Florida-based BlackJet raised north of $2 million last October from backers like Ashton Kutcher, Jay-Z, Will Smith, Salesforce.com CEO Mark Benioff, and Ryan Sarver, an ex-Twitter executive who earlier worked at Boston-based Skyhook Wireless. It planned to sell individual seats on private jets flying popular routes like New York — Los Angeles or Boston — San Francisco. (The company's site quotes a BOS — SFO one-way trip at $3,766.) But in order to buy those seats using BlackJet's website or mobile app, you'd have to pay an annual membership fee of $2,500. Members also had to give two days notice when they wanted to fly.
BlackJet was the new incarnation of a West Palm Beach company that had tried something similar as early as 2010, called Greenjets. But less than a year after BlackJet's splashy launch last fall, its chief technology officer had departed, and founder Garrett Camp — also chairman of Uber — was no longer even mentioning the company on his LinkedIn profile.
A former BlackJet employee, who requested anonymity, said that "you can't fly somebody for $3500 coast-to-coast and guarantee them a seat when it costs you $20,000 to fly the plane." Often, planes flew mostly empty. "And if you had eight people on the flight, nobody was happy and it was crowded."
"We were losing $200,000 a week," the ex-Blackjetter told me. Most of BlackJet's employees were laid off in September, this person said, after "the investors weren't willing to put in more money."
BlackJet CEO Dean Rotchin tells me via e-mail that he expected additional funding "in the second quarter of this year which did not come through." He says the company continues to offer a more traditional whole aircraft charter service, but has "curtailed" the per-seat offering "over the last few months."
"Many flights were already profitable, many were not," he says.
Rotchin says the key to operating the per-seat service profitably is, quite simply, attracting enough members who want to fly to the 10 cities BlackJet serves. "We spent almost nothing on membership acquisition [attracting members], and yet still reached decent flight-level economics," Rotchin writes. "We are leveraging this data, and looking for additional capital. We will acquire sufficient members and restart the service."
It'll be interesting to see whether BlackJet can find a way to take to the skies again...
The research firm CB Insights recently put together its list of the 15 tech companies that had the best "exits" in 2013 — that is, they delivered the richest return for their investors, whether they were acquired or went public. Topping the list was Veeva Systems, for example, which raised just $4 million of funding and was worth more than $4 billion after its initial public offering.
Three Massachusetts companies showed up on the list, including Crashlytics, a company that produces tools that help the developers of mobile apps better understand why they crash. Crashlytics raised about $6 million from local angel investors and Flybridge Capital Partners, a Back Bay venture capital firm, before being bought earlier this year by Twitter. The deal was originally valued at just north of $100 million, including some cash, Twitter stock, and stock options, but at Twitter's current stock price, the payout has risen to about $300 million.
And the company might never have existed if not for a young associate at Flybridge, Victoria Song, who introduced the two founders of Crashlytics to each other at a dinner she organized in early 2011. Song also brought the deal to Flybridge, where it is on track to become the firm's biggest hit so far. (Because of Securities and Exchange Commission rules, Flybridge can't sell its shares of Twitter until next May — six months after the IPO.)
Here's how it happened...
Song put together a dinner for entrepreneurs and angel investors at Beehive in the South End, back in January 2011. (It was part of the Dart Boston event series.) Among the attendees: Wayne Chang, a serial entrepreneur who was juggling several different projects, and Jeff Seibert, who was running the Boston engineering office of the cloud storage company Box. (Chang says he wasn't on the invite list for the dinner, but crashed it. Song says doesn't remember inviting him.)
Song went out for lunch with Chang a few weeks later, where she learned that he and Seibert were considering working together on a startup. "I wanted to get my firm exposed, but Wayne refused to put a pitch deck together, since it was too early and he had no plans to fundraise yet," she explains.
"So I put the pitch deck together myself and pitched it to my team, and then convinced Wayne and Jeff to do a casual breakfast with [Flybridge partners] David [Aronoff] and Chip [Hazard]," in April of 2011. "...A lot of investors began circling the deal as it was getting put together, but I stayed close and was fortunate to have built trust with Wayne and Jeff from the beginning, so they were happy to have us as investors. The rest is history." Crashlytics announced its initial funding round of $1 million that fall; Song says that Seibert and Chang first met seven of their eventual backers at that 2011 dinner at the Beehive.FULL ENTRY
Rethink was founded by Rodney Brooks, a former MIT professor who also co-founded iRobot Corp. One of the company's earliest backers was Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. Rethink unveiled its first product last September, a $22,000 manufacturing robot named Baxter that can be easily trained to do a wide range of tasks, and can work alongside humans. (Brooks is pictured at right with Baxter.)
Eckert says that the layoffs are the result of Rethink deciding to focus on the market segments that have been most receptive to Baxter since its launch, including plastics manufacturing, consumer goods, and warehousing and logistics. Rethink has also been selling Baxter to academic and corporate research labs in the U.S. and overseas.
In an e-mail, Eckert explained, "Instead of a broad approach to the market that we have had in the past, we can now focus on the best segments of the market and continue to drive rapid growth with a smaller team. Our volume trends are encouraging, our customer pipeline is encouraging, and we expect to see significant growth in 2014, however we will be able to achieve that in a more focused manner with fewer resources. We are going to continue to make substantial investments in Baxter’s software and hardware to expand the robot’s capabilities and market reach, and we have some other innovations up our sleeve as well."
LinkedIn shows about 90 employees working at Rethink, some of whom were likely part of this layoff, so it's a significant reduction for the company's workforce. Vice president of product development Elaine Chen has also departed the company, but Eckert said that was unrelated to the layoffs. "She has a number of other interests she wanted to pursue, but [we] wanted to make sure we got through the 2.0 release of Baxter’s software, which was a major capability upgrade and market expander for Baxter," he explains. Chen confirms that the timing was "actually coincidental," and says her departure had been "in the works for a while."
Rethink has so far raised about $75 million in venture capital, much of it from local firms like Charles River Ventures, Sigma Partners, and Highland Capital Partners.
And here's the twist: similar to errand services like Task Rabbit or transportation networks like Lyft, just about anyone who can find their way around the produce section can sign up to earn money as a grocery courier for Instacart. The company says that its "personal shoppers" earn an average of $20 an hour, but they're paid based on the number of orders they handle, and the size of those orders. It raises the interesting possibility of pocketing some extra dough by shopping for a few neighbors whenever you visit the store.
"My fridge was always empty," says Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta, right. "I just never had time to go to the grocery store during the day." Mehta previously worked to improve order fulfillment at Amazon, and as an engineer at Qualcomm and RIM. Instacart started in San Francisco, and expanded to Chicago in September; Boston is Instacart's third market. "Our goal is to offer an Amazon-like experience without building any the infrastructure, using crowdsourcing," Mehta says.
At first, Instacart will offer only groceries available at Shaw's. But it will eventually expand to offer items from Whole Foods and Costco and other stores, Mehta says, letting consumers purchase certain items from each store, and have them simply materialize on their doorstep a few hours later. Typically, Mehta says, if a consumer chose items from three different stores, that order would be filled by three different personal shoppers. Instacart says the food prices on its site can be the same or higher than the prices you'd pay in the store.
For consumers who request delivery in less than two hours, the company charges a $3.99 fee for orders over $35, and $7.99 for orders under $35. The minimum order is $10. The company says its fastest delivery was made in 19 minutes, but deliveries can also be scheduled for specific times or days when you'll be home. Instacart also offers a service similar to Amazon Prime: for $99 a year, all under two hour deliveries over $35 are free.
The company is in the process of signing a lease for its local office, in Cambridge's Central Square. Mehta tells me Instacart has already hired one person for its Boston operations, and plans to add two more.
The map of Instacart's initial delivery area, in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, is below:FULL ENTRY
Lagoa isn't focused on designing 3D objects from scratch— there's lots of software that enables that, from suppliers like Autodesk and PTC. Rather, the startup wants to make sharing and skinning easier. What does that mean, exactly? Lagoa's cloud-based software makes 3D objects accessible to non-engineers at a company, using just a web browser, and it can put a wide range of skins or surfaces onto rough 3D models, making them look much more like a finished product. (Like the car above.)
Lagoa's aim is to "speed up the process of collaboration by connecting people," says co-founder and CEO Thiago Costa. "You can have people working on a product in Boston, Germany, and Brazil, and everyone is seeing the same thing in real-time in their browser. They can look at it with any surface, and talk about what needs to change."
Costa says that Lagoa can import 3D objects made with a wide range of software programs — it supports more than 50 different file formats. But the company's "special sauce" is its MultiOptics rendering technology, which layers photo-realistic surfaces like canvas, fur, or stainless steel onto those objects. Costa says the images are good enough to be used in a catalog, or on an e-commerce website for ordering — even before the first physical product sample has been produced.
This latest funding round, which also includes Siemens and Real Ventures, brings the total that Lagoa has raised to about $7 million. The company's tech development will remain in Montreal, but sales and marketing operations will be based in Lagoa's new Boston office, led by Chris Williams, a veteran of both PTC and Dassault Systemes, two big local makers of 3D design software. Costa says there are about a half-dozen employees so far in Boston — and that he plans to join them in 2014, moving here from Montreal.
Costa says Lagoa will also use the new funding to continue improving the software. One forthcoming feature: being able to create videos of an object, spinning it around or flying a virtual camera around and through it.
A video demo from Lagoa is below:FULL ENTRY
Maybe not yet. But another student-run investing group is about to start putting money into campus startups, this time at Tufts University. The Tufts Venture Fund, formed last year by students including Eric Peckham and Alexandra Halbeck, has been out raising money from Tufts alumni with an aim of reaching $300,000. Faculty advisor James Barlow tells me that "they've been successful in securing $150,000 for certain, and they may actually be in the range of $250,000."
The fund "will probably launch next semester, and begin making investments pretty soon after," says Barlow, who runs the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program at Tufts' Gordon Institute. Investments will initially focus on currently-enrolled students, as opposed to recent graduates, and will max out around $25,000. The university will have a right to veto the fund's proposed investments — a right "it hopes not to exercise," Barlow says.
The fund's objective, according to a description Tufts provided, is to "help the most promising founders launch strong and gain the early traction necessary to raise a larger seed round of financing from top angel or venture capital investors around the country." It will also help connect entrepreneurs with relevant mentors from the Tufts alumni network. Perhaps the best-known Tufts alum in the entrepreneurial realm is Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay.
While the Tufts Venture Fund won't invest huge amounts of capital, Barlow says it could make the difference between a student deciding to chase her startup dream — or accept a full-time job instead. "This kind of third-party validation of an idea can be pivotal, in terms of students committing to their idea. Being able to say, 'I have a venture started, I've raised some money, and I'm showing some traction' is a pretty good reason not to take the job at Google or wherever," says Barlow.
The student investing team will include a mix of undergrads, grad students, and Tufts alumni.
A six-person Cambridge startup called Exaptive is working on it, creating a collection of visualization "building blocks" that can be assembled in different ways to get new views into datasets. "If you're trying to develop new treatments for a disease, you might want to see a heat map of the genes that are varying the most in the disease, but also have a word cloud next to it to see what researchers are saying about how those genes work, from all the PubMed articles about them," says Dave King, Exaptive's CEO and co-founder. (King is on the right in the photo, with co-founder and COO Michael Perez.) King started the company in 2012; Perez joined him earlier this year.
The startup has already been collaborating on data visualizations with early users at Harvard's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, the Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis, and geoscientists at Penn State. Exaptive's initial focus has been on working with early users to build custom visualizations for their data sets, but now it is starting to license its platform to customers who want to create their own visualizations. Eventually, King says that Exaptive hopes to create an app store or marketplace where anyone can sell visualization modules they have built, buy modules they need, and even combine two or more modules. King and Perez refer to these modules as "Xaps" (pronounced "zaps"), and say they can be written in various programming languages like PHP, Python, and R.
"Data visualization is a hugely powerful tool," says King. "It lets computers do what they're good at, and then it enables humans to identify what's interesting in the data set." Earlier this year, the company has raised a small seed round of funding from friends and family, and it is already cash flow positive.
Video demo is below, as is a screenshot of Exaptive's software used to explore a scientific research dataset related to multiple sclerosis.FULL ENTRY
Director of client services Suzy Tepper, in Blank Label's Newbury Street showroom.I've been tracking Blank Label since the apparel startup was born in 2009, on the campus of Babson College. From the beginning, the company's vision was to give men the opportunity to buy custom-tailored clothes at more affordable prices than they might have expected.
I checked out the Blank Label site when it first launched — but didn't wind up purchasing anything. (I wanted to know what kind of fabric the shirts were made of, and it didn't tell you.) But while researching a recent column about e-commerce companies opening brick-and-mortar showrooms in Boston, I stopped by Blank Label's third-floor space on the corner of Newbury and Gloucester Streets. And I decided to order a pair of $95 chinos — a product that Blank Label only recently started selling. (They're not yet available on the website.)
Blank Label decided to open up showrooms in Boston and Chicago (and next year, in Washington, D.C.) after it realized that many men were more comfortable buying custom apparel when they could try something on, touch the fabric, evaluate the different options, and get measured by someone who knows how to properly use a tape measure. And the showroom experience is pretty luxe: you make an appointment, you're the only client in the showroom, and you're walked through all of the choices (the company currently offers shirts, pants, and suits in its showrooms). Director of client services Suzy Tepper offers her advice; with her help, I picked out a pair of gray cotton chinos — a color I probably wouldn't have otherwise considered. Once I tried on a pair they had at the showroom, Tepper took my measurements, entered them into an iPad, and told me that I could come back to pick them up in two weeks. (Shirts are made in seven days, Tepper says.) I paid with a credit card.
I really liked the in-person, low-key shopping experience at Blank Label's showroom. But what happened afterward left a bit to be desired. I never got the promised e-mail receipt; Tepper told me that chino orders hadn't yet been properly integrated into the company's system. Seventeen days after my visit to the showroom, I e-mailed Tepper to ask about the pants. She told me that it had been a busy fall, but that the pants would arrive in two days. The company invites customers to come back to the showroom to try on the merchandise, in case additional alterations are required. (Tepper also offered to mail the pants to my house.) We exchanged numerous e-mails to try to find a time when Tepper and I were both available. When I finally managed to get back to the showroom, the pants fit perfectly — but some stitching on a belt loop ripped as I was putting them on. Tepper told me that someone could fix that quickly. I went to eat lunch, then returned 45 minutes later to finally get the pants.
The pants are great — much better-fitting and more comfortable than any off-the-rack chinos that I own. But I have two quibbles with the process. First, it would be much more convenient if I could have scheduled my visits to the showroom online, rather than with a string of e-mails to Tepper. And second, with shirts, the company makes it possible to re-order additional ones online after you've been measured in the showroom. That feature isn't yet available with pants. "If you wanted to order another pair of chinos," Tepper explained in an e-mail, "you simply contact me and let me know what color you would like, make an appointment, or I would email you color swatches to assist you with color choices. Once decided, our tailors would make your chinos based on your previous chinos pattern."
Also, given that the pants were custom-made, it would've been nice to have some kind of personalized label or monogram or even a Blank Label tag on the inside. But the pants were totally unadorned, as was the gray shopping bag they came in.
Overall, I was happy with the final product I received— but I found the process to be more time-intensive than it needed to be.
A new Boston-built mobile app called BetrSpot wants to become your end-run around those situations — and also your lengthy waits at concert venues, Fenway, and the RMV. BetrSpot provides a way for you to offer someone else money for their prime table or place in line. It's a crazy twist on peer-to-peer commerce, but it'd be quite useful if it takes off. The app is still being beta tested, but Cambridge-based BetrSpot is developing versions for Android and iPhone.
"We call it a market for micro-real estate," says founder Andrew Rollert, below. "You may not own the spot you're sitting in or standing in, but you can release it at will. And we think that kind of market is useful in all kinds of situations, like the long line for the restroom at a football game, or the cardio machine at your gym during rush hour."
Rollert got a lot of ink for his previous startup, SpotScout, which had a similar idea: help people find empty parking spaces on the street and in garages. But that one didn't take off. So, he says, "We switched from thinking about space for your vehicle to space for your body. It's parking for your butt."
Rollert says about 100 people have been testing the app thus far. And he's hoping for a nice bump in usage on Black Friday, when he expects people to try buying or selling places in line outside stores.
Here's how it works... Let's imagine you're on an overcrowded Amtrak train with no seats. You can post a request, specifying, for instance, that you only want a window seat. You name the price you're willing to pay. (Say, $10.) Someone else using the app can see your request and accept your price — maybe they are getting off in two stops anyway, and are happy to stand for a while. Once the app has found a willing buyer and seller, it shows the buyer the seller's picture (but not his name) and gives the two parties a password to use, if necessary. After the transaction, that $10 is sent electronically from buyer to seller, with BetrSpot adding a 10 percent fee on top. So you've paid $11 for the chance to sit down on your trip from Boston to Philadelphia.
Sellers can also post spots they're willing to vacate, specifying the price that they'd accept. Maybe $50 would be enough to persuade you to watch that football game from home, rather than waiting for a day-of-game ticket...
Rollert and I met last week at Barrington Coffee Roasting in Fort Point Channel, and by chance, when we arrived, the place had only standing room available at a circular table. We waited a few moments, and a four-person table opened up, which we grabbed. But as we spoke, the café filled up, to the point where at least one patron opened the door, saw their was no place to sit, and turned around and left. Rollert couldn't resist looking at that as a problem his app could have solved. "We could post our table for $6, and we could leave here with a profit, since our scone and tea cost less than that," he said.
Of course, it's easy to see how BetrSpot could create some perverse incentives — "I'm gonna hang out at Starbucks until someone buys my seat for $5" — but it's also an appealing concept. If someone wanted to earn a little extra money by becoming a professional stander-in-line at the RMV, and I could purchase a 10-minute wait for $20, I'm not sure I'd mind.
What about you? Are there situations you can imagine wanting to buy or sell a spot? Or do you think the BetrSpot app would create a new class of scalpers — space scalpers? Post a comment...
(I last wrote about Rollert in 2003, when he was working on an early wireless networking idea for cars, allowing them to receive music files, e-mails, and traffic information.)
Shareaholic founder and CEO Jay Meattle tells me via e-mail that he plans to "re-focus my energy on product and distribution. ...It has been an incredible journey so far, and we’re just getting started!" Meattle says he and Balazy were first introduced by Rob Go of NextView Ventures, one of Shareaholic's backers.
Shareaholic says its tools are used by more than 200,000 publishers. Aside from enabling social sharing of content by site visitors, the tools offer site owners detailed analytics about what is being shared and how. Thus far, Shareaholic has raised $5.5 million from General Catalyst, NextView Ventures, Kepha Partners, 500Startups, Boston Seed Capital, and a number of angel investors including David Cancel, Dharmesh Shah, and the Kraft Family.
That, in case you have shed some of what you learned about human anatomy, is the area under your chin. And a Boston startup, Topokine Therapeutics, is announcing today that it is starting Phase 2 clinical trials of a topical gel that could combat the dreaded double chin. Topokine hopes its gel will be an alternative to cosmetic surgery for some people — if it can win FDA approval.
Phase 1 trials are generally conducted to prove a drug is safe, and Phase 2 to show that it does what it is intended to do. But Topokine says that its Phase 1 trial, in which healthy volunteers applied its XAF5 gel to their abdomen, already showed some reduction in fat, as observed by CT scans that compared people using the gel to people using a placebo. In the Phase 2 trial, the gel will be tested under the chin. The company is also working on an ointment that may be able to reduce bags under the eyes.
Topokine's gel is based on an already-approved drug that it is formulating in a new way. "We haven't yet released the name of the drug that we're using," says CEO Murat Kalayoglu. But it seems "to inhibit lipid synthesis, transport, and storage." In other words, it blocks the formation of fat cells under the skin, and shrinks fat cells that are already there. Do the fat cells go somewhere else in the body — perhaps one's thighs? Kalayoglu says that when the company has studied the gel in rodents and other small animals, it doesn't seem to. "We see an overall reduction in adiposity," he says. "These animals from an obesity and diabetic perspective are improved." Sounds promising...
The company announced earlier this year that it had secured funding from Boston-based Schooner Capital, but it didn't divulge the amount. Topokine will likely compete with Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, a publicly-traded California company that is developing a drug for submental fat. But Kythera's drug is delivered via injection.
Pictured above are Topokine chief scientific officer Michael Singer and Kalayoglu. (Note the tight chins.) The initial science for Topokine was done at Mass Eye & Ear Infirmary, and both Singer and Kalayoglu have worked there.
A Cambridge startup called Mapkin wants to revive that personalized approach to cartography, with an iPhone app that promises to "make GPS fun." Mapkin has raised $200,000 in seed funding so far, from angel investors like Avid Technology founder Bill Warner and former Brightcove exec Bob Mason, and is working on raising more now.
Mapkin founders Marc Regan and John Watson previously worked together at Nuance, the Burlington-based speech recognition company, developing some of its early voice-driven mobile apps like Dragon Go. (In the photo below, Regan is on the far right, Watson second from left.)
"GPS navigation does one thing extremely well, which is getting you to the destination as fast as possible," says Regan. "But what if you want to point out the great coffee shop on the way, or know about the most scenic route for a bike ride?" That's the kind of situation Mapkin was created for. The app lets you create and share your own routes, complete with written or spoken notes on points of interest.
Regan says he used a prototype version of the app last year for guests at his wedding. "We got married in Jackson, New Hampshire, and the route took people on the shortcuts we know, pointed out the ski condo we rent every year, and brought them right to the reception. It was a fun way to make the experience start when people walked out the door." It's also easy to imagine Mapkin being helpful when you throw a party, and want to highlight the best places to park near your apartment (or the best place to pick up a bottle of wine or a 12-pack on the way.)
Maps created with Mapkin can be shared on Twitter, Facebook, or via an e-mailed link, and the recipient doesn't need to have the mobile app to view them. The four-person team is based at the Intrepid Labs shared space in East Cambridge.
But it sounds like this is a toe-in-the-water experiment for NEA — at least for now. Partner Dave Mott, right, who heads the firm's healthcare practice, will spend most of his time in Boston. But he isn't moving here. Partners Jim Barrett and Ed Mathers will also be using the new Cambridge office, but on an as-needed basis. All three partners focus on healthcare deals.
NEA has already been a pretty active player in Boston and Cambridge: about half of the firm's partners have put money into about two dozen companies locally, including Epizyme, Proteostasis Therapeutics, PatientKeeper, Philo, and Care.com. NEA has also been a supporter of the orphan drug accelerator Cydan, and was a founding partner in the Experiment Fund, which makes seed investments in student startups on the East Coast, and is based at Harvard. Last year, Dayna Grayson of North Bridge Venture Partners traded Waltham for Maryland to join the firm.
NEA is currently making investments out of a $2.6 billion fund raised last year. The firm invests in tech, healthcare, and energy companies.
OneCloud doesn't have much of a website yet, and Crespi didn't want to say much when we spoke last week. But the founder of the company, Suresh Madhu, has been working on OneCloud since the summer of 2012, when he left the Cambridge office of VMware. Tom Barone, formerly at Vlingo, is working part-time as OneCloud's CFO, and Crespi, right, says the company is currently hiring its first few engineers.
"The tagline for the company is 'enabling the elastic datacenter,'" Crespi says. "What that really means is giving enterprises a platform where they can begin to leverage [cloud-based services from companies like] Amazon and Google in meaningful ways that reduce the complexity of IT operations like disaster recovery. We'll go beyond that over time, but for now you can say that we're simplifying and reducing data center costs by leveraging the big public cloud guys."
The company has already raised an initial funding round from Charles River Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners; I was unable to confirm the exact amount, but one source pegged it in the single digit millions. The company is operating out of CRV's Kendall Square offices as it hunts for its own space in Boston or Cambridge. Bruce Sachs of CRV and Felda Hardymon of Bessemer did the deal.
Here's a video from June 2012 of Madhu talking about some of the ideas behind OneCloud.
Peter Boyce, an associate at General Catalyst who helps oversee Rough Draft, says the student team made 15 investments last year, but are "not announcing all of them yet, as some are remaining stealth." Boyce, a recent Harvard College alum, was part of the student team in 2012-2013, which was Rough Draft's first year of operation.
The first batch of investments included RequestNow, a song requesting service for DJs, and Tessel, an easily-programmable microcomputer that recently raised almost $200,000 on the crowdfunding site Dragon Innovation. Boyce says that the founders Rough Draft has backed have gone on to raise over $3 million in seed funding, and have been accepted to Y Combinator, the first TechStars Chicago class, Summer@Highland, and the Thiel Fellowship.
This year's group has been meeting weekly since mid-September at General Catalyst's Harvard Square offices. Rough Draft is holding a free event for student entrepreneurs this coming Monday.
The team this year includes:FULL ENTRY
The funding round is being led by Bilal Zuberi of Lux Capital, who previously worked at General Catalyst, the Cambridge venture capital firm that provided CyPhy's first infusion of cash. CyPhy has now raised about $10 million in total equity funding, but the company has also received several government R&D grants.
What makes CyPhy's drones unique is that they're tethered to a portable command station on the ground by a "microfilament" that's thinner than the cord on your headphones. The tether lets them stay up for extended periods, enables them to send high-def video to the ground, and makes jamming or intercepting their communications difficult. They're designed to be flown low to the ground, and even into buildings or under bridges. (I wrote about the company last December, when it first unveiled its flying bots.)
CyPhy's primary customers thus far, Greiner says, have been the Pentagon and the U.S. Army. But the new funding will be used to develop UAVs for commercial uses, she explains, in industries that may include agriculture, mining, oil and gas production, and construction. But commercial drones likely won't be cleared for take-off by the Federal Aviation Authority before 2015.
Greiner won't disclose the current employee count, but LinkedIn pegs it at about 10. Several are iRobot alumni.
I wrote recently in the Globe about web retailers like Gemvara, Bonobos, and Blank Label experimenting with retail spaces. Gemvara's is designed to explain the company's build-whatever-you-imagine approach to jewelry, and to let customers try on a range of different items (some with real gemstones, some with synthetic ones). But all purchases will be made on tablet computers or the showroom's two in-store iMacs. The store will be staffed by existing Gemvara employees, some of whom volunteered to participate in a retail training bootcamp.
The project has been overseen by Callie Smith, Gemvara's director of online mechandising (above), and CEO Janet Holian. Holian tells me the company is open to the notion of a permanent showroom in Boston or New York, but probably not in the current location. Holian says the company will be attempting to measure whether the Newbury Street location, along with some highway billboards the company is buying around the city, have an impact on online sales in the Boston area.
Photos below...They were still putting the finishing touches on the space when I visited today at 5 PM.FULL ENTRY
A couple highlights:
On finding a co-founder: "It was actually kind of a nightmare."
On how successful tech companies are built: "There's actually not a lot of magic. It's a lot of iteratively trying to make reasonable decisions, and get the smartest people you can around you."
On the perennial debate about the best place to start a tech company: "You come to your own verdict. Obviously, there are good companies started all over the world, like Groupon in Chicago. ...Visiting and now living in the Bay Area was a really eye-opening experience. There's so much of an ecosystem, so much institutional knowledge of how to take a couple scruffy undergrads and shepherd them along to creating a billion-dollar company. That's just unmatched anywhere in the world."
On what's next for Dropbox: "We're trying to build the home for your important stuff," and also reach one billion users.
Some of the other questions and topics Houston covers...
• How he found mentors and a co-founder
• His experiences at Bit9, a Waltham security company, and the support executives there provided as he was starting Dropbox
• Why he built a bot to play online poker with his own money
• Unexpected roadblocks
• His unscheduled visit to see Paul Graham, founder of the Y Combinator accelerator program
• The original YouTube video he made to demo Dropbox, and try to get accepted to Y Combinator
• How a student should evaluate a startup if he or she is applying for a job or internship
• Reading books on sales, marketing, and finance on the roof of his MIT fraternity house
• What's next for Dropbox
The audio is a little on the quiet side... you may find it helpful to listen with headphones.
Update: Fitbit's Boston office will be at 250 Summer Street in Fort Point Channel... the same building that will house Paul English's new startup incubator Blade. They plan to move in sometime in December.
All three companies were founded by Harvard drop-outs, all three have headquarters on the Left Coast, and all three now have Boston outposts.
Fitbit may not be as well-known as those first two, but the San Francisco startup has been a leader of the digital fitness revolution — sometimes dubbed "quantified self" — with a wristband that can monitor your workouts, the steps you take each day, and the quality and duration of your sleep. (The Fitbit Flex, at right, sells for $99, and it lights up to show you whether you're achieving your goals.) The company was founded in 2007, and has since raised $66 million in venture capital. Over the summer, it quietly began building a Boston engineering office.
Fitbit co-founder James Park confirms that the company currently has six employees working out of a shared office on Newbury Street, and says Fitbit is "aggressively building a fairly substantial team." Park founded two startups in Boston before moving west. One, Arlington-based Windup Labs, focused on photo-sharing and was acquired by CNET in 2005. That acquisition pulled Park and Windup co-founder Eric Friedman to San Francisco, where CNET is based.
Running the new Boston office of Fitbit is William Crawford, who was an investor in Windup Technologies. Crawford was previously CEO of Linked Medical, an e-healthcare startup.
Park tells me he is looking for a new, larger space in Boston's Innovation District. He says that Fitbit's first dedicated Boston office will be large enough to accommodate 40 to 50 employees. As a former Bostonian, Park says, "It’s great to have a reason to visit much more often."
Not bad for a company that, when I visited in September 2012, had just begun building its first handful of production printers. Formlabs says it has since shipped 900 of the machines, which now sell for $3300. They use a Blu-ray laser to transform a light-sensitive liquid resin into solid three-dimensional objects. My favorite video showing the Form1 at work is below.
The company has now raised $20.8 million in equity investment (that doesn't include the $3 million of Kickstarter pre-orders.) It says it'll use the new funding for hiring in Somerville, and also expanding the company's international marketing and customer support capabilities.
As for the patent infringement suit, which hasn't yet been resolved, co-founder Natan Linder writes via e-mail, "There are conversations going on that we can’t comment on. But it’s not stopping us from doing what we need to do to bring the product to market, and to make Formlabs the best 3D printer out there."
Formlabs was founded in 2011 by a trio of engineers and researchers from MIT's Media Lab. (One of the three founders, David Cranor, pictured at left in the photo, left the company at the end of last year. In the middle is Linder, and on the right is Maxim Lobovsky.) There's a fun story about how they got their initial funding which involves Mitch Kapor, a meal at Legal Seafoods, and a tweet. You can read it here.FULL ENTRY
But its days of shacking up with Microsoft in Kendall Square are numbered. And it looks like TechStars Boston might be on the verge of hopping the Red Line and relocating to the Leather District, near South Station. According to several real estate industry sources, TechStars is close to subletting space formerly occupied by the FlipKey unit of TripAdvisor at 179 Lincoln Street; the FlipKey team will be moving into new TripAdvisor space near North Station. TechStars will occupy about 12,000 square feet, and will share the space will be Startup Institute, a training program for would-be tech workers that originally sprang from TechStars Boston.
Katie Rae, managing director of TechStars Boston, wouldn't confirm the location, and she wasn't ready to talk about the new digs. But she did say that TechStars expects to move out of its current space sometime in mid-January, before its spring cohort of entrepreneurs arrives. The sublet on Lincoln Street would run through October 2015. Cassidy Turley, one of TechStars' sponsors, has been helping the accelerator with its lengthy search for a new home.
179 Lincoln is on the edge of the Leather District, facing Chinatown, and only a few blocks from South Station. Its a neighborhood that has attracted a new wave of startups as rents in Cambridge and the Innovation District have risen, including Rest Devices, Ministry of Supply, TurningArt, SpreadShirt, and Uber Boston. If TechStars nails down this lease, its building-mate at 179 Lincoln will be NextView Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund.
The challenge of finding a new home is one reason that TechStars has fallen off its pace of running two programs a year, in the spring and fall. "We didn't know if we' d have space for a fall program," says Rae, "and also, Reed [Sturtevant] and I needed a small break. There will be two classes next year, and what feels right to us is about a class every nine months. So some years, it'll be two classes, and some years it will be one." Sturtevant is the other managing director at TechStars Boston.
(The photo above is from TechStars' most recent demo day, held in May.)
It happens about as often as you see an 18-wheeler wending its way through Beacon Hill... but LinkeDrive is publicly promoting its first product down in Orlando this week, at the annual American Trucking Association Conference & Exhibition. The company makes an app called PedalCoach that tried to encourage lead-footed drivers to save fuel.
"Drivers typically get paid by the mile, and so naturally they want to do as many miles as they can, as fast as they can," says founder and CEO Jeff Baer. "But driving fast isn't the most efficient way to move a truck. And the cost of fuel is 30 to 40 percent of operating expenses for most trucking companies." The PedalCoach app, pictured below, displays a red, yellow, and green light to give drivers feedback on the way they're driving, reinforcing fuel-saving techniques like going slow up hills, and dinging them when they do things like race toward a red light, then brake. There's also a leaderboard for each fleet of trucks, showing which drivers are hustling down the highway most efficiently.
Baer, a former sales exec at the battery-maker A123 Systems and powertrain engineer at Ford, asserts that the app can save trucking fleets an average of five cents a mile. He says that some of that money typically gets paid to drivers who meet the company's fuel efficiency objectives. PedalCoach runs on an Android phone on the dash, and communicates with a small Bluetooth device plugged into the truck's diagnostic port, which supplies information about fuel usage and vehicle speed. "Mathematically, our app knows the most efficient way to move a truck, and it adapts to different kinds of trucks hauling different kinds of loads," Baer says. "Every mile that you drive with the green light on the app, you hear a 'cha-ching' sound to let you know you're earning money."
LinkeDrive's first customer is Arrow Paper of Wilmington, which operates a fleet of 10 trucks that deliver supplies to restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. But Baer says that there are 11 other fleets using the technology in more than 100 vehicles. The company has 10 employees, and has already raised some angel funding, Baer says.
Five months later, the Sox are in the American League Championship Series, and Fancred is announcing that it has finished raising the $1.5 million it hoped to raise at TechStars Demo Day. Investors include Atlas Venture, Militello Capital, Star Power Partners, and an interesting collection of angels including Linda Pizzuti Henry, Acquia founder Jay Batson, Boston Chicken mogul George Nadaff, Bob Mason, Elisabeth Bentel-Carpenter, Ed Godin, and Adam Berrey. Those last four are all veterans of Brightcove, the Boston video hosting company, which was also a proving ground for several members of Fancred's founding team, including CEO Hossein Kash Razzaghi. (Razzaghi, who goes by Kash, is pictured above with Big Papi.)
Fancred's iPhone app is a place where fans, sports commentators, and franchises can share sports-related news and opinions, organized by team, and build up points that indicate just how much of an authority they are. Fancred has 10 employees, and is still operating out of the TechStars accelerator office in Kendall Square. The Sox were the first professional team to take ownership of their profile on Fancred, and Mississippi State was the first university to do so, Razzaghi says. The app is free, and the company is still pre-revenue.
Fancred had raised about $750,000 before it entered the TechStars Boston program in February. Razzaghi says they collected commitments for another $250,000 during the program, and $500,000 after it.
He had the chance to pitch Linda Pizzuti Henry, wife of Sox owner John Henry, in the owner's suite at Fenway last September. It was the tail end of a pretty rotten season, and the Sox lost the game, but Razzaghi says it was "an awesome experience" — and he persuaded Henry to invest. (Disclosure: John Henry has agreed to buy this very website and the Boston Globe, but the acquisition hasn't yet closed.)
When I spoke with Razzaghi on Demo Day, he said he was in talks with Ortiz and his managers about joining the investor syndicate, or perhaps signing on as a spokesperson. That hasn't happened yet — but Ortiz, of course, has been a busy guy these past few months.
She spent four years developing what became the Sketch Drawing Engine for Disney. The guiding philosophy, Frisken says, "Was that it is so easy to pick up a piece of paper and sketch out an idea. We wanted to do that same thing with software, where you could just open it and start to draw."
This past summer, Frisken, a former Tufts computer graphics prof, released a new version of the software, called Mischief. She's targeting professional artists and designers who tend to use a tablet and stylus for input — though you can use a mouse, too. The software sells for $65, and it's available for Macs and PCs. (Frisken says she's thinking about an iPad version, too.)
The software got a nice bump when it was released in June, when Adobe blogger John Nack mentioned it. That led to about 10,000 downloads of the trial version in just one month, Frisken tells me. But the company, 61 Solutions, still consists of just Frisken and a handful of contractors. She has boot-strapped the Cambridge startup so far, but may try to raise outside funding soon.
It'll be interesting to see how this movie ends...
But Tom Summit, a long-time tech recruiter based in Newburyport, says that despite fielding cold-calls and being spammed on LinkedIn, developers often don't consider all their options when they're ready to change jobs. "Engineers don't create a market for themselves," Summit says. "When they're ready to make a move, they ask a friend who works at an interesting company to help them get an interview. Logic says you should get multiple offers to maximize your compensation, but many of them don't."
Summit's new site, MakerHire, isn't for every software developer. He says it'll curate the good ones, and then similarly select a group of "financially viable" tech companies that are actively hiring. Hiring managers — not recruiters or HR execs — will be able to see the developers' LinkedIn profile or résumé, and request contact. "A candidate can release the information to them if they want, or not," Summit says. One key feature: hiring managers must specify how much the job pays up front, as opposed to asking developers to navigate the interview process before they find out.
Summit's site already lists startups like Backupify, Shareaholic, Yesware, and CustomMade as participants in MakerHire's first "showcase," an online event that lasts for a month; he says his goal is to enable developers to evaluate at least fifty different companies when they're ready to jump. MakerHire charges a placement fee when someone is hired through the site: 12 percent of the individual's first-year salary. (That's lower than a traditional recruiter's fee, which typically start at around 15 percent.)
"When engineers call their friends, they may get a good-enough job offer," Summit says. "We're trying to make it possible to explore the market for your skills, even if it turns out your friend's company is the best place for you."
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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December 9: Web Innovators Group
Demos of new mobile apps and web ventures at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge. Free admission; cash bar.
December 10: Fintech Demo Day
Short demos from startups in the financial technology realm.
December 11: Unpitch
Entrepreneurs and investors sit down for lunch, advice, and feedback. Entrepreneurs must apply to participate.