey, giving a demo of the i-Ready dashboard, says creating this technology is a team effort, digging into the cognitive, behavioral and emotional drivers of student engagement.

“It’s a philosophical question for us: How are we going to take this notion of progress and translate it into something meaningful for (the students)?” she says. “They pay attention, they want to know, ‘How am I doing?’ And so we’re building to give them more detail, they’re little data drivers. Kids do well when they know where they stand.”

Ultimately, it’s up to educators to recognize that although the channel may change, learning is still occurring—just more on the students’ terms and timing.

“What’s funny sometimes is, we want them to be reading. But then you look, and they are reading—it’s just on their phone. It may not be a book, to be fair, it may be an article, but they are reading,” Waldron says.

Agency matters. The amount of technology these kids have gives them agency, where they can find information anywhere, at any speed they want to do it. And if we don’t move at their pace, it just won’t work,” he says. “Children need the motivation to be engaged.”

Newly minted TechStar Voatz goes to Washington

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Blockchain innovator Voatz, fresh off its induction to TechStars Boston program last week, is on its way to shake hands and canvass for support in Washington, D.C.

Co-founder Nimit Sawhney, on his way to the capitol this morning, said TechStars has already made a great impact on his team—making introductions and setting meetings for new potential projects.

“The connections and the network are really unbelievable,” Sawhney said. “Right now, we’re focusing on the political side, trying to do as many pilots with as many local and state government bodies as we can, and political parties with internal elections, too, that’s the focus. TechStars is helping us with that.”

Voatz, the open-source blockchain platform designed for secure, high-volume voting by smartphone, successfully completed its beta with the Massachusetts Democratic primary at the convention, among others, and now, Sawhney says, “They’ve started using it for all of the upcoming elections.” The benefit of smartphone voting, he has said in previous interview with FoundersWire: Making sure every voter feels like his or her vote counts. “Whether it’s for good reason, or just based on people’s perception, having technology that can address … those worries independently: That’s the power of Voatz.”

Voatz also announced yesterday a major partnership with Clear Ballot Group, Inc., to accelerate the introduction of secure remote voting. Clear Ballot, a leader in voting technology and election management innovation, has helped the Voatz team invaluably with real-world voting applications, Sawhney says.

“(Founder and CEO Larry Moore) is an experienced provider of election solutions,” Sawhney says. “He’s also been very interested in looking at blockchain. He has helped us to understand how real elections are conducted by governments. The partnership is about taking it to the next level, where not only do we want to do the mobile side of voting on blockchain, but also even scanning of the paper ballots.

Blockchain for voting results is crucial, Sawhney says, to make elections tamper-proof, and to keep results clean. “Say in the secretary of state’s office, when they transfer the files, it may have human error, say they didn’t zip the files correctly and they’re not secure,” Sawhney says. “Errors or tampering can be quickly identified and corrected if there’s a secure copy on the blockchain. All the votes are safe. That’s the idea, between us in the partnership, to explore possible uses in the real world.”

Meanwhile, Sawhney himself is hitting the campaign trail to meet some major entrepreneur-friendly connections.

“We’re in D.C. this week setting up a bunch of meetings and following up on those,” Sawhney says. “I don’t know how soon we’ll be able to get traction in terms of number of people using (the platform), but TechStars is definitely helping us open doors at a rapid pace.”

One of the doors opening is that of Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado’s 2nd District. A Princeton grad with a long history of public service, Polis served previously on the state Board of Education. But he’s best known as the serial entrepreneur who co-founded American Information Systems (AIS), an early internet access provider, as well as BlueMountain.com, a digital greeting card company, and online florist ProFlowers, which went public in 2003.

The most prescient fact about Polis for Voatz, however, is that he co-founded TechStars in 2006, and the congressman is passionate about technology being used for the greater good. Polis in September launched the first bipartisan congressional blockchain caucus, where lawmakers will focus on learning more about blockchain-based technology and digital currencies.

Ty Danco is working with us, and so we got connected with (Polis), and now we are meeting his staff. They are really excited to know something is happening in blockchain outside of fintech,” Sawhney says. “We’ll see how it goes, but maybe they can help us with Colorado and Arizona, and maybe look at some grants. That’s the plan, we’ll see how that goes.”

When he returns, he and his team of three will work out of the TechStars space at the CIC, until May. “After that, we’ll figure out where we’ll go,” Sawhney says.

That time frame coincides with Demo Day, after which he predicts Voatz’s first significant raise. “Prior to this, we didn’t have any external investment, we’ve been funding through the hackathons we’ve won.” He says the $120,000 from TechStars is a big boost for them now.

“But by May, we’ll raise a formal equity round at that point, and we’ll be in a good position to implement all the projects coming our way.”

Wellist adds industry experts to team

FOUNDERSWIRE FILE PHOTO: Wellist CEO Ashley Reid 

By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—Wellist, the high-profile patient experience solutions provider, announced more growth today, in the form of two key executives who will significantly accelerate the company’s reach.

Joining the team are Sharyn Lee, as vice president of growth, and Erik Hjortshoj as chief technology officer. Both come on board with relevant industry experience to leverage.

“We are proud to be working with some of the leading providers in the country who are committed equally to achieving clinical excellence and improving the patient experience,” says Ashley Reid, founder and CEO, in a statement. “We’re thrilled to be adding such experienced leadership to guide our growing business.

sharyn lee

Reid consistently has shared her view, that the most important quality she looks for in any of Wellist’s hires is an inherent drive to deliver compassionate care.

“We have this incredible moral obligation to deliver something with excellence,” Reid said in a past interview. “The ability to get people who have had these amazing careers to build the next chapter of Wellist is another part of our evolution.”

Lee, a registered nurse and nationally recognized healthcare strategist, brings experience in business development, sales, marketing, medical education and training. She was co-founder and president of the Medical Education Broadcast Network, an Inc 500 award-winner. Lee plans to leverage deep relationships across health plans, academic medical centers and hospitals to acquire new partnerships for Wellist.

Wellist erik

Hjortshoj, who comes to Wellist from Burning Glass Technologies, where he implemented large-scale organizational changes across global teams, delivering machine learning and data solutions to the ed tech and HR tech markets. Previous experience includes stints with American Well and ShapeUp, where he added strategic technical, health IT and product management leadership.

Wellist also announced additions to its board of advisors: Bill Huyett and Andrew DiMichele, whose skills focus on strategic planning and health tech expertise. Huyett a former director with McKinsey and Co., spent 16 years developing corporate strategy and product. He is known as an innovator in the commercialization and marketing of health care, having worked in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Zurich.

DiMichele is the co-founder and CTO of Omada Health, where he developed the technology that propels Omada’s online program. His expertise lies in building high-performance engineering, data science and IT teams.

Wellist clients include Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The award-winning Wellist has been named most innovative technology of the year by MassTLC and a top 50 digital health honoree for diversity leadership by Rock Health. Reid was also recognized for her leadership in the Boston tech ecosystem as a FoundersWire Female Founder of the Week.

Second time is better for BetterSkills founder

Entrepreneur Tanya Bakalov, above center, celebrates her 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award with her fellow Boston-based winners last spring. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a celebration of the Boston-connected women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Tanya Bakalov, serial entrepreneur and founder of BetterSkills, takes this week’s honors for taking on the multifaceted economic problem of understanding, nurturing and retaining the modern work force


By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Entrepreneurship gets easier the second time around, but only if you develop better skills, says serial founder Tanya Bakalov.

This Ernst & Young 2016 entrepreneur of the year started her journey at 23, building a company called SevOne—now one of the biggest startups to ever emerge from the Delaware ecosystem.

“Back that many years ago, ‘startup’ was almost a dirty word. Nobody did a startup, especially not women,” she says. “There was just not an ecosystem that you could tap into.”

Bakalov had come from Bulgaria at 18 to go to the University of Delaware, and graduated with a degree in accounting. “So I thought I was going to be an auditor for all of my life, a CPA. I never thought I was going to be in a startup of any kind.”

She started her career with Deloitte and was working as a consultant and an auditor for Fortune 500 companies. Her husband, also a U of Delaware graduate, was a computer scientist working for a bank when he came up with the idea for SevOne. It wasn’t long before he convinced her to come on board as the salesperson.

“I said, I don’t know anything, I’ve never sold anything in my life. I’m an auditor,” she says, laughing. “But I took the plunge and both of us were like, ‘Well, it’s eat what you kill.’

“You have to make the first sale, you have to make everything happen,” she says. “Little by little, we started getting a few clients, to the point where we started going and pitching to VCs.”

The fund-raising process was not easy, Bakalov remembers, for two young, newlywed entrepreneurs with no experience and no network. “They didn’t take us seriously, even when we had the clients, not at all—because we were young, and married, and immigrants … citizens, but immigrants. They were worried about, ‘Well, are these two people going to survive? If we put our money into this, what’s going to happen?’”

It took time, she says, but they finally got their first funding from Osage Venture Partners, based out of Philadelphia. Over the next 10 years, SevOne went from zero to $90 million in revenue, sold $400 million worth of software to customers all over the world, and expanded the company to more than 500 people.

“I think we’ve been on Inc. 500 as a fastest growth company for five or six years in a row,” she says.

Then the couple sold the majority of the company to Bain Capital here in Boston, where there is still a significant presence, she says.

But something fascinating happened on the way to $90 million in revenue: Bakalov got another idea.

“The idea for BetterSkills was really a combination of a few things I saw, first at Deloitte. You start there right out of college, and it’s an incredible amount of learning that you have to do. You’re surrounded by mentorship, surrounded with different kinds of companies that you serve, and work with different teams,” she says. “You have to have experience in a lot of different areas to be good at what you do.”

Compare that with a traditional company that functions in departments and silos. Bakalov says work can be tracked, but only using many disparate systems.

“So if I’m tracking my training myself, no one else knew what kind of classes I took. My co-workers didn’t know if or when I passed my CPA, didn’t know how many courses I went through, didn’t know who my mentor was, they didn’t know what projects I was doing,” she explains.

“So it was harder for the next project: How would the manager know who you are and what you’re actually doing to grow yourself? How are you going to be competent, how are you going to grow into a senior consultant, manager, senior manager?”

She mapped it all out, and then considered the data that arose from SevOne’s growth. Starting around what she calls the “magic number” of 100 employees and a second office, “all communication and everything that you had known about the people that you worked with went away. So now you’re relying on other people to come in and do those interviews for you and hire the next person.”

The candidate who comes in will be interviewed by three or four people, Bakalov says, “and then at that point, their resume gets chucked in the trash can. The person starts in two weeks, and nobody knows who this person is. How awkward is that? And they know nothing about the people who work around them. Where did they work before? Maybe I went to school with somebody. Or maybe I have common interests. Is there a way I can see that?”

Or maybe you need an employee with a particular skill, like the ability to use a new software that didn’t exist three years ago. “It’s much more important to expose workers to the right set of skills,” Bakalov says. “We don’t want to just put them all in a room and say, “OK, now teach my hundred developers Java.” Maybe half of the people are already experts in Java. Where’s the information about that? Now I’m wasting their time putting them into training they don’t need, and they’re bored, they’re not learning anything. And I’m wasting my money.”

BetterSkills, fresh off a $1 million seed round backed by Bain, is a talent development and analytics platform that solves the problem of how to really know and nurture a company’s work force. It is in beta with a number of clients, slated to launch fully in spring. “What happens after two years is you stagnate, they don’t promote you or they don’t give you a clear path where you really want to go, and so you just leap to another company,” Bakalov says. “You say, ‘They’re not invested in me, so I’m not invested in them.’ But managers don’t have access to the information they need.

“That’s what I’m doing: bringing together the whole of information about an employee, to help people know who’s working for them, and so HR can be a partner in that,” she says.

When the process succeeds, Bakalov says, teams work cohesively, job frustration levels go down, retention levels go up. “And that’s what companies like to see. By making this available through BetterSkills, it’s going to transform work cultures,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, what type of industry you are in, you are paying for people,” she says. “If you think you can get those people to be engaged, to really feel what you are doing, to feel like they’re part of the team and the company cares about them, they will give back much more.”

Having already built a successful company, Bakalov says there still aren’t any short cuts. “Because of all of the years of experience and having access to capital, I’ve shaved two to three years off what SevOne had to go through in its initial stages. Things do happen faster.

“I think it’s just knowing what’s going to happen next, or knowing what are the things I need to do,” she says. The second time around, she just knows better.

Safr, ride sharing for women, rolls out in Boston

Actress and women’s empowerment spokeswoman Alex Kapp, above, will serve Safr as a brand ambassador.

BOSTON—Safr, an innovative new ride-sharing platform for women, today announced the premiere of an invitation-only launch in Boston, with a broader consumer roll out in the Boston market planned for March 1, and market introductions in major U.S. cities to come later this year.

As a service connecting female drivers exclusively with female riders, Safr’s mission is to empower women to participate more fully in the ride-sharing economy.

Since its debut, the ride-sharing economy has rapidly transformed into an $9 billion industry that has experienced unprecedented annual growth, yet women currently account for fewer than one-quarter of drivers on existing ride-sharing platforms and make on average 34 percent less than their male counterparts. Furthermore, fewer women use ride-sharing services as passengers.

“While the flexible schedule and added income would be a great option for many women, they have been reluctant to become ride-sharing drivers because of their concerns about safety,” says Stephanie Sonnabend, former CEO and president of Sonesta Hotels, co-founder of 2020 Women on Boards and Safr board member, in a statement. “Safr wants to change the paradigm in ride-sharing with a platform of women driving women, creating a safe and empowering opportunity for all women.”

With the goal of “empowering its drivers,” Safr says it will offer an equity program, with drivers gaining an increased stake in the company commensurate with their hours of driving and number of driver referrals, relative to their fellow drivers. Safr also says it will offer their first 1,000 drivers a 10 percent company commission lock rate for life, less than half the commission rate for other ridesharing companies.

Safr also says it plans to offer financial planning and other services to drivers “that will further empower them to maximize their financial freedom,” according to this afternoon’s release.

Safr addresses the vulnerability of both passengers and drivers with safety features including a prominent SOS button for both passengers and drivers, a color matching feature that helps passengers and drivers confirm they have connected with the right person before initiating a ride, and a command center that tracks rides in real-time to guard against deviation from a designated route. Safr also says it plants conduct “the most thorough and comprehensive driver background checks as are permitted by law.”

Additionally, Safr says it plans to give back to the communities it serves by donating a portion of proceeds to charitable organizations of importance to its community of drivers and passengers.

Safr has recruited L.A.-based actresses Alex Kapp and Tricia O’Kelley, who starred on CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine, to serve as ambassadors for the brand. As heads of Client Engagement and Experience, Kapp and O’Kelley will represent Safr to external constituencies, educate new drivers and passengers about the service through video content and inform the brand user experience. Both single mothers of two daughters, the actresses are advocates for safety and empowerment.

“We are thrilled to be a part of empowering women to take full advantage of the income-generating opportunities and convenient travel that ride-sharing can offer,” says Kapp in a statement. “Safr eliminates some of the sense of unease women may feel using existing platforms, and provides drivers and passengers a sense of community unmatched by other apps.”

The concept, which has evolved from Chariot for Women to Safr, has been in the research and development phase, focused on the development of the leadership team, app features and driver benefits to bring to market.

The new platform will be available for download in the App Store and Google Play the beginning of next week, and is available for use via invitation only until March 1. For more information on becoming a Safr driver, email community@gosafr.com

Sleepbox launching nap spots around hub

By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE
@char_emslie

BOSTON—Sleepbox is revolutionizing the way the city’s work force gets its beauty rest.

“We’re focusing on that work-life integration,” explains co-founder Peter Chambers. “This new millennial wave of workers really love what they do. They define themselves by that. But that can sometimes lead to overextension. That’s why we’ve loved working with startups: They have a growing number of employees, people that are really passionate and throwing themselves into the work. They respect their jobs, and they expect to get that respect back.”

Shifting the emphasis to balanced, healthy living is key. That’s where Sleepbox, the Russian-designed tiny cabin allowing total privacy, comes in. Enclosed, soundproof, 45-square-foot spaces, they are available in either single (one bed) or double (two bed) compositions. They can be installed in numerous public spaces—offices, hotels, airports, etc. Beyond nap accommodations, there are easy plug-and-play installations, speakers and different colored lighting, enabling the user to tailor the experience to fit their needs. The boxes even come in 20 different colors.

“It’s completely private and modular,” Chambers says. “It’s really a place to relax, meditate, sleep, and refocus yourself during your day. You can go in there and just separate yourself from everything else going on. Recharge.”

Check out Sleepbox’s features HERE.

The Sleepbox founders came up with the idea of sleep cabins in public places during a business trip from hell. “We were stuck in a Paris airport overnight,” says Chambers, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate with a degree in robotics engineering. “People were sleeping on benches. That’s when we realized there was a better way to do it.

sleepbox

Once the idea was launched, Sleepbox’s development took on a strong international focus. CEO Mikhail Krylov and co-founder and chief designer Alexey Goryainov were architects in Russia, with deep backgrounds in design and commercial architecture. Krylov completed a fellowship in architecture at MIT.

“After they came up with the design, we installed a unit at a Moscow hotel a few years ago. We got really good user feedback, so we put a few more in cities like Stockholm.”

The boxes are essentially a melding of the best of both worlds: Home and office. “It’s bringing the benefits of working from home to work,” Chambers says. “I commute from Framingham to Boston. That’s a long drive, and I would get frustrated having to get to the office really early in the morning to avoid traffic. Now, though, I can go into the Sleepbox and rest up for my day. I don’t have to immediately get in front of my computer.”

Sleepbox’s user demographic is wide ranging, targeting millennials but also their older counterparts. “Younger workers can utilize it in both mornings and evenings—they can take a nap before they go out with their friends,” Chambers says. “Parents can rest after their day and before they go home to their kids.”

The creation of the boxes coincided, as Chambers explains, with the increased attention to employee wellness around the world, including a movement led by Huffington Post co-founder and editor in chief Arianna Huffington’s 2016 book, The Sleep Revolution. “There was a real trend developing,” he says. “We were working with a number of companies that were offering wellness programs for their employees, focusing on things like sleep and self-care. More companies were following the Google model of in-office perks.”

The boxes are currently produced in Massachusetts and distributed around the state. “We’re proud of our manufacturing partnership here at home, bringing units to Boston from a local spot,” Chambers says.

“Looking ahead, we’re thinking of rolling out smaller units, ones specifically for office use. We’ve been happy with the feedback so far.”

Wellist wins Rock Health diversity award

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Patient experience solutions provider Wellist this week collected a special award from Rock Health, honoring its team’s diversity leadership in the digital healthcare startup space.

Wellist earned the honor, according to Rock Health, for demonstrating “leadership in diversity, having continually shown their commitment to hiring, supporting and building diverse teams to tackle the most pressing problems facing health care today.”

Rock Health, the West Coast-based venture fund dedicated to digital healthcare improvement, put Wellist in distinguished company, among other stars as Invention of the Year winner Owlstone Medical, Angel of the Year Marc Benioff and Best Performing IPO Evolent Health. Of the special 18 honorees listed on its website, Wellist is the only company hailing from Boston.

Wellist, launched in 2014, creates tools and insight for healthcare providers, while addressing the human needs that result in improved patient satisfaction and outcomes. Wellist team members all share a deep passion for improving the lives of patients and their families, says founder and CEO Ashley Reid.

“When the best hospitals in the country hire Wellist … having a team that reflects the diverse patient populations we serve is simply good business,” she says. “We’re especially proud of winning the diversity leadership award because it is a wonderful reflection of how we live our values of diversity, empathy and inclusion, at Wellist and in the community. Our organization represents a wide range of age, race and gender, but at our core, we all share a deep, personal passion for working together to improve the lives of patients and their families.”

Wellist’s model has evolved since its earliest offerings, Reid says. What once served as an open platform for available services is now fully customized for the hospitals’ specific needs, making it even more targeted and relevant to the patients they serve. “We help hospital clients with customized programs, digital health tools and human services—people on the ground and on the phone—with a proprietary directory of support services that we vet and curate to their specific needs. Reid says the company’s early growth “underscores the importance of problem we’re solving and the traction we’ve seen with some of the best hospitals in the country, like Mass General, Beth Israel and UPMC.”

“We exist to help them alleviate human suffering while improving their performance metrics. They look at Wellist as a solution that can improve across a number of areas … because when you customize the tool, you can actually drive patients to services that already exist in the hospital,” Reid says. “We’ve been able to prove we can drive meaningful value in what the hospital is already invested in.”

Reid says Wellist has been able to measure that 40 percent of frontline medical staff spend anywhere from 10 hours a month up to 20 hours a week “running down nonclinical support,” which has huge impact especially on nurses, social workers and front office staff. “We give clients the tools to fully empower their patients, or we can do it on their behalf. That’s a huge game changer for nurses, social workers and front office staff.”

She points to the correlation between patient satisfaction and the job satisfaction of healthcare workers, where Wellist can help. “Part of the challenge is time constraint, but they get in the care profession because they genuinely want to heal people, and when they are confronted with the suffering on a daily basis but don’t have the tools to alleviate it, it leads to burnout. By giving our clients the tools to help, it heals everybody,” she says.

Data shows 75 percent of healthcare decisions are made by women, which creates a different level of need for gender-balanced teams in health care, Reid says. “We need to be able to get into the lives and minds of our decision makers. When we look at high-risk populations, you have to be able to understand the drivers of their needs. We know 40 percent of outcomes are tied to unmet social needs—and social needs are different for people of different backgrounds. If you don’t have a team that can anticipate the challenges and solutions, you miss it,” she says.

While the Rock Health award validates Reid’s team and company culture, she says the industry has only begun to make the connection between healthcare problem-solving and what diversity can really bring to improving outcomes.

“I’m proud that we have a diverse team, but we didn’t even get into how our team includes caregivers and survivors who have faced really significant health challenges—who take what they have learned and lived to make other people’s lives better. When you are a patient at the front end of that curve, nothing is more helpful than the tangible, practical guidance that someone who’s been there can provide,” Reid says.

She’s proud of Wellist’s culture of inclusion, she says, where everyone feels at home and celebrated. She also questions the impression that diversity is a side operation, rather than a driver of business success.

“It doesn’t have to be that bringing diversity into your organization makes you a less strong, less agile, less successful organization. It’s really enhancing what we’re able to deliver to our clients,” she says. “It’s an accelerant to impact. I hope in the next phase of our journey that we model how diversity and inclusion make us bigger, faster, better. It’s something we just are.”

Reid notes the importance of compassionate healthcare initiatives that do more than just measure data—and in a previous FoundersWire interview shared the pride she feels in those working to solve this problem alongside her. “We have an amazing team. I am blown away by the talent, commitment and creativity of the people who have shown up to make this possible. It is incredibly humbling.”

The Rock Health Top 50 were chosen “for making exceptional progress in driving resources, attention and innovation toward a massively better healthcare system,” according to the award website.

Wellist was also the winner of the MassTLC award for most innovative health tech of the year, just this past September. The award cited Wellist’s meaningful achievements in the area of patient data and healthcare insights.

“We won a diversity award and two more for the performance of our business in the same quarter. We’ve built a model that really works, so we can help hospital clients better understand the challenges they face, while meaningfully improving lives of patients and their families,” Reid says. “That’s pretty powerful.”

Hub style blogger wins VIP Night Out in Style

BOSTON—The holiday just got a little brighter for Hub couple Bridgette Hunt and Adam Alpert.

“We never win anything,” says Hunt, accepting her VIP Holiday Night Out in Style package, courtesy of Date My Wardrobe, Own the Boardroom and BeautyLynk, local fashion tech companies that pulled together to co-sponsor FoundersWire’s contest.

Hunt, a style blogger herself at chicbeatblog.com, is in particular position to enjoy some pampering, and is excited to try these services. “We cannot wait for our big date night,” she says.

The couple, engaged last Valentine’s Day, have an April wedding planned—and this night out will be good practice, as Hunt will receive an in-home makeup and hair session from a BeautyLynk stylist, as well as $200 worth of rented couture from Date My Wardrobe. Alpert will sport a fashionable suit from a big-name designer rented from Own the Boardroom.

Once they’re all prepped to party, the couple will be transported to Del Frisco’s on the water to enjoy a celebratory, romantic dinner for two.

For your chance to enter exciting contests from FoundersWire and its partners, subscribe right now to On the Wire Today.

Consent is cool for Let’s Be Clear team

By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE
@char_emslie

BOSTON—For one sartorial startup, bringing the topic of sexual consent into the mainstream is as easy as choosing the right t-shirt.

Let’s Be Clear is pioneering the movement, and they’re doing it with the help of everyone’s favorite clothing staple.

Launched six months ago, the platform raises social awareness about safe and healthy sexual conduct through conscious apparel and consent education.

“We’ve been live for close to six months, so we’re still very much in our infancy, says Kara Wernick, head of development and education. “We’re looking to ramp up and secure support outside of our immediate circle.”

Kickstarter has been valuable in securing that support: With eight days to go, the campaign has raised more than $16,000, and needs $10,000 more to meet its goal.

“In the public sphere, people are starting to recognize our apparel,” Wernick says. The soft, stylish t-shirts, tanks and sweatshirts promote awareness through catchphrases like “Not Yours,” “Explicit” and “Stand With Survivors.”

DONATE TO LET’S BE CLEAR’S KICKSTARTER HERE.

Now in the process of really taking off, the business is, as Wernick explains, a self-sustaining model. “The apparel generates profits, which we then put into the education component. It relieves some of the fundraising pressure by allowing us to rely on our own work.”

With sexual assault at the forefront of college campus issues, education around consent is more important than ever. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that a shocking one in five women will be assaulted at some point in their college career. The threat is also there for men, but less so—one in 16 experience some form of sexual violence, according to the NSVRC. Societally we’ve also seen numerous assaults where, like in this summer’s case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who raped an incapacitated student, alcohol has made consent nonexistent.

In less extreme situations, though, the mere lack of education about what constitutes consent can lead to dangerous outcomes. The rules surrounding hooking up and general sexual conduct can be murky, especially for young people thrown into the brand new environment of college.

That’s where Let’s Be Clear is looking to make a difference. “It’s truly about developing the conversation,” Wernick explains. “Treating consent as a positive, normalizing it. It’s such a necessary component of all relationships and interactions.”

The lack of conversation can simply be from discomfort with the topic. “Consent doesn’t need to be this scary, inaccessible concept,” Wernick reasons. “We’re really trying to make it as straightforward as possible. We want to make sure that people have all the tools they need.”

Successful consent education, however, requires understanding the audience you’re speaking to. “Our set of workshops is designed for all populations,” Wernick says. “We run them for universities, businesses, sports teams, parents of elementary, middle, and high school kids. It’s important to tailor language to each of those audiences. The way a parent would talk to a child about body autonomy and sense of self is different than how we’d discuss consent with 18-year-old college students.”

The Let’s Be Clear team met and formed at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “Our own personal backgrounds with consent education started there. Rachel (Verner), our founder, was the sexual assault team response manager on campus,” Wernick says. “We all had individual experience running workshops at fraternities and other places at school. We’ve gradually built on that to develop the program we have now.”

The inspiration for the clothing line was born from Wesleyan’s annual fashion show. “Rachel and a few others came up with consent-themed underwear to display in the show,” Wernick says. “They were really well received and sold out quickly.”

That positive response is what made Verner and the rest of the team recognize the potential of the apparel in furthering the consent conversation. The T-shirt, being such a cultural staple, is the perfect conversation starter. “It’s a universal, visible article that,” Wernick says. “It makes the conversation relevant to general dialogue, not just individual interactions.”

Looking ahead, the goal is simple: Keep developing that conversation. “Seeing success at the local level has allowed us to build on that,” Wernick says. “Long term, we want to create a widespread network of schools and online resources, alongside high-quality apparel.”

Precise Portions weighs in on healthy holiday menu

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Ann-Marie Stephens, co-founder of Precise Portions, wants you to reimagine your holiday feast, replete with surprises that will satisfy and save your health.

Both a foodie of the highest order and a former Procter & Gamble engineer, Stephens and her co-founder/husband, Ed, focus on helping families make healthier eating decisions.

But how does that work when you’re getting ready to host a holiday meal, full of traditions and palates crying for old, fatty favorites?

“You can surprise your family as to how fantastic holiday eating can be and still be healthy. It’s the debunking of a myth: It’s not going to taste good if it’s healthy,” Stephens says.

Precise Portions, a MassChallenge 2016 finalist, launched a complete nutrition program for adults in 2010. Stephens and her husband come from families that have struggled with diabetes, so they were used to coaching around food choices.

“We finally said, ‘At P&G, we are trained to improve people’s lives, so guess what, that’s what we’re going to do,’ ” she says. The American Diabetes Association has vetted the Precise Portion line of products and has been selling them since 2011, and starting in January 2017, Wegmans Supermarkets will carry them as well.

The founders couldn’t help but turn their focus to the epidemic of diabetic children, Stephens says. “If you look at the trends, childhood diabetes is a global problem … it’s about families being on the go, they don’t have time. The impact of those choices is that children are terrifically obese, and the long-term health implication of that is huge. So we decided to become part of the intervention.” Now Precise Portions offers a line of nutrition programs and products for children as young as 2.

Bringing families together is a hallmark of the holiday season, and food is at the center of it all. So how does Stephens keep it together health-wise?

“There are a couple of things that people have a hard time with—two that are really critical. In order to eat healthier, (people think), ‘I’m not going to have food I love any more.’ You can absolutely have food that you love, you just have to find better ways to do it. Second is the belief that the plates are smaller, so I’ll always be starving. So the mind change is you’re going to be deliberate,” she says.

“People eat with their eyes,” Stephens says. “When you have super powerful visuals of colorful, beautiful foods with rich spices, they start salivating. They begin to imagine the journey we’re going to take them on, and the foods we’re going to surprise them with,” Stephens says.

“Let’s start a new tradition, and make it delightful and memorable—all of the things we love about the holidays.” Here are six tips for keeping you and your family healthy and happy at the table this holiday season.

1. Offer snacks

“You’re going to be grazing,” Stephens says. “So you’re going to have snacks laid out: vegetable crudité, cut-up fruit, cheese, nuts, you’re going to have more variety. So when the meal finally comes out, you’re not starving.”

She also recommends a soup course. It’s fancy, but also filling, which helps to balance your calorie intake. “Always start the main meal with a chicken-broth based soup, because it’s so high in protein. By the time you get to the main course, you don’t want to be starving. If you are, you’re going to eat everything in sight. If the soup is high protein and high fiber, it’s satiating.”

TRY A FRESH CRANBERRY SAUCE ALTERNATIVE

2. Go overboard with vegetables

The traditional picture has the turkey as the centerpiece. In this new, healthy holiday menu planning, Stephens says to start with non-starchy vegetables. “Instead of having the most variety around the meat and carbs, we want the most variety around the non-starchy vegetables,” Stephens suggests.

If you serve a salad course, “by the time you get to the main course, no one is going to want to eat that much. Then you can say, ‘Eat as much as you want!’ ” Stephens says. “We are playing psychologist here, we are tricking the body.”

JOIN THE SALAD REVOLUTION WITH LOVELEAF’S LUSCIOUS SQUASH SALAD

For the main meal, “Have at least three or more non-starchy vegetable options: salad, string beans, collard greens—go for three to five options,” Stephens says. “By default, people are going to eat what they see. We can just change what’s on that table, we don’t have to say a word,” Stephens says.

3. Adjust the plate size

Stephens says controlling portion size in addition to changing the foods offered can save more than 200 calories per plate. “It’s the portioning of foods that makes a huge difference,” she says.

Precise Portions offers a line of attractive place-settings that subtly address portion control. To keep a handle on calorie consumption, Stephens says, consider the amount of calories on an 11-inch plate for protein alone: “On average, that’s about 500-600 calories,” Stephens says. “It really adds up.”

4. ’Tis the season for seasoning

Using flavorful spices is an effective trick for your starchy vegetables, Stephens says. Ginger, cumin, cinnamon: Pick your favorites and be generous with these rich, aromatic spices.

“We all love sweet potatoes, but let’s not go with marshmallow version, let’s go with ginger,” Stephens suggests. “It’s so sweet, it’s got so much junk. I want to make a big sign that says, ‘Don’t do this!’ and show sweet potatoes with marshmallow with a big X over it. Let’s just bake a dozen and cut them in half. They are totally sweet enough. And then there’s the perfect holiday spices—savory over sweet.”

COMPLETE YOUR HOLIDAY MENU WITH THIS COLORFUL LOCAL HAITIAN COLE SLAW

5. Rethink the centerpiece

“When we think of health, we think of calories, sometimes we think about food choices, but we don’t think about nutrients. We don’t have front and center what the body needs,” Stephens says. The key to keeping a holiday meal reasonable is limiting the amount of meats you offer. “Culturally, we have a habit of starting meal planning with the protein, the meat. We start there and say, we’ll have chicken or pork or ham or beef roast. I like to serve a fish and a poultry option, like turkey. You don’t have to do your ham with pineapple and sugar. Let’s skip the ham and go with turkey,” she says.

But good gravy, you can’t skip it, right?!

“I think we have to allow for gravy,” Stephens says. “But instead of cream, you just need a little drippings for flavor. And when you serve it, you ought to have a small serving spoon, so people aren’t taking a huge ladle of it. A little bit is not a problem.”

6. Get your just desserts

Desserts are an important part of our celebration, Stephens acknowledges, but recommends slight changes to keep the nutrition high. “How about pie crust out of almond flour? It’s nut-based, and it’s high protein. Then do more fruit and nuts, but instead of fruit and flour and lots of sugar, you can do cranberries and apples and walnuts in an almond pie crust,” she says.

And don’t forget the beverages: “Cider, wine, champagne … you’re still going to celebrate,” Stephens says, “but now I’ve given you an extra 200 calories to play with.”

So you’ll have your health to be thankful for.

Try this cranberry relish to boost fiber

The 2016 Global Nutrition Report recently revealed that 44 percent of countries are “now experiencing very serious levels of both malnutrition and obesity, with one out of three people suffering from malnutrition in some form.”

“This has two arms,” says Precise Portions founder Ann-Marie Stephens. “Those who are starving for food, they will eat anything, there’s no way they can have good nutrition. And those who are obese, we are also malnourished, because we aren’t eating what our bodies need. People overeat—too much fat, too much protein, not enough fiber,” she says.

Changing the cranberry sauce we serve for Thanksgiving is one small change that would make a big difference in nutrition, she says. “I would like to see people prepare their cranberries from scratch, we want people to introduce the fiber. By boiling your own cranberries and orange peel, yes, you’re going to sweeten it because they’re impossibly tart, but you’re introducing more fiber.

She shared a variation on a recipe she uses herself. “This one is more like a relish and it uses crystallized ginger. This one is really special.”

CRANBERRY TANGERINE RELISH

Modified from an epicurious recipe, yields 3 cups

Ingredients:

1 12-oz. bag fresh cranberries
1 6-oz. tangerine (unpeeled), halved, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces
¾ c. sugar
½ c. coarsely chopped crystallized ginger (about 2½ ounces)

Instructions:

Using on/off turns, coarsely chop washed cranberries in food processor. Transfer to medium bowl. Using on/off turns, coarsely chop tangerine in food processor. Combine with cranberries. Mix in sugar. Cover and refrigerate overnight. (Can be made up to a week in advance. Keep refrigerated. Serve cold or at room temperature.)

—SHELAGH BRALEY

 

Win a VIP holiday night out in style

Celebrate the holidays in style with FoundersWire, BeautyLynk, Date My Wardrobe and Own the Boardroom. One lucky couple will get gorgeous, courtesy of our professional stylists and designers, then take it into town for a high-style photo shoot and romantic dinner for two.

ENTER HERE FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN or find us on Instagram and Facebook to share.

Winners must sign up for sponsors’ services, be available for choosing outfits locally in Boston the week of Dec. 1, 2016, and able to collect all prizes the evening of Dec. 9, 2016, as dinner reservations are available. Boston area only. 

NO PURCHASE IS NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A PURCHASE DOES NOT INCREASE THE CHANCES OF WINNING.

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  3. Campaign Period: Entries will be accepted online starting on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, 10 a.m. EST and ending Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 noon EST. All online entries must be received by Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, 10 p.m. EST.
  4. How to Enter: The Campaign must be entered by submitting an entry HERE. The entry must fulfill all Campaign requirements, as specified, to be eligible to win a prize. Entries that are incomplete or do not adhere to the rules or specifications may be disqualified at the sole discretion of FoundersWire. You may enter only once. You must provide the information requested. You may not enter more times than indicated by using multiple email addresses, identities, or devices in an attempt to circumvent the rules. If You use fraudulent methods or otherwise attempt to circumvent the rules, your submission may be removed from eligibility at the sole discretion of FoundersWire.
  5. Prizes: The Winner(s) of the Campaign (the “Winner”) will receive hair and makeup done by BeautyLynk for the event, woman’s designer dress and accessories from local designer chosen by Date My Wardrobe, man’s designer suit from Own the Boardroom, a gift certificate for dinner for two at Del Frisco’s on Northern Avenue, Boston, and transportation from one location to the restaurant, all valued at approximately $1,000. Actual/appraised value may differ at time of prize award. The specifics of the prize shall be solely determined by FoundersWire. Winners must follow process and timeline determined by sponsors to access services from each participating company. Date My Wardrobe rentals exclude bridal attire. Winner must be available to choose outfits the week of Dec. 1, 2016 for sizing and styling, at the discretion of the stylists, and be available to redeem all services and dinner on the evening of Dec. 9, 2016 when reservations allow. No cash or other prize substitution shall be permitted. The prize is nontransferable. Any and all prize-related expenses, including without limitation any and all federal, state, and/or local taxes, shall be the sole responsibility of Winner. No substitution of prize or transfer/assignment of prize to others or request for the cash equivalent by Winner is permitted. Acceptance of prize constitutes permission for FoundersWire to use Winner’s name, likeness, and entry for purposes of advertising and trade without further compensation, unless prohibited by law.
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Alyce the gift bot solves your corporate giving problems

By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE

BOSTON—Corporate holiday gifting: It’s an art form, but one that many companies unfortunately miss the mark on. Sending personal gifts that clients truly enjoy requires the proper research, and the truth is, many company agents simply don’t have the time. Thus, come December, it’s a never-ending stream of fruit baskets.

With the holidays on fast-forward soon, the scramble nearly is on. The challenge, though, is that the person in charge of buying gifts for clients often doesn’t know them or their interests well enough to select gifts they’ll genuinely like.

This season, there’s Alyce, an AI-powered corporate gifting platform that harnesses publicly available social data to narrow in on the best gift ideas for either a company or an individual. The process is streamlined and user-friendly: Plug in the recipient’s information and budget, and Alyce taps into its marketplace of more than 15,000 options from more than 2,000 brands to select the top suggestions it thinks a particular client will like. Just pick the recipient, date and add a personalized message. The platform handles ordering, shipping and reporting. Shopping: DONE. Alyce also allows recipients to exchange or donate the gifts they receive.

Founder Greg Segall, an early ecommerce driver who grew his agency, One Pica, to acquisition in 2012, explains how the platform is the perfect intersection of creativity and efficiency. “People want to send more personalized gifts, and they do come up with some semi-creative ideas,” he says. “But this way, you don’t have to do it all, Alyce can do it and find something really special.”

Launched in 2015, Alyce isn’t a newcomer to the Boston scene. But the team has grown to include six people and has taken on such big-time clients as Verizon and JLL. They’ve also gained significant exposure and accolades in the tech community, winning Boston’s Big IDEA 2016.

What makes the practice of corporate gift giving such an important focus is that it forges ties on a personal level, Segall says. Companies work hard to retain and nurture ongoing client relationships—especially the ones that have the budgets to do so. Nurturing those relationships requires going beyond generic, faceless gifts. A person is going to be touched by a personalized gesture—one that they can tell a lot of thought was put into, Segall says.

Firsthand experience with less-than-perfect gift giving is what inspired him to create the platform. When he first started envisaging Alyce, he was still working in the corporate world—and constantly receiving gifts insensitive to his interests. “They all knew I was a health nut, and I’m also Jewish. But every single holiday, I’d get a bunch of Moosemunch, and chocolate, Merry Christmas,” he says, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Guys, we’ve known each other for seven years. Take a second to personalize this.’ ”

The explosion of social media data has made that kind of customer information a hundred times more accessible. Segall explains how the increase in everyone’s online presence has made a service like Alyce possible. “This couldn’t have happened four or five years ago. But now everyone has a footprint online, whether it’s a bio or a Pinterest or even a LinkedIn account. All that information is available.”

It’s available, and Alyce is utilizing it. “Ninety-five percent of the time we find what we’re looking for.”

Alyce also has built a robust revenue model, which Segall says breaks down into “three main doors”: human resources, companies that gift year-round and sales prospects. “HR has the budget for customer gifts,” he says. “With prospects especially, there’s a lot of different possibilities for standing out if you get your foot in the door.”

The platform was in private beta until recently, and in anticipation of a big season, now it’s fully public. “This is a marketplace that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Segall says. Merchants sign up to be shown on the platform in exchange for free brand impressions. Customers directly pay the cost of the gift, no more. And, if someone does buy, the merchant pays a transaction fee to Alyce.

Segall says he knew he was onto something last holiday season when one out of every two Alyce gift recipients became customers themselves. “All of a sudden, it just took off. The holidays just go up to scale,” he says.

The unique quality of the chosen gifts can actually save companies money, he says. “So when Snapchat is doing their corporate gifting, one of these guys has this bunny that he takes 500 pictures of,” Segall says. “Alyce showed me: Here’s a custom ink drawing of anyone’s pet for $35. That’s going to go so much further (with a client) than if I spent $100 on a gift basket.”

It’s all in the personalization. Segall points to the client who moved his company from Chicago to San Francisco, so Alyce sent him four-deep dish pizzas. “That’s the key behind the whole thing, you have to know someone to send a meaningful gift,” he says.

Giving back to the community—particularly during the holiday season—is one of Alyce’s top priorities. Partnering with Toys for Tots, a Marine Corps Reserve toy distribution charity, they’ve constructed a program that builds on their existing mission to donate 1 percent of their annual revenue to charity. “Our goal is donate 2,500 gifts this season to Toys For Tots,” donating one to a child in need for every toy bought,” says Andres Alayza, Alyce marketing lead.

He explains the Toys for Tots choice: “Toys for Tots isn’t a charity that needs a million-dollar donation from a company to make a drastic impact. It creates a message of hope that will assist (the kids receiving the toys) in becoming responsible, productive, patriotic citizens.

“In the same way, Alyce’s mission is to deliver a moment of true happiness, every time.”

The Mortgage Industry’s Binary Problem

Do you have a Higher Calling to share? Why do you solve the problem we’re facing, and what impact do you see it having on our society? Please share HERE.


By PATRICK BOYAGGI

In order to keep up with today’s on-demand economy, companies are innovating and evolving faster than ever. Consumers are getting access to better products and services, and paying less for them. So why is it that people are still financing their homes the same way that their grandparents did decades earlier?

One reason the mortgage industry has failed to innovate is because of what I refer to as the industry’s “Binary Problem.” Specifically, this is the mindset that in order to get one thing, it has to be at the expense of another. For example:

  • If you want speed, then you have to pay higher costs
  • If you want high touch service, then you have to interact with a human
  • If you want low rates, then you can’t expect a personal relationship

This mindset has pervaded the industry for years and is the excuse offered up by mortgage lenders in order to justify assigning a fee to every aspect of the transaction. Moreover, because getting a mortgage is an infrequent occurrence, mortgage lenders are able to position themselves as “experts” and consumers feel resigned to accept their offerings.

The time for change has come, though. We’ve learned from other industries that the outcome does not have to be binary. Moreover, technology can serve as the great equalizer, allowing innovative companies to create products and services that let consumers “have their cake and eat it, too.”

RateGravity is redefining how consumers finance their homes. Here’s how we’re doing this:

  1. We’ve eliminated the need for the mortgage salesperson whose commission drives up borrowers’ interest rates by as much as .50 percent. Our software allows consumers to bypass the salesperson whose role as gatekeeper costs the consumer tens of thousands of dollars in excess interest.
  2. We make it simple to search for personalized rates from multiple lenders. These are not generic quotes, but instead firm offers of credit that are personalized for your specific transaction. Today, three out of four consumers apply with just one lender, which means they often miss out on securing a loan with better terms.
  3. We partner with local lenders that are highly regarded by consumers and realtors. All of the lenders in our network return the savings that come from partnering with RateGravity back to the consumer in the form of a lower interest rate, saving tens of thousands of dollars.
  4. We bring transparency to what has been a historically opaque industry. We use our independent position to provide personalized and unbiased educational content. Traditional mortgage salespeople are incentivized to prevent shopping and promote their “expertise,” not do what is best for the consumer.
  5. RateGravity is paid the same fee (0.25 percent of the loan amount) by all lenders in our network. This allows us to negotiate and advocate for the consumer without any bias unlike the existing model where the consumer has no insight into how much the mortgage salesperson is paid.

Consumers deserve better and RateGravity is offering a new way to finance your home.


If you’d like to experience it for yourself, you can go to rategravity.com. To complete your profile online or speak with a personalized mortgage concierge who will help facilitate your experience.

Polis: Door knocking brings voters to polls

The Polis team celebrating at MassChallenge Awards last week. FOUNDERSWIRE STAFF PHOTO

By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE

BOSTON—The world is waiting to know who will be the next president of the United States. But first, voters have to feel motivated to cast their ballots.

Polis, the app for political campaigning and door-to-door sales, suggests an old-fashioned approach that still drives results, says founder Kendall Tucker.

After working on political campaigns since the age of 16, Tucker narrowed in on this pivotal truth: Door-knocking gets results. “By far, the most effective way to win a campaign is to knock on people’s doors. We call this having a field campaign, hiring canvassers and having them go to likely voters’ doors and talk to them,” she explains. “They feel listened to, it builds trust. But that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

Canvassers can use Polis to input lead prospects and generate ideal routes based on set objectives, thus enabling them to maximize their time by targeting specific voter neighborhoods. At the doors, data from conversations is easily inputted and tracked.  Individual canvassers’ stats are also tracked and consolidated—the number of doors you’ve knocked on, the number of conversations had, the ratio of supporters versus opposers of a particular candidate or product, and so on. Campaign or sales organizers are then able to use this data to further strategize.

In the political sector, Polis (both a TechStars alum and 2016 MassChallenge finalist) has seen exceptional growth. “As a political company, we’ve worked with 85 campaigns, including both independent candidates for president, Jill (Stein) and Gary (Johnson).

Its model doesn’t stop at political campaigning but extends to private sector sales. This, according to Tucker, is no coincidence: “We started as political company, but now we also work in door-to-door sales, particularly solar and telecommunications. These kinds of companies are often run by former political people; you can see the private sector taking their cues from the political sector.”

Tucker’s door-knocking realization was discovered partly through analysis of what didn’t work. Campaign organizers spend endless time and money on more glamorous or traditional avenues. “I was frustrated that instead of building amazing field campaigns, we saw campaigns spend $1 billion on TV ads,” Tucker explains. “They’ve done studies—TV ads, unless they’re run every week, they have zero effect on voters. It’s a tremendous spend for very low payout.”

Similarly, phone calls were a popular but ineffective avenue. “When I was running campaigns, they always wanted to do the phones, and I would tell them over and over: Not only are phone calls not effective, 50 percent of Americans don’t even have home phones anymore. There are too many restrictions on cell phones now. Phone banks’ effectiveness has gone way down, call screening killed it.”

The forgettable and impersonal nature of the phone, though, is the ultimate killer. “Who answers the phone anymore?” Tucker asks. “I don’t, absolutely not. I was super frustrated, and I wanted to send people to doors. But there wasn’t really effective technology to make that work.”

That’s where door-knocking has particular personal power. Not only is it memorable, you can’t “hang up” on a door-knocker the way you can a caller. “When you recognize someone else as a person who cares about something, even if you don’t agree or want to buy their product, there’s still a social nicety of saying, thanks for coming. It’s almost impossible to look someone in the eye and be rude—that’s what makes it so effective.”

Who are the most effective Polis canvassers? “Our point of view is millennials and retirees are definitely the biggest volunteer groups, they’re engaged in that way,” Tucker explains. “They were there for Bernie Sanders, and they’ve been there for the other campaigns as well.”

This innovative ability to reach potential voters—voters you might not normally find—is the real game changer. “For Gov. Johnson’s campaign, they’re targeting voters who are frustrated Republicans. For Bernie supporters and independents, anyone who’s looking for a change in politics,” Tucker says. “The Johnson campaign has well over 50,000 volunteers, but the problem with traditional technology and door knocking is there’s no way staffers can generate routes for all of them. So the really cool thing about Polis is anyone who supports Gary Johnson can download our app and it will automatically tell them where to go and what doors to knock on. And then the campaign can monitor what you’re up to.”

Polis is focused on engaging voters and boosting voter turnout. “Ultimately I think our country is best served when everyone turns out to vote, and we do have a problem with disenfranchised voters,” Tucker acknowledges.

How can this be remedied? “There’s a get-out-the-vote initiative, or GOTV. The nature of the conversation of any campaign at this point is, ‘Do you know there’s an election on Tuesday, what’s your plan to vote? We’ve found, historically, the most effective way to get people to the polls is to get them to have a plan. It’s the highest voting indicator of … logistics, like (if you’ll vote) when you drive your kids to school on or on the way to work.”

That’s the key takeaway, Tucker asserts. There’s a lack of action, not a lack of passion. “As much as they’re upset about the election, people are paying attention,” Tucker explains. There’s a lot to care about. There are a lot of societal problems. Whatever side you’re on, you feel the need for change. I think this election could be the highest voter turnout we’ve ever seen.”

Tucker says the team is excited to watch the numbers as election results roll in. “And we’ll be watching the number of doors we knock in the lead-up to the election and the day after, too,” she says. “Just because you won an election doesn’t mean you should stop listening to your voters. We see this as a movement, not just something that ends on Tuesday.”

To find out where your polling place is here tomorrow, CLICK HERE.

MassChallenge celebrates winners at 7th annual awards

By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—The incubator known around the world for “helping entrepreneurs win” handed out more than $1.5 million in equity-free prizes to 16 of them tonight. The seventh annual MassChallenge Boston Awards recognized the best of Boston’s innovation community at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center—the culmination of another year of catalyzing growth.

“I’m so proud to announce this year’s winning startups, which have leveraged our global network of resources, mentors, partners, and more to truly change the world,” said Scott Bailey, managing director of MassChallenge Boston, who has been with the program since its inception in 2010. “Tonight is not only a celebration of them, but of all our startups and key players across the ecosystem who have made a commitment to work together in order to create enormous impact.”

Speaker Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani yogurt, spoke to the growing companies like members of the same club, founder-to-founder, offering lessons in leadership and compassion: “Reset the tone,” he said. “As entrepreneurs, our behavior every day determines how our companies will be.”

Big Diamond winners of $100,000 each included Adhesys Medical, EYL and Telluslabs, handed out by the Deshpande Foundation.

Prizes of $75,000 went to Analytic Space and TapLink, while MassChallenge alumni Sensulin, Localytics and FreshPaper awarded $50,000 prizes to 3D Fortify, BeautyLynk, BrainRobotics, Cool Composites, Joulez, RateGravity, Tranquilo, Sea Machines Robotics, Signature Orthodontics, Tembo Education and Whole Heart Provisions.

In-kind silver winners were AR Spirit, Battery Resourcers, Coeo Labs, Electra Vehicles, Farmer Willie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer, Luminopia, Neuromotion, Polis, QSM Diagnostics and Solstice.

An extra category was added this year—the CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology in Space, which awarded $500,000 total to three startups working on research projects on the International Space Station. Those winners were Angiex, Inc., Dover Life Sciences and LambdaVision.

“We have come a long way since 2010 when we ran our first accelerator in Boston,” said John Harthorne, founder and CEO of MassChallenge. “We now have accelerators in five countries and growing, and have helped accelerate over 1,200 startups. They are truly making an impact on the world, addressing some of the world’s biggest problems through innovation and creating jobs of the future.

“This is only the beginning, and I’m excited to watch what our alumni continue to accomplish in the years to come,” he said.


Charlotte Emslie contributed to this report.

Captain goes from war zone to DropZone for Veterans

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a celebration of the women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Courtney Wilson, founder of DropZone for Veterans, takes this week’s honors for her commitment to serving her country and her fellow veterans, by making sure they get the available services they need and deserve.

We also continue our spotlight on some of the innovations our military servicemen and women are creating, in honor of Veteran Small Business Week. If you are a veteran working on a startup or if you know of one (even after VSBW ends), please let us know RIGHT HERE.


By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—Courtney Wilson, as a United States Army engineer, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her service in Afghanistan. Now she’s applying her tactical and technical expertise to help other veterans find the services available to them.

“I want the focus on veterans, I want them to be able to be the best version of themselves,” Wilson says. “In the military, we have to have a level of uniformity, it’s what keeps us alive. In the civilian world, you have the chance to be anyone you want. If they want to go become a Fortune 500 CEO or hike the Appalachian Trail, I want them to do that. If they have to go to healing retreat first, I want them to do that. I want them to continue to do excellent things, just in a different environment.”

There are 21.8 million veterans in America, and tens of thousands of free and low-cost programs available to them, including coding bootcamps, LinkedIn premium accounts, five-day healing retreats and more. They run the gamut from personal, professional, financial and emotional benefits. But research shows less than half of veterans ever capitalize on those programs—mostly because veterans don’t know they exist.

DropZone for Veterans, a platform that aggregates all the free and low-cost services offered to military personnel and their families, is making those opportunities transparent. It works like Groupon, Wilson says, especially in terms of finding programs locally and nationally, with more than 50,000 benefits already catalogued.

One of the biggest issues for veterans when they do find services is discerning whether they qualify or if the program will fit their needs, Wilson says. DropZone’s mission is to ensure all veterans find these programs, and then present those that are most relevant for each member of the varied veteran population.

“So many people trying to help veterans,” says Wilson. “Helping any demographic of America, that’s hard enough, then layer on top of that: Is this person post-9/11? Is it a Vietnam veteran? My dad was a male, enlisted Marine during Vietnam. I’m female, post-9/11 and I’m a combat veteran. What’s available to me and what will be helpful for me is going to be completely different. No war is the same, no veteran is the same. What we all having in common is serving this country, but beyond that we’re pretty diverse.”

Wilson, who recently placed second in the HUBWeek Beantown Throwdown pitch competition, is a Babson MBA candidate and also a member of this year’s WIN Lab cohort. She also came in third in the Vets in Tech hackathon at Facebook headquarters in San Francisco.

In her military career, she was a platoon leader who led more than 100 combat missions throughout southern Afghanistan, constructing main supply routes for NATO forces. Now she’s leading a team to scale DropZone—because it’s addressing an obvious need that many in the tech world can easily get behind.

courtneywilsondropzone1

“This is one of the reasons I know I can make DropZone a success,” she says. “When I first started, I found someone who believed in our mission, he is a Ph.D. at MIT, he helped me out for free because he believed in our mission. He was so good, I brought him on as CTO. For our initial prototype, people just donated their time.”

Wilson says she knew DropZone could add value to both the veteran community and the business that want to serve them. “Platforms are everything,” she says. “Look at Amazon, Yelp, Groupon … no one should not be doing single marketing anymore. No one wants to do that, people want to see all their options at once and make a choice. This has been done before, just not in this industry.”

While DropZone works on an affiliate model, Wilson is also exploring the value of firsthand information and connections to the greater veteran buyer demographic. DropZone works on referral fees built into all the goods and services veterans buy, but Wilson sees a greater market opportunity in connecting brands to this particular consumer group.

“This is going to end up being our main value: being able to offer strategic marketing planning to companies that don’t understand the veteran landscape at all. They don’t see the potential of connecting with the veteran buying group.

“When you look at the military as a vertical … products have to be good. When we deploy, we have to be ready to move quickly—(most companies) have never thought of that vertical because they’ve never deployed, they can’t see it,” Wilson says.

From a financial perspective, companies that sign on for the platform get increased brand awareness and a direct line to the veterans that need and want their offerings.

“All the companies I’ve talked to, it means so much to them to be able to support veterans. It’s an honor and a privilege and they love it,” Wilson says. “On both sides, they just gain an awareness.”

They gain increased market share, too: She points to the Under Armour brand and its expansion into the military market, with its Under Armour Freedom initiative, which offers a 10 percent discount to active duty service members, veterans and first responders, and also gives a hoo-rah from those who wear the gear as a sign of support for those who defend our country at home and abroad.

“When Under Armour connected with the military community, their revenue increased 30 percent,” she says, plus 70 percent new customers and a significant increase in positive sentiment toward the brand on social media.. “It’s not just, hey, there’s this opportunity, and here’s exactly how you get it. We are going to be able to go to a company and say, here’s a list of all the veterans, here are the most popular influencers … having all that information is very valuable to a company.”

She also appreciates how DropZone for Veterans is connecting disparate sides of our nation, between those who serve and those who don’t—but who might use their businesses as a vehicle to show their support for them.

“There’s a huge military-civilian divide. People who haven’t served feel bad, and veterans doubt their value in the civilian world. But both sides should realize that they’re amazing and valuable, in their own right. When you bring those two groups together, they’re unstoppable,” she says.

“This is about bringing all sides together as a whole. We’re building community and taking down that divide of us versus them.”


Through such programs as Veteran Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Association provides veterans, active duty service members, Guard and Reserve members and military spouses the entrepreneurial training and education programs, business technical assistance counseling, special access to capital programs and federal procurement training and access to opportunities they need to create their own opportunities. Share these stories on Twitter at #MyVetBiz to show support to veterans and their families. Learn more about SBA veteran initiatives here.

Level up at this week’s events

Every week is brimming with events here in Boston that are just as fun as they are beneficial to your career. Its’ November now: There’s no better time to level up and dive into some of the city’s networking, tech, and entrepreneurship events. Here are some options:

Today, Nov. 2: Fall Pitching + Free Capital Raising Workshop, hosted by Convean, 177 Huntington Ave., Boston. 3:30-9 p.m. Tickets range $15-$255 for corporate membership. Register HERE. Tech, health care and digital media entrepreneurs: Startupalooza Boston brings your chance to pitch investors, including Bain Capital and more than a dozen others. You’ll also get the chance to hear from the VCs themselves on trends they’re seeing and what they’re looking for.

Today, Nov. 2: Scaling Social Ventures, hosted by Archimedes Project at CIC Boston, 50 Milk Street, Boston. 6:30 PM-8:30 PM. Tickets $20. Register HERE. For those with social impact aspirations, this is a great chance to learn about scaling strategies and overcoming obstacles. The speakers will include fellow entrepreneurs, investors and researchers.

Thursday, Nov. 3: Ideation 2016: Biotech & Healthcare by MIT Biotechnology Group & Harvard Biotech Club at the Ray and Maria Stata Center, Room 32-123, 32 Vassar Street, Cambridge. 6–9 p.m. FREE. Register HERE. If you have an awesome idea for solving healthcare issues, or just a passion for biotech, come to Ideation2016, put on by the MIT Biotechnology Group and the Harvard Biotech Club. You’ll get the opportunity to pitch your idea to groups of your peers, as well as hear other pitches and network.

Friday, Nov. 4: Your Terrible POLITICS! at The Riot Theater, 146A South St, Boston. 10–11:30 p.m. FREE. Register HERE. Come blow off some election anxiety at the Riot Theater, no matter your politics.

Friday, Nov. 4: Eat.Drink.Disrupt! MDP Hackathon Kickoff Party, hosted by AthenaHealth at Meadhall, 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge. 5-7 p.m. FREE. Register HERE. If you’re a hacker of any kind, this one’s for you.  As part of their “More Disruption Please” initiative, AthenaHealth is hosting its seventh annual hackathon. The initiative aims to reach disruptive healthcare solutions through increased connectivity. The hackathon will facilitate dialogue about the current state of healthcare needs and how to reach these disruptive solutions.

Friday,, Nov. 4: Relax and Renew Yoga, hosted by Harvard Ed Portal at 224 Western Ave., Allston. 6–7 p.m. FREE. Register HERE. Nothing’s more important than self care, and all you innovators are working yourselves hard. End the week with some stretching and meditation at Relax & Renew Yoga. Rebalance and reset. Your creative juices will thank you for it.

Saturday, Nov. 5: 32nd Annual Minority Business Conference (AMBC), hosted by NABA, INC. (National Association of Black Accountants), at John B. Hynes Veterans, Memorial Convention Center, 900 Boylston St., Boston. FREE. Register HERE.  This conference, put on every year by the NABA, INC., not only includes valuable networking but a career fair, a student business showcase and cash prize awards ceremony.

Sunday, Nov. 6: Marketing Innovation Conference 2016 at HBS, hosted by HBS Marketing Club at Harvard Business School, Boston. 8 a.m. –5 p.m. Tickets range from $35-$75. Register HERE. For business, marketing or entrepreneurship students of any kind out there: Harvard Business School is putting on its annual Marketing Innovation Conference, aimed at expanding student accessibility to the marketing world. There’s an entrance fee (starting at $35) but you’ll get access to leading marketing professionals and industry knowledge.

 

 

Veteran-designed Gripsher solves multi problems

It’s Veteran Small Business Week, so FoundersWire is going to spotlight some of the innovations our military are creating. If you are a veteran working on a small business or you know of one, please be sure to let us know RIGHT HERE


By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE

No more fumbling to reach for wire cutters while trying to hold a wrench in place. Army veteran and MIT grad Christian Reed has crafted a tool that everyone from soldiers abroad to those of us at home working in our garages will want to use.

Designed around the concept of single-handed use, GRIPsher, the easily held multitool combines more than a dozen functions into one compact gadget. Just to name a few: knife, pliers, file, keychain holder, even a bottle opener.

“Last year, when I was overseas, I partly got the idea from the Army outfits,” Reed says. “You’re wearing gloves, bulletproof vests with full loops on them. I was also looking at pictures of tools meant for just one use, like measuring thickness, and I thought, ‘This looks perfect for scissors at the top.’ The big thing with this tool is you don’t need a pouch for it, you can fasten it right onto you.”

It didn’t take him long to nail down the design. “I used my free time to make drawings of tool ideas I had. Once I had them sketched out, I did the design and layout on the computer, then eventually the 3-D printing back home. Having them printed gave me a better idea of the layout and functionality.”

As far as revenue generation, GRIPsher’s seen huge success on Kickstarter. GRIPsher has already secured more than 820 backers and $40,000, well beyond its initial $10,000 goal. (Support it yourself RIGHT HERE.)

“Those Kickstarter campaigns are very hit-or-miss,” Reed admits. “Some people are interested and want to learn more, some people don’t care.” He’s had no problem, though. “I’ve had hundreds, even thousands of emails from people interested. It’s a chain effect, too, where someone writes about it on their site, then more people hear about it, and so on.”

Reed’s highly skilled technical background comes from both studying mechanical engineering at MIT and working in the engineering branch while stationed in Kuwait, doing construction and project management. “I had a rough background of prototyping and 3-D printing at MIT, but really what I learned came from my extracurricular activities at school, playing around with machines and bouncing around ideas with other people. It’s a rite of passage, in a way, as an engineer to create my own product.”

His time serving in the military was key in shaping not only Reed’s product but his perspective. “The military’s been very kind to me. They paid for my whole education—MIT wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Not only that, but the people there have been the most supportive through this process. When I was creating, when I was promoting—whenever I posted something on Facebook, they were the first people to like and share it. There’s that real brotherhood and promotion of opportunity.”

The desire to give back to that community is what inspired Reed to establish the GRIPsher giving program: For every “GRIPsher Black” product sold, one is given to a service member for free.

Promoting that brotherhood and support network is especially important, Reed says, given the frequency of politicized or negative perceptions about the military. “It’s important to highlight the good things. Also, in a way these are opposite ends of the spectrum. Lots of people have gone to MIT but have never served, and vice versa. I’d like to think I’m merging them together.

What  does the future for GRIPsher look like? “Our manufacturing process right now is really scalable,” Reed says. “It’s reliable, we’re confident with how it looks. The initial hurdles were the costs, the molds for tools. I had the final design done this past March, so now it’s shooting bunches of photos and finalizing things like the right clip length. As far as future distribution, I’d really like to see it on Amazon or at Home Depot. I want it to be one of those handy knickknacks everyone has.”


Through such programs as Veteran Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Association provides veterans, active duty service members, Guard and Reserve members and military spouses the entrepreneurial training and education programs, business technical assistance counseling, special access to capital programs and federal procurement  training and access to opportunities they need to create their own opportunities. Share these stories on Twitter at #MyVetBiz to show support to veterans and their families. Learn more about SBA veteran initiatives here.

What’s your Higher Calling?

Founders: This is a call for guest commentary in your own words. What are you building, what’s the bigger mission you envision for your company? What calls you to solve the problem you’re tackling? And what matters about whether you solve it–for your company and for society?

FoundersWire welcomes this diversity of opinions and voices.

So tell us: What’s your Higher Calling?

Guidelines:
1. Be personal. So often, we get caught up in growth mode, we disconnect from the inspiration that got us here. Find the heart of your Why again. Why you and why this problem or opportunity? Connect with it.

2. Be brief. In 500-600 words, you should be able to explain the core values that drive you to stay in business every day. This is your value prop: Nail it.

3. Be clear. What impact do you foresee your success having? Who are you helping with your innovation? Why do they deserve it? Crystallize it.

4. Be brave. You’re up against some big challenges out there. What have you learned? How can others benefit from your mistakes? What have you done right? Declare it.

5. Be positive. There is only one company like yours–even if you have serious competitors, they are still not driven by the same views, nor will they solve the problem exactly as you will. Celebrate your impact. Let this city know why you matter–so the people and resources you need to succeed can find you, recognize alignment –they care about your mission, too!– and show up to support you. This is your cause: Elevate it.

Avoid editorializing, criticizing other people or businesses, and statements about others’ religious or political beliefs.

All submissions must be original, and exclusive to FoundersWire. We won’t consider articles that have already been published, either in print or online. Submissions that meet these criteria may be sent to shelagh@founderswire.com

Your submission will be edited for space and content–typos, grammar, and syntax. All opinions expressed within Higher Calling columns are solely the creation and responsibility of each author. FoundersWire in no way condones or endorses these opinions.

Startup fail: when student debt collides with funding

By SHELAGH BRALEY

With entrepreneurship on the rise and the cost of launching a company the lowest in history, there are only a few barriers to entry left.

But one factor is becoming a substantial and ever-increasing hurdle: Student debt.

“This is a systemic issue,” says Laurel Taylor, founder of Future Fuel, a platform connecting job-seekers with employers willing to contribute to lowering employees’ student loan debt. With millennials poised to become the majority in the American work force by the end of the decade, their plans are driven by pain rather than purpose. “These people are living it, if you’re 25 and up you have an acute awareness of the problem. It’s in direct correlation with the pain they’re feeling.”

That pain comes in the form of paying an average monthly bill of $400 when student loan payments come due after graduation. It also counts cost in graduates’ ability to choose a future—including entrepreneurship.

“It’s a loss of freedom,” Taylor says. “If you’re coming out of school with student loans, you don’t really have the luxury to pursue entrepreneurship. If your peers are graduating without debt, they have the luxury of choice. Those graduating without debt are in a terrific position to take chances and follow their passion.”

One of the hallmarks of early-stage startup life is accepting a loss of income, to invest in what you’re building. “If you have student loans, entrepreneurship is a very unlikely path until you can get into a situation economically where you have more flexibility,” Taylor, who recently spoke at the White House about the student debt crisis, says.

American students are saddled with more loans than ever, signaling disruption in higher education—one that already has a significant impact on the innovation economy. Currently drawing $1.3 trillion in collective debt among 44 million borrowers and counting, school loans are dangerous business—and no longer necessarily a requirement, according to Todd Weaver, Strategies for College.

“I’m always saying, this isn’t about getting in (to college), it’s about getting out. (The debt) is something they’re not even thinking about. The teenage mind hasn’t fully developed until age 25, 26, so the students I work with, even a week ahead is too far away. For them to consider outcomes (after college) is beyond their scope, but it’s terribly important for them to think about.”

He says he sees parents allowing students to choose schools at 5x the cost, simply because they’re afraid to say no, despite the future financial risk. “There’s this mind-set in society, particularly in Greater Boston, to push our students to go to four-year colleges. (They think) If I don’t go, am I going to miss out? Is my child going to miss out?,” Weaver says.

“But they have to think, how much better off are they going to be if they start putting away money at the age of 22? They’re going to be significantly better off than if they wait,” he says.

A remarkable rise in entrepreneurship has occurred at the university level, with thousands of schools offering concentrations through their business programs and incubators. There are even nonprofits such as the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship introducing startup principles to middle school and high school students from under-resourced school districts as a means of increasing graduation rates.

Students come out of school believing startup life is a viable career choice—“but let’s be honest, entrepreneurship is a privilege,” says Taylor.

So what happens when student loans collide with the already-challenging fund-raising process?

The student loan paradigm is based on making an investment in the future, says Jane Mason, managing director at Novus Capital Group. “But being in that kind of debt means you don’t have the freedom of options. You can’t go start a business with loan payments unless you have parents or some sort of angel (to support you).”

It’s not easy, Mason says, and the funding process sometimes comes down to confidence and how far founders are willing to go. “That’s what sorts out who’s going to make it from who just thinks this is a sexy concept,” Mason says.

She notes that investors in a startup are not contributing personal income to the founder—only investing in the business. “No one is going to give you money to pay your personal bills to go start a company. Investors are contributing capital to the business, not you personally. It really does limit your options,” Mason says.

Even approaching a bank for a line of credit becomes less realistic with the specter of student loans in the picture.

“I have sat down with people looking for loans, and I said, ‘I’m going to hurt you more than I can help you if I say yes right now,’ ” Mason says. “They needed to bootstrap. If you’re going for a traditional loan, it is a mark against you because what’s your capacity if the business fails? You’re already overextended.”

According to Kaufman Foundation research, in each month of 2015, more than 550,000 adults across the country became new-business owners. The rate of white founders starting new businesses dropped 16.4 percent, from 77.1 percent in 1996 to 60.7 percent from 1996 to 2015, while black entrepreneurship increased by .5 percent and Latino business-building increased by an impressive 10.8 percent in the same time frame.

Compare that with the estimated 20.5 million students ages 18-25 who were enrolled in U.S. universities in 2016. Of those, 55 percent were women. And one-third were first-generation attendees, a disproportionate number of whom were Hispanic and African-American, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Although men and women take out student loans in similar proportion, the gender pay gap makes repayment significantly more difficult for women, who are statistically more likely to earn a lower salary and may pay 8 percent or more of their total income toward debt. This also hits minorities—especially female minorities who make even less in salary than their caucasian counterparts—particularly hard, translating into a lack of disposable income, especially in the early earning years, which has been shown to drive entrepreneurship and support travel, property ownership and other markers of financial security. Add in the fact that only 2 percent to 6 percent of female-founded companies earn VC funding and you create an oblique line to startup monoculture.

“The design of Future Fuel is to empower users to get out of debt in three to five years, rather than right now, where the average time to get out of debt is 17 to 20 years,” Taylor says. This means entrepreneurship returns as possibility for all, rather than counting out of the innovation economy the 70 percent of the population that graduates with debt.

“The direct implication there is that student debt does limit our ability to innovate. Being able to build a business and create jobs—that is the American Dream,” Taylor says. “There are huge implications for this kind of debt. That’s why we need to talk about it.”

How do you decide: Agency or freelance developer?

Companies in growth mode have knowledge gapsand FoundersWire expert Chris Swenor, CEO of East Coast Product, wants to help fill them. He’ll be taking your tech-related questions and answering them here in this column every week. Submit yours today, RIGHT HERE, with the subject line: Tech & Tell.


By CHRIS SWENOR
@ECPBoston

 Q: What’s the difference between working with a lone developer and hiring a whole development team through an agency? Are there benefits to both? Which one suits what kind of situation?

A: There are definitely merits to both—hiring an agency or hiring a lone developer. The decision relies on the type and scope of project.

Before you even begin to consider the two options, I would assess the following:

What is the end goal of my project?
Freelancers may be experts in development, but agencies are experts in product. So if you can look at your project and see a clearly defined road map to completion, you may not need the product help, so a freelancer might be able to get the job done. If you are unsure of your idea and any sort of validation that goes with it, an agency will be able to provide not only the technical skills but also the product management experience to ensure efficiency.

What is my budget?
Agencies very often are more expensive than hiring a lone freelancer in the short run, but also they will be able to get the project done quicker and more efficiently. Agencies specialize in learning and starting new projects with new tech on a whim, so if you need to get something done quickly and have the appropriate budget to do so, agencies are the way to go. If you have time for the freelancer to ramp up and don’t have the necessary capital up front to hire an agency, then a freelancer might be for you.

What is my timeline?
Timeline is what it really all boils down to. When does this project need to be done by? If you have an extended amount of time, it might be easier to have one person work on it over a longer period of time. If you’re in a crunch and on deadline, an agency might be the route to go. Agencies have access to more developers, more designers and more partners to make sure things are completed on time. We hear countless stories of lone developers that stretch out projects beyond their deadline dates. Timelines are important because they set real expectations for the time it will take complete a given development project.

These are the questions you really need to ask yourself before you choose a path for development. By preparing these answers now, this information can guide you in a direction that saves you tons of time and moneyregardless of which option you choose.


Chris Swenor is CEO and co-founder of East Coast Product, a digital product agency that works to enhance existing teams with the app development cycle—everything from strategy to design, to user testing, to development.

 Chris offers CTO and CPO guidance to ECP’s clients and the greater Boston tech community. Previously, Chris was the director of New Product Development at zMags and the CTO at Vsnap, both of which had successful exits. Outside of East Coast Product, Chris volunteers as the technical advisor for Resilient Coders. Interested in discussing product and learning more about ECP? Connect with Chris at chris@ecp.io.

 

 

Shark Tank advice is shallow water for Stina & Mae founder

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—The odds of getting attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million.

But one Boston entrepreneur took her chances on an Instagram contest, and won a 15-minute telephone call with ABC’s Shark Tank star, Lori Greiner.

Mishell Ekunsirinde, founder of Stina & Mae and a member of this year’s Babson WIN Lab in Boston, saw an opportunity on the social media site to share a #yougogirlshark moment, and to her surprise, won the big call with Greiner.

mish-instagram-phone-sharktank

Her emotional post, honoring her mother, a breast cancer survivor, caught the eyes of producers and with a little persistence, their call was on the schedule.

The blond shark, known as the “Queen of QVC,” has helped to launch more than 400 products and holds 111 U.S. and international patents, Forbes reports. So it made perfect sense that Ekunsirinde, building a lifestyle brand for Millennial moms, would try to glean as much information as she could out of the TV pitch expert. Stina & Mae’s first product is a high-quality, hip, antimicrobial diaper bag that fashionable moms will actually want to carry.

Ekunsirinde says she wants to create one line for stores, and one that could go out direct-to-consumer—which is Greiner’s calling card.

“My strategy really was to use that call as a means for getting information, you know,” says Ekunsirinde. “I mean, here’s someone who’s been there, done that, wouldn’t you want to say, ‘Hey, can you give me some of your wisdom on how I can do it?’ I didn’t want her money, I didn’t want to pitch her. My goal was to get some knowledge.”

Ekunsirinde says she did end up feeling a little bitten, however, because before the call even got started, Greiner revealed a conflict of interest—she told the Boston founder she already has recently put money into a accessory company focused on the mom demographic. And she even tried to discourage any potential competition.

“She said, to paraphrase, ‘Every mom wants to make a diaper bag, that’s not very original. It’s a very crowded space,’” Ekunsirinde says. “I was surprised because she said she already invested, so I said, ‘OK, I understand that’s how you feel about it, but because you’ve had so much experience bringing products to market, how would you do it anyway?’”

Greiner talked about building her business by “coming up with original things”—then doubled back to wanting Ekunsirinde to go back to the drawing board.

“She said, ‘You sound like a very smart girl, come up with something more original.’ But I never even got a chance to tell her what was original about Stina & Mae, because she told me not to tell her anything about my business, as she already was investing in something very similar on Shark Tank this season,” Ekunsirinde says. “I didn’t tell her anything more than that I had a business that made diaper bags—she knew nothing more—just a bag you put diapers in.”

mish-baby-on-blanket-with-two-bags

Ekunsirinde didn’t want to take something negative away from her experience, but she did say what a contrast the experience was to her WIN Lab co-founders and mentors. “She’s made it, she is clearly a successful entrepreneur, so … I think I kind of held her to a higher standard, I was looking for that same woman-to-woman helping one another out (that I get from the WIN Lab).

“In the WIN Lab, and the in circle of entrepreneurs I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with, they’re so supportive. They give me tools to strengthen my weak spots. They’re constructive,” she says. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Now I’ve been able to couple what’s innate for me with structure—that’s what has been missing for me. As a creative, sometimes I get lost in the creativity. The WIN Lab is helping me figure out how I’m going to get there. I’m getting that structure and visually mapping my vision.”

And even though 15 minutes doesn’t always turn to fame, Ekunsirinde predicts a bit of star power in her future.

“This is a $10.4 billion market, and 83 percent of new moms are Millennials. All those numbers show me there’s considerable room for improvement,” she says. “We can be at the forefront for improving that for moms. Just because you’re only going to need something for a couple of years doesn’t mean you should be stuck with a less-than product.”

Mom accessories are big business and it’s only growing, she says. “There’s not a mom out there who hasn’t thought her diaper bag was on the brink of destruction. Straps break, zippers are popping. Millennial moms don’t mind spending more if they’re getting good value.”

Diaper bags generally look like something a child would carry—with colorful prints and patterns. They’re not a great fit for women who feel—in the midst of the biggest transition of their lives—that they have to leave behind their sense of style and high fashion. “There are millions of moms out there who want that sense of identity back. We’re bringing style into their role as mothers.”

mish-bag-baby-hand

Ekunsirinde, a still relatively new mother herself, speaks to a hidden truth that comes along with that abiding love: Women do not automatically surrender their past when they give birth; often, the identity struggle of blending who they were with who they’re expected to be as a mother is complicated.

“When you’re able to bring a small piece of who you were pre-baby to your motherhood—this role that you stepped into for the rest of your life—to have that little piece of who you were before can help ease that transition.”

While Stina & Mae looks to grow into that brand, Ekunsirinde isn’t sold on any advice from Greiner—shark or no shark. “(What she said) was a bunch of jewels. She’s already committed to a product in our same space. Money speaks louder than what she said.”

“All she confirmed is that I’m in the right space. I have the resilience and commitment. No one is going to deter me from the vision I have.”

The powerful media message you should be using right now 

Media Tip Monday:

How can you get the media coverage you want right now? I’ll tell you what we care about here at FoundersWire. 

Entrepreneurs are encouraged in their business-planning stage to “blue sky” their plans: What is the biggest vision you can dream up and then execute? 

A comparable strategy works when talking with journalists. What’s the biggest problem you, your team and your innovation can solve? Maybe you’re not there yet, but you’re working on it. You know your technology can be applied globally, or the market need you’re addressing is enormous. Talk about how, at scale, this changes actual lives

A word of caution: Transparency is crucial in the interviews you do, so the journalist you’re dealing with doesn’t mistake your confidence for actual customers and deals. Make sure you clarify the vision vs. the reality, otherwise the story will inevitably be killed when it reaches the fact-checking stage. But helping the reporter to understand who your company can affect at the end of the rainbow will make a big difference in how your story is written today. 

And hopefully there’s gold at the end, too.

Voatz tests limits of election by smartphone

By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE

BOSTON—Startup founders often pitch about democratizing “X industry” with their innovations. Brothers Nimit and Simer Sawhney are literally democratizing democracy with mobile voting platform, Voatz.

Voatz expands voting inclusivity and participation, they say, operating exclusively on smartphones, allowing users to cast their votes from anywhere. It provides a real-time count record and maintains total anonymity.

The Voatz team, which now includes Isaac Carney, tested the platform at an event on Kingston Street Wednesday night, where attendees could watch the final presidential debate and cast their votes live from their own devices.

voatz-event-1

Beyond just vote casting, Simer says the platform supplies voters with information on the ballots’ candidates, which boosts both efficiency and inclusivity.

“So many voters go into the booths uninformed about the issues or the people they’re voting on. If we can give them bullet-point descriptions of the candidates and their positions—that they can access the day of—they can cast their vote much more confidently,” he says.

Voatz, winning awards since its founding in 2014, including “cult favorite” at the 2016 MIT Startup Spotlight and 2015 SXSW winner, was created not only for government elections but private ones as well. And it was launched with one specific demographic in mind: Millennials.

“Young people are disconnected from politics,” says Nimit. “If you look at the last couple of elections, you can see how low the participation rates were for everyone. But it’s particularly bad with millennials. Even in both Obama elections, millennial turnout was never higher than 25 percent—and he was really popular among that late-teen to mid-20-year-old group.”

Nimit breaks down this millennial political disinterest into three distinct causes. “First, they feel like their vote doesn’t count that much. Second, they don’t feel that politicians are that attentive to their needs and the issues relevant to them, like student debt. Third, the inconvenience of physical voting discourages everyone—not just millennials.

What makes millennials the ideal niche? “Not only do they all have smartphones, but they’re on them for several hours a day,” Nimit says. “So, if we can get them interested in spending a few minutes doing something this meaningful, it would definitely make an impact. Our early usability testing confirms that, too.”

Tech professional Holly Collins says she sees this platform as crucial for giving voice to a powerful demographic. “What makes this election so substantial is that certain groups are often louder than others, and consequently their voices get heard more. Millennials make up a hugely influential part of the electorate. If we can expand the vote to include as much of their vote as possible, that will ensure as inclusive of a result as possible.”

Drawing from his own experience growing up in India, Nimit says he understands the challenges firsthand, because he wasn’t allowed to vote in his own country. “I was very young when I left, so I was never able to vote, and there were few elections where I actually wanted to.”

Realizing that the process of voting wasn’t safe ultimately evolved into a mission to create Voatz, with multiple ways to indicate voter coercion.

“Growing up in the mid-‘80s, there were religious riots and upheaval around elections. I have this image in my head of someone being forced to vote at gunpoint. I was so young, I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, but you never forget that picture,” he says.

He pinpoints the central problem with today’s voting problems: Mistrust in government. People either feel that their vote doesn’t matter or that it’s not being used by a legitimate election system, Nimit says, “whether it’s for good reason, or just based on people’s perception. Having a technology that can address a lot of those worries independently—that’s the unique power of Voatz.”

The brothers have faced their share of digital voting skeptics. “We had to research whether governments and corporate shareholders would actually let us get this platform out there,” Nimit says.

The biggest initial concern was that a digital vote record could be hacked—that any election structure connected to the Internet is by definition “unsafe.” This is a valid concern, Nimit admits, particularly in light of the foreign hacking into the current presidential campaign. “There’s a strong tendency that if it’s working, why mess with it. However, what you have to keep in mind is that a lot of the infrastructure currently used by states and organizations is 15, 20 years old. They’ve hardly been upgraded. It’s no wonder people are able to get in.”

The key, he says, is pushing back against the kneejerk refusal of any kind of Internet-based system with “bulletproof security technology.”

“There’s a fear that cycles around anything around tech-based voting. It has some merit, because there’s always a small chance of someone breaking in. You create that fear and then people don’t want to touch it. It has prevented anything new from coming in,” Nimit says. But Voatz has taken a smartphone-based approach, which he says is more impervious to tampering.

voatz-2

Through interviews with government representatives, academics and security experts, Nimit and Simer were able to enhance their secure code. Using biometrics, real-time verification and a blockchain infrastructure, Nimit says Voatz makes the vote record tamper-proof and thus irrefutable.

“It reduces the possibility of any third-party fraud,” he says. “Everybody’s authenticity is mathematically proven by multi-source verification, thus eliminating that instinctive doubt.”

Used in the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic Primary State Convention in June, their confidence in the enhanced code has been validated: They easily passed their first independent security audit, which affirmed satisfaction with their iOS system and protection from hacker threat.

Cost is another key voting issue Voatz is tackling. “A lot of the traditional and current voting infrastructure uses paper ballots or voting machines, which are expensive and require a lot of manpower,” Nimit says. “Accounting, tallying, certification. The Philippines just spent hundreds of millions of dollars in their election to ensure the voting was safe. We can alleviate those costs with technology.”

What exactly is Voatz’s voting capacity? “We’ve engineered our minimum benchmark to be a million votes per second, which is way beyond what anyone’s built out in the past,” Nimit says. “The closest comparison would be Dancing With the Stars or American Idol, where everyone texts or calls in their choice. This would be that, but exponentially larger—and with a more serious impact, of course.”

Looking ahead, Nimit says he hopes Voatz will first and foremost help to rebuild popular trust in elections and government. This vision includes not only American elections but also foreign ones, and aims at reducing not just voter fraud but voter coercion.

“There’s plenty to criticize about the political system in the United States. At the end of the day, though, we have a 200-year-old functioning democracy. That’s not the case in a lot of countries around the world. In some of those places, there’s coercion. You can be targeted for your political beliefs, or, since your vote isn’t always anonymous, your vote can be traced back to you and things can happen to you if you don’t vote a certain way. A lot of people are afraid to lend their voice and participate.”

Ugandan political activist Daniel Tulibagenyi says he thinks Voatz could create public and government cohesion, something he sees now is lacking.

“There’s a huge discrepancy between the election outcomes and the public’s faith in those outcomes,” he says. “That’s where a third-party platform could be really valuable.”

Higher Calling: We must innovate out of student debt crisis

What’s your higher calling? Impassioned entrepreneurs always have a huge reason, the driving force behind their work, even if it isn’t immediately apparent to the rest of the market. This column, a first-person essay, drives home why Laurel Taylor, founder of FutureFuel, cares about reducing student debt and how it impacts more than just personal income for recent graduates; debt has resounding effects on the overall economy as well. Here she shares her Higher Calling.


By LAUREL TAYLOR
Founder, FutureFuel

Last week, I had the great honor of attending an intimate roundtable at the White House, as a global business leader and technology founder. Truly a privilege. The subject: student debt. Our goal: Strategies, tactics and solutions to what is a very complex issue. Private and public sector global leaders gathered around the table, all invested in contributing to a joint mission — solutions and innovations to reduce student debt, to create reach and access for our diverse nation, to enable students to pay down their debt without sacrificing their financial future, reducing the default rate, cost containment (please!) and affordability … Awesome.

And yet, I woke the morning after the event with a heavy heart, an emotional hangover of sorts. Not an actual hangover — I rarely splurge on a single cocktail, as I feel the effects for days. An emotional hangover — the feeling of sadness that sits right in the pit of your stomach and weighs on your heart. She cannot be ignored. She followed me around the house while I was getting ready, having my coffee, reading my emails, prioritizing my day… She pushed me around a bit. She refused to be neglected or overlooked, as she had an important message to send me. “Listen to me,” she insisted, “or I’ll just weigh you down until you create the time and space to face me.” And so I surrendered, and it took me three hours to pinpoint the source.

white-house-2

We learned from some of the highest ranking officials that education and student debt remain among President Obama’s top issues, and that he consistently drives this agenda forward. President Obama introduced a number of measures, such as “doubling investments in grant and scholarship aid through Pell grants and tax credits, keeping interest rates low on federal student loans, and building options for borrowers to manage their debt through plans like the President’s Pay As You Earn (PAYE) plan” which caps monthly loan payments at 10 percent of income. We also discussed the income driven repayment program (IDP) “to ensure every borrower can repay their student loans successfully.” And we are grateful for his leadership. We learned of a few key initiatives driven by the First Lady, such as mobile, tech-based innovations to reach and educate students via Up Next. (text 44044 to learn more)

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We talked about the American Dream. Briefly. We know that education is the bridge to a more prosperous future and we know that students who graduate with an undergraduate degree outpace the earning potential of those with only a high school diploma. Which means that it is absolutely critical that access and affordability are the true north of all of our efforts.

So, why, after spending so much time together, do I feel … disillusioned? Disillusioned is the feeling that I have identified. And for me, this emotion is a rarity.

What was most striking, less than 24 hours later, is that we did not discuss the impact of what 17 to 20 years of student loans mean to the near-70 percent of us who are paying down our loans in a disciplined and consistent manner. I had the opportunity to express my unique point of view at that roundtable, which was centered around:

  • The wealth gap that occurs as a consequence to those who have student loans, as we simply cannot participate in wealth accumulating events like our peers without student loans
  • The ask of the private sector: employer-led debt repayment tax efficiencies
  • Pre-tax implications for dollars allocated toward student debt, similar to 401(k) plans.

I’m not sure my asks were appropriate. I went for it anyway, because I know that’s what you expect of me.

wealth-gap-2-ff

The wealth gap is not academic. It is real. (We’re posting a model for you to experiment with the wealth gap yourself.) It is very difficult to participate at the same level in 401(k) contribution during those first 10 years after graduation, when your monthly student debt repayment comprises such a large percentage of your total take-home pay. Even with roommates and other cost-cutting measures, it’s just really tight when you’re starting out your career. And since most repayment options are flat across the entirety of your loans, you’re hit the hardest when compound interest could work it’s magic. Truly what a tragedy this is! We cannot make up for 10 years of lost compound interest.

Takeaway: 401(k) contribution and participation is key, as early as possible. Takeaway: Employer-led debt repayment can significantly reduce the time it takes for you to retire your debt, which has a material impact on reducing the wealth gap.

wealth-gap-3-ff

We cannot simply accept that our available options translate into 17 to 20 years of payoff. When did this become acceptable? This is a relatively new phenomenon that did not affect the generations before us, at this level. It’s not just about lowering the default rate, although that is obviously critical. It’s also about accelerating the ability to retire your student loans and get on with your life! With your dreams! With your freedom! We must innovate, as the great nation that we are.

FutureFuel.io is all about technology, innovation and community. And this is our solution — harmonizing across interdependent stakeholders, users + employers, where we can solve problems, together. We leverage technology to strip out costs from inefficient systems, which empowers employers to invest in their people, their future, their human capital, not inefficiencies. And this creates a market signal that gives those who would not have aspired to college—hope and a path forward. We cannot pretend that college affordability and student debt is divorced from the less than 4 percent African American and 8 percent Hispanic participation in STEM.

And we know that employers on our platform are committed to diversity, inclusion, and sourcing through mobile-centric technology that meets YOU where you are — whether on campus, at home or in transit. You shouldn’t have to be in a specific geography or location to get that lucky break. We know that employers are looking for intelligent ways to find you that are easy and optimized through tech. And we know you, our user, wants the same — human, real, authentic interaction that helps you engage with employers who want to invest in you. And so you want to invest in them. Loyalty. A lot to be said for loyalty.

So as we go to work for you, here’s our ask of you: We can only serve you if you choose to engage and be the hardworking, inspired and passionate person that you are. We can only serve you if you choose to build your profile and showcase your grit, tenacity and talent, and interact with employers who are eager to meet you. We can only help you pay down your debt in a fraction of the time if you express your preference for employer-led debt repayment by engaging, demonstrating that employer-led debt repayment IS a deciding factor in your job search and for whom you will devote your human potential.

We’re doing our part to support and democratize the American Dream. We know it doesn’t address every problem in the equation of student debt, but we are doing our part to innovate and serve you, our customers — our users and our employers. Join us. Let’s show this world what the American Dream, through the lens of technology and co-creation and smarts and impact, can really look like.

Employers on our platform are leading. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to lead your life. Choose to lead. Choose FutureFuel.io.


Do you have a Higher Calling to share? Why do you solve the problem we’re facing, and what impact do you see it having on our society? Please share HERE.

Where should you go to learn this week?

Lots happening, plus it’s WeBOS Week! Don’t miss an opportunity to get to know the nearly 20,000 women-owned businesses in Boston. Check out this week’s can’t-miss events in the area.


Today, Oct. 17: Boston Startup Job Fair at Microsoft NERD Center, Noon – 5 p.m., 1 Memorial Drive, Cambridge. FREE. Register HERE.

Today, Oct. 17: Atlantic LEADERPRENEUR(sm) Panel Series, at the Newton Marriott, Salons AB, Grand Ballroom (left of lobby), 2345 Commonwealth Ave., Newton. $50. Register HERE.

Tuesday, Oct. 18: October Cafe Night @ RIC, Roxbury Innovation Center, 2300 Washington St., Boston. 5-9 p.m. FREERegister HERE.

Wednesday, Oct. 19: Women Innovators Night @ WeBOS Week, Impact Hub Boston, 50 Milk St., Boston. FREE. Register HERE.

Wednesday, Oct. 19: 2016 Massachusetts Community Voting and Third Presidential Debate Party, hosted by Voatz, 7:30-11 p..m., 120 Kingston St., 5th Floor Lounge, Boston. FREE. Register HERE.

Thursday, Oct. 20: Funding Options for Your Business, hosted by SheStarts, 6-8 p.m., Locke Lord, 111 Huntington Ave., Boston. FREE. Register HERE.

Thursday, Oct. 20: Managing Stress in Your Work Life, 6-8 p.m., at District Hall, 75 Northern Ave., Boston. Millennial executive coach and speaker Nell Daly, sponsored by Motus. FREE. Register HERE.

Friday, Oct. 21: Boston Renewable Energy Forum, 7:30-10 p.m., hosted by Patagonia’s Enviro-team, 346 Newbury St., Boston. Share proactive ways in which everyone can access local clean energy solutions in Massachusetts. FREE. Register HERE.


If you are hosting an event in Greater Boston and you think FoundersWire readers would be a positive addition to your audience, please let us know right HERE.

Do you know no. 1 cause of death for companies?

Scaling a company can be a monstrous task, so with Halloween creeping closer, please plan to join us for the FoundersWire October issue launch party.

Thursday, Oct. 27, 6 p.m. Further details will be sent to confirmed guests only. 

We’ve conjured up an event like no other, where you’ll do more than meet and greet. With haunting spirits and wicked brews, guests will do their best to avoid the startup apocalypse–before it’s too late.

Big prizes await at this Plan Your Own Funeral fete, for guests who offer the best eulogy for companies gone before.

Who would be on the guest list at your company funeral? Famous entrepreneurs, funders, professional mentors and friends? Raise the dead for this evening of fun, food, drinks and founder frights.

Come in costume if you dare. If you miss this event, it will haunt you. Forever.

Want more details or to get on the guest list? Click HERE.

 

This is how you attract tech talent

Companies in growth mode have knowledge gaps –and FoundersWire expert Chris Swenor, CEO of East Coast Product, wants to help fill them. He’ll be taking your tech-related questions and answering them here in this column every week. Submit yours today, RIGHT HERE, with the subject line: Tech & Tell.


By CHRIS SWENOR
@ECPBoston

Q: What do developers look for in a project or team to decide whether they want to get involved?

 A: It’s a developer’s market, which means a good paying job is easy to come by. For your project or team to stand out and attract the right talent, focus on your company culture, impact and tech.

When I say culture I don’t mean a ping-pong table–who are the people that make up your team? Are they helpful and pleasant to be around? Are they the type of people that point fingers when there’s a problem, or do they jump in and start helping? Culture is your company’s foundation and the reason people come to work every day.

The second thing is impact. Will your product make the world a better place? Is it reaching a wide audience? The greater impact that your product makes in the world, the more exciting it is. It’s not enough to build technically cool things, some developers like to make a difference in the world. For example, building a new productivity tool might be cool, but building a tool that will help disaster victims contact their families feels better.

Then finally there’s the technology stack. Each developer has their preference and their preferences matter. If your product stack is a monolithic PHP application, you may find it difficult to get the best developers excited to work for you. Modern, evolving tech stacks with large communities or emerging tech are the most exciting and engaging to work with.

By focusing on your internal dynamic and creating an exciting place to work, you can snag awesome developers that can not only do the job but help you get to the next level.


Chris Swenor is CEO and co-founder of East Coast Product, a digital product agency that works to enhance existing teams with the app development cycle—everything from strategy to design, to user testing, to development.

 Chris offers CTO and CPO guidance to ECP’s clients and the greater Boston tech community. Previously, Chris was the director of New Product Development at zMags and the CTO at Vsnap, both of which had successful exits. Outside of East Coast Product, Chris volunteers as the technical advisor for Resilient Coders. Interested in discussing product and learning more about ECP? Connect with Chris at chris@ecp.io.

To the MassChallenge finalists who didn’t make it

Dear 102 teams that didn’t make the top 26,

I know how you’re feeling today. You just crammed more business building into four months than you ever have before, and you barely noticed summer.

You just came out on the other end of the accelerator maze, and despite your best efforts, you didn’t make the list.

What a punch in the head.

I remember sitting at the awards ceremony in 2010, cheering for dear friends who ascended to the stage, collecting checks for $50 and even $100k. I was so proud of them, and so destroyed all at once, it was overwhelming. My co-founder and I took seats in the back of the auditorium, trying so hard to be gracious and carry on the positive, encouraging spirit of collaboration our team was known for. (Here we are pictured above at 1 Marina Park Drive, goofing through a photo shoot in the old MassChallenge office.)

In the end, truth be told: We slunk out early and found a dark bar to sulk in. We got exceedingly drunk that night, no lie.

We felt like the biggest losers, like we’d just been expelled from school, while our more “successful” counterparts were still making connections and building teams and raising funds.

But in the following weeks, other opportunities started to take shape, and because of our MassChallenge experience, we knew how to recognize them and how to capitalize on them.

We met Sam Hammar, who ushered us into the newly named Innovation District’s Welcome Home Challenge. In just a few short months after becoming MC alums, we were holding a $50,000 oversized check of our own, creating strategic partnerships, negotiating terms with investors and driving revenue.

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We were so grateful for the insight and support of our MassChallenge advisors, mentors and friends who lead with empathy, like Scott Bailey and Jodi-Tatiana Charles–because we needed what we learned, even if our pitch wasn’t what the judges were looking for. We had to evolve in order to see our path more clearly, and then the whole business came together.

Maybe you were early and the market isn’t ready for your innovation yet. Maybe you need to nail a few more proof points, or explore more financial models before you find yours. (That was our shortcoming.)

But don’t forget, it’s a subjective process. Competition is only one way to build, and far from the only way.

So for today, just keep your head up. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Stay connected to those who have supported you, and keep making the ask. Boston will not disappear on you–this ecosystem is strong and we want you to succeed. It will happen, if you stay smart and keep hustling. Drive to revenue.

Your struggle has not been for nothing. Your story is just at its beginning. Trust me, I’ve been there.

With sympathy,
Shelagh @founderswire

MassChallenge Class of 2010 @mylifelist

P.S.: Congrats to those who did make it. Here’s that list in full.

MassChallenge Boston Top 26:

3DFortify
, a Massachusetts materials  company that uses patented magnetic alignment technology to create the most complex composites to date.

Adhesys Medical
, a Texas Healthcare/Life Sciences
 Company creating next-gen surgical glues based on polyurethane. Fast, strong, flexible, and biodegradable, it can be used in unprecedented surgeries.

Analytical Space
, a Massachusetts in-orbit data relay service that enables satellite operators to increase data throughput at a lower cost per GB with no hardware changes.

AR Spirit
, a Massachusetts high-tech company that brings imagination into real life with a full 3D augmented reality platform via your mobile phone.

Battery Resourcers, LLC
, a Massachusetts clean tech company that recycles spent li-ion batteries to directly synthesize new cathode materials, which can be used in new batteries.

BeautyLynk
, a software solution company for the beauty industry.

BrainRobotics, a Massachusetts life sciences company that uses brainwave controlled robotic prosthesis to bring control back to you and empower you to live life to the fullest.

Coeo Labs Private Limited
, Medical device company out of India solving unmet clinical needs in emergency and critical care through device interventions.

CoolComposites, Inc., a  Massachusetts clean tech company that uses materials chemistry to make buildings more energy efficient without making them more expensive.

Electra Vehicles, Inc.
, a Massachusetts clean tech company planning to bring the electric vehicle market to the next level with innovative power solutions.

EYL
, a high-tech company from Korea, secures the Internet of Things with an affordable micro quantum random number generator using radioisotope to replace less secure software.

Farmer Willie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer, a Massachusetts beverage company making 
all-natural ginger beer.

Joulez
, a Massachusetts social impact company that fuses arts and crafts with electronics to create fun and educational gadgets that inspire girls to get excited about STEM.

Luminopia, a Massachusetts healthcare company that uses emerging, proprietary virtual reality technology to enhance vision, treat visual disorders, and improve quality of life.

Neuromotion
, a Massachusetts healthcare company improving mental health through mobile bioresponsive videogames.

Polis
, a Massachusetts high-tech company using door-to-door outreach software for solar companies, home improvement groups, cable companies, non-profits and political organizations.

QSM Diagnostics, Inc., a Massachusetts healthcare company using a proprietary instrument-sensor to identify common infectious bacteria in bodily fluids within one minute at the point-of-care.

RateGravity
, a Massachusetts company that redefines how consumers finance their homes and delivers lower rates to borrowers through its network of local lenders.

Sea Machines Robotics
, a Massachusetts high-tech company designing Autonomous Control and Navigation Systems for marine vessels.

Signature Orthodontics
, a Massachusetts life sciences company still in stealth.

Solstice
, a Massachusetts clean tech company building the market for clean energy by providing community-shared solar power to Americans that cannot install it on their own roof.

TapLink
, a Massachusetts high tech company’s technology, called “blind hashing” is a completely new way to secure passwords, and protect customer data.

TellusLabs
, a Massachusetts applied science company that turns satellite imagery and other Earth data into the basis for better decisions.

Tembo Education
, a Florida-based company creating a Home Educator network using mobile phones to educate children ages 6 and younger living in slums.

Tranquilo, LLC
, a Massachusetts healthcare company that has developed a portable  soothing mat that calms crying babies in seconds by mimicking the sounds and motions of the womb.

Whole Heart Provisions
, a Massachusetts fast-casual, plant-based culinary startup serving delicious, fast, and environmentally conscious food.

When does your code become legacy?

Companies in growth mode have knowledge gaps–and FoundersWire’s newest expert, Chris Swenor, CEO of East Coast Product, wants to help fill them. He’ll be taking your tech-related questions and answering them here in this column every week. This week’s question is a two-parter. Submit yours today, RIGHT HERE, with the subject line: Tech & Tell


By CHRIS SWENOR
@ECPBoston

 Q: When we start to build our first platform, how long should we stick with outsource?

A: There are many factors that come into play when deciding how long to stick with outsourced developers or whether to even use them at all. Do you have a tech co-founder? Are you working with a quality agency? Have you already proven that your product is a hit? How difficult is it to hire tech talent in your area?

Say you hired an agency to build the first iteration of your product because you don’t have any technical co-founders. You’re happy with the product you receive and you’re starting to gain traction in the market. If this is the case, I would recommend staying with that agency to continue to build out properly tested, validated features. This is also a good time to start hiring your internal team. Ideally, there will be overlap between your new hires and your internal team–it eases onboarding and makes for a more seamless transition. As you transition away from the agency completely, it’s important to keep the relationship warm. Your product will hopefully continue to succeed and you may come to a point where you might need extra horsepower to hit a deadline that doesn’t justify another full-time hire. The agency will be in your corner and since they’re already familiar with your product, they can quickly jump in to help.

Q: When we grow enough to bring on a full-time developer, won’t they just want to tear it all down and do it their own way, anyway? What can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen, that our first iteration has value?

A: Don’t be overly concerned about future developers tearing down what previous developers wrote. The second a dev publishes code, it instantly becomes legacy. Any good developer will look back at what they wrote a year ago and say, “What the heck was I doing?” As the complexity of an application grows and the skills of the developer grow, there will always be new or better ways of doing things. As a developer, it’s common to want to rewrite older code in a more “elegant” way to make sure it’s measuring up to current best practices. The value of your early product is not what you can salvage for future use, but instead, learning how users behave and if they even want to use your product.

You need to really ask yourself if there is actual value in rewriting code. Sometimes code needs a complete rewrite, because the current code is so bad that it is lengthening the time it takes to write new code to unacceptable amounts of time. This was the case when I was the CTO of Vsnap. It would require a week of work to make the simplest changes, and then one of our developers would have to wake up at 5 a.m. during off-peak hours to push the change. So we bit the bullet and did a complete rewrite of the application, and it fixed all of our issues. I have also consulted with clients that were considering a full rewrite, but what they really needed was a bit of code written to abstract the legacy app into its own environment so new code could be written on a clean slate.

In the end, it just takes an expert to take a look at what you have and weigh the pros and cons of each decision.


Chris Swenor is CEO and co-founder of East Coast Product, a digital product agency that works to enhance existing teams with the app development cycle—everything from strategy to design, to user testing, to development. Be sure to check out their newly launched website. 

Chris offers CTO and CPO guidance to ECP’s clients and the greater Boston tech community. Previously, Chris was the director of New Product Development at zMags and the CTO at Vsnap, both of which had successful exits. Outside of East Coast Product, Chris volunteers as the technical advisor for Resilient Coders. Interested in discussing product and learning more about ECP? Connect with Chris at chris@ecp.io.

Personal health data gets smart with Lifestone

By SHELAGH BRALEY

CAMBRIDGE—Real-time personal health data fits in your palm, with the help of medical device company Lifestone.

Lifestone does the work of multiple devices with a portable, pocket-sized, health-tracking module designed to measure and store your vital signs, and make them sharable. (You can learn more about this Kickstarter HERE.)

Lifestone collects health data including body temperature, blood pressure, oximetry, ECG/EKG, respiration rate, heart rate, and with an add-on stethoscope (called a “stethostone”), can hear and record heart and lung sounds. The pocket-sized portable device syncs with a smartphone app for data storage and sharing.

Co-founders Xin (Sheen) Xie, a Ph.D. candidate at Northeastern University, and Anlyn (Hang) Liu met as fellow members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association—Xie representing NU as president, and Liu as vice president for University of Massachusetts. “We often ran into each other at events,” Xie says. Xie handles the technology, Liu is in charge of marketing, and two others also joined the team: Bill Xi oversees manufacturing and supply chain, while Alex Lee runs operations and business development.

They talked about digitizing the health monitoring process and the importance of easy data-sharing with doctors. “We all believed we could create a product that accurately recorded multiple vital signs with many functions, including a detachable cuff to make the device small and portable,” Xie says.

Xin-Xie-headshot

Xie says watching his mother track her high blood pressure motivated him to create Lifestone. “She measured it every day using a mercury hematomanometer, writing down her results on a piece of paper.” He says he knew this wasn’t the most efficient or accurate way to track these critical vital signs. So with his electrical engineering background, he worked through solutions to improve the process.

They built their initial prototype in a garage in Worcester, then a few more, before launching their Kickstarter campaign in September. There are currently four working protypes, with more to come, Xie says. The team is based out of IDEA, Northeastern’s student-led venture accelerator.

With $200,000 of private funding from a Chinese tech company already in the coffers, the Lifestone team of four is focusing on customers. “Millennials pay a great deal of attention to being fit and staying healthy,” Xie says. “And of course, as baby boomers age and become seniors, keeping track of their health will become even more important, especially to their families. We believe the launching of the Lifestone device couldn’t be more timely.”

Their strategy, once the Kickstarter is complete, will be to put the Lifestone device on the shelves of such stores as Best Buy, Target and Walgreen’s—with an accessible price tag. “The MSRP will be $169, while our Kickstarter special price ranges from $69 to $119, depending on how early you’re in,” Xie says.

And in the Asian market, where regulatory benchmarks are different, Xie says they will collaborate with insurance companies, clinics, hospitals and government agencies.

“Many medical professionals are excited about our product,” Xie says. “They have expressed interest in sampling it when it becomes available.”

Device and phone

One of the features that makes Lifestone different from competitors, according to the website, is blood pressure measurement. “Unlike other tricorder devices using estimated blood pressure through scanning your skin, Lifestone features an innovative detachable cuff, which is very easy to use, with a micro air pump that enables the real physical measurement of your blood pressure. This provides an accurate reading.”

The Lifestone team has set a lofty goal of $80,000, but saw early traction, raising more than half that from 338 backers, $15,000 of it in just the last two weeks. The First Believer packages at the $69 price point—which include a Lifestone device, a detachable blood pressure cuff, stethostone, the app and silicon protective case—went fast, with all 99 spots taken. Others packages are readily available from $79 and up. Some backers are pledging $169 and receiving two full packages. Lifestone plans to deliver orders in December.

“With the Lifestone wellness device, people can share their personal health data such as daily blood pressure with their loved ones, or they can send in-app messages with ECG and other measurements directly to their doctor without leaving home,” Xie says.

“Knowing your vital signs will be a huge issue … and our easy-to-use device will make it simple to monitor and share (the results) with family and doctors, around the corner or around the world, via our smartphone app,” he says.


This Kickstarter is live until Oct. 14 at 3:05 p.m. Support this project HERE.

Let your customers guide the process

Companies in growth mode have knowledge gaps –and FoundersWire’s newest expert, Chris Swenor, CEO of East Coast Product, wants to help fill them. He’ll be taking your tech-related questions and answering them here in this column every week. Submit yours today, RIGHT HERE, with the subject line: Tech & Tell.


By CHRIS SWENOR
@ECPBoston

 Q: What common mistake should we look out for as we begin creating our product/app?

A: Forgetting about your customers.

So many founders have an idea and start plowing ahead. They dream up these amazing features that are incredibly complex and take months to implement. They release them, and then … crickets. Nobody actually uses those features, or they use them and hate them, or they use them in unintended ways.

Don’t think for your customers. There’s no reason to create a product blindly. Even if you’re an expert in the space, you should still test every assumption and talk to your users. Make paper prototypes to see how they use the product with little investment. The earlier you bring the user into the process the more time and money you will save.

That being said, never build what a user tells you to build. Find the root cause of their request. Once you understand the cause, you can find the most innovative and efficient way to solve their problem. Also when you break it down to the source, it’s easier to solve multiple issues with one feature.


Chris Swenor is CEO and co-founder of East Coast Product, a digital product agency that works to enhance existing teams with the app development cycle—everything from strategy to design, to user testing, to development.

 Chris offers CTO and CPO guidance to ECP’s clients and the greater Boston tech community. Previously, Chris was the director of New Product Development at zMags and the CTO at Vsnap, both of which had successful exits. Outside of East Coast Product, Chris volunteers as the technical advisor for Resilient Coders. Interested in discussing product and learning more about ECP? Connect with Chris at chris@ecp.io.

Education is personal for Curriculum Associates chief

By SHELAGH BRALEY

NORTH BILLERICA, Mass.—Personalization is the future of education, experts say, defining curriculum with real-life skills, data-gathering tools and learning environments that meet individual students’ needs.

“This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. “It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money.”

Nowhere is this more important than in communities where the poverty divide has only grown in the last few decades. To disrupt this have and have-not dynamic, school districts are leveraging technology to better understand student needs, and make the most effective use of school resources.

Helping educators down this path is Curriculum Associates, champion of improved education for all. CEO Rob Waldron, deeply impassioned about what’s at stake for students, knows what he’s up against.

“I think the work of education is hard, and it’s principally done in the same way that great doctors and nurses are doing the healing,” he says. He likens that to the role of Curriculum Associates as they create educational materials (print and increasingly digital) that assess where a child is in the learning process.

“We try to figure out exactly where a child is, where they’re ready to learn, and then adjust the content to that child so they’re gaining whatever set of skills they need in the teacher’s view,” he says.

Waldron—a 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year—came on board Curriculum Associates in 2008, taking over for founder Frank Ferguson just when the effects of the recession were hitting schools the hardest, especially in lower-income districts.

“We work with … those kids who are on a spectrum of poverty,” he says, estimating that at least two-thirds of the students they serve receive a reduced lunch subsidy. The benefit of working in these communities is multifaceted, saving already-overstretched teachers a significant amount of time trying to assess where students are faltering, providing a simple way to share results with parents, and addressing students from where they are educationally, to lower their stress and increase success rates. They also serve private schools, Waldron notes.

Waldron says Curriculum Associates aims to create rigorous standards to ensure that students are consistently acquiring the tools they need for the future. “We want to make sure kids are ready, not just depending on people’s feelings—no, the kids are really learning,” he says. “(Teaching to the test) has had all these downstream consequences: You get people prepping for the test and not really learning.”

But what students need to learn is complex, and it isn’t always clear where they fall off track. That’s where Curriculum Associates does its best work.

“Is it a better deal to buy a pound of coffee for $9 or 12 ounces for $7.50?” Waldron asks, re-creating a typical question for students. “That’s a multi-step process, you’re doing fractions in your head,” he encourages. “You knew that ounces were part of a pound. That concept has to be taught.

“We’re behind the scenes capturing how many times a child has had trouble with this. We’ll grab those lessons and pull them out based on the fact that you have to work on conversions before you can work on fractions,” he says, “especially if English isn’t your first language.”

Waldron, a Harvard MBA whose driving force grew from his previous positions with Jumpstart, a non-profit focused on providing a strong educational foundation for preschoolers from under-resourced communities, as well as Kaplan Education, has expanded Curriculum Associates into the nation’s fastest growing K-12 education publishing company. His mission remains to improve classrooms everywhere.

“What we do has made a big difference, not just to teachers but to learners, families, and of course, to the administration of schools that are trying to figure out how to improve,” Waldron says.

He recognizes the trials of a legacy business such as publishing, but sees the opportunity only expanding—as company revenue has quadrupled under his leadership and added more than 300 new employees to the team since 2015. The pressure is also present to continually deliver innovation that meets—even surpasses—industry need.

“If we don’t perform and deliver great results, (our customers) are gone, because they’re subscribing annually. We have to keep making great content,” he says. It isn’t a significant worry, though, according to Waldron. “We have focus groups all the time,” he says, “and the biggest thing I see is our renewal rates. Our top 100 customers have a 99 percent renewal rate—they’re going to buy again next year.”

Those numbers are making an impact on students, with more than 3 million of them already using digital product iReady alone. Curriculum Associates serves more than 10 percent of all U.S. students in K-8 nationwide. “If a child uses our software for 45 minutes a week on average, they will have a 47 to 48 percent gain in English skills and a 65 percent gain in math skills,” Waldron says, citing research completed by the Educational Research Institute of America among others.

The student data tells the real story, and the happy ending is adaptability. When a lesson is deployed to 20,000 students, but only 5,000 get to mastery, the team is quick to respond, assess, change or even toss out the lesson. “Before, it would take five years for that (level of analysis and reaction) to happen,” he says, and goes on to describe how they can further segment student results to drill deeper. “(In specific): Why didn’t African-American boys on free lunch not get mastery of that lesson? We can figure that out.”

While Curriculum Associates continues to grow its customer base, students’ needs and expectations continue to evolve—with more parents and educators looking to digital content to make the difference.

“The change to adaptive learning is huge. It will take a number of years to get great, but I’m super excited about kids getting (lessons) at their level, and I’m excited about how content will improve,” Waldron says.

Growth does not come without its challenges, but for Waldron, solving this education puzzle is an achievable goal.

“I have to figure out how to give (students) hundreds of hours of norms-based content they find engaging … it’s a hell of a challenge. We have to keep cost low. It’s high stakes things like teaching kids how to read,” he says.

“It’s a huge Rubik’s cube that I find really exhilarating.”

Features and benefits don’t close sales

By SHELAGH BRALEY

What’s the secret to success in sales?

Understanding pain and following a proven process, says Greg Nanigian, a Boston-based expert sales trainer who has been sharing his own secrets to success with growing companies since 1987.

“You start with the customer’s pain and why it’s important,” Nanigian says. “Traditionally, salespeople focus on features and benefits, and they end up doing a lot of free consulting—and that only leads to ‘I’ll think it overs’ and ‘we’ll let you knows.’ It’s not really smart.”

Pain is just one part of a larger sales system, and it requires patience to truly tap into a customer’s psyche. “Usually what will happen is if a traditional salesperson starts to uncover pain, (the customer says) ‘We’re really frustrated,’ the salesperson starts to immediately present their wares and talk about how good they are—to which the customer will respond, ‘How much?’ and say, ‘Let me think about it and get back to you.’”

Nanigian says this selling process, though pervasive, is not effective. Features and benefits have a tendency to overwhelm a potential customer, rather than focusing on solving their problem.

“People don’t buy features and benefits, per se,” says Nanigian. “They buy ways to overcome their pain. Pain is a deep-seated emotional need that would compel someone to buy something.”

He gives this example: “For a software development company, a pain of their prospect could be how long it takes to get to market, or perhaps they’ve tried hiring developers who aren’t on their game or proficient. If the salesperson isn’t skilled at having a meaningful conversation with their prospect, where they are freely sharing their doubts, concerns, anxieties, or even anger about that pain, they’re going to fail.”

And just hearing the initial pain is never enough—you really have to dig into the issues and ask the right questions. Otherwise, that first attempt is also going to fall short.

“Although they may have heard the problem, they didn’t frame it around the proper system. The salesperson has to stay in control,” he says.

So how can you keep yourself from blurting out, “Hey, I can solve this one!”

Within the Sandler training system, there’s something called Identity Role Theory (IRT), Nanigian says, and it’s designed to keep the salesperson separate from the sale, so they can focus more on the prospect’s problem.

“There’s on old one-liner that says you are what you do,” Nanigian says, “but IRT says no, that’s not right, there’s a difference. By understanding that, by working to strengthen that, it enables the salesperson to not get emotionally involved in a sales call.”

The key is to step back, play third party to the selling situation, and follow the process.

“The effect of getting emotionally involved is that the salesperson loses control of themselves, and then loses control of the conversation,” Nanigian says.


Greg Nanigian and his team have used the Sandler methodology to help thousands of companies overcome challenges and increase sales and margins, through interactive sales training sessions and events. Nanigian is also author of the book, “Why Features and Benefits Don’t Sell and What Does.” Greg Nanigian and Associates, Inc. is an affiliate of Sandler Training, rated one of the top 20 training organizations in the world. Register for a complimentary session HERE.

Women who code: ‘Huge demand for high-tech expertise’

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Sometimes it takes a journey halfway around the world to bring home the importance of learning to code.

Lindsey Curran, 28, a full-stack developer, lives in the city, and graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in English and film studies.

“My first job out of college was with a web development company. I did a lot of testing for front-end functionality. That was where I really got interested in building something myself. (The work) wasn’t challenging enough for me,” she says, “so I started teaching myself to code at that point.”

Going to school for English and film studies, Curran says, was a pursuit she loved, but ultimately left her less skilled in practical work than she had hoped.

“I started college in 2007, which was at the point everyone said, ‘You can study anything you want and still get a job.’ Obviously that all changed very quickly,” Curran remembers.

Pointing to the value of keeping women in STEM, she says her sister, three years younger, benefited from her high school’s emphasis on demand for high-tech expertise in the work force. “She went on to study biology, and has had a lot of success in the biotech field. She had a lot more STEM exposure early on,” Curran says. “Pursuing those practical courses has more value when it comes time to pursue a career.”

On a walkabout to New Zealand with a six-month work visa, the draw of tech experience became very clear. “I just put myself out there. I’m halfway around the world by myself, and I realized a lot about the real demand for tech there. They didn’t want to hire anyone temporarily, so those opportunities weren’t for me, obviously. But it got me thinking more about it. And it was so beautiful there.”

She continued to work through learning code independently, but ultimately, Curran says she didn’t have the patience.

“Trying to teach yourself to code takes a special kind of person, she says. “I finally just made the commitment to accelerate my learning, so I went to WDI.

The web development immersive (WDI) program through General Assembly teaches a spectrum of skills and runs 12 weeks—at the end of which graduates are able to produce results and earn jobs in the tech field, where a junior developer makes in the ballpark of $60,000-plus a year.

“There’s a lot of demand for developers in Boston,” Curran says. “I have been very pleasantly surprised. WDI is really well rounded, they put a lot of emphasis on practical programming. I’m more inclined to do more full-stack than front end now.”

The bootcamp-style program took the class through a plethora of paces, Curran says. “We worked in JavaScript, Ember, Ruby on Rails … It was definitely worth the investment.”

There is some lingering doubt among the tech community, though, she says. “I think people look down on the bootcamp option, but it’s so hard to do on your own. I had a lot of people tell me, ‘don’t take the bootcamp, you can learn it by yourself, you don’t need it.’ But the program gives you the structure and you can learn so much faster.”

Once she completed her training, Curran was quickly courted for positions doing something she loves. Just this week, she accepted a position with General Electric as a UI engineer, Curran says.

“(Through the training program), I found I’m more interested in functional programming than purely front end,” she says.

“I think finding a job that challenges you and that you enjoy is important. It’s not all about the money,” she says. “At this point in my career, I was just looking for a company that will give me good work, and provide a good balance for my life. I can pick and choose, and that feels great.”


The pool of developers is diversifying, so FoundersWire is featuring those who have made the leap to learning this skill. If you are a coder (female or otherwise) in Boston, and you want to talk about your journey through learning to help diversify the industry and make it more accessible to others, please get in touch HERE.