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In Providence, nine Betaspring start-ups strut their stuff for investors

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 19, 2010 08:10 PM

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betaspring.jpgEntrepreneurs pitched subscription underwear delivery services, medical devices to alleviate the pain of being poked with a needle, and an iPhone app that could bring back the days of Fonzie and the jukebox this afternoon at the annual Betaspring Demo Day in Providence. Betaspring offers fledgling companies twelve weeks of free office space and mentorship, along with a small cash stipend/investment that ranges from $15,000 to $20,000. (Betaspring co-founder Allan Tear described it as “rent and Ramen money” for the summer.) At the end of the program, investors gather to see ten-minute demos from each company.

This summer’s crop of nine companies were looking to raise anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000 to continue building their products and bring on software developers, marketing staff, and business development executives.

betaspringroom.jpgA few quick impressions:

  • Tu.nr was the app I most wanted to start using, right now. The idea is to reimagine the jukebox for the iPhone age. Once you’ve got the tu.nr app, and you’re in a bar or nightclub that’s also using tu.nr to play music in the venue, you can vote for the songs you’d most like to hear from a library of tracks. Songs with the most votes rise up the playlist. Most places where music is played already pay a licensing fee to rights clearinghouses like ASCAP and BMI, so tu.nr wouldn’t also have to license the music itself: they describe the app as essentially a communal remote control for the venue’s sound system. Tu.nr users might even be willing to pay a buck for the right to request their favorite song, or a few bucks to become the venue's DJ for a half-hour.

  • Manpacks has done, by far, the best job marketing itself and getting the business up and running. The company operates a “subscription service for men’s essentials,” in the words of co-founder Ken Johnson. Right now, that means they send a package of undies, socks, and t-shirts out to subscribers on a regular basis. (Twenty percent of customers so far are women buying the service for a husband or boyfriend.) Eventually, the founders plan to also offer items like razors, deodorant, and, yes, condoms. The company has racked up mentions on NPR, in the NY Times and Maxim magazine, and will be featured in a forthcoming issue of Inc. (Best audience heckle of the day: Johnson explained that he and his co-founder had been collaborating on various projects over the past ten years. An audience member asked, “How long have you been wearing underwear?” Another: “How long have you been wearing men’s underwear?”)

    meddevice.jpg

  • Diavibe nearly had the most dramatic demo I’ve seen in a while. The medical device (at right) uses vibration, instead of a topical anesthetic, to numb an area of skin before an injection. Many people, explained co-founder Adam Leonard, are needle-phobic. Another team member came out and stuck the Diavibe device onto his bare bicep, and just when it looked like he was going to actually poke himself with a hypodermic to prove the prototype’s effectiveness…….. nothing.

  • Catapulter has built a nifty little transportation database to help you plan trips that involve ground transportation, not flights. How can you get from the campus of Brown University to Princeton, New Jersey, for instance? Catapulter looks at options including taxis, buses, train, and ferries. Users can adjust parameters like how far they are willing to walk between modes of transit, or whether they’d prefer a slightly more expensive trip to one that requires an extra hour or two of travel time. The company expects to earn referral fees by helping to sell bus and train tickets, but it could also be an appealing acquisition for a bigger company like Kayak, Expedia, or Google.

  • Tracealytics is developing tools for monitoring a Web site’s performance and quickly diagnosing problems. The company’s user interface was designed so elegantly and thoughtfully, with undulating graphs to help pinpoint problems, that it made tackling a bogged-down database look like a breeze.

  • Also demoing were DataBraid, Web-based statistical software for academic researchers; Jobzle, a job board targeted at college students; Periscape, a social network geared to the people who frequent local establishments like coffee shops and bars; and SensibleSelf, developing sensors to track users’ exercise and health-related habits (like popping vitamins.)

    There was a big Boston contingent in the crowd, including Reed Sturtevant and Katie Rae of Project 11 Ventures; Lee Hower from NextView Ventures; Eric Hjerpe from Kepha Partners; and Tom Burgess, founder of Third Screen Media, now working on a new digital marketing start-up called Clovr Media. Also present was Ji Kim, founder of Dijipop, a 2009 Betaspring company that has subsequently attracted about $1 million in funding.

    horan.jpg

    Richard Horan of the Slater Technology Fund with David Hibbitt, founder of ABAQUS.

    tunr.jpg

    The team from Tu.nr: Jamie Brim and Jack Gill.

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    Brian Krejcarek talks about SensibleSelf after the demos.

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    Betaspring co-founder Allan Tear.

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    BatchBlue CEO Pamela O'Hara with Annette Tonti, CEO of Mofuse.

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    Joe Caruso of Bantam Group with Tom Burgess of Clovr Media.

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    Forbes journo Maureen Farrell toted along her copy editor, Cecilia.

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    On my way out, Betaspring co-founder Owen Johnson told me that his team hopes to make the once-a-year program a biannual or triannual event, perhaps with a thematic focus for the added editions, such as medical devices. That’d be great news for the New England entrepreneurial scene. That's Johnson pictured above with Jon Pierce, a founder of Betahouse, the Cambridge co-working space.

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