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Can Pavlok's wristband zap you into better shape?

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 25, 2014 02:30 PM

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Plenty of people have started sporting wristbands from Fitbit, Mistfit, or Nike to track how much they walk or exercise each day. But if just looking at a chart of your activity level — or sharing it on Facebook — isn't motivation enough, a Boston startup called Pavlok may have the answer.

It is designing a wristband that can give you a not-so-gentle electric shock when you miss your fitness goals.

The startup came to Boston last summer, after winning admission to the Bolt accelerator program under the name Behavioral Technologies. Pavlok is planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign soon to raise money for its first batch of bracelets, says founder Maneesh Sethi.

"It's not about the shock as much as it is about training your brain to do the things you say you're going to do," Sethi says. Negative reinforcement, a/k/a punishment, "really does make people pay attention," he says, adding that he studied with behavior change expert BJ Fogg at Stanford. (Sethi didn't graduate.)

Sethi previously built a motivational website called Get It Done in 30; he also gained some notoriety in 2012 for hiring a woman to slap his face when he got off task. (Where else? From Craigslist.) He also runs the "life hacking" website Hack the System.

sethi.jpg"The idea with Pavlok is getting a feedback device on your wrist that adds serious ramifications if you don't go to the gym, and also rewards you when you are doing the right thing," Sethi says, comparing the concept to other startups that use money for motivation, like Stickk and Pact.

Sethi wasn't ready to talk about specific features or pricing, but Pavlok has brought on a former iRobot and Lego engineer, Jim Lynch, to help shepherd its product to market. Lynch is the startup's VP of engineering.

Sethi has said on his blog that he has raised more than $100,000 for Pavlok so far (the Bolt program provides $50,000 to chosen companies), and that his goal for the forthcoming crowdfunding campaign is $500,000.

I briefly mentioned Pavlok/Behavioral Technologies last summer, in writing about the startups chosen for the first class of the Bolt accelerator.

What do you think? Would a zap from a wristband help you stick to your fitness goals?

(Concept drawing is from Pavlok's website.)

Test drive: Loop's digital payment device

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 19, 2014 07:30 AM

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The main kind of cosmetic surgery I have been considering is a reduction in the size of my rear end. The right side of it, specifically. That's where my overstuffed wallet typically occupies a pocket, bulging with credit cards, membership cards, loyalty cards, a coupon or two, and occasionally even some cash.

And technology is getting close to providing an affordable, non-surgical solution to my unsightly problem. A Woburn-based startup called Loop has just started shipping a $39 iPhone plug-in called the Loop Fob. Working in conjunction with an app on your phone, it can store up to 100 debit or credit cards. And it lets you pay by just touching the device to a credit card terminal, right where you or a clerk would ordinarily swipe. The company says its technology is compatible with about 90 percent of today's credit card terminals.

Here's how it works:

Once you have a Loop Fob ($39), you download the company's app and then plug the Fob into your phone's headphone jack. It's basically a miniature credit card reader. When you swipe a card — and some of them take a couple tries — the Fob digitizes the information and stores it on your phone. You can also take a picture of the front and back of the card, in case a clerk asks you to see your card to verify a signature or you need to see the CVV number. The most important card data, like the number and expiration date, get automatically imported when you swipe. I was pleasantly surprised that the Loop Fob didn't require me to remove my phone's protective case in order to use it; almost everything else that plugs into my headphone jack does.

I stored three cards on the Fob: a work Visa, a personal MasterCard, and a debit card for a bank account at Cambridge Savings Bank. (I felt fairly secure in doing all that because Loop's founders previously built ROAM Data, a major player in mobile point-of-sale technology.) You pick one card to be your default card, and that card's information gets loaded onto the Fob. Then you can disconnect the Fob and put it into a little rubber case that connects to a keychain. (See the photo above.) You can also opt to leave it plugged into the phone, and switch back and forth between cards as necessary — but that's a bit awkward.

loop3.jpgAt the conclusion lunch yesterday, at Dolphin Seafood in Harvard Square, I lay the Fob on top of the check. When the waitress came over, I explained that she had to press a button on the side and just touch it to the credit card reader. (The Loop generates a magnetic field that relays the information to the reader without actually doing a swipe.) She tried, but came back and said it hadn't worked. "Our cash registers are really old," she said apologetically. My next attempt, at a nearby CVS, worked great — and the cashier seem dazzled by the Fob, asking me what it was. The Fob worked fine at Dunkin'. I plugged the Fob into my phone and switched to the personal card when I went to McDonald's, and then switched to the debit card when I dropped by a different CVS at the end of the day. With my small sample size of four merchants, I had a 75 percent success rate. And I do wonder if I had tried to use the Fob myself at the restaurant — admittedly not an ideal scenario at a business lunch — whether I would've gotten a different result. (Update: I tried using the Fob at my neighborhood Starbucks this morning. It didn't work, even after three tries, which was a pain, since I didn't have the gargantuan wallet with me and there was a line behind me. The kindly barista told me I could take my drink, and bring payment later. That takes my success rate down to 60 percent.)

Every time you access the Loop app on the phone, you need to punch in a PIN number. That's designed to keep others from peeking at your credit card numbers. And you can also set the Fob to deactivate after a set amount of time whenever it's unplugged from your phone.

But there's still a lot that Loop doesn't do. It can't replace a bank card, because that needs to be gobbled up temporarily by the ATM. It can't be your CharlieCard, because that has an RFID chip inside it. You can't even be sure that it will always work with the credit and debit cards you've loaded onto it, which could create an embarrassing situation if you aren't carrying cash or plastic. You can take pictures of other cards, like museum memberships or loyalty cards, but I have always had a hit-and-miss experience in actually getting those to work. And of course, when you show up at a business that's cash-only...

For now, using the Fob is a cool parlor trick. And it's an affordable gadget to acquire if you want to be the first in your office to have one, or to strike up conversations with waiters and counter clerks who haven't seen one before. A next-generation product from Loop, a phone case that serves as a back-up battery for your phone and also can impersonate all your credit cards, seems more appealing. (It's set to go on sale in early April.) That product obviates the need to keep plugging in the Fob every time you want to switch to a different card. But the Fob and ChargeCase are also two more devices that you need to remember to keep juiced up, unlike an old-school credit card. Loop says a single charge-up of the Fob is good for about 400 transactions.

Loop has raised $12 million in funding, and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for the Fob and forthcoming ChargeCase last year. Here's a company-produced video that gives you a sense for the reaction you get when using Loop's technology. Loop says it'll soon support Android devices, too.

Dunwello, focused on delivering better employee feedback, banks $1.4 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 14, 2014 10:30 AM

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Do you get too much feedback at work? If you're a manager, do you give too much?

A group of investors are betting for many of us, the answers are no. They're putting $1.4 million into a Boston startup, Dunwello, that wants to end the tradition of the dreaded once-a-year performance review by creating a new online tool for delivering more consistent feedback and recognition to employees. The founder is Matt Lauzon, formerly CEO of the jewelry retailer Gemvara, and the first technical team member is Matt Brand, formerly at Bunk1.com and Mzinga.

After leaving the top job at Gemvara, which he co-founded while a student at Babson College, Lauzon says he "spent a lot of time looking at the employee life cycle, from hiring to retiring. In doing that, you learn that something like 70 percent of people feel disengaged at work, and that the average tenure in a job is going down. It's less than two years."

When he was running Gemvara as a first time CEO in his 20s (he's now 29), Lauzon says he often used Twitter or text messages to give employees digital pats on the back. But "it wasn't being preserved anywhere that employees and I could use meaningfully over time," he says.

Lauzon says Dunwello's product is very much still in development, though the startup has been testing it with several companies. "We're thinking bigger than just improving performance reviews," he says. "We want to help people feel appreciated, aligned, and that they're advancing at work. And we want to make sure that the most important moments at work get highlighted or preserved." That includes not just moments of glory, but also moments when someone could've done better, he says. It'll be interesting to see how Dunwello's product handles the more critical aspects of employee feedback...

Lauzon says he set out to raise about $1 million in seed funding for the new venture, but wound up raising a bit more: $1.4 million. Investors include Boston-based NextView Ventures and G20 Ventures, as well as the Vegas Tech Fund, run by a group of Zappos.com executives. Angels involved include Bridge Boys (Jeremy Levine and Jordan Fliegel), Axel Bichara, Gautam Gupta, Jeremy Hitchcock and Mark Guadagnoli.

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Boston College-spawned Jebbit grows by linking marketing with learning

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 10, 2014 12:15 PM

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Leave it to a bunch of college students to craft a startup around the concept of a pop quiz...

Jebbit tackles the problem of what happens to Internet users after they click on an ad and land on a website. What do they actually absorb about the product or service? The Boston-based startup, founded by a group of undergrad students from Boston College, springs a quiz or challenge on site visitors. Visitors earn discounts or credit based on learning about products, or successfully signing up for new services. And the site owner pays Jebbit only when visitors are acing the tests.

“We saw a lot of people trying to solve the problem of getting the right ads in front of the right person, whether on the web or places like Twitter, but there just wasn’t any focus on that post-click engagement — what happens once you get to their site,” says Jebbit COO Jonathan Lacoste. “So our focus is on the engagement once people get to your content, and offering a reward for more actively engaging with the brand.”

It’s a clever idea for turning curious web surfers into actual customers, and companies that have tried Jebbit so for include Adobe, Bose, Microsoft, Spotify, and the transportation services Uber and Lyft. “A company like Uber might offer $20 of credit, but only if you get the app and learn how to use it,” Lacoste says. “We talk about ‘cost per correct answer.’ Brands pay us only when consumers are learning.” Consumers can be rewarded with coupons, cash, or other prizes.

Lacoste says the company has 15 employees, and that revenues — still presumably nascent — leapt 400 percent in 2013 over the previous year. Jebbit has raised $1.8 million in funding so far. The company plans to double employment this year, and Lacoste says Jebbit is considering adding a New York office.

Jebbit originally launched at Boston College in the fall of 2011. Since then, the company has participated in Highland Capital Partners’ Summer@Highland entrepreneurship program, and the TechStars Boston accelerator. I wrote about Jebbit in 2012, when they successfully got some investors to pony up at a “Shark Tank”-style event held in Cambridge, and also mentioned them in this 2013 piece on the Boston adtech scene, "Madmen Meet Mr. Spock."

TouchBase tries (one more time) to reinvent the business card

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 4, 2014 07:30 AM

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Is it really the year 2014 and we are still handing each other rectangular scraps of paper when we want to exchange contact information?

Sadly, it is.

Remember the PalmPilot, which let you beam your digits over an infrared link? The Bump app? QR codes printed on the back of cards?

Even my current solution of choice — LinkedIn's CardMunch app — relies on unseen human beings to look at a photo I take of a business card and key in the data. That's inefficient and costly, but thankfully LinkedIn picks up the tab as a marketing expense.

An MIT startup called TouchBase Technologies is proposing a better solution. Its product looks just like a paper business card that you can carry in your wallet and pawn off on unsuspecting victims. But when tapped to an iPhone's screen, it pulls up the individual's photo, contact info, Twitter handle, and the option to connect with them on LinkedIn. The cards can also magically make a video clip, slide show, or company website appear.

saitoyeung_photo.jpgTouchBase is launching a crowdfunding campaign today, aiming to raise $30,000. The company is offering a trial package of 36 cards for a pledge of $25. CEO Sai To Yeung, left, says the company expects its pricing to be competitive with some of the higher-end business cards available online, like those from Moo.com. Yeung is on leave from the MBA program at MIT's Sloan School of Management; CTO Jonathan Warneke is still enrolled as an undergrad student.

The company sent me a few sample cards yesterday. (See below. They looked and felt like premium business cards, but were impossible to tear in half.) I navigated on my iPhone browser to a special address on the TouchBase website, and then tapped a card with my name on it on the screen. Nothing happened. So I heeded the instructions they sent, which said that you have to remove your phone's case. When I did that, and tapped the card again, in a few seconds my photo and contact info showed up on the screen. I tried the same with two other cards they'd sent along, and it worked seamlessly.

touchbase3.jpgSandwiched inside the cards, Yeung explained, is a conductive, metallic ink printed in a special pattern. That pattern, when touched to an iPhone's screen, serves as your unique identifier, and brings up whatever website or information page you've asked it to. It's a nifty little hack, and Yeung says they can create billions of different patterns.

As to the case issue, Yeung says, "We realized the card stock we used for the preview cards were too stiff, and made it difficult for the entire pattern to lie flat if there was a case with ridges. We're working on selecting a more flexible material to allow the card to bend more."

Yeung says that the startup eventually plans to create native apps for iPhone and Android, to make it easier to import tapped contacts to a phone's built-in address book software. But he said, "We plan to keep both, because the web app is a quick and easy way get others to quickly try out the app without having to make a download."

TouchBase participated in the DreamIt Ventures accelerator program in New York last summer.

OpenWater Power developing new fuel cells to give ocean-going robots more time to roam

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 31, 2014 11:22 AM

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Last September, a torpedo-shaped unmanned underwater vehicle was lowered into Boston Harbor. Three hundred miles and four-and-a-half days later, near New York City, it had set a record: the longest-ever trip for a battery-powered undersea craft.

But given the size of the world's oceans, 315 miles is a mere pebble skip. And the founders of OpenWater Power, an MIT spin-out based in Somerville, see that as a huge opportunity. They're designing new kinds of energy storage systems for underwater vehicles that they believe will enable much longer voyages. If the 20th century Navy wanted its subs to "run silent, run deep," in the 21st century, they want them to "run autonomously, run long." OpenWater moved off campus last October, and is being funded by a $450,000 grant from the US Navy's Naval Air Systems Command and the Department of Defense's Rapid Reaction Technology Office.

CEO Tom Milnes says the company is working on two different kinds of battery designs: an aluminum-seawater version that needs seawater to operate and must be vented; and an aluminum-permanganate version that is completely sealed. The former, Milnes says, could store as much as 10 times the energy of a lithium ion battery of a similar size. The latter would be able to store three to five times as much energy. (Milnes is on the right in the photo, with co-founder Ian McKay and a prototype battery. )

bluefin-navy.jpg"The Navy wants to transition from manned ships and submersibles to autonomous vehicles," says Milnes. "But one hurdle they can't get over is energy storage. You just can't get very far if your vehicle can run for a day and travel at three miles an hour." Milnes says that OpenWater's new battery chemistry will be less volatile than lithium ion batteries. It uses an aluminum alloy as an anode, and platinum-coated titanium as a cathode. "We're engineering these especially for the environment of being under water, and under pressure," he says. Milnes says that OpenWater will likely look for partners to manufacture its batteries. (At left is the Reliant underwater vehicle that set the endurance record last year, made by Bluefin Robotics of Quincy.)

Milnes and McKay says the company's products will be useful not just for underwater robots like the Navy's future LDUUV craft, but also for other ocean-going equipment, like floating sensors or communications devices. "Eventually, we think becomes a pretty large-scale business, like aircraft engines at GE," Milnes says. "It may be less flashy than Instagram or Twitter, but it suits us well."

OpenWater's founders initially met in an MIT course Milnes taught called Naval Underwater System Design. "Ian and Ruaridh both got A's," Milnes says. (Ruaridh Macdonald, the company's third founder, remains a student, finishing up his PhD.)

If OpenWater's prototypes hit certain technical milestones, Milnes says it could "unlock another $3 million in [Navy] funding by March." The startup works out of the Greentown Labs shared space in Somerville.

Milnes was involved with two previous startups, both in the 3D scanning and printing arena. Brontes Technologies made scanning equipment for dentists, and was sold to 3M for $95 million. Viztu Technologies was acquired for an undisclosed amount by 3D Systems; it developed software to let consumers turn pictures and videos into printable objects.

Hotel booking site Rocketmiles racks up $6.5 million in new funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 29, 2014 08:00 AM
Jay Hoffman remembers when he became a fanatical collector of frequent-flier miles. "I was living in Brookline, working for Boston Consulting Group, and traveling a lot to clients," he says. "I spent a lot of time away from my girlfriend, but as a result of earning all these miles, we got to take a pretty great two-week trip to Nepal."

Hoffman's startup, Rocketmiles, is built for everyone else obsessed with racking up miles. It lets travelers book hotel rooms and earn thousands of miles more than they ordinarily would. (Hoffman says a customer can earn as much as 3,000 to 4,000 miles per night.) And the Chicago startup is today announcing a $6.5 million funding round. Some of the money comes from Cambridge-based Atlas Venture, which also provided earlier funding for the company.

"We estimate there are about 25 million people around the world —goal-oriented, Type A people – who like to use points or miles," says Hoffman, who once ran United's Mileage Plus program. "They're often traveling for business, and they like to be a hero in their personal life, and spend the miles for trips with their partner or their family." The appeal for hotels that work with Rocketmiles is that, rather than publicizing steep discounts on their room rates online, they can use those bonus miles as a way to fill rooms that might otherwise sit empty.

"Premium hotels are loathe to do discounts," Hoffman says, "and we tend to bring them a more premium customer. It's not the customer who found an amazing rate online and shows up with their blue cooler, full of drinks and food." The site offers miles for nine different frequent-flier programs, including JetBlue, US Airways, United, and American Airlines.

Hoffman's co-founder is Bjorn Larsen, who serves as chief operating officer and runs a Winchester office of Rocketmiles. The two met while working at Groupon, the e-mail discounting service. Larsen is one of four Rocketmiles employees who work from Winchester, mainly focused on marketing, and he says that number will "probably double in the near-term."

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Change Collective, formerly Revv, raises $1.4 million to upgrade self-improvement

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 22, 2014 08:00 AM

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Ben Rubin says he "was your standard startup CTO" a few years ago: "a little overweight, working really hard but not efficiently, and kind of stressed."

But thanks to some advice from authors and experts who taught him about the paleo diet, CrossFit, inbox zero, and GTD, Rubin says he lost weight and became much more productive. (He chronicled the transformation on a blog called BecomingAwesome.com.) Now, with co-founder Derek Haswell, Rubin has a new startup, Change Collective, that wants to help others engineer changes in their own lives, using that ever-present smartphone. (In the photo, Haswell is on the left, Rubin on the right.)

The startup has just raised a $1.4 million seed round from local firms Founder Collective and NextView Ventures, along with New York-based Eniac Ventures. It's also part of the new TechStars Boston cohort that will be announced tomorrow.

"It's built into our DNA to turn to experts and gurus for advice, but we felt those people were getting left behind in the world of apps," says Rubin. "The emotional connection they created that led to real change wasn't integrated into these digital products."

Change Collective will be serving up material from experts like Ari Meisel ("The Art of Less Doing"), JB Glossinger ("Becoming an Early Riser"), and Chris Kresser ("Your Personal Paleo Code"). The platform blends text messages, web content, and short videos. A course from Happier founder Nataly Kogan called "Everyday Grateful" begins with a text message asking the participant to "share with me one thing that you're grateful for right now."

So far, Rubin and Haswell have been building Change Collective as a mobile website, but they say that native apps are in the works. As for the business model, Rubin says, "We want people to pay for it. There will be free courses and free trials, but we want to get the best experts and get really good buy-in from people taking these courses, so it will be priced somewhere between a book and a seminar. And we intend to share a very healthy portion of revenue with the expert."

Rubin and Haswell earlier worked together at Zeo, a Newton-based pioneer of the "quantified self" movement that that sold a device for monitoring sleep. (Zeo shut down last year.) The pair began working together last January, initially under the name Revv. Rubin says they "churned through a bunch of ideas, talking to hundreds of customers about different problems." Rubin says the company hopes to hire several engineers, customer acquisition staffers, and content producers over the next few months.

As someone who had started a company and raised venture capital before (Zeo banked more than $30 million over its life), Rubin says he initially didn't think he'd want to participate in an accelerator program — and part with a portion of Change Collective's equity. But "we have a new product and a new brand, and most of the TechStars companies here are in the same position. We think there's a ton to learn from the collaborative environment."

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Mind-reading bike helmets, social beer glasses, and more: The seven startups chosen by the Media Lab's new E14 Fund

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 21, 2014 12:08 PM

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Last fall, MIT announced a new fund to support startups springing from the Media Lab. But for the school didn't divulge the initial set of investments for its new E14 Fund. That list of seven companies just showed up recently...

The companies receive mentorship, plus a monthly stipend of $2,400 for six months. The E14 Fund will also put money in when the companies successfully raise funding from other investors. The fund is managed by David Strand.

The first set of E14 startups are:

DuKode Studio: MindRider Helmet Bike helmet that uses EEG sensors to show how relaxed or stressed the rider is, and an accompanying mobile app that lets you view a map of the most anxiety-producing parts of your ride. Founders: Arlene Ducao (MIT) and Ilias Koen (School of Visual Arts) Brooklyn, NY

Six Questions
Website that lets visitors suggest and vote on questions for interviewees like celebrities, bloggers, or sports stars; interviewees then answer the top-rated questions in short videos.
Founders: Drew Harry (MIT) and Frances Yun (Harvard)
Cambridge, MA

Beansprock
Website that delivers personalized job recommendations to help visitors make better career decisions.
Founders: Dustin Smith and Cameron Levy (MIT)
Boston, MA

Pixels.io
Creating invisible QR codes that can be read by ordinary digital cameras. (Project was called VRCodes at the Media Lab.)
Founders: Grace Woo and Eyal Toledano (MIT
Cambridge, MA

SourceMap
Software for mapping and better understanding supply chain relationships
Founder: Leonardo Bonanni
Cambridge, MA

Buddy Cup
Drinking cups that enable people to become social network "friends" by clinking, and broadcast where they're hanging out — perhaps with sponsor messages or logos attached. (See the video below.)
Founder: Marcelo Coelho (MIT)
Cambridge, MA

Circular2
Circular2 is working on what you might think of as a whammy bar crossed with a theremin — a way of using hand gestures to control the sounds that come out of guitars and other electronic instruments.
Founder: Nan-Wei Gong (MIT)
Cambridge, MA

I tipped you off last March that Media Lab director Joi Ito, an early investor in companies like Twitter and Kickstarter, was considering creating a fund to support entrepreneurial alums.

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Bocoup builds a new hangout for techies near North Station

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 20, 2014 10:00 AM

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Bocoup is building a big new hub for software developers just a few steps from the Boston Garden, and founder Boaz Sender invited me over earlier this month to have a look at the progress. Bocoup is a consulting firm that focuses on open web technologies like HTML5, CSS, and jQuery, working with clients that have included LinkedIn, Disney, and Wal-Mart. But Bocoup also runs a training program, holds events for the tech community, and rents out desks to "technologists and hackers" for $400 a month, in an area called the Bocoup Loft.

The new Bocoup, on two floors of 239 Causeway Street, will be almost 15,000 square feet bigger than the old Bocoup, which was in Fort Point Channel. (It'll total about 19,000 square feet.) Sender says there will be three classrooms, an event space with seating for 200, and five studios for artists-in-residence who have an interest in technology. The Bocoup Loft coworking area will house about 40 desks. It's all slated to open in March.

The space has windows overlooking the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the Zakim Bridge. Sender says it'll include a library done up in full mid-century modern style, with an Eames lounge chair, Sputnik chandelier, and shag carpet, as well as a "cave" with upholstered bench seating for casual meetings — or naps. There will be shed-like meeting rooms with their own roofs, and Bocoup is keeping some of the old metal fire doors that were unearthed during the renovation (see below.) Sender says the space was once a plumbing supply factory, and also housed state offices. Boston-based Utile, Inc. is the architecture firm working on the new Bocoup.

One of Sender's big objectives, he says, is "making Boston a destination for engineers." (In the picture at right, Sender is standing on Medford Street, in front of what will become a new street-level entrance for Bocoup's space.) And the combination of Bocoup and the new TripAdvisor offices right across Causeway Street are going to do good things for this part of Boston — most call it the Bulfinch Triangle — which is already home to a handful of startups like RunKeeper, Embedly, and Fundraise.com.

Photos and renderings below...

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View from the roof, where Sender hopes to set up a roof garden. The green-topped building on the right is home to TripAdvisor's Boston office.

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One of the space's old metal fire doors, bearing rules that remain important in the 21st century.

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Rendering of the first floor entry on Medford Street, event space, and staircase to the second floor. Courtesy of Utile Inc.

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Pics from HubSpot's office expansion (including the Gilligan's Island nap room)

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 16, 2014 08:00 AM
Digital marketing startup HubSpot continues to grow like gangbusters in East Cambridge: last week, the company expanded into a new floor of the Davenport Building, right across from the Galleria mall. The fourth floor space used to house the head office of ZipCar, which moved to Boston last summer.

HubSpot media relations manager Katie Burke sent over some bullets about the expansion:

• The new floor features a nap room, complete with tropical backdrop and porthole windows so people can truly feel like they're escaping from the office.

• The space has Boston-themed areas based on neighborhoods, including The Common, Beacon Hill, the North End, Charlestown, etc.

• There are common areas for collaborative work and informal gatherings.

• Every conference room is named after a member of the 2013 World Series team, alongside one for John Henry, one for Ben Cherington, and one for John Farrell. (Not only is HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan a huge fan, but Burke's husband is director of scouting for the Sox.)

HubSpot has raised more than $100 million since it was founded in 2006 by two MIT alums, and the company is often mentioned as an IPO candidate.

The architectural work for the expansion was done by the Boston office of IA Interior Architects.

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Clockwise from upper left: Katie Burke, Hannah Fleishman, Tyler Littwin, Desmond Wong, and Cindy Goodrich.

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Communispace CEO Diane Hessan handing reins to London-based exec

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 15, 2014 09:05 AM

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The chief executive who made Boston-based Communispace one of the pioneers in helping big companies build and manage online customer communities announced yesterday that she's handing over the reins. As of March, Diane Hessan will become chairman, and London-based Charles Trevail, a founder of a company that merged with Communispace in 2012, will be CEO. Trevail plans to move to Boston next year.

Hessan joined the company in 1999, a few years after writing the book "Customer Centered Growth." Communispace was acquired by the advertising and marketing giant Omnicom in 2011; it has more than 500 employees around the world. Headquarters are in the Atlantic Wharf complex near South Station. The Globe interviewed Hessan last month.

Here's an excerpt from the e-mail Hessan sent out yesterday:

This month, Communispace turns 14 years old – at least officially – and we are on an incredible ride.  Who could have imagined, at the turn of this century, that we would go from an idea and a small team to a global agency with 200 clients, 500 employees, a string of awards and accolades and a future that is bright?  There are many people who have been responsible for our success thus far, and at the top of the list are all of you, who have helped lead our company so well.  

As we look to the future, it is clear that our company is ready to launch itself into new markets, with new capabilities, new clients and new partners. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to step aside and pave the way for new leadership. I am not leaving, but, as of March 1, 2014, I am going to assume the role as Chairman of Communispace. I plan on cutting back the hours I work, spending most of them in the marketplace.  Charles Trevail will move into the role of CEO, and although he will start from London, he and his family plan to move to Boston in 2015.  

...Why am I doing this now?  The company is in great shape, and fresh leadership means fresh thinking, faster innovation, international expansion and more opportunities for all of you.  I am committed to staying to ensure a smooth transition and to help us continue to shine in the industry – and I am also committed to staying out of your way, as appropriate. 

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CloudSwitch and EqualLogic vets pocket $12 million for stealthy new startup, ClearSky Data

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 15, 2014 08:00 AM
Serial entrepreneur Paula Long played the role of the fairy godmother in the story of ClearSky Data, a quiet new startup currently operating out of the Kendall Square offices of Highland Capital Partners...

laz-rubin.jpgLong, a founder of DataGravity and EqualLogic, introduced ClearSky's two founders, Ellen Rubin and Lazarus Vekiarides, last year. Rubin had previously been a founder of CloudSwitch (acquired by Verizon) and Vekiarides was an early team member at EqualLogic (acquired by Dell for $1.4 billion as it was preparing to go public.) Long also introduced the duo to investors at Highland and General Catalyst, who decided late last year to put $12 million into their new venture.

What is ClearSky up to? There's no website yet, and Rubin didn't want to get specific. "We're solving an enterprise infrastructure problem for medium and large enterprises," she said. "It's something that leverages both of our backgrounds in a really exciting way." The funding round came together just before the holidays.

The team is still in the single digits in terms of employees, Rubin says, adding that "we're looking to hire a large number of people this quarter, with experience in areas like storage, security, virtualization, and networking." Rubin says the company is looking at office space near Government Center and South Station. (Vekiarides and Rubin are pictured at right, in Highland's offices.)

Joining the company's board are David Orfao from General Catalyst and Sean Dalton from Highland. Long is also on the board, and former EqualLogic CEO Don Bulens is an advisor to the company. Jit Saxena, Rubin's old boss at Netezza and investor in CloudSwitch, is also taking a board seat at ClearSky.

Constant Contact creating a space for startups at its Waltham HQ

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 14, 2014 07:00 AM

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One of the area's biggest digital marketing companies, Constant Contact, is searching for a few roommates that care as much as it does about serving small businesses.

Constant Contact is carving out 30,000 square feet at its Waltham headquarters and dubbing it the Small Business InnoLoft at Constant Contact. The space will be home to Constant Contact's internal innovation team, as well as a handful of startups on rotating four-month residencies. The space is expected to be open by June, with the first set of three to five startups moving in over the summer.

Constant Contact will start taking applications from startups today. Chosen ventures will have access to Constant Contact customers that have volunteered as beta testers; $10,000 in marketing dollars (actual money, as opposed to credit for Constant Contact products), along with advice from company marketing execs on how to spend it; and priority access to Constant Contact's APIs.

Andy_Miller.png"We're not taking equity," explains Andy Miller, chief innovation architect at Constant Contact. "That's a big differentiator from other kinds of accelerator programs. But this is sort of accelerator-like in that our goal is to really help startups get to product-market fit. We want to help them scale, as experts in the small business category, and we want to get them in front of some of our 600,000 customers." (Update: A spokesperson clarified that the current number is 585,000.) Miller came to the company after his own startup, the loyalty app CardStar, was acquired by Constant Contact in 2012.

Miller says that the InnoLoft will also host events; already, groups like CommonAngels and the 128 Innovation Capital Group have been holding regular meetings at Constant Contact's headquarters, and he hopes others will follow suit. He describes the loft as "similar to what a SoHo artist would have. There will be big sliding doors, reclaimed wood and aluminum. It's going to be a cool, Cambridge space in Waltham." Boston architecture firm Visnick and Caulfield Associates is handling the design of the InnoLoft.

As for whether the loft's suburban location will be seen by startuppers as a plus or a minus, Miller says he's looking for people who aren't fixated on having the "right" address: "The size of our customer base, and having access to the folks here on a regular basis — I think that will outweigh location. We want the folks who are really looking to benefit from what we bring to the table."

Miller leads a 15-person innovation team that vets new concepts and builds prototypes at publicly-held Constant Contact, best known for its e-mail marketing tools. "We felt that having our innovators working side-by-side with startups, learning from and helping one another, was a great idea," he says. While Miller says Constant Contact doesn't have any plans to start investing in small business-focused startups, "there are a multitude of opportunities that could come from this," he says, including partnerships and acquisitions.

Amazon: We're working on something 'bigger than Kindle' in Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 13, 2014 01:55 PM
I hate to help Amazon hire even more people in Cambridge who will no longer return my phone calls or e-mails...but this is a pretty intriguing description of what they're up to: "a new revolutionary V1 [Version 1] product that will allow us to deliver Digital Media to customers in new ways and disrupt the current marketplace."

It's part of an ad for an invitation-only recruiting event later this month at Mead Hall in Kendall Square.

(Last January, I gave you the download of everything I know about what Amazon is up to in Cambridge.)

What do you think? Set-top box? Some kind of wearable device? It doesn't sound like they're describing yet another smartphone...

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Crisply, startup devoted to making timesheets less vexing, moves HQ to Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 13, 2014 09:00 AM

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"Most people don't know where their time goes at work." — Ross Kudwitt, CEO, Crisply

An eternal truth, right? Darkness falls and you're not exactly sure what became of your day. Friday arrives, you're required to fill out a timesheet, and you start clicking back through the calendar, trying to remember what Tuesday was all about.

Kudwitt's Connecticut startup, Crisply, has spent four years hacking away at the problem of making timesheets not just more accurate, but easier to fill out. "Time sheets," he says, "are just hard to do. Bosses are always nagging. You don't get good data. People just naturally forget what happened earlier in the week."

To grow the company, and to raise additional funding, Kudwitt just moved Crisply's headquarters from New Haven to Cambridge, and he hired Adam Ferrari, formerly CTO and chief software architect at Endeca, as Crisply's head of engineering. Kudwitt says the New Haven office will endure, but he and chief scientist Adam Marcus, formerly a math professor at Yale, are now based in Cambridge. (From left in the photo: Ferrari, Marcus, and Kudwitt outside their office in the Cambridge Innovation Center.)

Crisply starts by asking you to define the various projects you're working on, or the clients you support. It then monitors your activity and documents uploaded with services like Dropbox, Salesforce, Google Apps, and Microsoft Exchange, and based on what it sees Crisply comes up with a draft of your timesheet. It can track activity on desktop computers and also Android-based mobile devices. When it makes mistakes — assuming, for instance, that a slide presentation was for the wrong client — you train it. You can also designate certain e-mail correspondence or calendar items as personal, and it won't track those. There's a free version of Crisply for independent contractors and freelancers, but pricing for teams starts at $10 per month, per user.

"What we discovered with most of the existing timesheet software is that the most popular button people use is 'Make this week's timesheet the same as last week's,'" says Ferrari. "That gives you really low-resolution data." Crisply's mission is to gather not just better data from people who already track their time, but enable organizations to figure out how even more people spend their time at work. "Every company has accounts or customers where you put all of your energy and don't get enough revenue from them," he says. "This lets you see that more clearly."

When I asked about devious things management might like to do with Crisply — like figure out who spends more time managing their fantasy football team or shopping flash sales than doing work — Kudwitt had an answer ready. "Managers already know who the slackers are. We don't want to be Big Brother. This is about understanding where people's effort is going." Also, Crisply's desktop software can be turned on and off by users. "This needs to feel helpful, as opposed to invasive," Ferrari says.

The company has so far been funded by Kudwitt, but it has been selling its product since March 2013, with "hundreds of companies using it" already, he says. Kudwitt says the company envisions its product growing into a kind of "Fitbit for business," radically simplifying the process of gathering data about what happens during the day.

Boston, Kudwitt says, "has a great tradition of developing business-to-business software, and leadership in big data." Priority #1 for the company, he says, is hiring more engineers. He also says Crisply is in the process of raising a first round of venture capital.

First look: TripAdvisor's new Boston office near North Station

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 9, 2014 02:03 PM

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Boston's North Station neighborhood is about to get a tech anchor tenant later this month, when TripAdvisor employees move into new digs at 126 Causeway Street, a building that once housed the Sunshine Biscuit Company. The space is next door to Converse's future headquarters, and with 71,000 square feet, it could eventually house more than 350 TripAdvisor employees. About 250 people will occupy the new office when it opens later in January, representing two divisions of the online travel giant: FlipKey, which focuses on vacation rental properties, and Smarter Travel, a site focused on travel deals.

"We’re excited to bring our subsidiaries under one roof at a TripAdvisor branded office, as one family," says TripAdvisor spokesperson Julie Cassetina. FlipKey had previously been in Boston's Leather District (space that will soon be occupied by the TechStars Boston program), and Smarter Travel in Charlestown.

The new TripAdvisor office was designed by Boston-based Baker Design Group. A few renderings are below; in the picture above, the TripAdvisor building is on the right, the Boston Garden on the left. In November, TripAdvisor broke ground on a new 282,000 square foot headquarters building in Needham. It is expected to open in 2015.

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Reception area.

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Café.

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Collaboration space.

Boston startup Empire Robotics wants to help robots get a better grip

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 7, 2014 07:57 AM

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A Cornell-spawned startup that moved to Boston last year is releasing its first product this month. Empire Robotics says its "jammable gripper," priced at about $4000, is one of the first of its kind to be sold commercially.

It's a kind of robotic hand that looks and feels a lot like a stress ball. Filled with a granular material, in one mode it is squishy enough to envelop an object it's trying to grab. Then, when a vacuum is created inside the ball, the granules get pulled together, solidifying around the object. The unique design enables the gripper to pick up a wide range of different objects, which can weigh up to 20 pounds. Empire has dubbed its product Versaball. (The picture above shows the Versaball screwing in a light bulb.)

Some of the early work on this new gripper was done in partnership with iRobot of Bedford, and funded by the Pentagon's R&D arm, DARPA. Empire says it has an exclusive license to a key patent filed by Cornell.

Empire came to Boston last summer. "Our primary motivation in moving to Boston was access to things we knew we would need," explains chief technology officer John Amend. "Right away that was talent. We hired one of Kiva's early employees who is great, and a PhD grad from MIT with a background that perfectly matches what we are working on. Now, we're raising some money and forming strategic partnerships, which Boston has been great for as well." (The hires to which he refers are director of engineering Patrick Dingle and director of R&D Nadia Cheng.) CEO William Culley is based in Rochester, New York.

Amend says the startup has so far raised slightly less than $1 million in seed funding and SBIR grants from the National Science Foundation. Empire also won cash prizes at seven business plan competitions, and has sold a few of its early prototypes.

The company is based in the Headquarters Boston shared office in Boston's Innovation District.

Video demo below. (At the one minute mark, watch the Versaball pick up assorted chocolates without squishing them.)

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Layoffs at Rethink, Boston maker of manufacturing robots

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 13, 2013 01:00 PM
One of Boston's highest-profile robotics startups laid off employees for the first time earlier this week. Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert confirms that the Boston-based company cut 21 jobs, and says the company is offering outplacement assistance to those employees.

brooks-baxter.pngRethink 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.

With $5.3 million in fresh funding, 3D visualization startup Lagoa builds Boston office

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 10, 2013 12:00 PM

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A Montreal startup is firmly planting a foot in Boston's 3D design and printing cluster. And the company, Lagoa, has just banked $5.3 million in new funding, much of it from Cambridge-based Atlas Venture.

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.

In addition to Lagoa, other local companies focused on the next wave of 3D object design include GrabCAD, Matter.io, and Belmont Technologies — all of which I've covered here in the past.

A video demo from Lagoa is below:

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Cambridge-based Exaptive wants to create an app store for data visualization tools

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 3, 2013 10:20 AM

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Plenty of people work with big datasets that don't exactly spring to life with bar graphs or spider charts. So what if there was an app store for visualization tools that offered just the right thing for exploring, manipulating, and wringing insights from your data?

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.

exaptive3.jpgThe 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.

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Mobile app BetrSpot wants to let you pay for prime seats and spots in line

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 25, 2013 09:45 AM

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We've all had the experience of bringing a date to a trendy bar, only to have to stand outside in the cold. Or showing up to a café for a business meeting, only to have to wait holding your coffee until some laptop lingerer eventually completes his screenplay and vacates a table.

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."

andrewrollert2.jpgRollert 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.

betrspot-screen2.pngSellers 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.)

Former Lycos and NameMedia exec joins Shareaholic as president

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 21, 2013 08:00 AM

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Shareaholic, the Boston startup that makes tools to encourage people to share content via social media, is adding Rob Balazy as its president. Balazy had previously served as CEO of Lycos and Inform Technologies, and also was a senior exec at NameMedia and Applied Semantics, an adtech company acquired by Google.

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.

Meattle started Shareaholic as a side project while he was working at another local startup, Compete. Here's his post on Balazy joining the company.

Mapkin wants to bring the personal touch back to map-making

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 18, 2013 08:05 AM

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Remember the days before navigation algorithms served up the perfect route to get you from Point A to Point B? When instead, a friend would scrawl a map on the back of an envelope, making a note about her favorite place to stop for pancakes and the cheapest ski rental shop?

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.)

mapkinteam.jpg"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.

Data center startup OneCloud Labs gets CEO from Exagrid, first round of venture capital

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 12, 2013 08:00 AM

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The latest cloud computing startup to collect some serious coin from local venture capital firms is OneCloud Labs. And OneCloud has brought on Marc Crespi, formerly a vice president of product management at Exagrid Systems, as its CEO.

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.

iRobot founder's new drone venture, CyPhy Works, scoops up $7 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 5, 2013 07:00 AM

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More money is flowing into the Massachusetts robotics sector this week, with $7 million just deposited to the bank account of Danvers-based CyPhy Works, the drone startup from iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner.

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.

Drew Houston talks about starting and growing Dropbox [Audio]

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 30, 2013 04:45 PM

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Sharing some audio from a talk that Dropbox founder Drew Houston gave at MIT last month. It was organized by the Dorm Room Fund, a new student-run venture capital entity in Boston. Houston, who graduated from MIT and gave the commencement address there earlier this year, was interviewed by Phin Barnes, a partner at First Round Capital who oversees Dorm Room Fund.

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.

More: I was at the Y Combinator Demo Day in 2007 when Dropbox first pitched local investors...and I wrote about the company's early days last August.

Digital fitness pioneer Fitbit plans to expand Boston engineering office

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 28, 2013 08:30 AM

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.


fitbit.pngWhat do Microsoft, Facebook, and Fitbit have in common?

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."

Formlabs, maker of desktop 3D printers, collects $19 million in fresh funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 24, 2013 07:30 AM
Big funding round being announced this morning by Formlabs, the Somerville startup company that ran a wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign last fall for a new 3D printer— and was promptly sued for patent infringement by 3D Systems, the industry's biggest player. After collecting almost $3 million in pre-orders for its Form1 printer on Kickstarter, Formlabs is banking $19 million in new funding from investors including DFJ Growth and Pitango Venture Capital.

formlabsteam.jpgNot 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.

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LinkeDrive markets dash-top app that motivates truckers to save fuel

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 21, 2013 08:30 AM

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A Boston startup showing its stuff at a trucking industry trade show?

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.

Galaxy_Guage.pngBaer, 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.

Fancred, mobile app for die-hard sports fans, wraps up $1.5 million funding round

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 16, 2013 08:30 AM

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When last we heard from Fancred in May, the startup had engineered a pretty sweet cameo: during the company's pitch to investors at the conclusion of the TechStars Boston program, Sox slugger David Ortiz strutted onto the stage at House of Blues to help spark some enthusiasm.

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.

Could new Mischief software for artists turn into a Hollywood success story?

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 15, 2013 09:06 AM

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When Disney's animators were feeling constrained by their digital tools, Sarah Frisken got the call. A former boss of hers was running Disney's research-and-development division, and he told Frisken that the animators felt they couldn't do their best work using existing software. "It was taking them twice as long to use the digital tools, and they wanted them to be more responsive," Frisken says.

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."

mischief2.jpgThis 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...

(The Mischief screenshot up top is by Carly Sanker. The goldfish image is by Jo Spargo, from the Made With Mischief Tumblr.)

Waltham pharmacy tries a new approach to customer service with Zappix

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 4, 2013 07:55 AM

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The year is 2013. We hold hybrid computers/cameras/phones in our hands for most of our waking hours. And yet when we need assistance with something, we still frequently resort to pressing 1 for customer service, 2 for billing, 3 to speak to a salesperson. As though it were 1980.

Zappix, a Burlington startup, wants to use the power of the smartphone to help you get satisfaction sooner. Its app, available for iOS and Android, supplies a list of the departments you might want to contact at a company (like existing reservations, new reservations, or frequent flier info for an airline), and connects you directly with a quick tap. The Zappix app can also let you send a tweet or e-mail, or guide you to the answer you need on the company's website. (Hiawatha Bray wrote about the company back in June.)

Zappix has already pre-loaded customer service guides into its app for more than 100 Boston-based and national entities, from American Airlines to Cambridge City Hall to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. But the company's business model involves selling its "full multi-channel interaction platform" to other businesses that want to encourage customers to communicate with them using a mobile device — and make it easier than punching numbers or speaking commands. The first customer to roll out the technology is Village Fertility Pharmacy in Waltham. "Village is the first business we've deployed, but others are in development," says Zappix CEO Amol Joshi, who joined the company in July from IBM. "Boston is our first focus, but we'll be launching New York soon."

Zappix doesn't create individual customer service apps for each of its clients; there's one main app, divided into categories like Sports, Attractions, Shipping, and Pharmacies. But the company still faces the challenge of the App Store Black Hole...in other words, finding a way to get its product onto enough peoples' phones to make a difference.

At Village Fertility Pharmacy, president Stuart Levine said he'd been exploring various mobile apps for several years. "We experimented with others that didn't work well," he says. "This lets us offer everything from phone contact with a nurse to how-to videos to a pre-registration form." Levine says Village Fertility is New England's largest provider of prescriptions for women undergoing fertility treatments. "Nobody likes a phone tree," Levine says. "Most are horrible. But the bigger your business gets, the more you rely on them."

Zappix has about a dozen employees, in both Burlington and Israel. The company has been seed-funded by Kormeli LLC, an investment group led by Avner Schneur.

Matter.io wants to make it easier for everyone to modify and print 3D models

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 1, 2013 02:10 PM

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Will we one day have a Google Drive or Microsoft Word for 3D objects — a way to create, modify, and share three-dimensional models without having to learn complicated CAD software?

That's the vision at Matter.io, a startup operating out of the Koa Labs shared workspace in Harvard Square. Greg Tao is the company's chief technology officer, and Dylan Reid is CEO. (In the photo, Tao is on the left, Reid on the right, along with a few of their 3D printers.) Their co-founders and initial investors are serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer, who started Koa Labs last year, and Frank Moss, former director of the MIT Media Lab. Jim Palotta of Manhattan-based Raptor Ventures is another Matter backer.

I stopped by to visit the company a few weeks ago. They'd just printed out the dragon model you see here, adding Lego nodules to the bottom of it so that it would click into standard Lego pieces.

matterlego.jpgSo far, Reid says, "CAD has been for professional engineers who are designing products that will be mass manufactured." What Matter is trying to do is create web-based software for an age when individuals and small businesses — including those without engineers on staff — will want to create or edit 3D objects, and have them produced in small batches, or perhaps as one-offs.

"We want to make the experience of working with three dimensions more like the experience of working in two dimensions, like on a document or a spreadsheet," says Reid. They also want to make it easy to embed 3D models into websites, the same way today people can integrate YouTube videos or slide shows. A videogame site, for instance, might embed models of popular video game characters, and let users make changes to them — perhaps adding some text to the base — and then send them to a service bureau or a site like Shapeways to be produced.

Today, Tao says, 3D object design is a "for nerds, by nerds" kind of space. A growing number of 3D printers are available, some for just a few hundred dollars, but they require plenty of care and feeding — when I arrived at Matter, Tao was canceling a Makerbot build that had gone awry. The company is "interested in how normal people would want to make stuff. They don't perceive the objects in their lives as being flexible, since most are mass-produced in the millions. But we think people want to apply their creativity to objects." Some examples: customizing a doorknob for your house (see below), or taking a 3D scan of your friend's face, and mashing that up with a nice coffee mug someone has already designed. The perfect personalized gift...

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Reid and Tao say they're still hashing out Matter's business model. "The two things we're focused on right now," says Reid, "are cultivating a group of early users who want better 3D design tools, and then asking them what they want to be able to do?"

Update: I wrote a bit more about Matter as part of this Globe column on whether 3D printing will go mainstream.

Qstream, developing mobile tests for salespeople, banks $2.8 million in new funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 27, 2013 08:00 AM

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What exactly are your company's salespeople doing out there in the field? Especially the new ones?

The answer, for most companies, is either chalking up sales or not. But understanding why sales don't happen — particularly when the salesperson is a recent hire — is pretty much a black box. And that's where a Burlington startup, Qstream, wants to help. The company just closed $2.8 million in new funding for a mobile app that tests a salesperson's knowledge about what they're selling and how best to sell it.

The idea, explains CEO and co-founder Duncan Lennox, is that "sales reps spend three minutes a day playing our Q&A game on their phones. They can do it while waiting for their lattes at Starbucks." The questions might be about the features of the product or service they're selling, or perhaps ways to address common objections or answer questions about competitors. Reps' scores are then compiled into a report for the sales supervisor. "It provides real-time data on a daily basis about what people know or don't know," Lennox says. In pharmaceutical sales, for instance, "you can see which reps might be struggling to explain the efficacy of a drug with a particular kind of patient. You might need to spend more time with him, or provide some extra training."

duncanlennox.jpgLennox, left, co-founded the company with Price Kerfoot, a professor at Harvard Medical School. The company's customers include Genentech, Rackspace, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Oracle.

Founded in 2008, Qstream has now raised about $4.4 million in total. Investors include Frontline Ventures in Dublin, Ireland and and Boston's Launchpad Venture Group. The company has about a dozen employees, mainly in Burlington. But Qstream also has an engineering and international sales outpost in Dublin.

"When I talk to a VP of sales, they often tell me that they wish they knew what their sales reps said when they got in front of a customer," says Lennox. Qstream's pitch is that it can help ensure that they say the right thing.

Get out there: 3 new iPhone apps that encourage you to leave the house

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 27, 2013 11:03 AM

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Three new locally-crafted apps worth checking out as the summer draws to a close. All of them are free, but only available for iPhone (at least for now).

Yonder, from Green Mountain Digital in Woodstock, VT

Yonder is a social app that guides you to outdoors-y activities near you, or let you visit far-off destinations vicariously. Thanks to your phone's GPS technology, you can find parks and reservations close to you, like Chestnut Hill Reservation (right). Yonder's filters let you hunt for ideal places for different kinds of activities, like kayaking, hiking, or birding. And of course, you can use the app to take pictures or videos of your adventures and share them with other Yonder users, adding comments about hidden grottos or your favorite picnicking spot.

CO Everywhere, from the start-up that previously built Block Avenue in Boston, MA

CO Everywhere asks you to choose some places you care about — maybe Tufts University, maybe Fenway Park — and then provides you with a feed of what's happening in that neighborhood. It might be a special deal being offered by a retailer or restaurant, or Instagram pictures from a street fair, or events being posted on Eventbrite or Zvents. You can also draw your own boundary around where you live, work, or rent a ski house to keep tabs on what's happening nearby. It's fun to see Instagram photos posted by the weirdos who live around you, and also to keep tabs on who's playing at local music venues. There is a way to "mute" certain information sources — after a while, those fun photos start to crowd out the useful stuff — but I haven't yet figured that out. CO Everywhere reminds me a bit of Spindle, an app developed in Boston, acquired by Twitter, and then shut down. (Twitter just wanted the engineering team, apparently.)

Racut, from Racut Inc. in New Bedford, MA

Racut's tagline is "social networking without the commitment." That is, you don't have to set up a profile or prod every contact in your address book to start using it. Racut seems to be focused on letting you chat with people who are in the same place as you — Gillette Stadium, for example. But that requires that a group of people in the same place are actually using the Racut app at the same time, which will be the biggest obstacle for the startup. I could imagine it taking off on college campuses, though, or if a bar or conference venue promoted it to patrons as a way to schmooze digitally.

How GSN Digital's employees got that kegerator-arcade game combo they'd always wanted

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 21, 2013 11:35 AM

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Every time the operations department at GSN Digital in Waltham would submit their annual budget, they'd include two items they knew probably wouldn't get approved: a Bugatti Veyron supercar (price: $2.25 million) and an Arkeg Drink n' Game (price: $4000). The first was definitely a joke. The second, a combination arcade game and kegerator, was a little more within the realm of possibility.

But the Drink n' Game never survived the budget process at GSN Digital, a game development studio owned by the Game Show Network. So last month, when GSN Digital held a hackathon for its employees, VP of engineering Caesar Naples decided it was finally time to do something about it. "I started socializing the idea of building one, and it kind of gained momentum," he says.

The three-day employee hackathon took place in late July; it's a once-a-quarter event at GSN Digital when pretty much everything is put on pause unless it is related to keeping existing games running. Naples explains, "It's a chance to tap people's creativity, and let them work on things that they might not be able to work on in their regular jobs. The overall guidelines are that you can do anything that ties back into the business, even vaguely." Like a kegerator-arcade game hybrid.

Naples volunteered the driveway of his nearby home as an assembly area for what they dubbed the Kegatron. They bought plywood for the cabinet, a mini-fridge, game controllers, and keg hardware from Amazon. Naples says the components cost about $700 all told. Despite afternoon temps in the 90s, the team kept on building. (And yes, it included a couple of those ops guys, Erik Roberts and Dan Hopkins, who had always tried to shoehorn the entertainment device into the budget.)

Not every hackathon project is as, um, recreationally-oriented as the Kegatron. Others have involved designing new PowerPoint templates for the company; exploring the ability to make in-game purchases with a single click; working on prototypes for new games; and deploying animated characters as guides to GSN Digital's careers page.

But the Kegatron has turned into a nice example within GSN Digital of applying a small team's creativity to create something cool, instead of just buying it. It occupies an office of its own, and often attracts a crowd.

I had to ask about the first beer the Kegatron was outfitted with. Naples told me it was Jack's Abbey Hoponius Union, from a Framingham-based brewery.

Kayak co-founder Paul English setting up startup incubator in Fort Point Channel

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 19, 2013 08:00 AM

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About nine months after the travel planning site Kayak was acquired by Priceline for $1.8 billion, co-founder Paul English is dialing down his day-to-day involvement. English announced at a company meeting earlier this month that from now on, he'll serve as part-time chief technology officer.

His new project: setting up a tech incubator code-named Blade. English has leased about 6,000 square feet at 250 Summer Street in Boston's Fort Point Channel neighborhood.

English didn't want to go into detail about the new incubator, but he and several partners have already been camped out in Downtown Crossing office of One Mighty Roar, a product development firm. Construction of the Summer Street space got underway earlier in August. English says he's planning an "outrageous" workspace that will transform into a club at 6 PM, with regular events that "celebrate creative people" like dancers, sculptors, and clothing designers. At the incubator, he plans to serve as a matchmaker between CEO and CTO pairs, launching about three new companies a year. "We'll fund them for the first six months, hire the first ten people, help them raise money, and then kick them out," he says. "The incubator is going to be my next ten years," he adds, saying that his goal is to create CEO/CTO pairs, like he and Kayak co-founder Steve Hafner, "who are happy and have done good things." Hafner plans to remain at Kayak for several more years, English says, but "I had no contract" to stick around after the acquisition.

"The stuff I'm working on these days at Kayak is recruiting, organization development, etc.," English says. "It is really important to me that Kayak continue to have as strong a team as possible." While he's throttling back to a part-time role, he emphasizes that "I will continue to have a long-term dedication to Kayak."

In addition to Blade, which will likely have a new name by the time it opens, English announced on Twitter recently that he has joined MIT's Sloan School of Management as a part-time senior lecturer, helping to design an MIT entrepreneurship class with Bill Aulet, a former entrepreneur and CFO who runs the Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. English has also been collaborating with programmer Bob Rainis on an iPhone app called RoadWars, which should be out soon. Rainis' LinkedIn profile describes it as an "iPhone app for rating driving ability," and says he has been working on it since October 2011. (Rainis earlier worked with Jeffrey Beir on an excellent iPhone app called RoadAhead, which provides drivers with detailed information about what they can find at each highway exit.)

English and Hafner co-founded Kayak back in 2004 in the Cambridge offices of General Catalyst, a venture capital firm. While its headquarters were later set up in Norwalk, Connecticut, English built a large technology team in Concord, Mass. (I wrote about English's approach to recruiting employees in 2011. In 2004, I wrote one of the first articles about the company.)

British video chat startup Vee24 collects $5.5 million from Data Point Capital; will set up HQ in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 6, 2013 08:00 AM
The founder of online retailer Shoebuy.com is putting $5.5 million into Vee24, a British startup that uses live video chat to help e-commerce sites close more sales, and he's installing Shoebuy's former chief marketing officer as its new CEO.

JamesKeller.jpgJames Keller, right, will run Vee24 from Boston, following the new funding round supplied by his old boss, Scott Savitz, now a venture capitalist at Data Point Capital. Sean Marsh of Point Judith Capital also joined in on the funding round, which represents Vee24's first hit of outside capital. Keller says he's currently hunting for office space in downtown Boston and in Kendall Square.

Vee24 was founded in Manchester, England by serial entrepreneurs Andy Henshaw and Nigel Thomas. It enables websites to offer live video chats with representatives, who can also guide prospective customers to particular pages on the site, play videos, and enter data into forms. Sessions can also be handed off from one representative to another, for instance if the second rep has more relevant experience with a certain product line. And when a customer enters a credit card, the number is hidden from the representative.

"This lets you make the same kind of face-to-face connection you can make in real-world retail," says Savitz. "There's no question that it's a different kind of connection than being able to do text chat." In addition to its software, Vee24 sells a packaged webcam setup designed for use in call centers, the VeeStudio.

Keller left Boston-based Shoebuy in mid-May. He says that Vee24 has already worked with more than 45 customers in Europe, including brands like Audi, Vodafone, Land Rover, and L'Oreal. The company hasn't yet done much marketing to U.S. customers. "We very much believe this is the next chapter in online customer engagement," he says.

A handful of Vee24's Manchester employees will move to Boston, but Keller says he also plans to do a bit of local hiring, building a team of 15 to 20 by the end of 2013. European sales and service will still be handled out of Manchester, along with product development and engineering, Keller says. "But we'll be doing product development in Boston as well," he adds.

Vee24 is already in pilot tests with as-yet-unannounced customers in the US.

Facebook finds a home in the heart of Kendall Square

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 1, 2013 10:26 AM

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Facebook's small crew of local software engineers are adjusting their privacy settings.

They're planning to move from shared space at Workbar, where entrepreneurs and startups rent individual desks or offices on a monthly basis, to their own digs on the eighth floor of One Broadway, the Kendall Square tower that also houses the Cambridge Innovation Center.

The space isn't huge: about 3,000 square feet, according to several real estate sources with knowledge of the deal. That will fit roughly 15 people. Facebook's local employees likely won't move into the new space until later in 2013.

Ryan Mack's LinkedIn profile describes him as the site lead for Facebook's local team, which appears to be only a half-dozen or so people at this point. But Mack's profile also says that he is "focusing on hiring infrastructure experts to grow our Boston-based team. We are looking for experienced engineers who would enjoy the challenge of building massive globally distributed systems while simultaneously defining the culture and trajectory of our rapidly growing team." Facebook's careers page doesn't yet list Cambridge or Boston as a location where you could get hired by the social network, but my understanding is that the interviewing locally has been much more targeted, focusing on people already known to one of the current team members, or who can get an introduction.

Facebook spokesperson Slater Tow wouldn't comment on the company's local hiring plans, or its new office: "As a rule, we decline to comment on these types of stories," Tow wrote via e-mail. Brokers at Colliers International, which handles the leasing at One Broadway, haven't yet responded to a phone call and e-mail.

Facebook's local engineers have worked out of both the Boston and Cambridge locations of Workbar for the last year or so; the Cambridge location, on Prospect Street in Central Square, just opened in May. At One Broadway, they'll be the latest Silicon Valley tech giant to set up a Massachusetts outpost. Google, Amazon, and Apple have all rented space in the building at one time or another.

In its startup days, Facebook had an advertising sales office in Boston, which it closed in 2006.

Weather stations, pet feeders, and social robots: Here are the 7 teams that got into Boston's new Bolt accelerator program

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 31, 2013 09:00 AM

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I've been covering Bolt, a new accelerator program in Boston, since early last year, when founder Ben Einstein moved from Northampton to Boston to raise money for the idea. It took Einstein a bit longer than he'd hoped to raise money, find a home base, and sort through 850 applications from entrepreneurs who wanted to be part of Bolt's first cohort. But the program kicks off today, with a set of seven startups working on hardware-oriented products. Three of the companies have already raised some money, and Einstein says that one is on track to hit $1 million in revenues this year. (He wasn't specific about which companies those were.)

Gaining acceptance to Bolt's six-month program gets you free office space in Downtown Crossing; $50,000 in seed capital and a $100,000 line of credit; and access to mentorship and Bolt's elaborately-outfitted prototyping shop.

These are the seven companies chosen for Bolt's first class; the descriptions were provided by Einstein. (In the photo at right is Petnet's $149 "intelligent pet feeder," which can be controlled with a smartphone app.)

• Subsidence generates real-time, localized, atmospheric data, powered by its dense grids of next generation weather stations. From Madison, WI.

• Petnet creates a line of intelligent pet products and leverages the data they capture so that pets, their owners, and caregivers can all be digitally connected. From Pasadena, CA.

• Behavioral Technologies builds wearable technology that seeks to influence habits, rather than simply measure movement. From San Francisco, CA.

• Loci Controls helps landfills optimize methane collection and energy generation. Loci is also one of the 128 finalists in this year's MassChallenge competition.

• Padloc designs and manufactures innovative tablet hardware and technology solutions for national retailers, hotels and banks.

• BeTH creates prosthetic and orthotic devices that provide custom fit comfort without custom fabrication.

• BlabDroid builds social robots paired with dynamic content to create unique relationships with technology. (I covered BlabDroid, founded by MIT Media Lab alum Alexander Reben, back in May.)

Bolt's concluding "prototype day," at which all seven companies will present to investors, is scheduled for January 23rd.

Bolt plans to host the relatively-new Boston Hardware Meetup every six weeks, which features presentations from a handful of startups; there's one this evening.

ZappRx launches pilot test in New York, hoping to streamline the process of getting a prescription

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 22, 2013 09:00 AM

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Can a smartphone app eliminate some of the snafus that can happen in getting prescriptions from a doctor's office to a pharmacy and then into a patient's hands?

That's the vision of a Boston startup, ZappRx, that is launching its first real-world test in Manhattan this week. The test involves a single pharmacy on the Upper East Side and two doctors — one is director of the Weill Cornell Medical Center — who will invite interested patients who own iPhones to participate.

Patients who use the app will be able to enter their insurance information into their phone, along with a credit card number for co-pays, and then show the phone's screen "like a mobile boarding pass" when they arrive at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, says founder and CEO Zoe Barry. Afterward, the app can provide reminders about when the medication is intended to be taken — and send your doctor a message that you've picked up the medicine (something they typically don't know today.) Patients can also use ZappRx to keep tabs on their symptoms, or order refills.

On the back end, docs use an iPad or PC to access a web-based prescription interface. "Our software allows for two-way communications between the pharmacy and the doctor," Barry explains. "Today, if there's a question or some missing piece of information, that creates lots of faxing and calling back and forth." She says ZappRx's revenue could come from both pharmacies and doctors, for streamlining the process and supplying information they don't get today.

The current trial isn't intended to gather data about how the system impacts patient or doctor behavior, Barry says: "We're just trying to make it convenient, and make the users happy."

ZappRx has six employees, including chief technology officer Matthew Graziano, who joined earlier this year from RunKeeper.

Barry says she raised a seed round earlier this year, from a group of investors including Hakan Satiroglu, founder of Exponential Techspace in Boston and Michael Silverman, co-founder of The Fancy, a customer-curated online shop.

She's talking with primary care physicians and independent pharmacies in Boston about conducting a test locally.

Yes, this ceramic fruit bowl came out of a 3D printer

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 19, 2013 11:11 AM

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This ceramic fruit bowl showed up at the Globe recently, addressed to me. It's a product sample sent by Figulo, a South Boston company. And it's the first 3D printed item I've seen that I could imagine using in my daily life... as opposed to chalky, fragile prototypes or "toys" that only last if they're kept on a shelf.

I called Figulo founder Andy Jeffery to ask him about the bowl.

"It was designed by an architect at UC Berkeley that we're working with, Ronald Rael, who runs a site called Emerging Objects," Jeffery told me. "The piece was just a cool little design study of his. We print it on our hot-rodded Z Corp. printers. We have six of those here. We made some modifications to them so that they can print ceramic." (Z Corp. was an MIT spin-out that is now owned by industry giant 3DSystems.) An inkjet printer head in the 3D printer spits out a special powder formulated by Figulo, which includes a solid glue. Then, it adds a water-based fluid that "dissolves the glue and binds the joints of the ceramic particles together," Jeffery explains. The printer head builds the object one layer at a time, resulting in a green ceramic piece. "Then we blow away all the loose powder with compressed air. It gets fired in one of our kilns, then we glaze it and fire it again, so it's food safe. We don't claim it's microwaveable or dishwasher safe."

figulobowl2.jpgJeffery says the bowl he sent takes about 2 hours for his printer to produce, but then "a day for firing and another day for glazing. If we get an order on Monday, we can ship it on Friday." Orders come through 3D printing sites like Shapeways and Cubify.

Jeffery says that Figulo, founded in 2011, is the only vendor making finished ceramic pieces on a 3D printer: "We've got the field to ourselves for the moment." In addition to cranking out consumer products, he also makes the occasional piece for industrial or government customers like NASA. "But we think there's more money in non-technical markets." The company has five employees.

He expects that Figulo-produced items may soon start showing up in more local design stores. "We trying to look at whether we could do something at an outlet like Home Depot, too, letting people design their own tiles with high relief printing," he says.

"People are drawn to these objects," Jeffery says. "They don't believe that they were 3D printed."

After showing around the sample he sent, I can verify that that is true...


Two new photo editing apps want to make it easier to edit and enhance your pics

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 18, 2013 09:45 AM

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Two new photo apps for iPhones may be worth a spin as you sort through your vacation pictures this summer. Both are free, and both, coincidentally, have Boston-Israel ties...

Layrs lets you separate the foreground from the background of your pictures with the swipe of a finger, and then adjust each area separately. You might want to increase the contrast of the ocean without affecting the kids playing on the beach, for instance, or add a blur effect to a sailboat in the foreground without changing anything about the sky. Once you're done, you can save the new photo to your phone's camera roll, e-mail it, or share it on social networks like Facebook or Twitter. (Posting to Facebook didn't work when I tried it this week, and the app does force you to crop your original picture into a square format so you can work with it on the iPhone's screen.) The company that makes Layrs, Artware Studio, is self-funded, and has been working on the app since last year. CEO Moti Kintzlinger is based in Israel, while the head of marketing and business development, Janice Ozguc, works in Boston.

"As part of the development process, we worked with focus groups, professional photographers, leaders in the Instagram community, as well market research firms," Ozguc says. Future generations of the app with more advanced features may cost money. Ozguc and Kintzlinger worked together previously at Octalica, a semiconductor company in Newton and Israel that was acquired in 2007 by Broadcom.

Below is a picture I shot last weekend, and then the same photo edited with Layrs. I left the sky alone, but brightened up the foreground.

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Alignable aims to help local businesses multiply their marketing power, starting in Boston's western suburbs and the Cape

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 12, 2013 09:00 AM

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Here's an unlikely startup pairing: the co-founder of Invisalign, the transparent teeth-straightening system, and a former senior executive of Constant Contact, the Waltham e-mail marketing company. They've banded together to work on a venture that wants to help local businesses amplify their marketing reach. Their startup, Alignable, is already live in several of Boston's western suburbs and on Cape Cod. And it has raised a bit more than $1 million in initial funding from Boston Seed Capital, Longworth Venture Partners, NextView Ventures, and CrunchFund.

Alignable CEO Eric Groves, who spent a decade at Constant Contact, says that local businesses have tried a lot of Internet marketing strategies over the last decade, without a lot of success. (Can you say Groupon?) "What they found was that people might drive 20 miles in order to get a $30 massage, but those people wouldn't turn into loyal customers," he says. "But on the other hand there are all these locally-minded people who live near them who aren't deal-seekers. They prefer to buy locally." Yet it can be challenging for local businesses to figure out how to get those close-by customers in the door, since many advertising vehicles reach the entire Boston market (expensively) as opposed to people within a few miles' radius.

Alignable's solution involves a web-based platform that lets businesses market to each others' customers. If one company in Hyannis sells pools, and another sells patio furniture, why not get together to offer a package deal? Alignable makes that easy, and enables them to promote it to their respective e-mail lists and social media followings. Groves says, "It's about connecting local merchants with each other, and then helping them acquire new customers." There are also pages on the Alignable site that feature all of the events and special offers that are live in a given community; here's the page for Acton.

Groves says that Alignable is now building out analytics to collect data about which programs are most effective at making the cash register ring, and presenting that to Alignable's users.

The company has eight employees operating out of Matrix Partners' office in Waltham; two of them, in addition to Groves, are alumni of Constant Contact. Groves' co-founder is Venkat Krishnamurthy, previously at Checkpoint Systems and OATSystems. He began his entrepreneurial career as a co-founder of Invisalign, now publicly-traded.

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Rich Miner of Google Ventures talks about the search giant's funding strategy, the new Glass Collective, and the future of mobile [Audio]

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 10, 2013 12:32 PM

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A few interesting morsels from my on-stage interview yesterday with Rich Miner, at MassTLC's Mobile Summit...

•  Android, the startup that Miner cofounded with Andy Rubin, was initially focused on developing an operating system for digital cameras, before Miner and Rubin decided that smartphones might provide a bigger opportunity. It was acquired by Google in 2005, before it raised any outside capital.

• We might not have a Cambridge office of Google if not for that acquisition; Miner didn't want to move to Silicon Valley, and so he persuaded the company to set up an office in Kendall Square to work on elements of the Android operating system.

• Google Ventures has a budget of $300 million a year to invest in startups; its local portfolio includes companies like HubSpot, Adelphic Mobile, LevelUp, Sold, and CustomMade.

• "We're just looking for incredibly bright people that have ideas that we think are really big ideas," Miner says of Google Ventures. "That's what we want to back and invest in. ...The number one criteria is the strength and intelligence and the fire in the belly of the team you're investing in."

• "I don't know if there's an anchor [mobile company in Boston]. I certainly think we have a very strong and healthy mobile ecosystem." What the local scene could use more of, Miner says, is people with experience in mobile design and user experience.

• Miner wasn't wearing Google Glass at the event, but he said he has found it valuable for capturing video and pictures of fleeting moments, like his son learning to ride a bike.

• Miner says that he has been "seeing interesting companies" developing applications for Glass, but that Google Ventures hasn't announced any investments yet. His firm is collaborating with Kleiner Perkins and Andreessen Horowitz to scout for promising Glass-related startups.

• He believes "the time has never been better" in Boston for startups seeking early-stage funding.

• He referenced LuminAR, an intelligent desktop display prototype built at the MIT Media Lab, as an interesting new direction for computing.

• Miner didn't exactly love being compared to Willie Wonka, in this column I wrote in 2007. (Still don't know why...)

Audio of the complete session is below. As usual, audience questions were not well-miked.

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Philips looks to crowdsource new product ideas, from its North American headquarters in Andover

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 24, 2013 03:02 PM

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Can a massive multinational tap into two of today's hottest business trends, crowdsourcing product ideas and crowdfunding their development?

The Dutch lighting, electronics, and healthcare giant Philips NV is going to find out, with a new "Innovation Fellows" competition running through mid-August. The company is laying out $100,000 in prize money — plus mentorship from company executives — for the top five product ideas related to "Living Well, Being Healthy, and Enjoying Life," according to the program's site. Inventors and entrepreneurs will be asked to run crowdfunding campaigns for their ideas on the site Indiegogo, soliciting money from interested backers, presumably to show which ones can garner the most monetary momentum. But a six-member panel of judges will choose the ultimate winners.

The competition is being led from the company's North American headquarters in Andover. (Philips has nearly 4,000 employees who work in Massachusetts, mainly in its healthcare and lighting divisions.) "We think this is one of the first attempts by a large company to do open innovation, and not think that our 100,000 employees will think of everything," says Greg Sebasky, right, chairman of Philips North America. "All of the intellectual property of the ideas submitted will remain with the inventor," he adds, though Philips may decide to forge a partnership or make an investment in one or more of the winners.

Sebasky says the company is interested in the ways that new technologies like wearable sensors and mobile apps can be integrated into the existing healthcare system, as opposed to just delivering information to an individual consumer. "We see all this information ultimately needing to get back into a patient health record," he says. Among the Massachusetts businesses Philips owns are the Lifeline medical alert system ("I've fallen and I can't get up") and Color Kinetics, whose LED lights illuminate the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge on Route 93. Elements of Philips' Lightolier products are made in Fall River.

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Brightcove alumni update: Elisabeth Carpenter joins EverTrue as chief operating officer

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 20, 2013 12:02 PM

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Elisabeth Carpenter was among the first handful of employees at Brightcove, the online video hosting company that is now publicly-traded, and it was a Brightcove connection that led her to her new gig: serving as chief operating officer at EverTrue, a Boston startup that has raised $6.5 million in funding so far... and happens to be based in the very same building as Brightcove, Atlantic Wharf.

Carpenter had helped build up the sales, customer support, and professional services teams over more than seven years at Brightcove, but she departed the company last June. She then took some time off, helping to organize her 25th Harvard College reunion and a 30th reunion for her high school. "With both of those, I was dealing with the reality of all the bad information and incomplete information that all of these institutions have on their alumni," she says. "They have a hard time getting alumni to show up at a reunion, much less donate, much less talk to each other."

That's exactly the problem that EverTrue is trying to address: helping schools (and their fundraising officers) keep better tabs on their alums, and helping alums stay in touch with one another.

Among EverTrue's early investors was Bob Mason, a co-founder and former chief technology officer at Brightcove (he left last July.) Mason introduced Carpenter to EverTrue founder Brent Grinna. She joined the company late last month. "I used to get off the elevator on the 4th floor, but now I stay on for another three floors," she quips.

"When we started Brightcove, we didn't even have the clay yet," Carpenter says. "Here, Brent has the clay and it's already formed into a bust of somebody, but we don't know who it is yet. They've been able to do a massive amount in the last two-and-a-half years, but I feel like I can leave my fingerprints in a positive way on the company, and help take it to the next level." Carpenter says she believes that EverTrue's market — helping educational institutions and other non-profits cultivate relationships with prospective donors — "is a surprisingly massive market, even larger than what we had at Brightcove. This is a product that can make money and do good."

Carpenter says her top priorities at the new job are "bringing customers in, and making sure they're happy." EverTrue has 23 employees, and it participated in the TechStars Boston program in 2011.


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Mobile app Drizly brings cocktail hour to your doorstep

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 19, 2013 12:00 PM

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Add a few more things to the list of things you can procure with a mobile app: a case of Sam Adams Summer, a bottle of red, or a fifth of Jack Daniels.

A startup called Drizly launched an app last month that promises to put booze on your doorstep in 20 minutes to an hour, seven days a week, with a $20 order minimum. (The delivery fee is $5.) And yes, they can even deliver to towns like Wellesley that don't have liquor stores.

So far, Drizly is getting about 50 orders a week, according to co-founder and CEO Nicholas Rellas. And he says that the app's average order size is more than three times larger than the average in-store purchase.

Drizly plans to sell delivery territories to liquor stores, some of which already do delivery. The app acts simply as an order-forwarding service. Drivers use an app produced by Drizly's sister company, Mident, to check IDs or purchases. Drizly's initial delivery partner is Gordon's Wine and Spirits in Watertown; Medway-based Advanced ID Detection is an equal partner in the Mident venture. (Rellas says the company will be adding two new liquor stores in the Boston suburbs as delivery partners over the next few weeks.)

Rellas envisions that advertising will eventually play a role in generating revenue for his business, encouraging customers to try new brands. "The $5 delivery fee could be discounted by watching ads, or trying a new product," he says.

As for when you can use Drizly... it won't help you get booze after the neighborhood packie has closed. "We make sure, by law, the items are in the hands of the customers before the liquor store closes," Rellas explains. "As much as we'd love to be able to have stores make late-night deliveries, the sale has to be finalized, with items in hand, before the store that's delivering it closes."

The company is just now starting to look for financing. "We wanted to make our startup recession-proof, so that's why we're in the alcohol business," Rellas says.

Jumpshell hopes its social service will help apartment renters elude broker fees

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 18, 2013 08:30 AM

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A Somerville startup is cultivating an interesting concept: could Facebook friends help one another find their next apartment — and avoid paying broker fees?

Jumpshell plans to roll out its first beta test tomorrow, which will help people find or advertise apartment sublets through their social networks on Facebook. The initial app will enable people to start conversations about sublets with friends who live in a particular area, or who might be in the process of moving. Over time, though, Jumpshell intends to enlist tenants in renting out their apartment at the end of a lease, providing the landlord or building manager with a new renter from their network of friends — or friends of friends.

"Those kinds of interactions are already happening informally, where people go to see a friend's apartment, or a friend's neighbor's apartment, and they may decide to rent it," says Jumpshell co-founder Matt Boyes-Watson, who helps manage a building that his family owns in Cambridge.

But Jumpshell wants to bring that process online, helping landlords keep their apartments rented while helping the new tenants avoid paying a fee to a broker, which is typically one month's rent. Jumpshell hopes to handle the rental application online for a much smaller fee — around $125, says co-founder and chief marketing officer Raleigh Werner. (But the startup is still in discussions with a state regulatory agency, the Division of Professional Licensure for Real Estate Salespersons, which could prove...interesting.) Landlords might provide rewards to tenants who helped supply the next renter for their place, for instance discounting the last month's rent.

So far, the startup has been boot-strapped, though Werner says they will focus on raising money this summer. And Jumpshell's three founders don't just work together... they're also roommates. (In the photo from left to right are Boyes Watson, CTO Parker Woodworth, and Werner.)

TripAdvisor tries the smorgasbord approach to hiring software developers

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 17, 2013 08:00 AM

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How do you find a software developer to fill an open job at your company in 2013?

TripAdvisor, the Newton-based network of travel sites, posits that the answer may be by offering him or her more than one job.

The company's Web Engineering Program offers new hires — many of them recent graduates — a series of three or four month stints in a range of different departments in the company. The program has been "in beta" for the past two years, says SVP of engineering and operations Andy Gelfond, but is officially launching this summer. About 30 recent TripAdvisor hires are participating or have participated in it, and the company hopes to recruit about 100 more this year.

"We now offer it to all the people coming out of college," Gelfond says, "and most other people coming in." New employees in the Web Engineering Program might hop from one team to another for up to two years. "But for about one-third of them, after a couple rotations, they find a team that they like and they stay," he says. The teams at the company focus on areas like mobile apps, Facebook integration, e-commerce, and search engine optimization. Gelfond says the program is designed to appeal not just to those who'd like to sample a number of different flavors of software development work, but also those who may eventually want to start a company of their own.

The program has already helped TripAdvisor attract employees from other local tech biggies, including Google, Oracle, and Microsoft, says spokesperson Alison Croyle. In addition to Newton, TripAdvisor has software development groups in Ottawa, Palo Alto, and Los Angeles.

Engineers at TripAdvisor get one week a year of "Hacker Time," which they can devote to any project they choose, including helping a non-profit with technology, Gelfond says. Other local employers have been tinkering with their own strategies for recruiting software developers; HubSpot recently increased its referral bonus from $10,000 to $30,000. (Pictured above is a TripAdvisor-branded Rubik's Cube that the company often hands out at recruiting events.)

"Hey, Mr. DJ": RequestNow delivers song requests via text

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 13, 2013 04:12 PM

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Nudging your way through a sea of bodies on the dance floor is soooooooo 20th century. These days, to ask the DJ to play a song, you're better off using your mobile phone.

At least that's the vision of RequestNow, a new startup from two Boston University undergrads. When you send a text message to a special phone number, RequestNow figures out what song you're probably talking about, and adds it to the DJ's queue. Songs requested by more than one person float to the top of the list. The founders are Matthew Auerbach and Guy Aridor, who met in a computer science course; Auerbach has some DJing experience.

I tried it this afternoon, and it was pretty good at figuring out what songs I was talking about. Texting "Heroes" put the David Bowie song on the play list. The first time I asked for "Crazy," it assumed I meant the Gnarls Barkley song, but a second text for "Crazy by Seal" set it straight.

RequestNow hopes that DJs will pay a monthly fee for access to the app, starting at $9.99 per month. A higher-priced version will let them send out marketing messages to people who requested songs, presumably promoting future gigs.

"It gives them the ability to market themselves and develop a relationship with audiences," says Peter Boyce of Rough Draft, a seed stage investment group that is putting $10,000 into RequestNow. "It's almost like a marketing platform."

Aridor is working on the startup from Brookline this summer; Auerbach is out in Silicon Valley, where he has a summer internship at Facebook.

Atlas Venture bets that craftsmanship is coming back, with $18 million round for CustomMade

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 11, 2013 08:00 AM
Atlas Venture is making its first investment out of a new $265 million investment fund that it raised earlier this year. And there are at least three things that are notable about the deal:
• It's a bet on old-school, Yankee-style craftsmanship.

• It's in a startup, CustomMade, that is located not quite two blocks from Atlas' office in East Cambridge.

• While Atlas usually makes early seed or first-round investments in companies, this is a second round of funding for CustomMade. (The company had raised $8 million previously, from investors including Google Ventures, NextView Ventures, Launch Capital, and First Round Capital.)

CustomMade is a marketplace site somewhat similar to Etsy, but focused entirely on products that are made to order. The site helps customers communicate with a number of "makers" around the country, find one they like, and manage the design process. The two most popular items that customers want made, according to CEO Mike Salguero: tables and necklaces. (I profiled the company and some of the challenges it faced in generating enough work for makers, in 2011.)

custommadefounders.jpegSalguero says that CustomMade has 40 employees, and that "the majority of this money will be used for hiring," primarily in engineering and marketing. Over 12,000 makers bid on jobs through the site, and CustomMade pockets 10 percent of every successful transaction (with a cap of $1000 on the company's fee.)

"Our next challenge," says Salguero, "is getting average customers to experience custom for the first time — making it easier, more predictable, and more delightful. And that obviously is something that involves everyone here, from marketing to service to user experience and engineering." (In the photo, Salguero is on the right, with president Seth Rosen on the left.)

In a blog post about the deal, Atlas Venture partner Fred Destin predicts that "custom is the new frontier in luxury and 'affordable luxury.' There is a huge pull away from mindless consumption towards more meaningful, one-off purchases."

The company brought on a new SVP of engineering last December, Jim Haughwout, and a new VP of product starts next month. Maggie McCanner joins CustomMade after working at Amazon.com and AllRecipes.com in Seattle. "We're now importing people to Boston from other places," says Salguero.

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Firing Nemo: Endeca, Oracle, and the cultural aftershocks of an acquisition

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 10, 2013 12:40 PM

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A former Endeca exec told me the story last month about what had happened to the company's mascot, Puffer, after their Cambridge software company was acquired by Oracle Corp. for $1.1 billion. Basically, the pufferfish was laid off, the victim not of an inflated salary or a redundant role, but of a no-animals-in-the-office policy at Oracle.

It seemed like a pretty good symbol of the way big acquirers sometimes stomp on the culture of what they have acquired, to the point where the talent starts walking out the door. (At this point, I know far more ex-Endeca employees than I do people who've stuck around. And I've written about some of the new startups they've been forming.) When I heard the story, I knew I had to write about Puffer.

Here's the opening of Sunday's column about Endeca, Oracle, and Puffer. Afterward is the farewell e-mail that Puffer "wrote" to her colleagues at Endeca on her last day, along with a video of Puffer in her saltwater tank.

This is the story of Puffer, a sprightly little pufferfish who lived in an office building in Cambridge. Puffer was the mascot of a company called Endeca. Every day, when the software developers would show up for work on the 15th floor, the first thing they would see when they got off the elevator was Puffer, swimming happily in her tank.

All the employees loved Puffer. They put her picture on posters that promoted companywide parties. And when she puffed up — which was not very often — people took pictures and e-mailed them to their co-workers. The employees who helped take care of Puffer, feeding her krill and algae, loved her even more. She would follow them whenever they walked past her tank, sometimes bonking into the glass.

But one day in 2011, one of the richest men in the world decided to buy Endeca. He paid more than $1 billion for the company, which created software to help businesses analyze their operations or organize the products sold on their websites. And that’s when things changed for Puffer and her friends.

This is the story of Puffer, but it’s also the story of those thousand tiny changes that big companies often make when they acquire smaller ones. And about how those changes often lead to the loss of the very same talent the big company hoped to bring on as part of the deal.

(Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Lin, a former Endecan who helped take care of Puffer.)

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Can Google Glass help doctors make crucial calls faster?

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 6, 2013 08:00 AM

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Everyone has been mocking Google's Glass eyewear for its dweeby aesthetic. But would the teasing subside if Glass, which connects wirelessly to the Internet and can respond to spoken commands, was used to save lives?

A Scituate entrepreneur, John Rodley, is working on a Glass app for use in hospitals. "I think Glass is a game-changer, and I kind of enjoy seeing people diss it," he says. Rodley paid $1500 to get his hands on the developer's version of the Glass device, and start crafting software for it. He showed off his progress so far in Cambridge last weekend at AngelHack, a competition for entrepreneurs and web developers.

"We built a system for rapid response teams at hospitals," he says. "In some cases, they are coordinating care with people who might be in other locations on a campus or inside a big building." Rather than wait until those people arrive at a patient's bedside, a nurse who is wearing Glass and using Rodley's app would be able to livestream video, along with vital signs, to the doctor or specialist who is on the way over. "It gives them the first-person view of what's happening at the bedside, along with data like heart rate and blood pressure. If they can't see it, they're not going to venture an opinion about the appropriate treatment until they get there," he says. The doctor can also use Glass to ask questions or communicate with the caregiver who is in the patient's room.

Rodley's startup is called Farlo (Italian for "do it"), and the product is currently known as ArrtGlass. (The RRT in there stands for "rapid response team.") He was formerly a manager at Sonos, which makes a digital music systems, and Roam Data, an electronic payments company.

Rodley says he's continuing to develop the product, and hopes to get a pilot version into the field for testing later this year.

Below is some EKG data that the responding doctor could see on her Glass display, and also an image of what the "base station" view of all the video and data being sent through the ArrtGlass system would look like on a desktop machine. (The "patient" is an ArrtGlass collaborator, Griffin Mahoney, playing sick at AngelHack over the weekend.)

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At Boston Children's Hospital, a prototype mobile app delivers medical info directly to patients

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 4, 2013 11:30 AM

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Here's an amazing app that I hope you never need to use...

Boston Children's Hospital has been pilot-testing an iPad app this spring called MyPassport. It's designed to give patients and their families more information about what's going on during their stay, from the doctors and nurses assigned to them to the results of their lab tests. It also lets them submit questions they have, and get them answered quickly by their docs.

Hiep Nguyen, right, a urologist at the hospital, led the development of the app, relying on software development resources from the Fasttrack Innovation in Technology team at Children's. When the hospital fielded surveys and conducted focus groups, Nguyen explains, some families of patients reported that they "felt disconnected from their providers," especially when English wasn't their first language. "In some cases, they didn't know who some of their doctors were." Among the goals for the app were to provide a "better awareness of tests being done, who their providers are, and what the discharge criteria are" — in other words, what needs to happen in order for them to be released. The app also "helps them organize questions they might have, and get answers before that day's rounds at 3 p.m.," Nguyen adds.

Test results show up not as abstract numbers, but along a spectrum of blue, green, or red. (Red being worrisome.)

My-Passport-labs.jpgThe app interfaces with two different electronic medical records systems used at Children's, as well as the hospital's security database, which supplies photos of all of the docs and nurses. The app also includes pictures of the patient and his or her family, which can be helpful as a reference for harried docs trying to keep their patients straight, Nguyen says. The app replaces a binder full of paper that patients ordinarily receive, which is quite labor-intensive to assemble and maintain.

The initial version of the app was loaded onto a loaner iPad, and tested by about 30 patients. A version rolling out now can be used on a patient's own iPhone or Android device. That will enable patients to see their discharge instructions on the app, as well as information about future appointments.

Nguyen says the next steps for the project are to create foreign language versions of MyPassport — most likely in Spanish and Creole — since the families that report the lowest satisfaction with their experience at Children's tend to be non-English speakers, according to hospital surveys.

And MyPassport could also develop into a company funded by investors, Nguyen says. Though he doesn't have time to commercialize the product himself, "My greatest happiness would be to see this being used by many, many patients."

Can Industry Inc. persuade you to join another professional social network?

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 3, 2013 08:15 AM

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LinkedIn and Twitter have both attained a pretty vast audience over the past half decade. But the co-founders of a Cambridge startup, Industry Inc., believe they've identified a gap between the two social networks. Neither one, says co-founder Raj Bala, lets you easily join a conversation and share relevant content with a group of peers from the industry you work in — regardless of whether know them in real life.

As Bala, right, puts it, “Most people don’t see Twitter as being a professional social network. When you first join, the service is always suggesting celebrities or sports stars to follow. And LinkedIn is designed to prevent you from connecting to people you don’t know. There, if someone tries to communicate with you and they don’t have some relationship to you, LinkedIn sees that as spam.”

Industry, so far, is entirely focused on its iOS and Android mobile apps. And at launch, the company is only targeting people who work in tech, life sciences, and K-12 education. To start, you enter your work e-mail address and add contacts from your address book who work in your industry. (Eventually, the app will suggest people to follow, Bala says.) You can also add people from the public stream of messages, which shows everything being shared in your industry, or click on a company name to see everyone who is an Industry member from that company. Unlike Twitter, there's no limit on the length of your posts. "You could use it to ask a question, share a link, or organize something in the offline world, like a meetup of Boston area storage startups," Bala says. "People might use it to build their reputations, or to find their next job."

Bala and his co-founder, Subra Aswathanarayanan, worked together at EMC before starting Industry back in February. They’ve been self-funding the startup so far. “We want to get to the point where we’ve done enough iterations where we know this is going to work before we raise money,” Bala says. “We want to get to the point where we have traction.” Bala had raised venture money for his last startup, BigSwerve, which built a search engine for blog comments. With that venture, Bala says, “We didn’t find product-market fit early enough. That’s what we’re trying to do here before we take money.”

Starting a new social network ain't easy: you have to persuade people to sign up, get their friends to sign up, and then share stuff regularly. It'll be interesting to see whether Industry can somehow beat the odds.

Vlingo founders and employees peeling off from Nuance, working on new wave of startups

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 31, 2013 08:00 AM

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Tracking the Vlingo diaspora...

A year ago this week, speech recognition giant Nuance closed on its acquisition of the Harvard Square startup, which made a virtual assistant app for smartphones similar to Siri — but launched well before the Apple feature — that attracted about 13 million users.

One Vlingo founder, local speech guru Michael Phillips, is working on a startup called Sage Devices that has raised some seed funding from Izhar Armony at Charles River Ventures, one of the VC firms that backed Vlingo and an earlier Phillips startup called SpeechWorks. (It, too, was gobbled up by Nuance.) Former Vlingo product manager Chris Micali is also on board, according to a corporate filing. Phillips didn't want to be too specific about Sage, but he did say that he's interested in home automation, and technologies for monitoring and managing consumers' home energy usage. (He's pictured at right.)

Another Vlingo co-founder, John Nguyen, says that his last day working at Nuance is this coming Monday. He writes via e-mail, "I'm taking the summer off and will probably start my own thing afterwards, assuming it gets funded!" Nguyen had served as Vlingo's EVP of product and business development.

Two other early employees have attracted seed funding for a startup called Pencil Labs, from Antonio Rodriguez at Matrix Partners and Jon Auerbach at Charles River Ventures, along with Dave Grannan, Vlingo's former CEO. They're trying to create an intelligent calendar that can reduce the amount of human effort involved in scheduling, say, a 90-minute meeting that involves 15 people. The founders are Han Shu and Joe Cerra. Carla Pellicano, a former exec at Fiksu and Marginize, is also working with them.

"Supposedly, it will learn and make scheduling 100 percent seamless," explains an individual with knowledge of Pencil's plans. "The problem that they are solving is that people spend too much time scheduling things, and not enough time actually doing the things they are trying to schedule."

Doron Gan, who managed the server team at Vlingo, has a new startup called UserAtlas, focused on helping companies increase the lifetime value of their customers. His cofounder is Melyssa Plunkett-Gomez, a former exec at Crimson Hexagon and Unica.

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Harvard startup MyLingo wants to turn your smartphone into a movie translator

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 29, 2013 08:15 AM

Update: In December 2013, Polak told me she had raised $750,000 from angel investors, and decided to take a leave from Harvard. She's moving to Los Angeles "to focus on the company" full-time, she says...

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Growing up in a Connecticut household that mostly spoke Polish, Olenka Polak and her brother Adam had first-hand experience in how language can be a barrier to participating in the culture. And that led the siblings, years later, to start a company that would help make a key part of American culture — the movies — more welcoming to those who don't speak English.

The Polaks are co-founders of myLINGO, a still-stealthy startup based at Harvard's Innovation Lab. myLINGO is developing a mobile app that would make it easy to rent, for 99 cents, a movie's audio track in a wide variety of languages. And it'd be useful not just for theatrical releases, but also for on-demand or DVD viewing at home. "You can imagine a scenario where the kids are fine watching a cartoon in English, but Abuela and Abuelo would want to listen to the audio in Spanish," says Olenka Polak, right, who just wrapped up her sophomore year at Harvard. (Her brother is a 2012 graduate of Johns Hopkins.)

For a demo, Polak started playing the Spanish version of "Toy Story 2" on her laptop. The prototype app on her iPhone listened to the soundtrack for 20 seconds or so to figure out what part of the movie was playing, and when I put the earbuds in, I could hear Buzz Lightyear speaking in English, perfectly synchronized. The app checks in every few minutes with the soundtrack on the film or DVD, just to make sure it is still in the right spot. (Audio processing expert Dan Ellis of Columbia University is an advisor to myLINGO.)

Polak says that Hollywood studios record the dialogue of blockbuster releases in as many as 25 different languages, for both theatrical and DVD releases, so the alternate versions are already being produced. Smaller films are typically recorded in French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The myLINGO app would let users search for movies available in their preferred language, and then rent the audio file for 24 hours.

MyLINGO won $10,000 in last month's Harvard College Innovation Challenge.

Polak's hope is that the studios would see myLINGO as something that helps them expand the audience for their theatrical releases and DVDs. "We think that today, there are a lot of immigrants who are not in seats," Polak says. But she's just now discussing myLINGO's technology with several top executives at Hollywood studios, so we'll have to see how they react. Seems to me like an idea with big potential...

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Interactions Corp. collects $40 million in new funding to make customer service calls less frustrating

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 22, 2013 08:30 AM

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Big new round of funding being announced today by a Franklin-based startup, Interactions Corp. And it’s being led by Steve Murray, a venture capitalist based in the Newton office of Softbank Capital.

Interactions Corp. helps about 22 big customers, including Hyatt and Humana, handle incoming phone calls more efficiently, without requiring callers to press 2 for billing, 3 for sales, or * to go back to the previous menu. But it also doesn’t rely entirely on speech recognition, which can often run into trouble, especially when interpreting phrases or full sentences. Instead, Interactions layers human assistance on top of automated speech recognition when necessary. If there's a lot of background noise, or the caller has a thick accent, a human listens to that fragment of the conversation and routes the caller to the right place. The company calls its solution the "Virtual Assistant"; you can listen to some examples here.

Interactions has about 80 employees at its headquarters in Franklin, and it plans to open up a second local office on Lincoln Street in downtown Boston next month. “There’s a certain group of employees that we’ll have greater access to in that location,” says CEO Mike Iacobucci, right. With the new funding, Iacobucci says he’ll be hiring across pretty much every function, including engineering, sales, marketing, and client services. The company also has offices in Indianapolis and Austin.

Iacobucci says that Interactions has “done really well” penetrating the hospitality market, where clients include Hyatt and Best Western, and that other customers come from industries like telecom, retail, and healthcare. As for this new round of funding, he says, the investors "felt we had sufficient traction," and Iacobucci felt "it was time to expand the businesses." The other VC firms participating in this round are Sigma Partners and Sigma Prime Ventures of Boston; Updata Partners; North Hill Venture Partners of Boston; Cross Atlantic Capital Partners; and RED LLC.

In April, Interactions announced a partnership with AT&T to use the company’s Watson speech technology as part of its offering. I last covered the company in 2010.

CoUrbanize wants to bring the conversation about urban planning and real estate development online

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 16, 2013 08:30 AM

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If something new is being built in your neighborhood, the chances are pretty good that you don't get sufficient information about how it will affect you — or a chance to voice your opinion about it. Unless, that is, you have enough time on your hands to attend community meetings and hearings regularly.

A new startup out of the TechStars Boston accelerator, CoUrbanize, is trying to tackle that problem, and this week the company is announcing its first partnership, with the bike rental network Hubway. Co-founder Karin Brandt, right, an MIT-educated city planner, says that other partnerships with commercial real estate developers could be announced as soon as next week, when this latest crop of TechStars Boston startups present to investors.

CoUrbanize's web-based software allows developers to "explain their projects, and the impacts they can have on the surrounding areas, like shadows and traffic and parking," Brandt says. "They can also get feedback from passive proponents" — who may not have the same opinions as people attending hearings and community meetings. "We're trying to reduce the barriers to involvement for people." The software allows developers to publish a timeline of meetings; detail a project's upside, like job creation, new retail stores, or tax revenue; and invite comments in an online forum, with posters using their real names rather than pseudonyms. The interesting balancing act here, of course, will be ensuring that CoUrbanize's sites feel like a neutral forum, rather than anything controlled by developers, cities, or residents.

But Brandt says that the company sees its "sweet spot" as helping developers and governments communicate issues that are hard to understand and visualize, and notifying people about what's happening in a way that's more sophisticated than going door-to-door with printed flyers." CoUrbanize aspires to help residents voice their opinions, but also to help developers stop misinformation from being circulated — which can often happen in anonymous forums.

With Hubway, Brandt says CoUrbanize will help the bike-sharing network "get feedback about future stations, and where they should be located" as it expands in neighborhoods like Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the Innovation District in South Boston. Her co-founders are Daniel Weismann and David Quinn.

Dropping in on Julia Austin, VP of innovation at VMware's Kendall Square office

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 13, 2013 08:00 AM

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Four things I didn't know about VMware's Cambridge office before visiting it recently:

– It has been around since 2004, and is run by one of the early employees of Akamai.

– With 250 employees, it is one of VMware's largest R&D offices outside the Palo Alto headquarters.

– The last VMware founder who remains with the company, Scott Devine, works out of the Kendall Square office.

– The office oversees an internal VMware venture capital program to foster new ideas that may not neatly fit into an existing product line.

Vice president of innovation Julia Austin told me a bit about how that program works. Her job at the cloud and virtualization giant is to "incubate, fund, and occasionally kill new ideas" at VMware, as she puts it. She also oversees collaborations with East Coast academic institutions like MIT. (Earlier in her career, Austin was VP of engineering at Akamai.)

"We have a VC-like board of eight people, a mix of technical and business people," she says. "Anyone can pitch an idea, whether it's in an adjacent area to our products or not. These are things that shouldn't be in a business unit while they are being developed," because they might not be seen as ready for the market yet, or they might not appear to have high enough revenue potential. "We fund the best ones, and the people stay VMware employees. We give them a stake. The goal is to sell it back to the company. With their funding, we may give them hardware, a number of people, space, and support services. But it's not an endless bank."

A handful of ideas have gotten initial funding, Austin says, and "one project just got its B round funding. We expect them to have a business plan, and some idea of how to make money." She says that it's possible that VMware could spin some of the ideas out as independent companies, though that hasn't happened yet.

Austin says that the company has committed to invest "millions" in these internal startups, and if successful, there is significant upside to the entrepreneurs running them. But there's also risk: if an internal startup doesn't click, she says, "the risk to the individual is, you need to find a new role at the company, within a certain window of time."

Austin says that more than 60 ideas have been presented over the last year-and-a-half, in areas like R&D, customer service, and field sales. But she won't be specific about what any of the projects are focused on, aside from saying that one is getting close to public release.

"It's too early to tell you it's a resounding success," she says. But it is a very interesting way for a large tech company to foster innovation...

A cardboard 'bot from Cambridge makes it big at the Tribeca Film Festival

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 1, 2013 12:10 PM

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At the DIY Days conference last Saturday in Manhattan, I ran into MIT Media Lab alum Alexander Reben and his little cardboard buddy, BlabDroid.

Reben was in town for the Tribeca Film Festival; he had deployed 20 BlabDroids there as robotic documentarians, asking questions of random people and recording their answers. (BlabDroid also won the Creative Sparks competition at DIY Days, earning Reben some free office space in New York and a "micro-grant" of $500. I served as a judge.)

The 'bot is designed to look cute and homemade, and it speaks in the voice of a 7-year old boy — all strategies to induce interviewees to let down their guard and start talking freely. Among the questions BlabDroid is prone to ask is, "What's the worst thing you've ever done to someone?"

BlabDroid garned quite a lot of publicity while in New York for Tribeca (here's the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Gizmag). But Reben's Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 in order to put the 'bot into production hasn't yet caught fire. For $299, you get a fully-assembled BlabDroid that can move around under its own steam, and connect via Bluetooth with a smartphone; a less-expensive "Starter BlabDroid" is also available. With about a month left, Reben is still $70,000 short of his target.

Reben heads to the UK later this month to speak at the Thinking Digital conference. BlabDroid's predecessor was a Media Lab project called Boxie, The Story Gathering Robot. Below is a video that BlabDroid shot at a film festival in Amsterdam back in March, and a photo of BlabDroid's Arduino-based innards.

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In Google's Ingress augmented reality game, a ceasefire at MIT and a memorial to slain officer Sean Collier

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 24, 2013 10:37 AM

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Most people haven't yet heard of Ingress, an augmented reality game currently being beta-tested by Google. But think of it as a digital version of capture-the-flag, in which players from a blue team and a green team use their mobile phones as they move around the real world, trying to find and claim ownership of "portals" to another dimension.

Not surprisingly, a lot of squabbling over portals happens around Cambridge, and on the MIT campus.

Over the past few days, in the wake of Friday's shooting of MIT campus police officer Sean Collier, Ingress players made two decisions. They called a temporary ceasefire on the MIT campus, turning it into a neutral zone. And they created a memorial to Collier near where he was killed at the Stata Center.

Last Saturday, Christopher Davis, an Ingress player and Google employee, posted a message suggesting that two portals be placed side by side, one from each faction, near the Stata Center on Vassar Street, and also at Copley Square. "Nothing could be a stronger statement that 'We are Boston. We are united,'" Davis wrote in a posting to the local Ingress forum. The two teams worked in partnership to set up the memorial; it was completed around midnight last night.

The Copley Square memorial hasn't yet appeared. "There hasn't explicitly been anything set up in the game around Copley or Boylston Street," explains Ingress player Stephen Lewin-Berlin, a managing director at Quanta Research in Cambridge. "You have to be within 40 meters of a location to do anything, and all that area has been a crime scene." Until the past day or two, at least...

Lewin-Berlin tells me that the idea of making the MIT campus a neutral zone, and setting up the memorials, wasn't exactly uncontroversial within the Ingress community. "For some people, this is an important symbol," he says. "But for others, Ingress is a way to play and get away from real life. There were some interesting dynamics in the discussion group and the in-game chats." Lewis-Berlin says he hopes the ceasefire and memorial will endure for a week.

The screen-capture above is from the Ingress Boston community on Google+, which has 196 members. A memorial service for Collier is scheduled to take place today at noon on the MIT campus; Vice President Joe Biden will be among the speakers.

From Cambridge's The Tap Lab, a visual timeline of location-based games

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 23, 2013 02:45 PM
Just posting a nifty graphic that Dave Bisceglia shared last night at the "Mothers of Invention" show focused on gaming...

Bisceglia is co-founder of The Tap Lab, a Cambridge startup that last month released Tiny Tycoons, its second location-based game. While we haven't yet seen a breakout hit in the realm of games that depend on your standing in a particular spot to play or take some action (and Tiny Tycoons moves away from that idea), this is a pretty cool visual history of the attempts we've seen thus far. It mentions Boston-based SCVNGR, and also some of the enabling technologies that have made location-based games possible, like wifi positioning data from Skyhook, also in Boston.

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Click the image to enlarge it.

(The illustration is by Carrie Witt. I mentioned Bisceglia and The Tap Lab back in December, in this post.)

Israel's Gizmox picks up $7.5 million to help companies convert existing apps to HTML5; will set up U.S. office in Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 22, 2013 07:00 AM
An Israeli company founded in 2007, Gizmox, is getting new funding from Cambridge venture capital firm Atlas Venture. Atlas is leading a $7.5 million funding round for Gizmox, and local tech executive Eugene Kuznetsov is joining as chief executive. Kuznetsov had previously been the founder and president of DataPower, a maker of networking equipment that was acquired by IBM for about $100 million; it was also backed by Atlas. More recently, he'd been co-founder of Abine, a startup focused on online privacy, also part of the Atlas portfolio.

Gizmox makes it easier for big companies to get their existing software applications running on the web and mobile devices, using the HTML5 standard, without having to rewrite them from scratch. Gizmox customers can either then run the applications from their own data centers, or in the cloud using Gizmox’s servers.

"Enterprises are far behind where the consumer web is at, with respect to HTML5," Kuznetsov says. "But their employees want to use the same applications they use on their desktops on their mobile devices."

Atlas Venture partner Jeff Fagnan adds, "There are billions of dollars that big enterprises have invested in ERP, CRM, .NET, and Java applications, and it's hard to mobilize those and extend them out into the cloud." Kuznetsov says that Gizmox has developed "transposition" technology that can take those existing enterprise apps and deliver them in HTML5, without rewriting them by hand. "You can adjust and modify the output if you want," he says. About 40,000 applications have already been converted using the platform, according to Kuznetsov.

The company has about 40 employees in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Kuznetsov says it is now starting to hire locally. “We’ll be at least 15 people in the short-term, and more from there,” he says, adding that the focus is on sales and marketing employees, along with a few "technical folks and engineers." The company doesn't yet have office space — it's still working out of Atlas' office across from the CambridgeSide Galleria — but Kuznetsov says he's looking only in Cambridge. Fagnan and Chris Lynch of Atlas are joining Gizmox's board.

Moo.com, online printing company headquartered in London, picks Boston for U.S. marketing office

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 15, 2013 09:20 AM

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British online printing business Moo.com — think VistaPrint, but with a hipper aesthetic — is hunting for office space in Boston to serve as its U.S. headquarters. And Moo has already hired a former Zipcar executive, Stephanie Shore, to run marketing in North America.

Moo is probably best-known for its full-color business cards that can sport a different picture on the back of each one, and it already operates a U.S. printing facility in Providence, Rhode Island. CEO Richard Moross describes Moo as "a design and technology business currently focused on printed stationery, but ultimately we deal in professional identity products for small businesses." Last week, Moo, which was born in 2004, sold to its one millionth customer.

"We have roughly 50 people in Providence, over 100 people in London, and we foresee at least ten people in Boston focused on marketing initiatives," he says. "Today, 75 to 80 percent of our revenue is outside the U.K., and about 60 percent of that is in North America. So the gravitational pull is toward the U.S." Over time, he says, "it may make sense to locate other roles here, or increase certain functions in the U.S."

Moross, who was in town last week, says that Moo had been looking at various cities on the Eastern Seaboard for its U.S. office, "but we picked Boston as a by-product of the person we hired." Shore, right, spent a little over five years at Zipcar, eventually becoming vice president of global brand; before that, she'd worked in the marketing departments of Boston.com and Lawyers Weekly.

Moross says that Moo hasn't yet found office space in Boston, but that it has been focused on the Innovation District and the Leather District, near South Station. With both VistaPrint and Staples based in Massachusetts, Moross observes, "There's a fantastic group of companies in the neighborhood catering to small businesses. We're all in the same kind of industry."

Electronics reseller Gazelle on track to hit $100 million in revenue for 2013

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 12, 2013 09:50 AM

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Gazelle CEO Israel Ganot made two pretty dramatic decisions last year.

His Boston startup, which helps consumers resell their old electronic gadgets after they've upgraded, had grown to about $35 million in sales for 2011. But it was accepting 22 different categories of products for resale, including videogames, GPS devices, and even computer monitors. And it was spending a huge amount of energy working with retail partners like Wal-Mart and Staples to try to persuade consumers to part with their old devices at the moment they bought a new one.

Those partnerships, Ganot now says, "weren't working out the way we envisioned. They required a lot of resources from our side, but where it really failed was their ability to embrace and market the program. It became sort of a 'check the box' sustainability initiative for them."

Last February, Ganot told his staff that Gazelle would no longer market its "re-commerce" service through those retail partners, and that it would radically reduce the range of products it accepted. The company would focus on Apple products, and higher-end mobile phones from brands like Samsung, HTC, and Blackberry. "We went from working with hundreds of thousands of SKUs," Ganot says, referring to individual product models, "to about 1000 SKUs." Roughly $9 million of Gazelle's $35 million in 2011 revenue, he says, came from its retail partnerships and all those products it was no longer accepting.

But the streamlining didn't set Gazelle back. Revenues for 2012 were $58 million, Ganot says, and "we should do over $100 million this year. Our growth isn't slowing." (One thing that will likely help Gazelle in 2013: last month, eBay shut down its own competing service, Instant Sale.) Ganot says that 30 percent of Gazelle's customers have used the service more than once.

Ganot estimates that the re-commerce business will generate $5 billion annually by 2015. "The number one challenge for us is still building awareness for the concept of re-commerce, as opposed to just putting an old phone into a desk drawer and forgetting about it," he says. Another customer concern, he says, is getting rid of the data on the device; Gazelle performs a complete data wipe before re-selling it. About 80 percent of the products it receives are sold to wholesalers, who frequently ship them to foreign countries where they will command higher prices. The rest are resold through eBay and Amazon.com.

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Travel startup TripReactor charts new route, toward 'native advertising'

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 8, 2013 08:52 AM
An entrepreneur who initially sought to simplify the trip planning experience with a site called WaySavvy has a new strategy: serving up ads that could help travel-oriented websites generate more revenue.

WaySavvy, founded in 2010 by Brandeis alum Michael Raybman, didn't take flight. The new startup, TripReactor, wants to serve up a blend of editorial and advertising content: pop-out guides that offer information about things to do, places to eat, and hotels you might book in a given destination. (A sample is below.) "The goal," explains Raybman, "is to seamlessly blend editorial and commercial lifestyle content in a way valuable to the user. As a crude analogy, we're making every travel publisher into a TripAdvisor." If TripReactor's guide persuades you to book one of those hotels, that would increase the commission revenue generated, both for TripReactor and the travel site where the ads appear. (In the old world of publishing, this line-blurring approach would've been called an advertorial. The updated term is "native advertising".)

Among TripReactor's early publishing partners is Boston.com, where TripReactor-powered ads started appearing last week. Raybman says he'll be working with the travel blog Vagabondish and several other sites starting later this month.

Raybman participated in the MassChallenge competition last year. Angel investors David Chang of PayPal, Scott Heller, Mario Ricciardelli, and former Harmonix exec Mike Dornbrook put money into TripReactor last September; Raybman didn't want to be specific about the amount, but said it was sub-$100,000. "Eventually," Raybman says, "we'll extend this native advertising approach beyond travel."

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From the archives: Riding along with Kozmo.com in Boston, in March 2000

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 5, 2013 01:57 PM
There's a lot of action these days around same-day delivery of online purchases: start-ups are raising money to build networks of urban couriers, and big players like Google are conducting tests. An Arlington company, HappySpeedy, has been delivering convenience store merchandise since December, for a $2.95 charge. Even the U.S. Postal Service is dipping a toe into the waters of same-day delivery.

I dedicated a recent Boston Globe column to covering this new wave of experimentation, and the impact that it could have on retailers.

And if you are old enough, you may remember Kozmo.com, which promised not just same-day delivery of ice cream, razors, and DVDs — they promised delivery within an hour. (Delivery was free for most of Kozmo's existence.) I happened to visit Kozmo's Allston warehouse on the day in 2000 that the company filed to go public.

Here's the piece I wrote for the Globe.

Return to Sender

— May 1, 2000

Note the time and put the body on ice. The “Sell-a-Dollar’s-Worth-of-Merchandise-for-Fifty-Cents-and-Make-It-Up-On-Volume.com” business model is dead.

Which makes this a pretty unfortunate time for Kozmo.com, the New York-based urban delivery service, to be going public.

You’ve probably heard the raves about Kozmo, which operates in six cities, including Boston. Place your order for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, a copy of People magazine, or a home pregnancy test on their Web site, and a Kozmo courier will bring it to your door within an hour – no delivery charge. It’s truly wonderful – a Kozmo cyclist brought me two DVDs (no rental charge, thanks to a Kozmo marketing postcard I was handed on a street corner) just an hour before I had to head to Logan so that I could keep myself entertained on a long flight.

Trouble is, Kozmo loses money on just about every delivery run they make, even when they’re not acquiring new customers like me with postcards. And the plan is to increase delivery hours (they’re currently 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.) and expand to ten more cities by the end of the year, so that they can lose money even faster.

Guys: Nasdaq don’t play that no more.

I happened to visit Kozmo’s Boston operation on the day in March that they filed to raise $150 million in an initial offering. Inside the 10,000 square foot warehouse, a handful of couriers are lounging around on couches, watching TV and waiting to be dispatched. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Kozmo is busiest on weekends, when demand spikes for Cheetos and Cameron Diaz movies. In one corner, employees are unpacking new videos from cardboard boxes. In another, printers are spitting out order sheets, which are then filled from rows of tall metal shelves packed with books, video games, deodorant, and Nutter Butter Bites.

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New initiative from Startup Institute aims to introduce high schoolers to coding

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 4, 2013 07:30 AM
Know a high school student with an interest in technology — or just learning how to build stuff?

Startup Institute, the Cambridge-based organization that up until now has trained recent college grads to fill jobs at startups, will offer its first educational program for high schoolers later this month. The free High School RampUp series will run two Saturdays, April 27 and May 4th. But there's only space for 30 students.

Startup Institute CEO Aaron O'Hearn cites estimates that by 2020, the U.S. will have about one million more programming jobs than it has computer science students. High School RampUp targets "folks who have had zero exposure to coding — let's call them the non-nerdy students," he says. They'll spend two Saturdays getting comfortable with the Python programming language, and building simple web applications that pull in and manipulate data from social networks like Twitter and Facebook. (For instance, how many times do their friends talk about various bands or baseball teams?)

O'Hearn says there isn't a near-term goal for the initiative, like funneling the program's graduates into summer internships at startup companies: "We want these people to learn for the pure sake of learning, and expose them to coding early on." He cites the non-profit Code.org as the inspiration for High School RampUp; it promotes the teaching of programming in schools.

Olin College student Juliana Nazaré has been working with Startup Institute to develop the curriculum for the new course, which will be held in Kendall Square. Expect it to fill up fast...

Next-generation CAD startup Belmont Technology picks up $25 million more

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 2, 2013 10:31 AM

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That was fast: A Cambridge startup crafting software for the people who create new products has raised $25 million in additional funding, just a few months after collecting its first round of $9 million.

I wrote last December about Belmont Technology, which reunites a team of veterans from SolidWorks, a successful 1990s-era developer of computer-aided design (CAD) software that is now part of Dassault Systèmes; at that point, Belmont had backing from two local VC firms, North Bridge Venture Partners and Commonwealth Capital.

The new funding infusion was a "pre-emptive offer," according to Belmont CEO John McEleney, who says he wasn't planning to raise more money in 2013. "We'll use the money to ramp the hiring and continue the development process," he says. The company has just 13 employees near the Red Line's Alewife stop. (McEleney is in the center of the photo, wearing the vest and pink shirt.)

"We're building product design software," McEleney says. "The process of how people design products has changed." He notes that most of the major players in CAD software still sell products that run on Windows-based machines, even as engineers and designers regularly use tablets, mobile phones, and the web to modify and access content. "This new generation of engineers expect data to be more shareable, not locked down and 'in the vault.'" And the way products are actually designed, manufactured, and assembled is much more distributed, he adds: "It used to happen under one roof, or on a corporate campus, and now it is spread across facilities around the globe." (It's clear that the cloud will play a major part in Belmont's product strategy, and McEleney's last startup, acquired by Verizon, was called CloudSwitch.)

McEleney says that Belmont has started conducting some early usability tests of its product, and will be doing more private betas later this year. The company's website is still pretty sparse, aside from listing a few skills the company is hunting for in new hires, like experience with "distributed cloud based architecture" and "rich web application development."

This second funding round was led by NEA, a Maryland-based VC firm. McEleney says that Belmont is probably just a place-holder name, but the company hasn't yet settled on a new one.

Ex-PayPal Boston execs start Clypd, focused on delivering more targeted ads to TV viewers

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 5, 2013 02:25 PM

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A trio of former PayPal Boston executives have a new startup, Clypd, that will be exiting stealth mode soon. The Cambridge company, pronounced like "clipped," has pulled together a first round of funding from Atlas Venture, DataPoint Capital, and Boston Seed Partners, and is building a new digital marketplace for selling more targeted ads on cable, satellite, and the coming wave of interactive TV systems.

Clypd's founding team includes CEO Joshua Summers, bizdev chief Doug Hurd, and director of technology Victor Mendoza, all of whom previously worked at PayPal's Boston office. PayPal Boston exec David Chang is also one of the company's angel investors.

The founders aren't talking yet about details of the idea, but according to people with whom I've spoken, it seems to center on buying readily-available data about households — like demographics or recent big purchases — and using that to understand who is watching time-delayed TV programming like on-demand shows or material being played from a DVR. Clypd will operate a marketplace that will let advertisers bid in an instantaneous auction to have their ads shown as you watch, similar to the way advertisers currently bid to have their ads show up when you surf around the web. I don't have the specifics on how much Clypd has raised, but they were making the rounds in recent months hunting for $5 million.

Update: Clypd later put out a press release announcing that it had raised $3.2 million, and naming a few additional investors.

Back in October, I wrote about another startup that had splintered off from PayPal Boston, Happier.

SplitMyTaxi aims to enable cab-sharing with an app, starting at Boston University

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 5, 2013 09:03 AM

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A startup called SplitMyTaxi has a plan to cut the cost of hailing a cab: its mobile app will match you with other riders traveling to the same destination.

It's a great idea: save money, and help curb pollution by making more efficient use of a city's taxi fleet. But obviously, SplitMyTaxi will need a critical mass of users to make the system work. So they're initially promoting the app just to Boston University students. Split went live on the campus earlier this month. Posters have been showing up around the campus, and fraternity pledges have been wearing t-shirts promoting the new service.

Founders Adam Eagle, a freshman at MIT, and David Zadok, a recent Brandeis MBA recipient, met at the StartLabs space at MIT. Eagle says they started building the web app in mid-December.

You'll need a .edu e-mail address to sign up at this point. But when you input your point of departure and your destination, along with the time you plan to travel, Split tries to match you with others going that way. Right now, the app doesn't get involved in hailing a cab or handling payment, but Eagle says that eventually, once you are matched with a fellow rider, Split may take a referral fee for passing your ride request along to a taxi company. The app is available for iOS and Android.

So far, the team has raised $12,500 from Rough Draft Ventures and Shri Ganeshram of FlightCar, another sharing-oriented startup I've written about recently.

A Harvard Business School student tried to launch a similar app in 2010, GobiCab, and while the website and app are still available, it didn't seem to take off. Founder Aleem Mawani is now onto other projects.

"Gobicab didn't have any traction because it didn't market to a group like college students or club-goers," Eagle says. "We created [our] app with college students in mind, but we are planning to expand outward after we get their support."

I imagine this could get some nice critical mass when spring break begins this Friday, and the entire BU student body heads for South Station or Logan. Let me know if you give it a try...

Mosaic Storage Systems collects $875,000 to market cloud-based services to photographers

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 28, 2013 08:28 AM

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Smile and say "VC!"

Mosaic Storage Systems, a two-year-old New Hampshire startup that helps photographers back up their work to the cloud, and access it from any device, has just raised $875,000 in funding. The money comes from Borealis Ventures, Wasabi Ventures, eCoast Angel Network and 10x Venture Partners.

The company offers web-based services for professional and "prosumer" photographers who use Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom software to manage their images. Mosaic's MosaicView product makes a photographer's Lightroom catalog accessible on the web, or on iOS or Android tablets and smartphones. (It's available in a free version that offers access to the most recent 2,000 pictures, or a $7 per month version that serves up everything.) MosaicArchive is an online backup service geared to photographers, who store lots of large RAW image files and don't want to wait an eternity for them to get uploaded to Mosaic's servers. (The company also allows customers to mail in hard drives full of photos, or to have the company ship out hard drives in the event of data loss.) That service starts at $12 per month.

"One thing that is generally understood in the photography space," Mosaic co-founder Gerard Murphy explains, "is that companies like Carbonite throttle your bandwidth after a certain amount of uploading. Carbonite starts dramatically reducing how quickly you can upload files once you get to 200 gigabytes of space. Our market picks up where these 'unlimited plans leave off." Murphy, above, says that the company consists of 2.5 people so far: himself, co-founder Andy Young, and a part-time support staffer.

Mosaic was the winner of a recent competition that offered as first prize a trip to next week's Launch Festival in San Francisco. Mosaic operates out of the ABI Innovation Hub, a shared startup space in Manchester.

Mosaic is the second investment out of the $30 million Borealis Granite Fund, which is managed by Borealis Ventures and includes $4.5 million from the State of New Hampshire.

A screenshot of Mosaic's app on an iPad and iPhone is below:

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Speech recognition giant Nuance planning new office in Central Square, focused on engineering and R&D

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 27, 2013 10:30 AM

Update: On March 14, Nuance announced that it had leased two full floors at 675 Massachusetts Avenue, a building that also houses Harmonix Music Systems and the new Cambridge location of Workbar. Occupancy is scheduled for the fall.

You might think that a software company based on Route 128 in Burlington would feel it could tap into the Massachusetts talent pool well enough.

But not so for Nuance, the speech recognition giant that enables laptops, cars, and Apple's Siri personal assistant to listen attentively and understand what you want to do. The company has just leased 28,000 square feet of space in Cambridge's Central Square for a new engineering office that will house about 175 people. It should be open by the fall.

"There's a great population of candidates that just want to be in Cambridge," says Nuance chief marketing officer Peter Mahoney. "It just opens up more opportunities for us — people who are city-dwellers, many of whom don't own cars."

Nuance acquired Vlingo, a startup based in Harvard Square, in late 2011. Vlingo had about 100 employees at the time, and those who have remained at Nuance will eventually move to the new Central Square space. (Former Vlingo CEO Dave Grannan and CTO Mike Phillips have left.) "The goal was to get much nicer space than Vlingo had in Harvard Square," Mahoney said.

Employees at the new office will either report in to Mike Thompson, general manager of Nuance's mobile division, which focuses on phones, TVs, and cars, or chief technology officer Vlad Sejnoha.

"The biggest area for the new office is going to be in our mobile business, but we'll also have people focusing on research into natural language understanding and artificial intelligence," Mahoney says.

There seems to be quite a surge of speech-related activity in Cambridge these days. I wrote last month about Amazon's Kendall Square offices, where executive Bill Barton is "leading development of speech and language solutions which will enhance user interactions with Amazon products and services.” And in January, Microsoft hired TJ Hazen to build a speech team at its Kendall Square outpost.

Stackdriver assembling team of tech veterans to take on application management in the cloud

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 26, 2013 03:15 PM

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For a small startup with $5 million in the bank, Stackdriver sure has been putting together a team with an impressive pedigree. The 13-person Boston company has brought together veterans of VMWare, HubSpot, Red Hat, EMC, and Sonian.

Co-founder Dan Belcher filled me on what Stackdriver has been up to, aside from launching a new web site earlier today. "There are hundreds of thousands of businesses now who are running their applications exclusively on the public cloud infrastructure, instead of within traditional IT environments," he says. Co-founder Izzy Azeri adds, "Our core value proposition is about providing a very high degree of visibility into performance and availability." So if a customer in the media industry is using cloud computing services from Amazon to convert video footage from one format to another, for example, Stackdriver gives them a view into how well things are working, and enables them to move the work to other cloud providers if there are hiccups or surges in demand. "We're monitoring the entire stack, from the cloud to the application, and the plan is to add more intelligence and automation over time," Belcher says.

Azeri, who was an executive-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures before launching Stackdriver, says that there are now 25 customers participating in Stackdriver's private beta test (none are yet paying for the product.) He wasn't ready yet to name names.

The company found office space in Downtown Crossing last fall, across the street from Macy's. "We knew we wanted to be on the Red Line," Belcher says. "We looked at Kendall Square and the Innovation District, but we found space here for under $30 a square foot, including the build-out." Belcher says they smashed the two corner offices (see photo above) to create an entirely open plan.

Belcher says the company is hiring back-end engineers as well as sales and marketing staffers. Pic below of the current Stackdriver team:

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Boston's highest profile five-year-old startup that hasn't yet launched is...

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 21, 2013 07:34 AM

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The company was founded in 2007. It has raised $22 million, and has more than 20 employees at offices in Cambridge and Montreal. And the founder tells me that there is still no firm target date for launching its product.

Hopper is a five-year-old startup that has become a topic of conversation in Boston startup circles precisely because of all that. Like Charlie, the unlucky commuter who got stuck on the T, Hopper seems to be mired in an endless loop of data collection, design, and software development. The travel search site's ambitions are lofty: to help consumers plan trips better than any tool that has come before. But by comparison, even Google took just two years from its days as an academic project to public unveiling, and just $100,000 in funding. Hipmunk was founded and launched in 2010 with about $15,000 in funding from Y Combinator. Less than a year passed between Kayak.com's incorporation and the debut of its website, though that company raised $8.5 million from investors in the pre-launch phase.

Hopper's goal is to let you search based on what you actually want to do on your trip, as opposed to cobbling together an airline ticket, hotel room and rental car. Punch in "surfing lessons in Mexico in May," and Hopper will return ratings of various surf schools; prices for hotels, B&Bs, and vacation home rentals; and real-time airfares. The site will also allow you to think about where you might want to travel by browsing a map, says founder and CEO Frederic Lalonde, above. "You can click on Tuscany, and see that the focus there is wine and culture, while Sicily says 'beaches.' Every place you click, you get flight and hotel pricing. It's like a guidebook brought online." And the site will display scads of photos, mainly user-generated, with links to the blogs and Flickr sets from which they came.

But what exactly is going on? In 2011, Lalonde told me he expected the site to go live that year, and one of Hopper's investors told me the wraps would come off in 2012. When I talked to Lalonde on February 7th, he said that the website would be updated the following week, with some "partial screenshots" of the search tool released. That didn't happen, either.

"It has been a long time since someone has made a meaningful difference in the travel space," says Lalonde, who sold a startup to Expedia in 2002, and then served as an executive there for four years. "The easy problems have all been solved."

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Oblong Industries, MIT spin-out focused on new input devices and collaboration tools, opens office in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 19, 2013 07:45 AM

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You don't often find MIT-spawned startups taking root in Los Angeles, but that's exactly what happened with Oblong Industries — in part because founder John Underkoffler, right, landed a string of glamorous gigs as a science advisor to Hollywood, consulting on movies like "Minority Report" and "Iron Man." Underkoffler's work on new kinds of gestural interfaces, allowing people to use their hands to manipulate information on a screen, played a central part in "Minority Report" in 2002, and Oblong has been working to commercialize a system similar to the one Tom Cruise used in the film, now called g-speak. The company is also developing Mezzanine, a new kind of immersive collaboration space that lets a group of people share any kind of content from almost any device, from any location. (See the company-produced video below.)

Almost the entire Oblong team hails from MIT, and the company has raised about $9 million from a group of investors that includes Brad Feld, another MIT alum and a managing director at Foundry Group in Colorado.

And now the six-year old company has a local presence, in Boston's Fort Point Channel neighborhood. It'll be a hybrid of demo center and small engineering outpost. Oblong CEO Kwin Kramer tells me via e-mail that "we had a senior engineer commuting from Boston to California for a couple of years. Now he has a home closer to home. We hired a second engineer and a sales guy last fall. Finally got the office open just this month. We're excited." Kramer says that Oblong has similar sales facilities in Washington, New York, and Silicon Valley, but that Boston is the only location whose staff includes engineers. The company plans to hire more engineers here "over time," he says.

The office-warming party happens early next month.

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Can Cambridge-based Ditto Labs, focused on analyzing pics and creating links, help social networks boost revenues?

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 13, 2013 11:48 AM

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Two of the pioneers of online photo-sharing have raised seed funding for a new startup that's chasing a big opportunity: analyzing the pics you post on Facebook, Pinterest, and other social networks, and creating links to related content. Some of the links might be to supplemental info, like the Yelp reviews of a restaurant you ate at, and some might be paid for by advertisers, like StubHub pitching your friends on tickets to a Celtics game after you'd posted photos from the Garden. The Cambridge startup, Ditto Labs, was founded in 2012, and has already raised some seed funding from investors including Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, and Richard Dale of Big Data Boston.

Ditto Labs founder David Rose, right, and chief technology officer Neil Mayle worked together on Opholio, one of the first services to make it easy for people to upload photos and create their own albums; the Boston company held several key patents around digital postcards and online photo-sharing, and was sold to a California acquirer in 2000. Now, Rose and Mayle are focused on photos as the main attraction of many social networking sites.

"On Facebook, everyone looks at each other's photos first," says Rose. "Far less frequently, they read the text. And even less frequently do they look at the ads in the sidebar. So what we're doing is taking the stream of photos, which represent people's passions and interests, and trying to make those photos actionable. Photos are basically implicit recommendations to your friends."

When you install theDitto Labs app on Facebook, you're giving it permission to examine the photos you post on Facebook. Right now, the app tries to identify logos and emblems in the photos, which might be a Nike swoosh on your sweatshirt, a Mickey Mouse face, or a Bruins hat. (Ditto hired a pair of machine vision experts with experience at Natick-based Cognex.) When a photo also includes information about a location, because you chose to let Facebook know you were at the Marriott in Maui, for instance, Ditto takes that into account, too. The Ditto app adds a comment below the photo with a link to a separate, annotated version of the pic. ("There may be a recommendation behind this photo," it reads.) That version might contain a link to buy related products on Amazon, to a Wikipedia article, to a ticket-selling site, or to Yelp reviews. Any of your friends can click to see that second version of the photo — even if they haven't installed the Ditto app yet.

The company just began an open beta test this week.

"This is a way of rethinking advertising," says Rose. "Instead of text ads in the sidebar, it's a way of getting peer-to-peer recommendations. In a utopian world, we think you'd get advice from your friends related to the things that they love, instead of ads you aren't interested in." And Ditto's president, Joshua Wachman, points out that the links that Ditto adds to photos aren't always trying to sell you something; often, they're just presenting extra information about what's in the picture.

Ditto can also show you information about which places and brands your friends most often post pictures of. And that data, Wachman observes, could be useful to companies interested in finding out what people are sharing on social networks — even if they're posting pictures that aren't accompanied by captions or text. (Most current social media analysis tools simply read the text, and so you'd need to write the word Starbucks for them to know you're talking about Starbucks. Ditto can tell just by looking for the Starbucks logo in a picture.)

Rose and Wachman are in New York this week meeting with several big consumer products companies. Both acknowledge that getting widespread adoption for Ditto as a tiny startup would be a Herculean task; more realistic, Wachman says, would be a partnership or acquisition by one of the social networks to help boost revenues by selling sponsored links within photos, or generating referral fees whenever an airline ticket is sold or a restaurant reservation made.

When last I wrote about Rose and Wachman, in February 2011, their startup Vitality had been acquired by Patrick Soon-Shiong, the richest man in Los Angeles and a minority owner of the LA Lakers. Vitality had designed an intelligent pill bottle that could remind people when it was time to take their medication, and track missed doses.

Below is a photo Rose posted from Zen Japanese Grill in Boston, annotated with links to Yelp reviews, directions, and the restaurant's phone number. Below that is a photo one of my Facebook friends posted of a cupcake. Ditto's image-recognition software spotted the Patriots logo on the icing, and created links to the Pats' Facebook page, recent YouTube videos, and merchandise on Amazon.

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Cloze launching mobile apps this week, offering a very different view of correspondence that blends e-mail and social

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 12, 2013 11:00 AM

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One unfortunate 21st century trend is the proliferation of digital inboxes. There's plain old e-mail, for starters, and Facebook, and Twitter, and LinkedIn. Oh, and the text messages on your phone, too.

A Cambridge startup called Cloze, which launched its website last year, is rolling out apps this week for iPhone and iPad, with the goal of bringing most of those inboxes together in one place. (Text messages, which I often miss, remain their own problem.) The company has so far raised $1.2 million from investors including Kepha Partners of Waltham, Boston's NextView Ventures, and Greylock Partners.

"Most users are set in their ways with how they deal with e-mail on their desktops," says Cloze CEO Dan Foody. (He's on the right in the photo, with co-founder Alex Coté.) "But that's less true on mobile devices, where it is much harder to be productive. And there's a whole class of people who are on the road a lot, like people in sales or business development, who are much more detached from their desktops than the average person." And even for those of us who spend much of the day in front of a desktop, Foody observes, "the phone or the iPad is the thing next to your bed that you check before you go to sleep, or as soon as you wake up."

Cloze's new apps ask for access to your e-mail accounts, as well as for access to your Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook profiles. All that data helps the company understand who are your "key people" — the people whose messages, whether public tweets or private e-mails — probably matter most to you. Another interesting categorization in the Cloze apps for iPhone and iPad is "Losing Touch." That is filled with people you haven't been corresponding with as much recently, which can perhaps be important for salespeople trying to stay in touch with prospects, or just for altering you that they've been remiss with certain friends or family members.

Essentially, Cloze creates an inbox that brings together e-mail and social messages, and organizes it based on the strength of your relationships, rather than just when the messages happened to arrive. Cloze gives every person in your life a relationship score, from 0 to 100 — and you may be surprised that your co-workers get higher scores than your spouse or partner. If you're trying to improve your relationship with someone, and you are motivated by numerical objectives, you can even set a "score goal" in the app.

The apps are elegantly designed, and even just seeing little thumbnail photos of your contacts can help you prioritize which messages you want to look at first. But I wasn't crazy about having lower-priority Facebook status updates and LinkedIn's "Anna is now connected to Jeff" messages included along with more important e-mails.

And it'll remain to be seen if Cloze can be a success if perusing the app is simply an ancillary way to view your correspondence, or if it truly needs to supplant e-mail — a very tall order.

Foody says that Cloze will likely try to raise additional funding this year. A premium version of the service might involve a subscription fee, but he wasn't ready to share details of that yet.

A screenshot from Cloze's iPad app is below. You can see each individual's relationship score in the lower right corner of their headshot.

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New version of wine app Drync wants to make it easier to buy a favorite bottle

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 11, 2013 08:00 AM

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Brad Rosen launched the mobile app Drync back in 2008, to help oenophiles keep track of favorite wines, or read reviews of vintages with which they might not be familiar. But even though Drync has had a nice run as one of the more popular wine-related apps, selling a premium version for $3.99, alongside the free app, didn't yield a big business.

So Rosen has been trying to get closer to the cash register, making it possible to purchase favorite bottles of wine without leaving the app. The latest version of Drync, called Drync Direct, launches this week in conjunction with the Boston Wine Expo.

"I can never find the wine I enjoyed at a restaurant when I'm at the store later on, or I can't remember it," says Rosen. "One issue is that retailers stock less than two percent of the overall number of wines available. So we wanted to help consumers who create an emotional connection with a wine — yes, maybe they're intoxicated — and help them buy it right then and there. The idea is to buy a wine you love, in the moment."

At a restaurant, or at the Expo, you can use Drync to photograph the label of a bottle of wine. The, the app either automatically recognizes it and shows you the price and a rating (on a scale of 1-5 stars), or the image is sent to a Drync employee who tries to identify it, and the results come back in a few minutes. Once the wine has been ID'ed, you can add your own tasting notes, and "tag it" with the location where you tried it. It's stored in a list of "My Wines" in the app, and you can opt to purchase it now, or perhaps weeks or months later. If you purchase more than six bottles, shipping is free. (And Drync is offering free shipping for all purchases at the Boston Wine Expo, which takes place this Saturday and Sunday.)

Orders are fulfilled by existing retailers and distributors, Rosen says: "We can recognize 700,000 bottles of wine, and our launch partner in Massachusetts stocks 15,000 bottles or more. But our model is to have multiple fulfillment partners." Drync takes a "marketing fee" from each order as it passes it along to retailers and distributors. Right now, Drync can only ship to 22 states, because of regulatory restrictions.

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 9.41.11 PM.pngOddly, at the Boston Wine Expo and many other expos, "you can't buy the wines you taste, and it can be hard to find them afterward," says Rosen, left. Drync will change that, with pre-populated lists of wines being showcased at the expo's various tasting events, like the "Affordable Bourdeaux Seminar."

When I tried the app on 15 random bottles I had at home, it did pretty well: Drync recognized ten of the labels automatically (and the company's human helpers punched in the other five within about an hour.) The app wasn't very good at getting the correct year (see the screenshot above), but you have the ability to adjust that. Five of the fifteen bottles I photographed were available for purchase through the app. Drync worked well when there was ample or even moderate light to take the photo, but as you might expect, low light tripped it up.

Drync's three founders treated the app as a side project until last February, when Rosen decided to focus on it full-time. The company won $50,000 in the 2011 MassChallenge competition; at that point, it was focused on becoming sort of like Groupon for wine, offering discounts on bottles that had been selected by Drync employees. Drync raised a small seed round of funding last year. Rosen says Drync has four employees, and is based in Boston's Financial District.

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Weymouth-based PlowMe.com hopes this week's blizzard could help it become Uber for snowplows

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 7, 2013 11:28 AM

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The Uber mobile app lets people summon a taxi or towncar at the precise moment they need a lift across town. Drivers have a smartphone on their dash, and they can accept the request from a rider by simply clicking the screen.

What if there was something similar for getting a plow to come clear your driveway, or someone to blow the snow off your sidewalk?

Weymouth entrepreneur Yeh Diab has been working on PlowMe.com since last January. But you may recall that 2011-2012 was not exactly the whitest of winters around these parts. Still, Diab built a site, and recruited about 60 drivers around Boston, southern New Hampshire, Denver, and Chicago. PlowMe lets you request one-time snow removal, or set up automatic service anytime it snows.

He's hoping that the coming blizzard, dubbed Nemo, could be a massive rainmaker (snowmaker?) for his startup.

Diab says that many snow-removal companies "don't want to touch residential work, because it's a pain, and it's not profitable. But that's because it hasn't been optimized yet." By that, he means that it can be hard for plow drivers to assemble a route of houses that are close to one another, or to pick up on-demand work in East Arlington when they happen to be finishing a few jobs in East Arlington, for instance.

"They want the driveways as close together as possible," says Diab, a native of New Hampshire and a graduate of Suffolk Law School. "And these guys sit around at Dunkin' Donuts when they're done with a route, waiting for their phone to ring with another job. They're criss-crossing each other, wasting time and fuel. And that makes their costs higher than they need to be." Diab hopes that PlowMe will be able to combat price-gouging on the day of a big storm, by giving consumers access to a larger population of plow drivers, and letting consumers specify the price they're willing to pay for a job. A driver can call or text with questions. (Diab acknowledges that streamlining the site's pricing process has been a challenge.) PlowMe takes 20 percent off the top of the one-time work it generates for drivers, and with recurring service, it takes 50 percent off the first storm, and 10 percent off subsequent storms.

Diab tells me that his startup has recruited almost 100 drivers in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire who are using the PlowMe app on their smartphones. (Unlike Uber, consumers use the PlowMe website, not a mobile app, to request service.) "The supply side hasn't been hard to get," he says. "It's consumers — the demand side. People don't care about snow removal until a big storm hits."

That would be... right about now.

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Marginize founder Ziad Sultan raises additional funding, tries again with Nextly

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 7, 2013 09:35 AM

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Marginize was one of the higher-profile companies to come out of TechStars Boston in 2010: the startup attracted $250,000 by Demo Day, including a funding commitment from HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah.

The idea was to allow people to leave their mark on web pages, posting comments, their tweets about the page, or simply "checking in" to show that they'd been there. Marginize made a browser plug-in that would show you all this info, and several sites (including Boston.com) added Marginize as a feature, so readers without the plug-in could easily click to see the marginalia.

But Marginize didn't take off, in part because many of the tweets about a particular web page can be summarized thusly: "Hey, check out this cool web page/blog post/article!" That didn't exactly add new richness to the experience of reading the web page, blog post, or article.

So Marginize founder Ziad Sultan, right, a former entrepreneur-in-residence at the VC firm Longworth Venture Partners, cooked up a different idea, and went back to his investors to raise additional funding. Atlas Venture and several angels ponied up, and Sultan has now raised about $1.1 million for the new idea, on top of $650,000 he'd previously raised for Marginize.

The new concept, Nextly, is a nifty way to view "content streams" in your web browser. A content stream is a set of web pages from a particular source. It could be the latest articles from ESPN.com, news stories from the BBC, or simply all of the links people are posting in your Twitter timeline. You can flip forward and backward through the pages quickly using your arrow keys, just as easily as you would with a print magazine. (Here's a way to check it out with the most recent posts from this blog.) Nextly pre-loads the next few sites in your queue so that they pop up almost instantly.

Sultan didn't want to say much in advance of Nextly's official debut, but he did say he has a team of seven people working on the startup, spread across Cambridge, Montreal, France, and Egypt.

Sultan "is trying to show that he has cracked the consumer behavior with the new product," says Fred Destin of Atlas. "Marginize didn't really have a business, but people believed in Ziad enough." Destin says that the new site has "good usage metrics" so far, and alludes to a partnership with Reddit, the community-curated news site. Here's Reddit's gadgets sub-section, rendered flippable by Nextly.

I first wrote about Marginize in 2010, as part of my TechStars Demo Day coverage, and quoted Sultan recently in a piece about the surfeit of seed funded startups in Boston.

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New site Pricing Nation forecasts whether your house will gain or lose value

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 5, 2013 07:33 AM
A new startup from a team of Dartmouth College alums is selling a report that might be relevant if you're in the market to sell or buy real estate. Pricing Nation looks at an array of indicators about what's happening around a property — like wage trends in the area, business growth, and similar homes on the market — to produce a one-year forecast about whether the price of an individual home will rise or fall over the coming year. While the company charges $20 for reports on a specific street address, it offers a free forecast about what'll happen in a ZIP code area, which can be useful to buyers looking in that neighborhood.

"There's a pretty big range in the greater Boston area about what we predict will happen over the next year, with some neighborhoods dropping 12 percent [Plymouth] and others going up 10 percent [Foxboro]," says co-founder Tony Ettinger. (My ZIP in Brookline is predicted to rise by 1.46 percent over the coming year, while the overall Boston market is expected to go up 0.64 percent.) Ettinger says the estimates could prove useful to sellers, in terms of thinking about the right time to list their home, or for buyers who "don't want to catch a falling knife. If the value is still going down on a property, that might be relevant to them." Ettinger also suggests that Pricing Nation's forecasts might be useful to buyers negotiating the final sale price with a seller.

Ettinger says that the estimates are based on eight key data points, including unemployment figures; interest rates; home inventory nearby; and the uniqueness of the property type. The company is offering forecasts for seven counties in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, including Norfolk, Suffolk, and Middlesex. Ettinger says they'll expand into five more metro areas in the next few months, including New York.

"A lot of the information you can get is telling you what happened to home prices in the past," says Ettinger. "We think the one-year forecast, on a home-by-home level, can be really valuable to people." He says the company is already having discussions about licensing its forecasts to real estate related sites.

Brian Ramirez, Pricing Nation's chief revenue officer, explained a bit more about the company's methodology by e-mail. "Our forecasts are based upon a suite of regression models whose most predictive variables are the major influencers of local supply and demand that have been built on ten years of back-tested data. Our back-models predicted both the downturn and the bottom of home prices in the Boston MSA roughly one year before these events."

The six-person Pricing Nation team all hold degrees from Dartmouth, though they're spread across the planet, from Hanover, NH to New York to Boston to India.

Here's a map they produced that illustrates their forecasts for the Boston area, and below that, a list of the towns expected to have the biggest increases and biggest decreases in value over the coming year.

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Data Tamer raises seed funding from Google Ventures and NEA to collect and curate messy data

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 1, 2013 10:52 AM

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Keeping track of the companies spawned by MIT database guru Michael Stonebraker almost requires a full-time beat reporter. There are StreamBase and Vertica, Goby and VoltDB, Paradigm4, and back in the 1990s, there were Illustra and Ingres and Cohera.

This year, there's yet another Stonebraker startup: Data Tamer, which has raised seed funding from Google Ventures and NEA. The business side of the fledgling company is being run by Andy Palmer, a frequent Stonebraker co-conspirator. And the technological underpinnings of Data Tamer come from Stonebraker's lab at MIT, as well as work done at Brandeis by Mitch Cherniack and at Brown by Stan Zdonik.

There's no website yet, and no one involved would comment on the company. But a local venture capitalist who looked at the deal tells me that the company is focused on cloud-based tools for what's called "ETL" — extracting, transforming, and loading data. That could mean combing the web for current prices of tractor trailers, for example; cleaning it up getting it into the proper format; and then adding it to an existing database.

And according to a white paper on the academic research behind Data Tamer that was presented this month at a conference in California, Data Tamer will use machine learning algorithms to help it understand what it is finding in a particular data source, but it can also ask a human for help identifying or categorizing things that the algorithms aren't sure about.

I wrote a column about Stonebraker back in 2007: "Software pioneer is 'Johnny Appleseed' of start-ups." In 2009, I covered the creation of VoltDB.

Social robots startup Jibo Inc. raises money from Charles River, but stays quiet

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 29, 2013 07:45 AM

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It has been quite a few years since I first heard that MIT Media Lab prof Cynthia Breazeal was working on a company to commercialize some of her work, which focuses on expressive robots that can interact naturally with humans. But now it actually seems to be happening. There's no site yet, and Breazeal isn't talking, but she has raised several million dollars in early funding from Bruce Sachs at Charles River Ventures and filed to have the company's name, Jibo Inc., trademarked.

A former iRobot executive, Thomas Allen, had listed his new employer as Jibo on LinkedIn. But he removed the affiliation shortly after I started making inquiries about the company. Jibo has been talking to other local prospective employees with experience in launching consumer electronics, and my hunch is that the company will end up marketing a product for consumer use, as opposed to a bot for industrial applications.

Jibo's trademark application gives a bit of insight into what the company may be up to: it discusses "personal robots, namely, interactive social and emotive robots that provide information, entertainment, education, and communications capabilities." And among the patents that have been issued to Breazeal is one for "interactive systems employing robotic companions."

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 4.33.40 PM.pngIn the late 1990s, Breazeal designed one of the first social robots, Kismet, which was able to react to humans based on how they moved and their tone of voice; it is now on display at the MIT Museum. In 2008, the Nexi robot from Breazeal's Personal Robots group at MIT was named one of Time Magazine's 50 best inventions of the year. Another bot from the Personal Robots group, Tofu, is pictured at left.

Breazeal gave a talk at the TEDWomen conference in 2010 about "the rise of personal robots." I've embedded it below. (The picture of Breazeal above originally accompanied a 2011 piece in the Globe, when she was listed among the city's 25 most stylish people.)

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PetPace prepares to launch a $150 collar that continuously monitors your pet's health

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 28, 2013 07:45 AM

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Anyone who has ever owned a pet has had one of those visits to the vet where you wish you'd gone in earlier. Something easily treatable may have gotten more complicated, or perhaps Sparky has just stoically suffered through more pain than he should've had to.

A startup called PetPace is developing a product that could supply a solution: a collar that can continuously monitor your pet's health, and send an early warning to you and your vet when something seems amiss, via phone, text message, or e-mail. The company, based in Burlington, Mass. and Tel Aviv, is planning to launch the product later this year, according to chairman Avner Schneur. The expected price: $150 for the collar and a base station that collects data from it, and a $15-to-$20 per month subscription fee for the on-going monitoring service.

"There really is a gap in our ability to monitor pets," says Schneur, who is also PetPace's biggest investor. "They don't complain. There's no preventive maintenance. When there's a problem, you tend to discover it too late."

A matchbox-sized device affixed to the collar holds a collection of sensors, and also a radio that can transmit the data they gather to a base station any time the animal comes within 1000 yards of it, Schneur says. The sensors track the animal's movement, temperature, respiration, and pulse — no mean feat, says, Schneur, when you're trying to do it through fur. There's also a microphone that listens for sounds like drinking, barking, or stomach gurgling. Positioning and movement sensors like those in a smartphone can even tell when the animal is running, laying down, or, um, answering nature's call. The battery in the collar will run for several months in between charges.

Once the data is sent to PetPaces's servers, it's compared to what's normal for your particular animal, based on its past behavior, and also what's normal for the breed. "If there's any deviation, we can create an alert," Schneur says. "One of the things we can see is behavior that can indicate an animal is in pain, which is ordinarily hard to see." Schneur says that PetPace has been assembling data about 250 different dog breeds. The collar will also work for cats — as long as they weigh at least 10 pounds.

Schneur says the company has already been testing its technology at several pet hospitals. "Hospitals may take vital signs once or twice a day, but now they can get data every 30 seconds," he says, which can be helpful for monitoring recovery after an operation, for example. Owners who want to be sure their animal is continuing to recuperate might take the collar and base station home for several months. Schneur says hospitals will be the company's initial focus, but that PetPace will eventually sell the collar to consumers who simply want to monitor their pet's well-being. They plan to rely on veterinary practices as a primary sales channel.

Schneur says that PetPace has been developing the idea for about two years. "I thought the idea sounded too futuristic when [CEO] Avi Menkes brought it to me," he says. "But then I was really impressed by the prototype." Menkes is based in Israel, along with a half-dozen employees working on PetPace's hardware and the embedded software that controls the sensors and radio. Another three people in Burlington work on the analytics software and user interface.

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Baby-making startup Ovuline brings on former 38 Studios chief exec as head of business development

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 25, 2013 07:31 AM

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Jen MacLean had an extremely high-profile maternity leave last year. While she was out, the videogame company she'd been running, 38 Studios, defaulted on a $75 million loan guarantee from the state of Rhode Island and closed its doors, unable to make payroll. Now MacLean, who had a daughter last June, is joining Ovuline, a Cambridge startup focused on helping couples get pregnant and have healthy babies. MacLean will head up business development for the six-person company, which earlier this month announced it had raised $1.4 million from investors.

Ovuline is building mobile apps and a web site to help women better understand their fertility cycles, and get pregnant faster. The company's products, combined with home monitoring devices like blood pressure cuffs, will soon also track their health once they get pregnant, in between visits to the obstetrician. "It's exactly the kind of thing I would've liked to have had when I was pregnant," MacLean says. She served as an advisor to Ovuline last fall, as the company went through the TechStars Boston accelerator program. Her business development role, she says, could include establishing partnerships with "digital media properties targeting women, quantified self device companies, and trusted service providers" that have relationships with women when they are trying to conceive, pregnant, or new moms.

MacLean starts at Ovuline next week. After 38 Studios went bankrupt, she and her husband, Michael Dawe, moved from the Providence area, where 38 Studios was headquartered, to the Boston 'burbs. Dawe had also been an employee of 38 Studios, and is now working as an artificial intelligence programmer for Rockstar New England, a videogame studio in Andover.

MacLean was fairly quiet during the extremely public winding down of 38 Studios last year — except on Twitter, where she endeavored to help the laid-off employees find new work. She was named last year as a defendant in a lawsuit related to 38 Studios' collapse. She calls it "baseless," but says she's "vigorously defending" herself against the allegations.

Sources who'd worked at 38 Studios tell me that among the company's many issues, MacLean had been on the losing end of a power struggle with founder, chairman, and majority owner Curt Schilling. She had begun her maternity leave in March, several months before her due date, and my sources say that it was questionable at the time that she would return. More than 400 employees and contractors were laid off in May after the company ran out of money. Back in 2010, Rhode Island had offered 38 Studios $75 million in loan guarantees to relocate to the state, and create 450 jobs there. (38 Studios had previously been headquartered in Maynard.) MacLean was a vice president running Comcast's games business before she joined the company, and her initial role at 38 Studios was running business development under then-CEO Brett Close.

Product development firm Dragon Innovation, partner to successful Kickstarter projects like Pebble, prepares to launch its own funding site for connected devices

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 24, 2013 07:30 AM

Update: On August 8th, Dragon announced that it had raised $2.3 million for the new site, and began a private beta-testing phase with "several innovative hardware products seeking funding."

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A Lexington product development shop that has helped several successful Kickstarter projects go from concept drawing to finished product is getting ready to launch a fundraising site of its own. Scott Miller, the former iRobot manufacturing executive who runs Dragon Innovation, tells me he is planning to unveil Dragon Launcher sometime next month, with a carefully-chosen set of five to ten hardware products. It's an interesting move at a moment when Kickstarter is introducing new rules about how device-makers can raise money on its site, and when local startups like Bytelight are having projects rejected by Kickstarter without much in the way of explanation.

As a consultancy, Dragon has operated a bit beneath the radar, but Miller, right, spent several years helping Walt Disney Imagineering design a walking triceratops robot, and then more than a decade overseeing engineering and manufacturing at Bedford-based iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner. His firm has worked with Kickstarter projects like the Pebble watch, which raised $10 million on the site, as well as Media Lab spin-outs like Sifteo and local startups like Zeo, which makes a sleep-monitoring device. The firm's expertise is in prepping products to be manufactured, and finding the best contract manufacturers in the Far East to do the work.

With Dragon Launcher, Miller says, "We really want to build companies that should exist — the next wave of disruptive hardware companies." He plans to filter out the "perpetual motion machines and junk" as well as "nights and weekends projects," he says. In Miller's view, creating the next great connected device requires that you quit your day job. Miller and his team will work with inventors to "de-risk projects"; he likes to say that most entrepreneurs working on hardware products just don't know what they don't know when it comes to costs and timeframes.

Like Kickstarter, Miller says Dragon Launcher will take a fee of about 10 percent from the money raised online. But unlike Kickstarter, he says that Dragon Innovation's consulting services will be priced into each project that is raising money on the site. That will naturally increase the amount that the team needs to raise, but Miller asserts that it'll also improve the odds that the project actually crosses the finish line. (Eventually, Miller says he would like to test a way to fund prototypes on the site, meaning that backers wouldn't necessarily receive a product at the end of that stage, but would simply be helping to move an idea along to the point where they'd be able to order it.)

Miller says he may try to raise money for the new site from venture capitalists or strategic investors. Geisel Software of Shrewsbury is helping out on the Dragon Launcher site.

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Apperian collects new funding from Intel to roll out employee app stores to more corporations

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 23, 2013 08:00 AM

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A Boston company that creates internal "app stores" for customers like Cisco and the Celtics is about to announce that Intel Capital, a division of the Silicon Valley chipmaker, is making an investment. Apperian, founded four years ago by former Apple executive Chuck Goldman, has now banked $28 million in total.

Apperian helps companies deploy mobile and tablet apps to their employees. Imagine an icon on your device that, instead of taking you to Apple's iTunes Store, brings you to a collection of apps that your company has curated for you. The featured apps may be ones that the company has developed especially for its employees, or third-party apps that the company recommends, like Kayak for trip-planning or CardMunch for digitizing business cards. Company IT staffers can also use Apperian to roll out updates to their own apps whenever necessary — without waiting for employees to do it.

"A company like Cisco today has about 80 apps, mostly for their global sales organization," says Apperian chief executive David Patrick. (Patrick is on the right in the photo, Goldman on the left.) "The apps might be sales commission calculators, or apps for expense tracking. They can host those privately in our cloud infrastructure, and new salespeople can download them to iPhones, iPads, or Android devices, and can use them as daily productivity tools," Patrick says. Apperian customers pay the company about $4 per user, per month. Patrick says that more than 100 companies use Apperian's technology.

In addition to using Apperian to deploy their own apps, customers can fill the shelves of their app store with free apps or paid apps developed by others. In the case of paid apps, if they've worked out a volume purchase deal with Apple, Apperian can help them manage the special download codes they receive.

Patrick says that Apperian has nearly 75 employees, most of them at the company headquarters in Boston's Fort Point Channel neighborhood. But the company also has offices in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

The new money from Intel — nearly $5 million, according to my math — will mainly go to "growing sales and marketing," Patrick says "We'll hire a number of enterprise salespeople, and use it to fund some new marketing activity." Jeff Murphy, formerly the SVP of global sales at Endeca Technologies, joined Apperian last September.

I last wrote about Apperian in 2011. An example of an employee app store is below:

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CloudHealth Technologies (formerly CloudPercept) wants to help customers get more from their cloud infrastructure

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 21, 2013 07:32 AM

Update: In March 2013, CloudPercept changed its name to CloudHealth Technologies and announced that it had raised $4.5 million from Sigma Prime Ventures and .406 Ventures.

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As a growing number of companies turn to cloud-based services to handle jobs like data storage and processing, a new startup called CloudPercept wants to help them understand exactly what they're getting for their money.

"We help optimize the cost, performance, security, and availability of your cloud infrastructure," says founder and chief technology officer Joe Kinsella. "We're focused on software-as-a-service companies as our initial customers, but the problem of managing cloud infrastructure also exists in government and large-scale enterprises, too."

Kinsella left his job at Sonian, a local cloud archiving startup, last August to talk to prospective customers about his idea for CloudPercept. He temporarily became an entrepreneur-in-residence at North Bridge Venture Partners, and he says he took a "lean startup" approach to getting the company going. By October, he says, "I closed my first customer with a minimum viable product I had built. By December, I closed a second customer, and I had to race to incorporate the company at that point."

Kinsella recruited a former colleague, Dan Phillips, to be CloudPercept's CEO; the pair had worked together at SilverBack Technologies, a remote IT monitoring startup which was acquired by Dell in 2007. (Up until November, Phillips had been head of the Entrepreneurship Center at UMass Boston.) And last week, Dave Eicher joined as COO; he'd previously held that role at GenArts, a Cambridge maker of visual effects software.

The company doesn't yet have office space, though Kinsella tells me they are planning to nail down a location in downtown Boston "in the next few weeks." CloudPercept has been self-funded so far, and the early customers have been paying for the product. But Kinsella says it's possible that the company will look for outside funding sometime this year.

"Managing cloud infrastructure is so different from managing physical world" assets in data centers, Kinsella says, and so the software built to do that is no longer relevant. "It felt to me like disruptive innovation was happening before our eyes with cloud computing," he says.

We'll see if CloudPercept can take advantage of that disruption to build a big business...

Former Media Lab director laying groundwork for new healthcare IT startup, Atelion

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 17, 2013 07:26 AM

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There's no website yet for one of the newest MIT Media Lab spin-outs: Atelion Health, which will commercialize and build upon a project born at the lab called CollaboRhythm. The co-founders are former Media Lab director (and serial entrepreneur) Frank Moss, right, Media Lab researcher John Moore, and software developer Scott Gilroy.

Moss says Atelion is "a cloud-based platform" aimed at helping doctors and patients work together more closely to manage chronic diseases like diabetes, HIV, or hypertension. "We're focusing on how patients can be actively engaged and become part of the team," as well as helping physician practices and a new breed of healthcare provider called an ACO (accountable care organization) use data to keep their patients healthier. "As we move from fee-for-service payment to doctors being paid on performance, and accountable care, there's a real gap in the IT that's available to these ACOs and physican practices," says Moss.

Moore, a doctor who will earn his PhD this June at MIT, has been testing early versions of the software platform with the Boston Medical Center, the Joslin Diabetes Center, and the Mayo Clinic.

Atelion hasn't yet raised money, and it's based in MIT's Trust Center for Entrepreneurship.

Moss tells me he is also involved with a 3-D printing startup that he wasn't ready to name. It'll focus on "infrastructure software" that will simplify the process of "distribution fabrication" using 3-D printers, he says.

I last wrote about Moss in 2010 as he was departing the Media Lab directorship. Below is a video overview of the CollaboRhythm project:

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Auto shopping site CarGurus grows into new Cambridge office space; approaches $40 million in revenues

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 16, 2013 08:01 AM

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The comparison shopping site CarGurus moved into new digs last week, and I stopped by after they'd finished unpacking to check out the company's spacious penthouse overlooking Harvard Square — and to catch up with CEO Langley Steinert. Before starting CarGurus in 2006, Steinert had been co-founder and chairman of TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor, headquartered in Newton, now operates the most-visited collection of travel sites on the web, and Steinert thinks he can do the same with CarGurus.

The site uses sophisticated software models to help shoppers evaluate hundreds or thousands of a given model of used car on the market. "There may be 600 Ford Focuses being sold in Boston," Steinert says. "We help you figure out whether a 2009 with fewer miles than a 2010 might be a better deal, based on trim packages and options and other factors." About a month ago, CarGurus launched a service that also looks at new car inventory in a user's geographic area. Steinert says that when looking for a Toyota Land Cruiser for his wife, he was frustrated by having to visit or call dealerships to find out what specific cars they had in stock, in what colors. "Adding new cars to the site is the big push for this year," he says.

langleysteinert.jpgCarGurus has 23 employees, and Steinert foresees hiring another 15 or 20 by the end of the year. Revenues, which today come from selling "leads," or information about prospective car buyers, "are closing in on a $40 million annual run rate," Steinert says. Eventually, he says the company will transition to selling its marketing services to dealerships on a subscription basis, to help them market their new and used inventory. Steinert tells me that the company got to profitability with just $4 million of funding — "all from friends and family, and the TripAdvisor mafia" he says.

He says CarGurus receives about five million visitors each month. The category leader, AutoTrader.com, sees about 11 million uniques. It filed to go public last year, and is doing about $1 billion in annual revenues.

But Steinert doesn't plan to be left in the dust: "I want to be first — and take out AutoTrader."

Carbonite co-founder Jeff Flowers talks about new venture SageCloud, focused on 'cold storage' for corporate data

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 14, 2013 07:30 AM

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The amount of data companies store just keeps on growing, and SageCloud is one of the latest local startups to suggest it has a solution. "Most of the data can be put in cold storage," says SageCloud founder Jeff Flowers. That means it's recorded to a hard drive and not accessed very frequently; when it is, you likely don't need it in less than a second.

Flowers, a co-founder and former chief technology officer of the publicly-traded backup company Carbonite, is heading to the Open Compute Summit in Silicon Valley this week to demo and discuss what SageCloud has been designing. It's an assemblage of software, commodity hardware, and support services that will enable companies to operate their own on-site "private clouds" to keep large quantities of data in cold storage, at low costs, Flowers says.

"Data is growing at about 60 percent per year, and the IT staff that manage it is growing at five percent," says Flowers. As much as 70 percent of a company's data can be put in cold storage, he asserts. That might be a stock trade or a medical record that needs to be kept for a mandated time period, but doesn't need to be referenced or changed very often. It could also be the original video from a TV show that may not be needed again until someone decides to put out a "Best Of" DVD in a decade.

At the Open Compute gathering, which focuses on making data center technology more efficient and economical, Flowers will be presenting the SageCloud hardware design, for an archiving appliance that consists of just three power-efficient components. (An early prototype is pictured above.) He's offering it as a new standard for long-term data storage. The company's plan is to sell its software in conjunction with hardware built to this standard by any number of vendors. (The first vendor will likely be Arizona-based Avnet.) SageCloud may also sell professional services to help customers deploy or manage its storage system.

sagecloudteam.jpgThe company has raised $3.2 million in funding so far, most of it from Waltham-based Matrix Partners. Flowers says that SageCloud plans to begin a beta test in April with at least two customers, and spend the rest of the year working out the kinks in its offering. The ten-person company operates virtually today, but will be moving into office space in Boston's Financial District in March. (Several members of the team previously worked at Carbonite, and Carbonite chief executive David Friend serves as SageCloud's chairman.) Flowers expects the headcount will be about 30 by the end of the year. Among the people he's trying to hire are vice presidents of engineering and marketing.

In the photo, from left to right, are SageCloud team members Mark Rees, Andy Brown, Robert Myhill, Flowers, and Jim Koschella. All except Koschella were previously at Carbonite.

I last wrote about SageCloud in July 2012.

What's Apple doing in Kendall Square?

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 10, 2013 02:58 PM

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Apple seems to have set up a new office in Kendall Square, just a few floors down from Amazon.com in the Cambridge Innovation Center.

I know just about nothing about the new office, and haven't yet found anyone who does. Apple didn't respond to my inquiries, but building residents say an Apple sign appeared above an office door just before the holidays. The single door is frosted glass, and the office looks like it could fit perhaps four or five people. (Apple isn't listed as a tenant — yet? — on the floor's directory.) One neighbor told me he has only seen one person use the new space thus far, and not on a daily basis.

In addition to the employees at its stores, Apple has always had sales and support staffers working in the Boston area to serve major corporate and academic customers. But what would be big news is if this is a new engineering or R&D outpost. Those are activities Apple has historically done only at its Cupertino headquarters. "It'd be a huge strategic shift if they are hiring engineers here," says Chuck Goldman, a former Apple executive who is now chief strategy officer at Boston-based Apperian, which helps companies deploy mobile apps to their employees. "The mantra was always that everything was made in Cupertino."

And even when Apple has acquired companies — like Waltham-based Quattro Wireless, in 2010, which became Apple's iAds mobile advertising product — it has mandated that employees relocate to Cupertino, or find new jobs.

Perhaps, as Jonathan Kay hypothesizes, Apple "wants to play in any sandbox that is in such close proximity to Google and Microsoft." (Not to mention Amazon.) Kay runs Apptopia, a Boston-based app brokerage. Cambridge Innovation Center CEO Tim Rowe declined to comment on the new tenant.

I couldn't find any Apple job postings that seemed to pertain to this new office.

Know anything more? Post a comment or drop me an e-mail...

Update: Bob Cassels, a software engineer at Google who previously worked for Apple, e-mailed me with a little history about an earlier Apple presence in Cambridge...

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Social commerce startup Kitsy Lane banks $3.5 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 8, 2013 05:40 PM

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Most women wouldn't consider renting a storefront and opening their own boutique.

But Kitsy Lane, a Maynard startup, wants to make it a no-brainer for style mavens to set up their own online boutiques in an hour or two. And since the company's launch last summer, more than 20,000 women have done just that. They choose the merchandise that is featured (right now, only jewelry and accessories); promote the store to their friends on Facebook, e-mail, and other social networks; and collect a commission that ranges from 10 to 25 percent on everything sold. Kitsy Lane handles the inventory, payment, and shipping. It's the Tupperware party of the Twitter era.

The model seems to be working: the company says that revenues have been growing 40 percent month-to-month, and tomorrow the company plans to announce a $3.5 million funding round, led by Data Point Capital and Longworth Venture Partners. That's on top of a $1 million seed round supplied last year by Point Judith Capital and angels. All three firms are based in the Boston area.

"There's a very broad spectrum of people that run Kitsy Lane boutiques," says founder and CEO Andy Fox, right. "We made a concerted effort to target some bloggers and stylists. We have a couple of celebrities, like Shereé Whitfield of 'Real Housewives of Atlanta' and Mashiela Lush from the George Lopez show. But the bulk of the user base are stay-at-home moms, or people who have another job and are doing this at night from the couch." (Shereé Whitfield's boutique is below.) The site plans to add men's merchandise soon.

Fox, most recently an executive at Novell, says that the new funding will go toward online marketing and trying to increase the number of people running Kitsy Lane boutiques. "We’ll also be adding employees to a number of departments, including merchandising, engineering, and community management," he says. Today, Kitsy Lane has just five full-time employees.

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Videogame maker Majesco shuts down Foxborough studio, which had focused on mobile and Facebook games

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 7, 2013 10:15 AM
Majesco Entertainment, the publicly-held New Jersey videogame company that cranks out titles like BloodRayne and Hulk Hogan's Main Event, is closing its small studio in Foxborough this week. The studio's dozen employees got the news on Friday.

The studio had developed three different mobile games, including Flea Symphony and Legends of Loot, as well as a Facebook game called Miniputt Park. Studio head Jeff Anderson confirmed the closure, which I tweeted about late on Friday, saying it was a surprise to the employees there, but that "we understand the challenges of the business" as game developers try to score big hits in the rapidly-evolving mobile and social landscape.

"Zynga's high-visibility drop in value has definitely had an impact," says Michael Dornbrook, a local angel investor and formerly an executive at Harmonix Music Systems. "There has been a sense that a bubble is bursting. I could easily imagine some...top execs at Majesco deciding it was time to cut back their investments in the area."

The Foxborough studio was created in 2011, when Majesco acquired the assets of Quick Hit, a venture-backed startup that had developed a web-based football game.

I called and e-mailed several Majesco representatives for comment, but haven't heard back.

This is the latest in a string of studio closures and layoffs in Boston's gaming scene, which I wrote about last month.

Bounce Imaging prepares to roll into Consumer Electronics Show next week

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 4, 2013 07:56 AM

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If you're going to attend the Consumer Electronics Show for the first time, I totally recommend taking the Francisco Aguilar route. The co-founder of Bounce Imaging got an invitation to demo at the vast Vegas tech confab next week, free, courtesy of the Syfy channel and Publicis Groupe. His Boston startup will be presenting at an invite-only showcase of soon-to-be-released products next Wednesday — and potentially landing some additional financing as part of the event.

Bounce is one of Boston's most promising hardware startups. The small company is developing a tossable, baseball-sized orb that's embedded with cameras and other sensors. Pitch it into a dangerous situation, and it sends back panoramic pictures and data about what's happening there without putting people at risk. Bounce won a $50,000 cash prize in last year's MassChallenge competition, and Time Magazine named it one of the best inventions of 2012. Bounce operates out of space at Harvard's Innovation Lab in Cambridge and the MassChallenge headquarters in Boston; the startup has also been a participant in the Haverhill Hardware Horizons Challenge.

Aguilar says that since the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado, "unfortunately what we are doing is top-of-mind. The regular beat cop doesn't have access to the same kind of surveillance equipment a SWAT team would have, but they usually arrive at the scene first. Our device will be cheap enough to be in every squad car's trunk, so it can give them a view of what's going on before they have to go into an active-shooter type situation." Bounce's target price is around $500.

The company is building a handful of test units now, and plans to start working with New England law enforcement agencies this spring to see how the surveillance orb can be integrated into their work, and how it might be improved. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Aguilar says the main objectives are to talk with potential investors; meet prospective suppliers; and, of course, bask in a little media attention.

Aguilar's co-founder, David Young, won't be joining him in Vegas next week. The former Army Ranger, now an MBA student at MIT, will be heading north to Maine to attend a less glam — but probably more essential — gathering of SWAT teams.

A company-produced video is below:

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Research and data specialist The 451 Group buys Boston's Yankee Group

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 3, 2013 08:00 AM

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The Yankee Group is one of those companies that has been bought quite a few times since it was first sold. And the pioneering purveyor of tech prognostications is getting a new owner today, as it becomes part of The 451 Group, based in New York, parent of 451 Research and the Uptime Institute.

Yankee was first sold by founder Howard Anderson in 1996 ($34 million, to Primark). Then it turned over again in 2000 ($72.5 million, to Reuters), in 2004 (undisclosed, to the Cambridge private equity shop Monitor Clipper Partners), and finally one more time the following year (undisclosed, to the Boston private equity firm Alta Communications.) You almost needed an analyst firm to figure out what was going on with the storied Boston analyst firm, which got its start in 1970. That was back when the telecom industry basically began and ended with Ma Bell and her equipment suppliers.

Yankee's new owner says it plans to keep the brand and the Boston office intact — despite the fact that 451 Research already operates a small Boston office of its own just a few blocks away. As it has for the past few years, Yankee will continue to focus on the impact that mobile technologies are having on consumers and businesses.

For some reason, neither Yankee CEO Terry Waters or 451 Group CEO Martin McCarthy, right, wanted to tell me how many people work for Yankee today. LinkedIn shows the number at about 90, but one former employee tells me the actual number of full-timers is closer to 30 worldwide. At one point, Anderson recalls, the firm had more than 200 employees.

But eight years of private equity ownership certainly, uh, slimmed the place down. Various blogs reported on layoffs in 2008, 2009, and 2011.

"We had to right-size the business when I came in," says Waters, who arrived in 2010. He sold off a group that organized trade shows and conferences. Some of the firm's forecasting now comes from analysts who aren't full-timers, but rather "independent consultants affiliated with Yankee," Waters says. And Yankee's data modeling is now done by a partnership based in Bogota, Colombia, working under a Yankee executive in Boston.

McCarthy wouldn't divulge any of the financial details of this latest acquisition, including price. Waters will stay on as CEO.

"Mobility is just becoming more prominent and strategic, not just in our lives as consumers, but as enterprise executives," McCarthy says. Yankee will continue to focus on that theme, operating independently within 451 Group. McCarthy claims that Yankee now has more analysts focusing on mobile than any other analyst firm.

Microsoft NERD exec Walter Somol heads to social game developer Stomp Games

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 2, 2013 07:36 AM

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Walter Somol couldn't stay away from the video game business for very long: after just about a year-and-a-half as Microsoft's community liaison at its New England R&D center, he's starting a new role this week at Stomp Games, the Concord-based development studio that makes the Facebook game Robot Rising. Somol had previously spent five years helping manage Microsoft's relationships with game developers for the Xbox platform, and before that he worked at Atari and a law firm that represented game developers.

Somol will serve as director of marketing and business development at Stomp. "I’m really excited about this opportunity," Somol writes via e-mail. "I think the team is fantastic and has very deep experience in making high-quality games. We’re all excited to be in the online/free to play space. I think that’s where we will see the most growth and innovation in the near-term."

Somol's new colleagues at Stomp have worked on games like Age of Empires, NASCAR Racing, Titan Quest, Dawn of War, and Madden NFL.

robotrising.pngFormed in 2012, Stomp is owned by Tencent Inc., one of China's most popular Internet portals. (The studio is also known as Tencent Boston.) Robot Rising, a futuristic role-playing game, is its first project. Stomp was one of several Boston-area game studios to lay off some of its staff last year.

Unclear at this point who will replace Somol at Microsoft NERD...

As Endeca exodus continues, trio of former employees start Salsify to help manufacturers distribute better product info

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 31, 2012 08:46 AM

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The Endeca exodus seems to be intensifying, following the Cambridge enterprise software company's $1 billion acquisition by Oracle in October 2011.

Co-founders Steve Papa and Pete Bell have both left Oracle as of this month. Former Endeca SVP Chris Comparato is now at Acquia, the Burlington company that peddles web content management software. Others have left for PayPal Boston, Silver Lining Systems, Sqrrl, Hopper, Internet advertising company DataXu, and Lookout Gaming, a new startup.

I wrote last week about Toast, a new mobile app developed by a trio of ex-Endecans.

And there's another local start-up, Salsify, founded by alumni of Endeca. Salsify is building a cloud-based system to help manufacturers distribute information about their products — like images, descriptions, ads, or suggested prices — to distributors and retailers. Founders Jason Purcell and Jeremy Redburn left Endeca in September; the third co-founder, Rob Gonzalez, had departed in 2010. Salsify hasn't yet raised outside funding.

Using the example of a Bento box manufacturer (we were having lunch at a Japanese place), Gonzalez says that "a lot of information about products like this are still stuck in PDFs and spreadsheets that get e-mailed around. And we think that a lot of the big makers of enterprise software are doing a crappy job of serving this space." Purcell explains that Salsify's product enables manufacturers (or perhaps their marketing or advertising firms) to upload the product data they have, and then retailers or distributors can access the content that they need. They can also subscribe to "feeds" to stay up to date about product changes, promotions, or perhaps new accessories.

"A brand might have 40 different distributors, and each needs product images in a different size," Purcell says. "We want to simplify that."

Salsify is already working with a pilot customer, and Purcell says they plan to open up a wider beta test over the next few months. While Purcell is Salsify's CEO, all three founders say they are writing code for the product. The company moves into its first "real" office in Chinatown this week. (The founders had previously been based at the Workbar shared space near South Station.)

As for choosing the name Salsify, Gonzalez explains in an e-mail:

A dandelion is a weed. It spreads like crazy. But it's a beautiful weed that you want to spread because doing so is a joy; who hasn't blown on dandelion seeds as a kid? Especially when thinking about the whole idea of a product content network where brands are pushing their product data out into the world, we thought it was a great analogy. So we liked that idea but the word dandelion is pretty long, and itself not very evocative. The Salsify plant is a cousin to the dandelion. It's served in high end restaurants, but it's still a weed...It felt appropriate, as we're trying to reinvent the way product data is distributed across the globe.

(In the photo are co-founders Jason Purcell, Jeremy Redburn, and Rob Gonzalez.)

New device from Harvard spin-out Bobo Analytics puts a workout monitor on your wrist

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 27, 2012 07:32 AM

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Just in case your New Year’s resolutions include something about exercise... I wanted to fill you in on one of the newest local startups working on a wearable fitness sensor, Bobo Analytics.

Based at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, Bobo is working on a wristwatch-like product that can monitor your heart rate and movement, and help you get the most from your workouts. As founder and CEO Will Ahmed puts it, “The chest strap that monitors heart rate is a 30-year old technology, and people don’t wear it all the time. We want to understand what’s happening on a daily basis.”

The current prototype, pictured at right, has two optical sensors that come in contact with your skin to collect data about your pulse, as well as an accelerometer to monitor motion (in part to know when the heart rate sensors are getting good data, and when you may be moving too vigorously for them to be accurate.) Ahmed says that the company is also testing sensors for skin temperature and perspiration. The Bobo device can send data via Bluetooth to a nearby phone, tablet, or laptop, letting users log their data over time.

boboteam.jpgAhmed isn’t yet talking about a target price for the device, but he says the company may initially market it through coaches and trainers. “They often have athletes or clients that are overtraining or undertraining,” he says. “They want to be able to monitor that, even when they’re not physically there for a workout. How intense was it? When are you recovered from it?”

Ahmed earned his undergrad degree from Harvard earlier this spring, and he also captained the squash team there. Product development engineer Aurelian Nicolae also graduated from Harvard this year, and chief technology officer John Capodilupo is taking time off from his studies there. (Ahmed and Nicolae are at left.)

Ahmed says the company has already raised about $300,000 in seed funding, and may look to raise more soon. The company name, Bobo, is intended to sound like a heartbeat.

Testing out Toast, new mobile app that helps diners keep an eye on the tab

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 26, 2012 10:06 AM

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I usually like to pick up the bill when I’m interviewing someone over lunch. But last week at Firebrand Saints in Cambridge, Steve Fredette and I split the tab — mostly so he could demo the new app his startup has created.

Fredette left Endeca over the summer, and with another alumnus of the Cambridge business intelligence company, Jonathan Grimm, started Toast Inc. (At Endeca, Fredette had launched and led the mobile software development team. A third member of the Toast team remains at Oracle, the company that acquired Endeca last year.) Toast is currently operating out of the Kendall Square offices of Bessemer Venture Partners, the VC firm, but Fredette says he hasn’t yet accepted any outside funding for the venture.

The Toast iPhone app allows you to start a tab at a restaurant, linked to your credit card. You can see what’s on your tab and divide it exactly as you’d like among several diners. (Maybe you want to split it down the middle, or pay only for what you ordered — especially on those occasions when your companion downs a few cocktails and you’re sipping cola.) You can set an amount for the tip, and settle up whenever you’re ready. Toast eliminates all that back-and-forth with the check, your credit card, and multiple copies of the receipt.

toastscreen.jpgOn the restaurant’s end, Toast provides an Android tablet that is plugged in to the cash register. (Toast currently works only with POSitouch point-of-sale systems.) That enables wait staff to enter orders the way they usually do, and have them magically appear on the app that diners are using. Servers can also get background on customers by clicking on their profiles on the tablet: who comes in frequently, tips well, or often brings in big groups. “One problem that most restaurants have,” Fredette says, “is that as they hire new staff, their regulars aren’t recognized.”

Eventually, Fredette plans for Toast to do more. He sees it as an establishment’s “connection with their customers,” a way for them to ask you for feedback, or to share your experience on social media. There will also be a way for restaurants to send you special offers (of course.)

When we tried it last Thursday, a few things went awry, as is often the case with demos of technology that’s still in development. Our server, apparently new, had never heard of Toast. Fredette mentioned the name of another server who had used the system. A tab got started with Toast, but it only included Fredette, not me. So we asked again, and finally we were both included on it. (Servers see pictures of diners using Toast pop up on the tablet next to the cash register, and click them to add them to a tab.) Then, I could see the items we ordered on the screen of my iPhone, and Fredette and I could choose which ones we wanted to pay for. We also noticed that someone had added a mango iced tea to our order that we’d discussed with the server, but hadn’t ordered (or received.) We asked for that to be removed, the old-fashioned way, and it was. Despite the snafus, it was nice to have a way to split the bill in a very granular fashion (I paid just for my fish sandwich and side of polenta, which were $2 more expensive than what Fredette ordered), and also to pay and leave exactly when we were ready to do so. With large groups, Fredette pointed out, Toast deals fairly with that scoundrel who always dashes out fifteen minutes before everyone else, plunks down a $20, and then forces everyone else cover his overage.

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Junk Drawer app creates a place for your stuff, on your iPhone

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 20, 2012 07:30 AM

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Arriving just in time for next week's tsunami of junk — I mean, delightful and thoughtful gifts — is a new mobile app from Arlington entrepreneur Mike Cayer. Junk Drawer invites you to scan the bar codes of new products that come into your home, and creates a digital inventory of your stuff. The iPhone app automatically affixes an image of the item, and allows you to input data about where you bought it or when the warranty expires. All that can be useful if you need to get it serviced, return it, or perhaps sell it on eBay or Craigslist a few years down the line.

"Everyone has had that experience where they forgot to get something minor fixed, and then the warranty ran out on them," says Cayer, an attorney who has worked for numerous local companies like Thermo Electron, Trellix, and Soapstone Networks. "Junk Drawer can give you a notification 60 days before it's up." You can attach info about the type of batteries, bulbs, or ink a device uses, so that it's always with you when you're shopping. And of course, you can brag about what you just bought — or received as a gift — on Facebook.

The first iteration of Junk Drawer "is a good inventory manager," Cayer says. But he has plans to eventually link products to their online user manuals; enable you to review them on popular sites; let you fill out the manufacturer's registration form on your phone; and automatically create an eBay listing when you're ready to deaccession the item.

Cayer says that the app was built with the help of an offshore development shop in Columbia, Koombea. He says he has raised just under $200,000 from angel investors to build and launch the app.

Junk Drawer is free, but Cayer says that at some point product manufacturers may be willing to pay to receive registration info via the app (fewer than 10 percent of people fill out those paper registration cards), and have an opportunity to communicate with customers about accessories, refills, and next-generation products. Companies that sell extended warranties may also be interested in communicating to users of the app.

But both of those revenue streams, of course, require that Junk Drawer finds lots of loyal users first...

Is Intrepid Labs becoming the new hub of Boston's gaming scene?

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 19, 2012 10:47 AM

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For a while, it felt like the beating heart of Boston's videogame cluster was in Central Square: Harmonix Music Systems, Zynga Boston, and gamerDNA were all based there.

But Central has emptied out (only Harmonix remains), and it seems like a new gaming community is starting to take root at Intrepid Labs, a shared "teamspace" for young companies on the top floor of the American Twine Building in East Cambridge.

Proletariat Inc., a tablet-focused games company founded by five former Zynga Boston employees is there, right next to The Tap Lab, a TechStars Boston alumnus that is working on a new location-based game, Tiny Tycoons. Owlchemy Labs, which makes iPhone and iPad games like Jack Lumber and Snuggle Truck, is a few steps away. (Dave Bisceglia, co-founder of The Tap Lab, is at right. The Proletariat team is at left.)

Proletariat has three iPad games in the works, and is starting to talk with prospective distribution partners, according to co-founder Seth Sivak. The crew is also doing some contract development work to bring in additional revenue. At The Tap Lab, Bisceglia says that Tiny Tycoons will be out in Q1; it is the second game from the eight-person studio, following Tap City, which didn't exactly catch fire. The Tap Lab also plans to invite other developers to use a new location-based games engine it has developed.

proletariat.jpgMark Kasdorf, who set up the Intrepid Labs space in late 2011, tells me that six more indie game developers will be moving in next month; most had previously been working out of the Space With a Soul shared office in Fort Point Channel. He's planning to create an area within Intrepid especially for the game companies, called Intrepid Arcade. (And yes, there's already a cool stand-up arcade machine in the Intrepid kitchen that can serve up a zillion different classic videogames.)

Oh, and some other news from Intrepid this morning: founder Mark Kasdorf tells me that he has raised $360,000 for an iPhone app that he created, Timbre. Timbre helps you find great live music happening near you. The money comes from Atlas Venture and Boston Seed Capital, along with angel investors Joe Caruso and Marco Buchbinder. I asked Kasdorf how he'll use the funding:

Stage one is get what we have into more hands than just the 8 percent of global smartphone users that are US iOS users.

Beyond that, we've got a pretty good roadmap that involves doing more of what the app does best without messing up the UX with feature bloat.

(I wrote on Sunday about the New England videogame cluster, which had a rough year in 2012.)

First Look: Inside Staples' new Velocity Lab in Cambridge, focused on advancing the multi-channel retail experience

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 17, 2012 10:25 AM

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Staples announced at the beginning of the year that it would open an "e-commerce innovation center" in Kendall Square this year, to build a tech team separate from its Framingham headquarters. The office supplies giant, which happens to be the #2 online merchant after Amazon, dubbed the new facility the Velocity Lab, and it opened in August. They invited me over last week for a visit.

"We decided to get radically more aggressive about strengthening our e-commerce and digital capabilities," Staples e-commerce SVP Brian Tilzer told me, sitting in a conference room in the first-floor space, just across the street from the Kendall Square Cinema. "Digital is the glue between our different channels — our call centers, our stores, and our web site." By setting up an outpost in Cambridge, he explained, "we can diversify the talent we were bringing to Staples. Some people don't want to do a reverse commute out to Framingham." And some of the partners that Staples works with, like Endeca, Akamai, and Google, are located just a short walk from the new Velocity Lab. (Staples PR manager Mark Cautela tells me that there was some discussion last year about planting the new lab in California.)

The new facility can accommodate about 75 people, and there are more than 40 in it already, explained Prat Vemana, the lab's director. About one-third of the people working at the lab today are Staples veterans, and two-thirds are new hires, says Vemana, who also oversees Staples' mobile strategy. That's an intentional mix, to blend fresh thinking with Staples' existing corporate culture. (Tilzer is on the left in the photo, Vemana on the right.)

staples2-team.jpg"The vision for this center is to create a place where we can test, learn and iterate as rapidly as possible around new technologies," says Tilzer. As examples, he cited "thinking about how to leverage big data to deliver personalized experiences" and "helping consumers understand what services are available related to a particular product, like a laptop." But there will also be some blue-sky brainstorming, too, to "produce really cool stuff that's meaningful to our customers."

Vemana says that Staples' entire mobile team is based at the Velocity Lab, and that they're hoping to continue hiring people in Cambridge. "We have a mobile site, a mobile app, and a tablet-oriented site," he says. "But we're still thinking about other on-the-go pain points." Over the Black Friday shopping weekend in November, Vemana says, Staples ran time-limited "mobile flash sales," with certain deals that could only be unlocked by showing up in a store. There's also a "rapid prototyping team" based in Cambridge that works on Staples' web site, thinking about new functionality, like making it easier to re-order frequently-used products.

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First day at work: Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil signs on with Google as director of engineering

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 17, 2012 07:03 AM

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Google announced late Friday that it had hired Ray Kurzweil, a legendary inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist who has long been based in Massachusetts, as a director of engineering. In a post on the technology news site he runs, KurzweilAI, Kurzweil said he'd be working to help the search giant solve "some of the hardest problems in computer science so we can turn the next decade’s ‘unrealistic’ visions into reality.” Kurzweil started his first company in 1968 while a sophomore at MIT, and later went on to invent breakthrough technologies in optical scanning, text-to-speech, and music synthesizers.

Kurzweil officially starts at Google today. I asked him over the weekend whether he would be working at Google's Cambridge office or its California headquarters; he said he'll be a full-time employee at the Googleplex in Silicon Valley. Kurzweil wrote:

The focus of the position is on new technology development, however I will be continuing my role as a thought leader through lectures, speaking with the press, and such initiatives as my recent book. That, by the way, has done very well -- #5 on the New York Times bestseller list, came out at #1 among all books on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list, went into its seventh printing within four weeks of publication.

A good portion of my Massachusetts-based activity is on these communication activities. Another project – K-NFB Reading Technology – has some important developments and those will be announced in the next month or so.

I'm guessing that Kurzweil won't have to introduce himself to too many of his new co-workers at Google...

(I profiled Kurzweil for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine in 2004. And last year, my fellow Globe columnist Alex Beam wrote a piece about two recent Kurzweil-related movies released in 2010 and 2011.)

The Zynga Boston diaspora: An update from former studio head Fareed Mosavat

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 7, 2012 11:16 AM

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Everyone was surprised when social games giant Zynga suddenly shuttered its Harvard Square game development studio in late October.

Even more surprising: Zynga provided absolutely no outplacement support to help the 48 employees there find new jobs, according to Fareed Mosavat, who'd been the general manager there. (I've e-mailed and called Zynga to confirm that, but haven't yet heard back.)

Despite that, Mosavat tells me that more than 60 percent of Zynga Boston's team has found new jobs so far, at local startups like Abine, Rue La La, LevelUp/SCVNGR, Fiksu, TapJoy, Harmonix, Lucky Labs, Jana, and Boundless Learning. Mosavat himself wound up as VP of product at RunKeeper, the Boston-based fitness data startup.

And five former members of Zynga Boston's leadership team are working on a new tablet and mobile games startup, Proletariat Inc., led by Seth Sivak. (Sivak was the lead designer for the one Zynga game that the Boston studio released, Adventure World.) Proletariat is currently based at the Intrepid Labs shared office space in East Cambridge.

"All of the product managers from Zynga Boston have been hired, and all but two of the engineers have, and that's by their own design," Mosavat says. "It has been a little tougher for the artists and game designers."

Despite the lack of outplacement help from Zynga HQ — "we were on our own," Mosavat says — Mosavat and former Zynga Boston chief Nabeel Hyatt received lots of offers of help via Twitter, LinkedIn, and e-mail. (Hyatt is now a partner at Spark Capital, the Newbury Street VC firm.) "Nabeel was super-helpful and super-involved in connecting people to Spark portfolio companies like Jana and RunKeeper," Mosavat says.

Two Zynga Boston folks wound up relocating to San Francisco, for jobs at Zynga's main office.

One more interesting factoid about the Zynga Boston diaspora: Zynga had hired two employees who'd lost their jobs when 38 Studios, the Curt Schilling gaming startup in Providence, closed its doors in May. But after going through two shut-downs in one year, Mosavat tells me both of them have new jobs, at Lucky Labs and Fire Hose Games.

(The pic above is from Zynga's Central Square office, before the team moved to Harvard Square.)

Ex-SolidWorks execs reunite to take another swing at product design software, with $9 million in funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 6, 2012 07:15 AM

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It was a loooong time ago, in tech terms, when Dassault Systèmes paid $316 million to acquire SolidWorks, a Concord-based company that developed powerful and easy-to-use 3-D modeling software geared to engineers designing products. The year was 1997, and SolidWorks was just four years old as a company.

Fifteen years after the acquisition, Dassault still maintains a substantial campus in Massachusetts, with more than 800 employees, and SolidWorks' products generate almost half a billion in annual revenue for its parent company.

Now the founder of SolidWorks, Jon Hirschtick, right, has assembled a team of former colleagues, including long-time SolidWorks CEO John McEleney, to develop a fresh take on product design in the era of cloud computing. The place-holder name for the new venture is Belmont Technology Inc., and they've raised $9 million from two local venture capital firms, North Bridge Venture Partners and Commonwealth Capital. And whaddaya know... the investor at Commonwealth who did the deal, Eliot Katzman, was the CFO at SolidWorks at the time of its acquisition by Dassault.

McEleney, Belmont's chief executive, isn't saying much about what the company is up to, beyond that the team is "building enterprise product design software using modern software tools and platforms." He tells me that there are currently nine employees in Waltham (not Belmont), and that the company will adopt a new name when it has a product to market.

Just last August, McEleney sold another startup, CloudSwitch, to Verizon. And Hirschtick only left SolidWorks last October.

Venture capitalist Fred Destin, whose firm was an investor in CloudSwitch but isn't involved in Belmont, said he believed Belmont is developing sophisticated CAD software that can run in the cloud and allow designs to be easily accessed by teams spread across the world. "CAD files are huge, and that is a non-trivial issue," Destin said. "You don't want to be moving gigabytes of data around."

But when asked about "CAD in the cloud," McEleney responded, "That's probably a bit too narrow of a view." A few CAD industry blogs, including GraphicSpeak and CAD Insider, have written about Belmont, but the funding hadn't previously been reported.

One last note: Interesting that Matrix Partners, which had also put money into CloudSwitch, isn't involved in Belmont; that VC firm has an investment in GrabCAD, which has lately been working on its own cloud-based CAD software.

Playrific, Adelphic Mobile and Promoboxx nail down new funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 4, 2012 08:19 AM

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Three Boston-area companies are announcing new infusions of capital this morning.

Playrific built a web site and mobile app that collect digital content that's appropriate for children, and customize it to what an individual kid actually likes. (There's also a version designed for schools, focusing on content that matches a teacher's educational goals.) The Billerica-based company is announcing a new $1.7 million round today, from a collection of angel investing groups including Golden Seeds, Launchpad Venture Group, and Walnut Angels. The Boston company, founded by tech industry veteran Beth Marcus, right, has now raised $2.8 million in total funding.

• Google Ventures and Matrix Partners are putting $10 million into Waltham-based Adelphic Mobile, which delivers targeted ads to mobile devices. Adelphic says that its technology can deliver ads not just based on the phone and network you're using, but as many as 30 other parameters, including time, place, age, and gender. Co-founders Jennifer Lum and Changfeng Wang previously worked at the ad startup Quattro Wireless, which was acquired by Apple to help that company build its mobile ad product, iAds. Rich Miner, a partner at Google Ventures and the co-founder of Android, is joining Adelphic's board. (That's a nice mix of Apple & Android experience there.) The company raised $2 million from Matrix earlier this year.

• Promoboxx, a company that graduated from the TechStars Boston accelerator program last year, is announcing a seed round of $1.3 million today. The Boston startup helps big brands like Reebok, Trek, and Volkswagen manage promotional campaigns across their hundreds of retailers. The money comes from investors like Launch Capital, Boston Seed Capital, Common Angels, Stage 1 Ventures and more than 30 angels. I wrote about Promoboxx back in January, when it helped support Chevy's Super Bowl advertising campaign. "Our business model doesn't jump off the Keynote for most investors," admits CEO Ben Carcio in a blog post about the funding. "Without understanding the difficulties that manufacturing brands face in helping their retailers with local online marketing, our market opportunity doesn't seem obvious. So, our initial investors were a brave group that understood enough of the pain, while believing in our team's ability to make it work."

CyPhy Works, startup from iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, unveils two hover-drones

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 3, 2012 12:54 PM

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Three years after it was founded, Danvers-based CyPhy Works is finally showing off what it has been working on this week, unveiling two hovering drones designed for indoor and outdoor operations. The company's founder and chief executive is Helen Greiner, one of the three founders of publicly-traded iRobot Corp., maker of earth-bound robots like the Roomba vaccuum cleaner and the PackBot.

One of the most interesting elements of CyPhy's product design is that its UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are tethered to a hand-held control system on the ground, rather than free-flying. The company's "microfilament" technology sends power to the UAV, meaning that its flight time is unlimited. It also transmits high-def video back down to the control system, and the company says that unlike wireless links, it cannot be jammed by an enemy.

parc-cyphy.jpgCyPhy says that its two vehicles, EASE and PARC, may be used for tasks like helping military or police units investigate the interior of buildings without sending people in; search for survivors of natural or man-made disasters; or inspect bridges, buildings, or other infrastructure. PARC is also designed to serve as a communications relay, staying aloft for long periods without human intervention. (The acronym stands for Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance & Communications.) EASE, which stands for Extreme Access System for Entry, is pictured above, and PARC is at left. Both are designed for hovering between three feet and 1000 feet, as opposed to long-range horizontal flight.

According to my math, CyPhy Works has so far raised about $3 million in equity funding, much of it from Cambridge-based VC firm General Catalyst. But several million more has come in the form of federal research grants. The company hasn't yet announced any customers who have purchased its UAVs.

Here's a piece about the company that just appeared today on the website of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

And company-produced video is below, featuring one of its UAVs being flight-tested at Fort Benning in Georgia:

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New Toucanect iPhone app aims to integrate calendars and communication

Posted by Scott Kirsner December 3, 2012 10:19 AM

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In our wonderful world of e-mail, text messages, Twitter direct messages, and Facebook messages, it can still be pretty challenging to coordinate events that involve human beings connecting in the real world. A movie night with friends may exist on your calendar, but there are several separate Facebook messages discussing where and when to meet for dinner, for instance. You may have noted in your calendar that your child's school lets out early, but then you have to remember to text message your babysitter to arrange for an early pick-up.

A new Boston-built iPhone app called Toucanect is tackling that disconnect. It brings events, messaging, and maps together, and it lets you create groups of people who are associated with individual events and kept up to speed on what's happening.

At launch, the app was pre-populated with events like school vacations and early dismissals, to make them easy to include on your calendar, as well as dining discounts that are part of the Mayor's Holiday Special in Boston.

Founder Shayne Gilbert says she was inspired earlier this year to start work on the app, after "I didn't have the right time for an early school dismissal and my daughter was left waiting (thankfully, there was an extended day program, so she was fine). I knew that there had to be a better way to not only schedule, but communicate with my husband and sitter around our day-to-day activities."

Gilbert says that the app was developed by Cambridge-based Intrepid Dev, and that she received some early funding and guidance from several investors who had been backers of CardStar, a mobile app acquired earlier this year by Constant Contact, the digital marketing company in Waltham. Toucanect is free, but Gilbert says its eventual business model will be charging for premium positioning in the event listings, or selling ads related to events, like a pre-theater dinner special, for instance, or hotel conference space for a business meeting.

(I should disclose that Gilbert is someone I have known for a loooong while; in 1999, we co-founded the Nantucket Conference on Entrepreneurship & Innovation together, and have collaborated on many events since then.)

Former Z Corp. chief executive joins Harvest Automation, agricultural robotics startup

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 30, 2012 02:00 PM

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Harvest Automation, the company building rugged robots that work in commercial nurseries, has recruited a new chief executive from the 3-D printing industry. John Kawola, who'd led Z Corp. for four years until its acquisition by 3D Systems, joins the Billerica startup on Monday. Kawola stuck around at 3D Systems. for several months after the deal closed, but when I ran into him earlier this fall, he was scouting for his next gig.

At Harvest, founder and former CEO Charlie Grinnell will stay on, overseeing technology and operations, as Kawola focuses on sales and marketing. "At Z Corp., we were building a complex product for a new market, and so this feels very familiar to me," says Kawola, who spent 15 years helping nudge 3-D printing into the mainstream. Initially, he'll focus on making sure that Harvest is reaching all the commercial plant growers who can benefit from the first generation of its 'bot, and later he'll look for other applications. While the current product is good at picking up and moving potted plants, Kawola said that new kinds of sensors and grabbers, which the company might license or acquire, could enable it to do other kinds of tasks.

Kawola tells me that Harvest investor Eric Paley and board member Russ Wilcox connected him to the company; Wilcox was formerly the chief executive of display-maker E Ink.

I last wrote about Harvest in June, when I had a chance to visit a commercial nursery in Connecticut that was testing out the company's robots. And I spoke with Kawola back in 2008, when he was launching an interesting Z Corp. partnership with videogame-maker Harmonix Music Systems.

MIT spin-out Robot Rebuilt wants to give robotic hands a better sense of touch

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 29, 2012 07:46 AM

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Eduardo Torres-Jara wants to expand the kinds of tasks robots can perform, by giving them more sensitive fingers.

And his startup, Robot Rebuilt, is out making the rounds of Boston venture capital firms.

The new robot, Tactico, builds upon work done at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and supervised by Rod Brooks, the iRobot co-founder who is now at Rethink Robotics. Torres-Jara, now an assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says that he was "inspired by the ridges humans have on their fingers. We wanted to make a robotic hand that would mimic that, and achieve some of the same sensitivity our hands have."

eduardo-robot.jpgWhile Tactico would have cameras to help it "see" an object in front of it, it would use those aqua-colored pads on its fingers to find the edges of the object, sort of the way humans use their fingers when groping in the dark for an alarm clock on a bedside table. Inside each pad is a sensor that can detect force, and understand which direction the force is coming from. That, says Torres-Jara, enables Tactico to pick up anything from eggs to wine glasses to paper cylinders.

One application, he says, would be moving prototype parts around as they are being formed by a CNC machine. Another would be pipetting liquid samples in a lab. "Right now, PhDs come in at 3 AM to take care of their experiments," Torres-Jara says. "Our robot could do that."

Robot Rebuilt is in the midst of negotiating a technology license from MIT, and Torres-Jara says it will likely be based in Cambridge, where he lives. "We're starting with the hand, but we're also working on building an arm," he says.

Videos below...


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Boston-based Woven wants to bring order to the chaos of digital photo collections

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 28, 2012 08:00 AM

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All of us are snapping more digital photos than ever before, and stashing them in more places: Facebook, Shutterfly, Instagram, or simply on our computers or mobile phones. Woven, an app from a Boston company called Litl, wants to bring order to that photographic chaos. Today, the company is releasing a version of its app that makes it easy to display your photos on a Samsung Smart TV, and I got an early look at it.

"People are taking more and more photos, but enjoying them less and less," says James Gardner, Litl's VP of marketing. "You might have 10,000 photos from the last few years, but it's not easy to surface the most relevant and exciting ones."

What the Woven app does especially well is give you access to your pictures no matter where they're stored. (It's available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and several other platforms.) It took me just a few minutes to sign in to services like Flickr, Shutterfly, and Facebook, and then start viewing thumbnails of my pictures on my iPhone. The new Samsung integration lets you link your phone or tablet to your TV by punching in a code it displays on the screen. Then, you can tap any picture and have it displayed on the big screen. It takes about three seconds for a photo to show up. (And it works even if your phone isn't connected to the same WiFi network as your TV.) Any captions you wrote appear on the screen.

The interface is elegant and streamlined. But I spent most of my visit to Litl HQ yesterday chatting with Garner and Kirsten Lewis, pictured above, about what else the app might do. There's no way now, for instance, to set up a slide show. It'd be nice to review all the pictures you'd shot on Christmas morning over the last few years, no matter where you'd put them, or all your photos taken on several trips to the Vineyard. It'd be nice to add voice annotations to pictures. If friends sitting on your couch all had the Woven app, perhaps they could give each photo a star rating as it appeared on the screen, creating a "top ten" list of favorite pics from the bachelorette party you'd all been to the prior weekend. But Woven doesn't do any of that — yet.

Looking at photos on a TV is a much better group experience than crowding around a laptop or tablet, but the Woven app doesn't have enough functionality to truly dazzle, beyond the nifty trick of letting you select a photo on your phone and then see it on the big screen.

Some of you may remember Litl as the company that, in 2009, started selling a $700 computer called the Webbook. It was an unsuccessful forerunner of devices like today's Google Chromebook, and Litl stopped selling it in mid-2011 to focus on developing software...like Woven. Litl itself is a division of Aquent, a global agency that helps place tech and creative talent.

Below is a company-produced video about the new Samsung integration.

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Gemvara's founder steps away from CEO role — again

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 27, 2012 07:33 AM

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Gemvara founder Matt Lauzon relinquished the role of CEO last week, for the second time since he started the online jewelry merchant as a Babson College undergrad in 2006. Taking over as interim CEO while the company conducts a search is Janet Holian, a former VistaPrint executive who has been serving as Gemvara's chief operating officer since last year. Lauzon tells me he will remain chairman, but is no longer at the company in a day-to-day operational role: "I am in and out of the office and will continue to be for a couple months," he explains.

As it happens, Lauzon got engaged over the holiday weekend — to a Gemvara employee, Callie Smith — so vacating the CEO's office probably makes that relationship a bit less complicated.

"I've always said I would step aside if we got to a point where we would benefit from someone else in the role, and we've hit that point," Lauzon says, mentioning growing revenues at the company, which offers infinitely customizable baubles. "We've benefitted from other management hires, and I believe we will benefit from this one."

Gemvara tried once before to replace Lauzon with an outside CEO: Deb Besemer, a software industry executive who joined in May 2009 and lasted less than a year. In 2010, Lauzon took the helm again, and Besemer told me, "You never have the same kind of passion that the founder has."

We'll see how things play out this time around... When I asked Lauzon if they board is looking for an exec with e-commerce or jewelry industry experience, he said, "We're focused on building a great, enduring retail brand. Experience with that is most important to me."

Gemvara has raised about $50 million in capital; its most recent round, $25 million, was announced in June of this year.

BetterLesson gets $3.5 million from the Gates Foundation to digitize and distribute math curricula

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 19, 2012 07:37 AM
When entrepreneurs boast about having raised a couple million bucks for their company, the flip side is that they've usually had to hand over a significant chunk of their equity to investors.

But that's not the case today with Cambridge-based BetterLesson, which brings lesson plans and classroom materials online for K-12 educators. The company is announcing a grant of $3.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That number exceeds the $2.7 million the company has raised thus far in equity funding. "When I told our existing investors about the grant, which is totally non-dilutive, they were insanely happy," says co-founder Alex Grodd.

Grodd says that most of the money will be funneled to teachers, to help them "capture their curriculum and their effective practices — things like classroom management and procedures." But the company will also add some full-time employees to support the new content-creation effort; BetterLesson now has eight employees.

The Gates-funded initiative at BetterLersson will start off by focusing on math for grades six through twelve. In a blog post about the funding, Grodd writes:


Basically, we’re going to create a living, breathing body of knowledge that is rooted in the common core and centers around incredible teachers. How, you ask? By sourcing and recruiting the best teachers from around the country; by giving them access to the most capable common core-knowledgeable coaches in the country; by supporting their development of full courses built from the common core up; by capturing their approaches to planning, instruction, and classroom management in the context of these courses; by sharing this with every teacher via the BL site; and by providing the community the tools to discuss, remix, and adapt these resources to meet the needs of their students.

BetterLesson offers both free and premium-level access to its site. I mentioned the company last fall, in a column titled "A real test for techies: The education market."

New mobile app Spogo lets football fans earn freebies while watching the game

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 15, 2012 07:27 AM

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A remote control is already an essential companion for watching a day's worth of football on Sunday. But a South Boston startup called Spogo wants you to swap it for your smartphone every few minutes. Spogo's iPhone app serves up a string of real-time questions about the NFL game you're watching, like "What will be the result of this drive?" or "How will the coaches greet each other at the end of the game?" With each correct answer, you earn points that can eventually be cashed in for drinks or food at a local bar or restaurant.

The app presents between six and ten questions each quarter, says co-founder Andrew Vassallo. Players can decide how many points they'd like to wager on each one. "Five hundred points may unlock free nachos, or 1500 may unlock a private party," says Vassallo. (He's on the right in the photo, with co-founder David Shack.) Spogo also enables its users to chat — or talk trash, more likely — as they wait for the next question to pop up.

spogoscreen.pngVassallo says that the company has signed up more than 50 eateries in Boston and New York to provide rewards to Spogo players, with the expectation that a free order of potato skins may also induce a new customer to purchase a pitcher of beer to go with it. Eventually, if Spogo can prove that it is bringing new customers in the door, the startup may charge bars to advertise through the app, and provide analytics about each campaign's effectiveness.

Co-founders Vassallo and Shack met as roommates at the University of Richmond. Prior to starting the company in May, Shack worked at the Boston ad agency Arnold Worldwide; Vassallo worked for the investment bank Cowen & Company in New York. The company raised a small seed round earlier this year of about $50,000 to support development of the app, but Vassallo says they hope to raise more in the coming months. The app was built by NYC-based Inertia Lab.

Cambridge credit scoring startup Cignifi collects $1.5 million from eBay's founder

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 14, 2012 07:11 AM

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Cignifi has raised $1.5 million in new funding, led by Omidyar Network, the California investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Cambridge-based Cignifi helps banks, insurers, and retailers estimate the credit risk of prospective customers who don't have standard credit histories. Cignifi's analysis is based entirely on an individual's mobile phone usage patterns. (I profiled the company back in January.)

The company has just ten employees, but in addition to Cambridge, it has offices in Brazil, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Cignifi CEO Jonathan Hakim says that 2.7 billion people around the world use mobile phones, but have no formal credit history and thus little access to financial services like lending or insurance. Hakim says Cignifi is "actively recruiting both in technology and analytics." The company expects the first commercial deployment of its technology to take place in 2013.

Cignifi raised $600,000 from individual investors last year, and also received a $125,000 grant from the World Bank. The Omidyar Network has so far invested $550 million in for-profit companies as well as nonprofits; among its investment themes is "financial inclusion."

Mobee app sends consumers on data-gathering 'missions' to restaurants and stores, in exchange for rewards

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 13, 2012 07:18 AM

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A new app from Cambridge startup Mobee wants to transform smartphone users into "mystery shoppers," who will visit retailers and restaurants incognito and provide feedback in exchange for rewards. The app showed up last week in Apple's iTunes Store, and CEO Prahar Shah tells me that the first "missions," which invite users to visit a specific merchant and rate their experiences, started showing up shortly after.

"Companies are already spending money on mystery shopping," says Shah, right, a recent graduate of MIT's Sloan School of Management. "They might want to know how long the lines are at lunch, or how accurate the orders are, or whether the proper signage is up. In our research, we found that Panera stores spend about $200 a month to get information from four or five mystery shopper visits." Mobee's proposition is that it can gather more data, more frequently, for less money.

So far, the company has raised more than $1 million in seed funding — helped, no doubt, by the network Shah developed during stints at local venture capital firms Bessemer Venture Partners and General Catalyst. Mobee's investors include TiE Angels Boston; former General Catalyst managing director John Simon; Netezza founder Jit Saxena; Launch Capital; Hub Angels, and Rob Soni, formerly a partner at Matrix and Bessemer.

Shah says that the app will initially focus on "quick service restaurants" like Dunkin' Donuts, Subway, and McDonald's. When users visit the store, they pay as they would normally, but when they fill out their report using the Mobee app, they get a digital credit of between $1 and $5. They can later cash in that credit for gift cards at Amazon and iTunes; have it deposited in their PayPal account; or donate it to charity. (Shah says that the app may also dangle prizes like iPads and sports tickets.) The app can even require that users take a photo of the store, or of their receipt, to prove that they really visited. Shah says that right now, there's no limit to the number of missions a user can complete, but that the app has some built-in fraud detection features, like discerning when a user may be entering data without actually reading the questions.

Mobee's board includes Neal Yanofsky, formerly president at Panera Bread and a top international executive at Dunkin' Brands. The five-person company is based at DogPatch Labs in Kendall Square. Shah says Mobee is using its new funding to add community managers, mobile developers, and salespeople.

Mobee tested its app earlier this year on the MIT campus. The big question now, Shah says, is "can we get users to use this thing?"

Screenshots of the app are below.

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With $52 million in the bank, Acton-based Affirmed Networks says about a dozen wireless carriers are testing its first product

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 12, 2012 09:00 AM

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Exiting stealth mode today is Affirmed Networks, an Acton startup that is selling a new piece of communications gear to wireless carriers. The company is one I've been following closely since 2010, in part because it has raised $52 million in funding, and in part because it brings together veterans of several high-profile local companies, including Starent Networks, Sonus Networks, Airvana, and Cascade Communications. Also part of the team at Affirmed is former AT&T executive Terry Durand, who'd overseen the launch of the iPhone there.

Affirmed chief executive Hassan Ahmed, right, formerly CEO at Sonus, tells me the company has about 100 employees, and has lined up about a dozen wireless carriers in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East who are testing its device, the poetically-named AN3000. Ahmed says he can't yet name any of the carriers.

"As consumers' data usage was growing like crazy, it required capital expenditures for the necessary network infrastructure to keep up with it," Ahmed says. "But our approach wasn't about just building a better box. We wanted to bring more intelligence to mobile networks." That can mean figuring out that you're trying to watch a popular YouTube video, and perhaps serving that up from a cache of commonly-requested files, or noticing that you're trying to download e-mail and routing you directly to the Internet, rather than relaying your request "along a complicated path that involved lots of boxes, before you got to the core of the network and then sent off to the Internet." Ahmed says that Affirmed's approach uses fewer network resources, and also enables operators to easily launch (and charge for) premium services, like higher-quality mobile videoconferencing.

Affirmed's backers include Matrix Partners and Charles River Ventures, two Boston-area venture capital firms.

Facebook advertising startup Nanigans finds room to grow on State Street

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 9, 2012 07:45 AM
All those ads you see in the right-hand column on Facebook are contributing to the growth of a Boston company: Nanigans, which offers a web-based service that helps advertisers get the most value from the money they spend on the social network. And next week, the startup is moving into new space at 60 State Street that will enable it to grow from 75 employees at present to almost 200.

"We got a great deal on a two-year sublease, and while we looked at other areas, it seems like you can get the best deals in the Financial District right now," says CEO Ric Calvillo. The new space is 12,500 square feet, with an option to add another 7,000. The company is currently located just a few blocks away, on Temple Street overlooking the Boston Common.

Nanigans was originally founded to be a publisher of games on Facebook — the name is a fragment of the word "shenanigans" — but by mid-2010, the company had shifted its focus to advertising. Calvillo touts the company as the biggest Facebook-oriented ad optimization platform, meaning that it helps advertisers get their message in front of the right audience, and dedicate more of their ad budget to ads that are delivering results. "On Facebook, you can deliver an ad to users based on their location, age, gender, interest, or behavior," Calvillo says. (Advertisers can even target individual users, for instance someone who once purchased from an e-commerce site but hasn't been back in a while.) "In some cases, when you measure the return-on-investment of an ad, you might find that it can be better even if you are paying for a more expensive audience."

Advertisers spend hundreds of millions of dollars through Nanigans' software, Calvillo says, and the company pockets a small percentage of that spend.

Calvillo says that Nanigans was profitable prior to raising $3 million last year, in its first round of venture capital. "We haven't used much of the money," he says.

In addition to the roomier digs in Boston, Calvillo says that Nanigans has small outposts in New York and San Francisco, and plans to establish a presence in London next year.

Sidecastr's iPad app displays tweets related to TV shows — even if you're not watching live

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 6, 2012 11:05 AM

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An iPad app from a Weston startup, Sidecastr, wants to make it easy for you to peruse snarky, insightful, and funny tweets about your favorite TV shows — even if you're not watching the broadcasts live. Founder Steve Brand, right, is out making the rounds trying to raise money for the startup, which he has been working on since 2009.

Here's how it works: Sidecastr captures the tweets about a particular TV show as it is being broadcast, and filters them in two ways. The first is trying to eliminate redundant tweets, spammy tweets, or tweets that aren't really of interest to most viewers: "Drinking a beer and watching 'Modern Family,'" for instance. The second filter involves a human curator — Brand refers to them as "Social DJs" — who flags and categorizes the best tweets. A catty comment about a starlet's dress on an awards show would be categorized under "Fashion," for instance. (Social DJs are paid for their time, Brand says, but aren't employees of the company.)

Users of the app can opt to either watch a show live, or they can watch it later from a digital video recorder; cable on-demand service; a site like Hulu; or a DVD. The Sidecastr app tunes into the audio of what you're watching, figures out where you are in the show — even if you've paused it or jumped ahead — and plays the relevant tweets. (I found that it took 10 or 20 seconds to figure out what show I was watching and start displaying tweets.) The app's design is nifty: each tweet is accompanied by a screenshot of the particular moment in the show that it is commenting on, and tweets scroll by horizontally. You can filter out particular categories of tweets (like those fashion-related comments on an awards show), or add your own opinions to the fray. And when you post something, you can decide whether or not it gets shared outside of the Sidecastr app, on networks like Twitter or Facebook. (It may not be relevant if you're watching on delay.)

I used Sidecastr on Monday afternoon, to watch last Saturday's episode of "Saturday Night Live" (see screenshot below.) The tweets were really well-chosen, and one pointed me to an interesting e-mail that guest host Louis C.K. had written to his fans about doing the show in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. One cool category is "VIP Tweets": comments from the official accounts of people on the show, which you can see whether you're following them on Twitter or not.

Right now, the app only collects tweets for about twenty shows, including "The Walking Dead," "Glee," "Sunday Night Football," and "The Voice." But Sidecastr also captures commentary about special events like the Presidential debates and the CMA Awards.

Sidecastr originally released the app in late June, but just updated it last Friday to better integrate it with Facebook. Brand explains, "The new app looks at your list of Facebook friends, and anyone else who uses the app can see one another's comments, and have conversations within the app among friends."

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Digital marketing firm HubSpot adds $35 million in funding, some of it from Fidelity Investments, to fuel growth

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 5, 2012 06:00 AM
The Cambridge marketing firm HubSpot, which helps small and mid-sized businesses reach customers using social media, is announcing today that it has added $35 million to its bank account. HubSpot has now raised about $100 million since it was founded in 2006 by two alumni of MIT's Sloan School of Management.

CEO and co-founder Brian Halligan says the company has 400 employees at its Cambridge headquarters, and will open its first international office, in Dublin, Ireland, in January. HubSpot plans to hire about 50 people there in 2013. The company says that 8,000 customers in 56 countries use its software to produce informational content on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter -- an approach HubSpot has dubbed "inbound marketing," because it attracts customers who are already searching for a given company's product or service.

Halligan says that HubSpot still had "$8 or $9 million in the bank" from its last fundraising round, in March 2011, but that "we want to press on the gas a litte harder and grow a little faster." That means adding employees in Cambridge and Ireland, and also looking for smaller marketing companies to acquire. Halligan says that the acquisition of two Cambridge startups, Performable and Oneforty, primarily for their engineering talent, "really worked out great. We retained the key people on those teams, and they were people it'd be really difficult to hire on the open market."

In August, HubSpot released the latest version of its software, HubSpot 3, which enables companies to deliver more personalized messages to current and prospective customers.

Halligan says the company is generating revenue at an annualized run rate of $60 million, and that it has been adding board members and executives with public company experience, including chief operating officer J.D. Sherman, who had spent six years as chief financial officer of Cambridge-based Akamai Technologies.

Among the investors in HubSpot's latest round are Altimeter Capital, Cross Creek Capital, and Fidelity Investments. While Halligan said he wasn't allowed to discuss Fidelity specifically -- and the firm was not mentioned in today's press release -- he did say that "once in a while, this firm does invest in pre-public companies like Facebook and Workday," which sells human resources software. That describes Fidelity, and two sources close to the company confirmed that Fidelity is the unnamed investor. Fidelity spokesperson Sophie Launay said she couldn't comment on the HubSpot investment, but that Fidelity's mutual funds may invest a small percentage of their assets in private companies.

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Home goods merchant Wayfair is testing two TV ads: One from its agency and one made by employees

Posted by Scott Kirsner November 2, 2012 10:23 AM
Wayfair, the Boston e-commerce site that sells furniture and home decor, has set up an advertising face-off that will play out on cable TV this month.

One of the spots it is running on cable networks like HGTV and ABC Family was made by the San Francisco ad agency Penabrand, and the other was conceived and shot by Wayfair's in-house video crew. Penabrand has produced TV ads for GE Healthcare, Jeep, and Ancestry.com. Wayfair's video crew, Ian Eshelman and Ian Kilburn -- known as The Two Ians -- typically make product videos for Wayfair's site, training videos, and recruiting videos that help the company project a fun image to prospective hires. Needless to say, they've never made a TV commercial before. (Eshelman's initial gig at Wayfair was as a customer service representative. He and Kilburn attended University of Vermont together.)

Wayfair, known until last year as CSN Stores, only started advertising on television in September, initially using a spot created by Penabrand. (The ad from the Ians started running this week.) CEO Niraj Shah tells me they're carefully monitoring the impact that the ads have on traffic to the site -- and purchases. Right now, the company is splitting its ad spending between the straight-faced, design-driven Penabrand ad and the more humorous ad created by the Ians. If one performs better, Shah says that Wayfair will tilt its spending toward that one. The company plans to spend about $1 million between now and the end of the year on the cable campaigns; last year, Wayfair raised $165 million in its first infusion of outside funding.

Here's the ad made by Penabrand:

And here's the ad made by the Ians:

Which one do you think will attract more buyers to Wayfair's site? Vote or comment below.

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Starbucks picks Boston for pilot test of wireless charging, in partnership with Duracell Powermat

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 29, 2012 08:00 AM

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If you've deemed yourself a non-essential worker and are riding out Hurricane Sandy at your neighborhood Starbucks, you may get a chance to be the first to try something new today: juicing up your phone with a wireless charging system made by Duracell Powermat.

The caffeine purveyor has chosen 17 locations around the Boston area for a "limited time in-store trial for wireless charging," in the words of Starbucks chief digital officer Adam Brotman. "We're building the Powermat technology into some of the tabletops, just to get a sense for how our customers will react, compared to having to plug their mobile devices into the wall."

And if you don't already own an accessory for your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy that allows it to soak up electricity via inductive charging — the same technology that may already be keeping your electric toothbrush powered up — Starbucks may have a few freebie and loaner connectors. "A few weeks into the test, we'll do some in-store giveaways, and we will have some behind the counter available to loan out," says Brotman.

The first three stores where the technology is being installed are all in the Financial District: One Financial Center, 125 Summer Street, and 101 Federal Street.

Starbucks rolled out free WiFi in all its stores two years ago, in mid-2010. While the chain hasn't yet made the decision to roll out wireless charging everywhere, Brotman says that "customers are coming into our stores every day with mobile devices, and putting them down on the table. If they could be charging their device at the same time, then we've connected with that customer and met their need, maybe even before they realized they had a need for wireless charging."

I asked Brotman whether wireless charging, along with free WiFi, might encourage customers to hang around even longer in Starbucks stores. His response: "We want people to feel welcome and stay as long as they want to."

As for selecting Boston for the test, Brotman says, "Boston is a hotbed for early adoption and tech-savvy customers." Starbucks plans to test the technology through the holiday period, and then "early in the year, we'll talk to our customers and our store partners" — that's Starbucks lingo for employees — "and regroup with Powermat to figure out the next steps."

These are the 17 stores where Starbucks plans to install the Powermat technology. (Not all are up and running today.) There will be about eight charging pads in each store.

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Two years after setting up a Boston game development studio, Zynga closes it

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 23, 2012 05:39 PM
A little more than two years ago, game developer Zynga acquired a Cambridge startup called Conduit Labs. That, along with the subsequent acquisition of Floodgate Entertainment, established a small studio in Boston that worked on projects like Indiana Jones Adventure World, FarmVille 2, and an as-yet-unreleased third game. The studio, headquartered in Harvard Square, had grown to 50 employees before its parent company abruptly announced this morning that it would be closed it as part of a cost-cutting effort. Zynga's Cambridge team had been headed by Fareed Behmaram-Mosavat, who'd joined the company as part of the Conduit acquisition.

Nabeel Hyatt, who'd run the local studio until last February, when he left to join the VC firm Spark Capital, told me that he'd heard about the closure from Behmaram-Mosavat and other employees, who all said they'd been completely surprised by the announcement. Hyatt said the studio was within a few weeks of wrapping up work on a new game. "I think this is about getting Zynga back to profitability, which is a big goal for [CEO] Mark [Pincus]," Hyatt said. "And by eliminating a satellite office, maybe it's seen as something that doesn't affect the morale at headquarters as much."

I've e-mailed Behmaram-Mosavat for comment but haven't heard back. Earlier today, he tweeted, "All we have as leaders is trust and loyalty. Squander that and you lose everything."

Local game companies have been posting on Twitter throughout the afternoon using the hash tag "#Zynga" to let the laid off employees know about job opportunities.

PrepWork service helps you get up to speed on the day's meetings

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 17, 2012 08:09 AM

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If you, like me, sometimes wish you had an assistant to help organize your day, PrepWork is a free service worth checking out. It sends you a daily e-mail that briefs you on the people you'll be meeting with that day: the highlights of their LinkedIn profiles, recent blog posts, Twitter activity, and background on their company.

Given access to your calendar (in Outlook, Google Calendar, or iCal), PrepWork scours it for the names and e-mail addresses of people with whom your meeting, and then goes off to do its research. You can also simply forward an e-mail to PrepWork, and it'll create a briefing on everyone who has been part of the e-mail conversation, and send it to all participants.

The site was created by Daniel Wolchonok, right, who is midway through the MBA program at Yale. Wolchonok spent this past summer developing PrepWork at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, with a smidgen of funding from the university. Wolchonok had previously studied computer science at Tufts, and he grew up in Wellesley.

"Right now I'm in a user growth phase, trying to demonstrate that I have the right strategy for acquiring users," Wolchonok says. (Fundraising will come later.) One idea is to focus on salespeople, who tend to have lots of meetings with new people each week.

Wolchonok says he's continuing to enhance the service -- for instance, folding in relevant information from a Google search, or highlighting things that have changed when you haven't met with someone for a while.

Here's the PrepWork backgrounder that Wolchonok got in his e-mail before we met, earlier this week:

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ByteLight raises $1.2 million for LED bulbs that transmit indoor location info to mobile phones

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 16, 2012 12:01 AM
It's impossible to resist a light bulb joke today:
Q. How many venture capitalists does it take to fund a light bulb startup?

A. Two. One to listen to the pitch, and the other to check e-mail on his phone and then ask a clueless question about the target market.

So...now the news: Cambridge-based ByteLight, which spun out of Boston University's Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center and took part last year in the Summer@Highland accelerator program, has raised $1.25 million in its first round of funding. The money comes from individual investors and California-based Vantage Point Capital Partners.

ganick.pngByteLight is designing a system that's sort of like indoor GPS. Special LED light bulbs are programmed to flicker in a certain pattern. When the camera in your cell phone can "see" the light from several of them, it gets a fix on your location... even if there's no WiFi, GPS, or wireless coverage where you are. The company says its positoning is accurate to about one meter, and that it can be calculated within a second. The bulbs' imperceptible flicker pattern can also trigger information to pop up on your phone's screen, sending a special offer based on where you are in a store, or telling you the current security wait time at the nearest airport checkpoint. ByteLight's founders are Aaron Ganick, right, and Dan Ryan.

ByteLight has been working on prototype bulbs at its office space in Kendall Square's Dogpatch Labs, but the company says its plan is to license its technology to established LED lighting manufacturers. "The value proposition for LED lighting has traditionally been framed in terms of improved energy efficiency and longer life cycles," according to a company press release. "ByteLight is enhancing the commercial value of LEDs by turning them into more than just sources of illumination, thereby accelerating adoption of LED technology in the market."

The company says it is working with several stores and museums in the Boston area that will be test sites for the ByteLight bulbs. One of those is Boston's Museum of Science, according to a message the company posted on the fundraising site AngelList earlier this year.

I wrote about ByteLight last November, in a column headlined "Moving mapping technology indoors."

A company video is below:

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Neurofeedback startup Axio shacks up with IDEO

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 12, 2012 07:56 AM

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One of the cooler startups in Cambridge right now is Axio, which is developing a headband that could improve your ability to focus on work, studying, or an athletic endeavor.

I wrote about the company back in February, and since then, Axio has participated in two "accelerator" programs: Haxlr8r, which involved spending 15 weeks in Shenzhen, China, and Highland Capital Partners' Summer@Highland program for collegiate entrepreneurs, based in Kendall Square.

Now Axio will be the first "startup in residence" at the Central Square offices of IDEO, the renowned design firm.

"Axio is doing really cool stuff with sensors, and playing across the hardware and software boundary," says Colin Raney, IDEO's location director in Cambridge. "We think there's a great opportunity to learn from each other."

kirsneraxio.pngAxio's headband uses three sensors that touch the wearer's forehead to measure brain activity, and transmit the data via Bluetooth to a PC or mobile device. Software on the device helps guide the wearer to a state of intense focus. Co-founder Arye Barnehama has said the company is aiming for a price of about $100. That's your fearless blogger in the photo at left, testing out a prototype of the headband earlier this week. I was looking at a photo on the screen that would appear fuzzy when I wasn't concentrating, and sharper when I was.

IDEO has worked on products like the Palm PDA, Apple's first mouse, Redbox video rental kiosks, and an Elmo iPhone app for Sesame Workshop. As for whether the firm will open its Cambridge office to other fledgling businesses in the future, Raney says, "We're definitely interested...but fit is critical. For us, this is about learning, finding inspiration, and playing in new spaces."

Attivio collects $34 million in new funding to help companies figure out what they know

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 11, 2012 08:00 AM

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At most companies, data is scattered everywhere like autumn leaves. Some of it gets swept up into piles -- or databases -- and some of it is just strewn haphazardly around. Finding a few essential pieces of data that could point to a major problem or opportunity is just about as easy as finding two leaves of exactly the same shape and hue.

When Ali Riaz, right, talks about what his Newton software company Attivio does, it boils down to helping companies figure out what they already know, giving them access to information that may be spread across e-mails, Word documents, invoice databases, or logs of customer support calls. "What we do is integrate all the silos of data that exist today, and provide you with the opportunity to do a query, or set up rules or alerts," says Riaz. Many of Attivio's early customers are financial services institutions and government intelligence agencies, he says.

Investors seem to like the product, and the momentum Attivio is building with customers: today, the company is announcing its first outside round of funding. Oak Investment Partners is leading a $34 million round. "Before this, we had money from the founding team, but no outside venture capital," Riaz says. The company got its start in 2007.

Riaz previously was president of FAST Search & Transfer, an enterprise search company sold to Microsoft for $1.2 billion in 2008. Some of the team at Attivio hails from FAST, but Attivio has also hired veterans of local companies like MathWorks and Ab Initio. " There's a culture of hard-core engineering in Boston that we are leveraging," he says. "We have a team of almost 100 people who are extremely passionate about helping companies solve this problem."

Part of the problem is understanding the links between those leaves of data that may have fallen in different places. "One thing our software does is correlations," Riaz explains. "You may have an unpaid invoice that belongs to Cisco, and we help you figure out that the reason its unpaid is that you may have all these support issues with them that you need to address."

Riaz says part of the appeal of Attivio's software, which it calls the Active Intelligence Engine, is that "we can merge into their existing information infrastructure so that we're adding value in days."

The new funding will primarily go to sales and marketing, but the company also plans to dedicate some of the $34 million to additional product development. The company is hiring in all of its offices, in Massachusetts, Israel, Germany, and the UK.


Providence startup LoveGov wants to hook you up with your ideal candidate

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 11, 2012 07:15 AM

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Just coming out of beta is a new Providence-based political site called LoveGov. The site was spawned by the business plan competition at Brown University; though LoveGov didn't take home a prize, its founder did connect with Tom Pincince, chief executive of the LED lighting startup Digital Lumens -- and a Brown alumnus. Pincince decided to join a group of angel investors who've given the company just over $100,000 to get rolling.

Founder Joschka Tryba, right, says that the site wants to help citizens understand where politicians stand on the issues they care about most, and ideally have an impact on the legislative process at all levels. He was inspired to start work on LoveGov by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. "Twitter and Facebook did an excellent job in getting people out on the street," Tryba says. "But in terms of impacting government and legislation, maybe Twitter and Facebook were limited in those respects. We built LoveGov to enable like-minded people to organize themselves, take action, and I'd hope, make a difference."

The site invites you to answer questions about issues ranging from taxes to school lunches to alternative energy, and then shows you which candidates you're most closely aligned with. But you can also see how your positions compare to those of your friends and family, if they sign up with the site. You can field polls of your own, create petitions, or start discussions. Tryba says the company is focusing at the outset on getting all of this fall's major races in New England into its database. "Eventually, we want to get down to the local level, with candidates for school board and state reps on the site, too," he says.

"What I liked about the idea is that it gets beyond whether you're a Democrat or Republican," says Pincince. "It lets you have issues-based conversations. Even if my wife and I support different candidates, the site shows us where we have common ground, and lets us talk about where we have differences."

LoveGov plans to feature live polling and discussions during tonight's vice presidential debate, and the remaining presidential debates.

After November's elections, Tryba says he hopes to raise additional funding to hire more employees and create partnerships that will bring users to the site in between elections. One of the company's big objectives, he says, is enabling citizens to make their voices heard more often than once every two years.

Here's a screenshot:


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After merger with ConnectEDU, Experience.com's founder departs for new CMO gig

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 3, 2012 11:31 AM

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Jenny Floren started Experience.com in the early days of the web -- 1996 -- to help college students find jobs and internships, and to help employers find new hires. Earlier this year, her 30-person company merged with another Boston-based business focused on students, education, and careers, ConnectEDU. And yesterday, Floren sent out an e-mail to friends letting them know that she was leaving.

Her LinkedIn profile revealed that she'd founded a new business called Bella Inc. Her title was listed as "CMO." And since I'm always curious what Boston entrepreneurs are working on, I started bugging Floren by phone, e-mail, and Twitter to find out what kind of startup Bella is.

The human kind, it turns out. Floren's daughter Bella was born last December... and no, she's not yet incorporated. Floren writes via e-mail, "I'm going to be taking a little time off to be a full-time Chief Mom Officer before jumping into my next company... She's by far the most important job I've ever had."

I last covered Floren in 2010, when her book "The Innovation Generation" came out. Experience had raised about $46 million in venture capital funding, and achieved profitability in 2006, Floren told me then. She started Experience.com when she was 24, after leaving a consulting gig at Bain & Co., and cultivated the company over 16 years.

The Future of Mobile: Discussion featuring execs from LevelUp, Vlingo, uTest and PayPal Boston (audio)

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 1, 2012 08:19 AM

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I opened a panel discussion last Friday on a skeptical note: haven't we already seen all the important breakthroughs we're going to see, when it comes to smartphones and apps? And if not, what innovations do you see ahead for the hardware and software?

The session took place on the closing day of the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Boston, and in addition to the opening topic we talked about how the mobile interface will evolve, app stores, and HTML5. We also covered some interesting mobile payment demos that LevelUp and PayPal Boston have developed.

The panelists were Michael Phillips, founder of Vlingo (acquired this year by Nuance); Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR and LevelUp; Walt Doyle, former CEO of Where and now general manager of PayPal Boston; and Doron Reuveni, founder of uTest. (Priebatsch and Phillips are pictured at right.)

The audio runs 55 minutes. You can press play below, or click mp3 to download the complete file. Audience comments and questions weren't miked, so unfortunately, they're a bit quiet.

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Social media startup Buzzient leaves Boston, sheds employees, seeks new funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 28, 2012 09:51 AM

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When I bumped into Buzzient founder Timothy Jones earlier this year in San Francisco, we talked a bit about why there weren't very many companies from Boston at the conference we were at, which focused on how consumer-oriented technologies were changing the corporate world. Jones' startup listens to what customers are saying about a company, its products, and its customer service in social spheres like Facebook and Twitter, and brings that into existing apps like Oracle and Salesforce. The goal is to help companies access fresher information when making decisions.

Then, yesterday, Jones published a blog post that accused Boston venture capitalists of missing the opportunity to invest in startups that help corporate customers weave social media into their business processes. Jones wrote:

Investors on the west coast ... funded companies such as Lithium, Yammer, Jive and others initially in the community space. Later, a wave of investors funded social tools companies, and marketing/publishing platforms for social media. The response in Boston? Largely crickets.

Now, as we prep for our third consecutive Oracle OpenWorld [the conference starts Sunday in San Francisco], we expect Buzzient to yet again be one of the only companies in the room started in Cambridge/Boston. The real question is whether Enterprise Social Media companies like Buzzient can/will stay in Boston if all the action is elsewhere?

Well, while Jones didn't mention it in his blog post, it turns out that Buzzient has already departed Boston. Though Jones had been a vocal booster of the Innovation District, the company pulled up stakes at its Farnsworth Street offices over the summer, and Jones' LinkedIn profile now lists his location as Kennebunkport, Maine.

Buzzient's head of marketing, Bruce Kasrel, has left the company, as has head of field sales Scott Sullivan. A half-dozen members of the company's engineering team left Buzzient over the summer, according to LinkedIn. Buzzient had just a dozen employees last August, when it announced that it had raised $1.1 million, but Jones at that point said the company was in hiring mode.

When I spoke to him by phone yesterday, Jones wouldn't comment about where Buzzient is moving to, or the company's current situation. But several venture capitalists with whom I spoke said that Buzzient has been trying to raise additional funding.

After yesterday's blog post, Jones tweeted: "That was fast. Within 2 hours of my blog post on Enterprise Social, 2 top [Silicon Valley] VC's book me on their schedules: BOS? -0."

Know any more? Post a comment.


Backed by big-name angels, MIT-bred Formlabs unveils high-res 3-D printer for $2300

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 26, 2012 12:46 PM

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I wrote in last Sunday's Globe about Formlabs, a Cambridge startup born at MIT's Media Lab that has designed a low-cost, high-resolution 3-D printer.

Co-founders David Cranor, Natan Linder, and Maxim Lobovsky (at right) attracted backing from big-name investors like Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, and Media Lab director Joi Ito. And today they launched a Kickstarter campaign to take orders for the printer, the Form 1. The first batch of 25 printers were priced at $2,300, and they sold out pretty fast, helping the company blow past its original $100,000 fund-raising goal on Kickstarter in just a few hours. Buyers who weren't so quick on the draw will pay $2,500.

Below is more coverage of Formlab's launch; company background; a photo I shot in their offices earlier this month; and their Kickstarter fund-raising video.

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Happier, startup dedicated to the quest for happiness, finds funding along the way

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 26, 2012 08:00 AM

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Less than three years after a Philadelphia startup called Happier.com went kaput trying to build a website and a mobile app to help people live happier lives, a Boston startup called Happier is building a website and mobile app to do the same thing... and obviously hoping for a rosier ending.

The new Happier was co-founded by Nataly Kogan, right, formerly of PayPal Boston, and Colin Plamondon, a co-founder of Spreadsong, developer of a popular book app for the iPhone. And it has raised a seed round of funding from two Boston investors: Mike Hirshland at Resolute.vc and Mike Tyrell of Venrock.

Kogan didn't want to say much about the five-person startup, headquartered in Boston's Fort Point Channel neighborhood, but she did mention that its first product, a mobile app, is due out in November. The startup is hiring. And while Happier raised its seed round over the summer, Kogan is continuing to meet with venture capitalists locally.

Here's how the company describes its mission:

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Concert-finding app Timbre apparently has some fans at Apple HQ

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 24, 2012 02:03 PM

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Mark Kasdorf of Intrepid Pursuits got a pleasant surprise last week, when Apple introduced the new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6. As soon as users of the iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch upgraded to iOS 6 and went to peruse the iTunes app store, Apple was promoting an app created by Kasdorf's Cambridge development shop as the top app on a list of "Great Free Apps," and also on the "New and Noteworthy" list.

The elegantly-executed app, Timbre, helps you find out about concerts near you; hear samples of each band's music; and, if you like, purchase tickets or iTunes downloads. (Hiawatha Bray of the Globe reviewed Timbre here.)

"Downloads went from 10-25/hr to 300-500/hr," Kasdorf writes via e-mail. (He's pictured at right.) "We're currently trending in the top 200 apps in the store, and top 15 in the music category." He says he'd been all summer to get someone from Apple to check out the beta of the app, but hadn't been successful. Until last week, apparently.

timbre.pngIntrepid's chief technology officer, Matt Bridges, will be at Web Innovators Group tonight to demo the app. The app was originally conceived as part of the 2012 Boston Innovation Challenge in May. (I should note that among that event's sponsors were Boston.com and the Boston Globe.)

"Our vision [for Intrepid.io] from the beginning was to be be an 80/20 company," Kasdorf says. By that, he means "80 percent consulting and 20 percent [of our own] product development." (The 80 percent has included contract work for AAA, Newsday, and Boston gaming startup Lucky Labs.)

Intrepid Pursuits has more of its own apps on the way: In October, the company plans to launch Prime's Quest, a puzzle game, and a children's flip book. The next month, it will debut a chess application.

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Former Zipcar exec Doug Williams joins RunKeeper's team, as new VP of engineering

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 21, 2012 09:00 AM

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RunKeeper's Jason Jacobs has an edge over many startup founders: he used to work as a recruiter. So when talented people are looking for their next gig, his grapevine tends to tell him about it.

That's how Jacobs connected with Doug Williams, right, who'd served as VP of engineering and IT at Cambridge-based Zipcar for six years, as the car-sharing network grew from a startup into a public company, and the engineering team there grew from three people to more than 40.

"My old boss at [executive recruiting firm] Howard Fischer Associates, Jeff DiSandro, introduced him to me as simply a 'good guy to know,'" Jacobs writes via e-mail. "We immediately hit it off." Williams left Zipcar in May, and was spending some time at the Waltham VC firm Matrix Partners considering his next move. While Jacobs says he didn't have a specific search going on for a head of engineering at RunKeeper, "We were starting to think about bringing in some foundational leadership to go build a big, enduring company, and to keep up with our aggressive growth. We also share a common investor with Zipcar in Steve Case's Revolution Ventures (Steve is on the Zipcar board)."

Williams joined RunKeeper this week as its VP of engineering. The Boston company says 12 million people now use its mobile app and web site to set fitness goals and track their progress. That number has almost doubled over the past year, Jacobs says.

I last covered RunKeeper in November of 2011, when the company raised $10 million.

UberSense raises $1.1 million from Google Venture, Atlas, and others to support sports coaching app

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 17, 2012 12:00 PM

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UberSense, a startup that has participated in both the MassChallenge and TechStars Boston programs for early-stage ventures, is announcing a $1.1 million funding round and a new version of its sports coaching app today.

The app enables coaches to shoot video on an iPhone or iPad and then mark it up with virtual chalk — as well as audio commentary — to help athletes improve their performance. It also allows coaches to compare one athlete's movements side-by-side with another's. Several Olympic teams used the app to prepare for this summer's London games, including USA Gymnastics and USA Volleyball. The company says that its app has been downloaded 800,000 times so far, and that more than 6 million videos have been created. UberSense says that gymnastics, baseball, and golf are the three sports that the app is most often used for.

Co-founders Amit Jardosh and Krishna Ramchandran originally started developing the app in hopes of improving their own golf games. Last year, they left jobs at Yahoo and Citrix Online to work on the startup full-time. The new funding comes from Google Ventures, Atlas Venture, Boston Seed Capital, and Ty Danco, an angel investor based in Vermont who participated in the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympics as a luge racer.

Jardosh says that the coaches of MIT's golf and men's tennis teams are using the app, adding, "We are now starting to reach out to more local teams and coaches."

UberSense has seven employees, and is moving from Cambridge to new offices in Downtown Crossing this week. I last covered the company in June, when UberSense presented as part of TechStars' "demo day."

Rethink Robotics launches its first product: Baxter, an inexpensive and easily-trained manufacturing bot

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 17, 2012 09:26 AM

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Boston-based Rethink Robotics is planning to unveil its first product on Tuesday: Baxter, a two-armed manufacturing robot that will sell for $22,000. Rethink was founded by Rodney Brooks, right, a long-time robotics prof (and head of the artificial intelligence lab) at MIT who was one of the three co-founders of iRobot. Its earliest backer was Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos; the company has raised $62 million in venture capital funding so far.

My Sunday Boston Globe column focused on the upcoming launch:

Last week’s splashiest product announcement was the iPhone 5, introduced by Apple in San Francisco. But this week’s could very well be a humanoid robot that a Boston company is unveiling on Tuesday. Its name is Baxter, and though it will cost north of $20,000, the Boston company that developed it, Rethink Robotics, asserts it could change manufacturing in the same radical way the iPhone changed the mobile phone business.

A big part of Rethink’s pitch is that Baxter will be a friendly robot, one that won’t obliterate manufacturing jobs here but make it economical for manufacturing sent offshore to be done domestically once again. To which I must say: Really?

No start-up in Boston has a pedigree that can match Rethink’s. The company was founded by Rodney Brooks, a renowned robotics researcher who was one of the three founders of iRobot Corp., the publicly traded maker of robots that roam the battlefield and the living room floor. Rethink’s first investor was Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Rethink’s chief executive Scott Eckert was responsible for launching the e-commerce business at Dell Inc., the Texas computer maker, in the mid-1990s.

You'll be able to see Baxter on display at next month's EmTech conference in Cambridge.

Here's more coverage of Rethink's launch:

• IEEE Spectrum has detailed photos of Baxter

• "Rod Brooks and Rethink Reveal an Industrial Robot for the Masses," in Xconomy

• "A Robot With a Reassuring Touch," in the New York Times

• "I Made the Robot Do It," by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times

• "Robots That Work for the Little Guy," from the Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012

• "Thinking Twice on Rethink Robotics," by Dan Kara in Robotics Business Review

• "Will lower-skilled workers get pushed out by robots?" a column of mine from June 2012, comparing Rethink Robotics and Harvest Automation, another local robotics startup.

• "Will Our Consumer Goods Always Be Manufactured By Hand?" – Rodney Brooks talk from May 2012:

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Cambridge startup Block Avenue prepares to launch a Yelp for your neighborhood

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 14, 2012 07:30 AM

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On the Internet, you can dole out stars and write reviews for doctors, hotels, restaurants, and even your evil employer. Now there's a Cambridge startup, Block Avenue, that wants to collect your opinions about the street where you live. The site is set to launch next week, and after getting a sneak peek of the company's demo, I've got two thoughts: 1. It's very cool, and 2. It's destined to cause controversy.

Block Avenue has divided up the U.S. into 1.89 billion squares, each one with 300 feet on each side, says founder Tony Longo. (He's on the right in the photo, with director of engineering Drew Myers.) "Then, we went and we collected as much data as we could about each block," he says. That includes information about whether there's public transit, car-sharing, or bike-sharing locations; recent crimes and sex offenders who live in that block; amenities like gyms, parks, dry cleaners, grocery stores, and restaurants; and schools. "There are players out there who do each of those things on their own," says Longo, "but nobody has brought it together." Based on the information Block Avenue collects, its software algorithm assigns a grade, from A through F. As you zoom in and out on Block Avenue's map, the system calculates an overall grade for the area you're looking at, which shows up in the upper right corner. (See the screen shot below.)

Visitors to the site can also write reviews of blocks they live on, or are familiar with. They can also add even more information to Block Avenue's database, rating a block on matters like noise, cleanliness, traffic levels, and community spirit (all things which Block Avenue couldn't find in existing databases.) Longo says that user reviews and ratings will influence those automatic grades that Block Avenue assigns.

The company is focusing on three cities in its launch phase: Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and Longo says that during its testing this summer, the company has already gathered about 2,000 reviews from users in those cities.

Now, on to the potential for controversy. Longo has plans to overlay U.S. Census data about race, income, average age, and ethnicity onto Block Avenue's maps, which could upset people. (Though there are already sites like Mixed Metro that offer up some of that information.) Second, no homeowner will want to admit they live on a Grade D or F block, especially if they ever hope to sell their property, and so I predict there will be a natural tilt toward grade inflation. (I also think it will be a challenge to keep boosterish real estate agents from writing gushy reviews about the areas they represent.)

Longo, as it happens, was previously the founder of the online brokerage CondoDomain, and he acknowledges the potential for problems. "We will have a very careful eye on real estate agents, developers, and property managers," he says. (CondoDomain was acquired by Better Homes Realty last month.)

The site plans to make money by licensing its data to real estate sites — think Zillow and Trulia — as well as selling a service to realtors that would enable them to create reports about specific neighborhoods for their customers. There also will be advertising on the site, Longo says.

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Miami healthcare IT startup searching for space — and employees — in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 13, 2012 11:55 AM

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It's not often that I meet a fellow Miami native in Kendall Square, but Albert Santalo, right, dropped by Voltage Coffee this morning to fill me in on his company's expansion to Boston.

Santalo is CEO and founder of CareCloud, which is in the same business as Athenahealth, the public company headquartered in Watertown: selling software and services that help doctors run their offices, manage their patients' medical records, and collect money from insurance companies. He boasts that CareCloud's web-based system offers a better user interface than Athenahealth, can run on Macs (unlike Athena), and doesn't require that doctors outsource their "revenue cycle" — IE, shaking down insurance companies for the money they're owed — to CareCloud. His company has so far raised $24 million from Intel Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, and individual investors.

Santalo, incidentally, has hired eight veterans from Athena, including his VPs of sales, corporate communications, and product management. (CareCloud has 135 employees in total.) "We have nine or ten people who are working for us remotely in Massachusetts and Rhode Island right now," he says, "mainly in field sales and implementation and marketing." But the company is hunting for office space in Cambridge and Boston, and is planning to hire a VP of engineering locally who will build a team here. "We have a lot of healthcare in Miami, but not a lot of tech," Santalo says. "The attraction of Boston is that it has a lot of talent, and a lot of the earlier generation of healthcare IT companies have been built here." Santalo says the Boston office will also likely include business development and product marketing employees.

CareCloud's VP of marketing is Joe Sawyer, a veteran of Boston-based American Well, a Boston company that connects patients with medical providers via video and the web. But Sawyer is now based at CareCloud's Miami HQ....which is conveniently located right next to the airport.

Wireless power startup WiTricity offers a $1000 demo kit

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 12, 2012 04:46 PM

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WiTricity CEO Eric Giler will announce at a conference in Shanghai later today that his startup will soon start selling a $1000 kit that demonstrates how electricity can be sent wirelessly over a distance of a foot or more, even through a brick wall or wood tabletop.

The kit, called Prodigy, shows how a WiTricity-designed base station can transmit about a watt of power omni-directionally, lighting up one or two plastic disks that contain an array of LEDs. (A video demo is below.) WiTricity uses magnetic fields oscillating at a particular frequency to transfer power efficiently over short distances. The approach was first demonstrated at MIT in 2007.

"We get thousands of inquiries about potential applications of the technology, where people have ideas and they want to get their hands on our stuff," says David Schatz, right, director of business development and marketing at WiTricity. He says the Prodigy kit is targeted at engineers who want to explain to management how the technology works, as well as independent product designers and inventors who are working on new products. (The kit is also available to science educators and academic researchers at a slightly reduced price, $750.) WiTricity hopes that some of the companies purchasing the kits may eventually become licensees of its technology; thus far, WiTricity has been working primarily with consumer electronics and automotive companies, to enable cordless recharging of devices like laptops, mobile phones, and electric vehicles.

witricity2.jpgThe kit consists of a "base station" and battery pack, which transmits "less than one watt of electricity," Schatz says, to two discs that light up. There's also a rubber pad that contains a passive coil and capacitors, which can be used to roughly double the effective range of the base station, to about two feet.

The first 40 of the kits will go to WiTricity employees, Schatz says, who will now presumably be able to show off to friends and family the rather amazing stuff they've been working on at the office.

I last wrote about WiTricity in April of 2011, when Toyota invested in the company. WiTricity has so far raised $20 million in funding, Giler says.

Sporting News acquires FanTab, Ipswich-based startup that tracks fan sentiment

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 11, 2012 07:30 AM
The Sporting News, a 126-year old media property headquartered in North Carolina, has picked up an Ipswich startup founded just last year: FanTab, which collects data about how fans feel about the teams they follow. Terms of the acquisition aren't being disclosed. The Sporting News isn't retaining any FanTab employees, but FanTab at its peak had just three team members — one of whom, Rob Roesler, went to Constant Contact back in April.

The company built widgets that enable any website to poll fans about how they feel about a team's prospects, and display the results as a "fan confidence" index. "The indexes are similar to stock quotes and are trackable over time, enabling marketers and franchises to see how fans actually feel about the team year-to-year or even day-to-day," explains co-founder Scott Cohen.

You can see FanTab's widget in the right-hand column of this Sporting News page, collecting data from Pats fans. (Confidence in this year's crew is almost 9 percent higher than it was this time in 2011.) Cohen says The Sporting News has plans to integrate the data more extensively throughout the site.

FanTab never raised VC funding. It was founded in 2011 by Cohen and Frank Hertz, who were part of the team that built and launched Boston.com in the mid-90s, along with Roesler.

I last covered FanTab in January of 2011, prior to its launch.

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Want some textbooks with that student loan? SimpleTuition acquires ValoreBooks

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 10, 2012 07:00 AM

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Boston-based SimpleTuition, which helps match college students with private student loans, is acquiring a Left Coast company that helps students find the best deal on textbooks. In a cash-and-stock deal that closed just before Labor Day, SimpleTuition bought ValoreBooks of San Diego.

After attaining profitability last year, SimpleTuition CEO Kevin Walker, right, says, "We started to look around for other products and services we could either build or buy. ValoreBooks was the best fit." Students shopping for loans can be introduced to Valore's textbook marketplace, and vice versa, he says.

Given the title of a textbook, Valore serves up numerous options: buying it new, used, or in e-book form, or renting it. "Valore takes a commission on the transaction, but doesn't have to fulfill the books," Walker explains. Purchases of textbooks will also enable students to earn rewards points — SimpleTuition calls them "SmarterBucks" — that can go toward paying off a student loan.

Walker says that seven of Valore's nine employees agreed to move to Boston, and two have already been hired locally to work on the site. "It's a pretty young team, and most people didn't have to uproot their families," he says. And compared to San Diego, Walker says, "they felt there were a lot of things going on here for tech-focused people." (He adds that negotiations were probably helped along by the fact that last winter was especially mild.)

SimpleTuition has 33 employees in Boston's Fort Point Channel neighborhood. The company has raised about $18 million in venture funding, some of it from local firms like Atlas Venture and Flybridge Capital Partners. Walker says he is "actively looking for other acquisitions." Earlier this year, the company launched an online banking service targeting students, SmarterBank, which enables them to accure rewards points (those aforementioned SmarterBucks) that go toward paying down student loans.

Fantasy sports startup DraftKings launches first mobile game

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 7, 2012 09:00 AM

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DraftKings is serving up a gift to the sports-obsessed, just in time for football season. The Boston fantasy sports startup just released its first mobile game, for iPhone and Android: Big Baller. Players can draft new athletes each day, and compete with specific friends to see how their teams do, or the entire Big Baller community. But unlike the DraftKings web site, which allows them to put real skin in the game, Big Baller uses virtual currency to keep score.

"We expect a decent-sized overlap in the playing populations for both [the web site and the new mobile game]," says Femi Wasserman, DraftKings' head of marketing, "but that each market segment will remain fundamentally different."

Both Big Baller and the DraftKings web site are part of the"daily fantasy" gaming genre, which focuses on the day-to-day results of sports match-ups, where traditional fantasy sports have focused on building a team and following its progress over the course of a season.

bigballer5.pngThe Big Baller app allows players to follow live scores of the games they care about — and, of course, trash talk their opponents. There's a hard-bitten virtual coach named Coach O'Keefe who offers tips on playing. At launch, the app supports football, baseball, and basketball. And as with many mobile games — think Draw Something — it'll remind your friends when it's time for them to pick new players.

DraftKings built the new apps in-house over the course of the summer; the company had announced in July a funding round of $1.4 million, led by Atlas Venture of Cambridge. I originally covered the company, founded by a trio of ex-VistaPrint executives, back in February.

How do you wrap a digital gift? MIT startup Delightfully has a clever answer

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 6, 2012 09:13 AM
Every time I send a digital gift certificate — usually from Amazon — I'm filled with conflict.

I know the odds are good that the recipient will use it to buy something fun or useful, but I always feel like I've taken some crass shortcut by not sending a box wrapped up in a bow, or even a paper gift certificate in the mail.

A new MIT startup called Delightfully is addressing that conflict head-on. The three-person company wants to add a layer of personalized experience to digital gift-giving. And they've raised about $100,000 in angel funding, led by Avid Technology founder Bill Warner.

DelightfullyTeam.jpg"Gift-giving is intended to be about a relationship between two people — not a vendor and a recipient," says co-founder Jason Shin, an MBA student at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "When we talk about digital gift-wrapping, what we mean is showing some effort, the same way you do when you do a great job wrapping a physical gift." Instead of simply opening an e-mail, the recipient of a gift sent with Delightfully might encounter a collage of photos chosen by the sender, and have to move them around to find out what's underneath. (Perhaps an iTunes gift code, for instance.)

Shin also talks about developing videogames — think "Angry Birds" with the faces of family members — that must be played before unlocking a gift, or augmented reality "scavenger hunts" that might require the recipient to take their mobile phone to a series of locations before receiving their gift.

As for the business model, Shin says that consumers may be willing to pay a premium to have their digital gifts delivered with a bit more panache — and it's possible that e-commerce sites might be willing to license Delightfully's technology to differentiate their e-certificates.

You can sign up now to be notified when Delightfully launches later this month. Initially, you'll be able to use the technology to send someone a gift code that you purchase, as part of a separate transaction, from just about any e-commerce site.

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After spending more than $11 million, Boston-based Swap.com acquired by Finnish startup for undisclosed amount

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 5, 2012 08:03 AM

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When Jeff Bennett took over as CEO of a company called SwapTree in 2010, he blogged boldly about leading a "swap movement" on the web, enabling people to efficiently trade items like videogames and books with one another. Bennett raised $6 million in new funding, re-branded the company as Swap.com, and vowed to become the eBay of the category.

But the swap movement never arrived, and Swap failed to build an enduring business. Taking a 50 cent fee per swap, even over a million transactions, didn't add up to much revenue. The company also tried a freemium model, making basic swaps free and charging for add-on services like shipping assistance, but Swap simply couldn't achieve scale. The site's traffic slid from more than 200,000 visitors a month last year to barely 50,000 a month recently, according to Compete.

And back in April, a Finnish company called Netcycler, also in the swapping business, acquired Swap.com for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition wasn't announced until this week, when Netcycler sent an e-mail to former Swap.com users. The subject was, "The lights are on again at Swap.com!" Netcycler executives promised that "going forward, we are planning some exciting improvements that we will tell you more about during the fall." (Four-year old Netcycler has raised just $1.5 million in funding, according to Crunchbase, and has not yet launched in the U.S.)

Swap vacated its South End offices in April. Netcycler CEO Juha Koponen wouldn't be specific about how many Swap.com employees still work in Boston. (The company once employed 15 people.) "A small staff will continue to support Swap.com as we look to expand our presence," he wrote via e-mail. LinkedIn lists four people as still working for Swap in Boston. Bennett, the CEO, and CTO Steve Cross both left Swap.com in April.

Neither Koponen or Bennett would discuss the terms of the acquisition. Bennett and Cross are now developing a new company called Raptor Sports Properties as part of Boston-based Raptor Group Holdings. (Raptor Group CEO James Pallotta is an owner of the Boston Celtics.) According to its website, Raptor Sports Properties "provides commercialization services to sports properties around the globe, including fan management, licensing, merchandising, marketing, activation, eCommerce and sponsorship."

Swap raised more than $11 million over the course of its existence as an independent company. Among Swap's investors were former Fidelity money manager Peter Lynch and investment firm Safeguard Scientifics. The company was founded in 2004.

HubSpot gathers the inbound marketing faithful in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 28, 2012 11:25 AM

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HubSpot, the fast-growing digital marketing company, picked an interesting week to hold its annual user conference: this final stretch of August that tends to be booked with last-minute vacations and back-to-school scurrying.

Still, the Cambridge company managed to lure about 2,800 people to the Hynes Convention Center for sessions on "Email Marketing That People Love," "Mobile Marketing," and "Closed Loop Social Selling Strategies."

HubSpot coined and helped popularize the term "inbound marketing," which refers to creating useful content in order to get discovered online by prospective customers, rather than buying traditional advertising. I caught up with CEO Brian Halligan earlier today. (Halligan is in the photo above. You'll see Cyndi Lauper in the background; she performed a song at this morning's opening session.) A couple bullet points from our chat.

    • HubSpot wants to help spread the gospel of inbound marketing "the way Nike powered the fitness revolution, or the way Whole Foods is associated with healthy eating," Halligan says.

    • I asked Halligan about the perception that HubSpot's brand and awareness of the company in the market may have outpaced the company's revenues. "That's a high-quality problem to have," he says, "but we're catching up to where people think we are." Revenues over the last twelve months were in the neighborhood of $50 million, he says. Halligan adds that the company's Q2 revenues this year increased 90 percent over Q2 2011.

    • Halligan says he and co-founder Dharmesh will talk tomorrow morning about "the next six years of inbound marketing." (They originally coined the term six years ago.) Halligan didn't want to be too specific, but says the focus of HubSpot's future strategy will be about how to pull prospective customers "through the funnel" and persuade them to make a purchase commitment. Referring to how Amazon.com presents a different front page to every user based on what they've bought before and the products they've perused, Halligan hinted that future iterations of HubSpot's software will be about "radical personalization."

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Frame Media & Where: Two startups built on promising tech trends, two different outcomes

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 27, 2012 10:50 AM

waltdoyle.jpgMy Boston Globe column this week tells the story of two startups built on what seemed to be promising tech trends: WiFi-connected photo frames, and location-aware mobile phones.

The former company was Wellesley-based Frame Media (which later became known as Thinking Screen Media.) They quietly went out of business last summer. The latter was Where Inc., acquired by eBay/PayPal last spring for $135 million. Both companies were started by Alan Phillips, and Jon Finegold played a key role in building both Frame and Where (though he was only a founder of Frame.)

The opening:

Last summer supplied a learning experience for Jon Finegold, but it was not the sort he’d like to repeat. First, Finegold hunted for investors who might put more money into his five-year-old Wellesley start-up, Frame Media Inc. Then, he sought potential buyers. Finally, he filed papers to dissolve the company, laid off the last of his employees, sold the furniture and computers, and wrote thank-you notes to investors who had put about $6 million into Frame.

Walt Doyle was the MapQuest alum who joined Where in 2006 as its CEO, and was largely responsible for its eventual success. I asked him for his take on the company's sometimes circuitous path toward a successful acquisition. (Doyle is pictured above.)

Doyle wrote via e-mail:

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TechStars Boston announces startups accepted into its fall 2012 class

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 23, 2012 08:22 PM

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The TechStars Boston accelerator program for entrepreneurs (which is actually based in Cambridge) announced back in April that it would start running two cycles each year, instead of just one in the spring. Its first fall class convened today, and TechStars Boston honcho Katie Rae just released the names of the 13 companies that are participating. "Many of the companies are from the Boston area," she writes, "but we also have teams from Israel, Slovenia, Colombia and Ann Arbor."

They are:

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Cambridge startup ZebCare contends that a Kinect can keep an eye on grandma

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 21, 2012 08:05 AM

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Zeb Kimmel, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, had some pretty creative thoughts about how Microsoft's Kinect accessory could be used for things other than playing games. Earlier this year, Kimmel hacked together some software that used the Kinect's sensors to figure out the bra or shirt size of a person standing in front of the device.

"The idea was that one of the big barriers in apparel e-commerce is that you can't measure people like you could if they were in a retail store," he explains. But it was a different notion that earned Kimmel entrance into the Kinect Accelerator in Seattle. (He was the lone Massachusetts entrepreneur to participate in the joint TechStars/Microsoft program this year.)

He proposed using the Kinect to keep an electronic eye on senior citizens living alone.

"Forty percent of seniors say they fear losing their home, independence, and privacy more than they fear death," says Kimmel. "What we've created is a kind of smart radar that monitors movement without using video, and can look for deviations from normal activity."

For an alpha test earlier this year, which involved five seniors, Kimmel installed a laptop and a Kinect in either their living room or kitchen, and connected the laptop to a WiFi network. The Kinect didn't record images or video of what was happening in the room, but instead relied on its depth sensors to track people moving in and out of the room in a way that made them look like amorphous blobs on the screen.

Obviously, if grandma usually comes into the kitchen for breakfast at 7:30, and on one particular day she still hadn't shown up by 9, her children or friends might want to receive an alert. But Kimmel, who is that rare MD who also holds a master's in computer science and an MBA, says he's going a few steps further than simply sounding the alarm when normal comings and goings change. "The way you move indicates your state of health," he says. "When your walking speed changes, that is predictive of fall risk, and it could also mean you're depressed, or that you have pneumonia." Kimmel says he is also beginning to use the Kinect to analyze the movement of individual joints like knees and ankles, and how it changes over time. He believes that information will prove useful for doctors and physical therapists.

"My goal is to acquire signals from how people move, but protect their privacy," he says.

Participating in the Kinect Accelerator required that Kimmel cough up six percent of his startup's equity in exchange for $20,000. Kimmel says he's now in the midst of raising a $300,000 funding round for the Cambridge startup, which he has dubbed ZebCare. He's also adding team members, and talking with hospital chains and insurers to gauge their interest in the technology.

We'll see whether ZebCare might be the startup that helps introduce Microsoft's Kinect to a (much) older demographic...

The video of Kimmel's presentation at the Kinect Accelerator is below. It took place in June 2012.

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New database startup Sqrrl raises $2 million, relocates from D.C. to Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 20, 2012 07:42 AM
It sounds like the outline of an espionage thriller: a team of top techies from the NSA vanish from the intelligence agency's Maryland campus, collect $2 million, and resurface at a "hackerspace" in Cambridge. Their objective: marketing a new, ultra-secure and super-scalable database technology, originally created within the walls of the NSA, to large corporations.

But it's also the true-life story of the latest "big data" startup to get funding from Massachusetts venture capital firms. It's called Sqrrl, and the founding team is still in the process of relocating from the Washington, D.C. area. They'll be operating out of the new hack/reduce space on the edge of Kendall Square. The $2 million in funding comes from Cambridge-based Atlas Venture, one of the underwriters of hack/reduce, and Matrix Partners of Waltham.

Sqrrl is planning to sell and support its own commercial version of the open source database software known as Accumulo. Accumulo has an interesting history: it was originally built at the NSA, and based on a data storage architecture called BigTable that Google created to store vast amounts of information — like Google Earth's satellite images of the entire planet — across multiple data centers. Somewhat amazingly, the government decided to release the code for Accumulo to the open source community, so that others could use it and improve it. "That's a growing trend in government, but it's still not exactly commonplace," says Sqrrl CEO Oren Falkowitz.

antrod-lynch.jpgSo what makes Sqrrl so special? First, the Accumulo database can handle enormous amounts of data, says Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners: "You can imagine the volume of data the NSA was working with, like gathering records of every purchase of fertilizer everywhere in the world to try to identify people who might be up to no good." Second, says Falkowitz, is a "cell-level" approach to security that can grant or refuse access to individual elements of information — like a Social Security number or medical diagnosis — within the database. "That means that multiple users or applications at a company can have multiple levels of access to the data," he explains. And third, Rodriguez says, "Sqrrl is the only company trying to commercialize Accumulo, which we think can be a powerful competitor to HBase." (That's another kind of open source database software, used by companies like Facebook.)

The Sqrrl team left the NSA only last month, but earlier in the year they'd begun talking with investors and prospective customers, mainly in the healthcare and financial services industries. Falkowitz says, "We only got about halfway through our pitch with Chris Lynch at Atlas when he said, 'I get it." (Lynch, pictured on the left with Rodriguez of Matrix, was previously chief executive of the database company Vertica.) Falkowitz says they had offers to invest from several VC firms, but "we felt like the academic community in Boston would allow us to recruit the best talent, and it's exciting to be part of the growing big data community here."

Plus, Lynch made it clear that he wouldn't invest in the company if it remained in the D.C. area. "Being up here increases their probability of success," he says. "I told them, 'I don't care if you have 100 term sheets [from other VC firms offering to invest]. If you want this syndicate [Atlas and Matrix], you're moving to Boston.'" (Lynch sprinkled in a little profanity so they knew he was serious.) This is Lynch's first investment since joining Atlas in May.

Lynch is traveling New York this week with the Sqrrl team to meet with prospective customers on Wall Street. Falkowitz says the company is hiring in marketing, sales, and engineering.

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How a Massachusetts angel investor wound up putting money into Pinterest, the latest social media success in Silicon Valley

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 17, 2012 01:24 PM
Pinterest is the latest social media company to start accumulating scads of users (23 million so far) and a sky-high valuation ($1.5 billion, according to Forbes.) The site, which allows users to "pin" products and images they like onto a digital bulletin board, is growing at a faster rate than Facebook did in its early days, and it has raised almost $140 million in funding.

And there's just one person in Massachusetts who was smart enough to invest in Pinterest's very first round of angel funding, back in 2009.

thumb-jitendra_saxena.jpegJit Saxena is a serial entrepreneur who started database companies like Netezza and Applix, and these days mainly makes angel investments. Most of the checks he writes are to Boston-area software companies like ParElastic and CloudSwitch.

But in 2009, Saxena was out in Palo Alto for a family wedding. "I had nothing to do in the morning, and Ed [Zander] has suggested I go meet this guy Ben Silbermann," he explains. Silbermann had previously worked at Google, and at the time he was working on something called Cold Brew Labs, a "social commerce" incubator that eventually spawned Pinterest. (Saxena had worked with Zander, formerly a top executive at Motorola and Sun Microsystems, at Massachusetts minicomputer-maker Data General back in the day.)

"I went and had lunch with the guy" at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto, Saxena says. "I didn't understand completely what he was trying to do. But I invest in people. To me, that is everything. I think understanding the space is overrated. It just creates biases." Afterward, Saxena e-mailed and talked with other members of the Pinterest team, but Silbermann remained the only one he'd met in person. "I don't think you need to make investing very complicated," he says. "You just get a gut feel that the person is great."

Saxena decided to invest, and so did Zander. All told, the fledgling company raised $500,000 from investors at that point, in a first round of funding that also included legendary Silicon Valley angel Ron Conway and Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder and CEO of Yelp.

Since then, Pinterest's user base and valuation have grown like a beanstalk. But Saxena says that he doesn't have a Pinterest account of his own. "I'm not a user," he admits, "though I've looked at the site a lot to see what's new."


Is Rest Devices' baby onesie, designed to monitor infants as they sleep, the cutest tech product in town?

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 14, 2012 08:00 AM

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Parents hardly think twice about buying a video monitor or movement-sensing pad to make sure their bundle of joy is sleeping soundly through the night.

So what about a onesie embedded with sensors that can report on baby's breathing, temperature, and movement? A Boston startup called Rest Devices hopes to have the product on the market later this year, aiming for a price somewhere between $100 and $200. The package would include three onesies, a small turtle-shaped transmitter that clips onto the front with magnets, and a plug-in base station that would send data from the nursery over a home's WiFi network. (Another option is that the transmitter could communicate directly with a Bluetooth phone.)

The last time I wrote about Rest, the company was known as Nyx Devices and was developing a form-fitting SleepShirt that could help diagnose problems like sleep apnea. CEO Thomas Lipoma says they're still selling a version of that shirt to sleep researchers, but that the onesie is their main focus. (Lipoma is on the right in the photo, with Dulcie Madden, Rest's head of business development.)

"New parents want to know how their baby is doing at all times," says Lipoma. "This can tell you if your baby is on her stomach or her back, if her temperature spikes, if she's moving around, and if she's breathing normally." That last factor, of course, is a major fear for parents, who worry about sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDs.

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Airshow in a parking garage: MIT researchers build an airplane that can navigate indoors, without GPS (video)

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 9, 2012 06:14 PM
Just a really cool engineering feat — and a cool video. MIT's Robust Robotics Group built the airplane from scratch; it relies a digital map of its environment, along with a laser rangefinder, accelerometer, and gyroscope, to avoid collisions. (The next version will make its own map of the environment as it flies.) Pretty incredible to watch it swooping around at 22 miles per hour inside the Stata Center's underground parking garage...

MIT's news release is below the video.

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Asia's richest man and Kleiner Perkins lead new $12 million funding round for MIT spin-out Affectiva

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 7, 2012 07:30 AM

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Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins and Horizons Ventures, an investment firm owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing, are leading the latest round of funding for Waltham-based Affectiva. The MIT Media Lab spin-out (which I first covered in 2009) is marketing two products: software for using webcams to analyze a user's facial expressions, and a wristband sensor that monitors the wearer's emotions using skin conductance.

The facial expression software, called Affdex, is primarily of interest right now to ad agencies and market researchers, who might want to show a TV spot or movie trailer to a test group and see which parts made them smile, frown, or look confused. The Q wristband sensor can also be used in that kind of market research, but it's also employed by researchers who focus on conditions like autism, epilepsy, and anxiety.

The new money — $12 million — "will accelerate development of both products," says Affectiva CEO David Berman, right. "We're lining up partners that have hardware manufacturing and distribution already in place for the Q Sensor, and we think that being able to test an ad or any content around the world, using a webcam, is really disruptive. It's something that we think will allow creators to optimize their content, especially by taking into acount how different cultures respond to it." Eventually, Berman predicts, we might share videos or other online content with our social networks based on how they made us feel: IE, "Here's a link to a YouTube clip that made me smile, cry, or wince in agony."

"We think the Facebook 'like' button is going to be obsolete," he says. "Instead, you'll be able to share a range of emotions while you're interacting with social content." You can try out the technology for yourself here, by viewing and responding to recent Super Bowl ads.

Affectiva co-founder and chief scientist Rosalind Picard is still on the faculty at MIT, and co-founder and chief technology officer Rana el Kaliouby also works as a research scientist there. Berman says that the company is approaching 40 employees, and "we should double in the next year." The company has raised $17.7 million in equity financing thus far.


Drew Houston and Dropbox: From summer intern at Bit9 in Waltham to tech rockstar in San Francisco

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 6, 2012 09:36 AM
This week's Globe column looks at Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox, the fast-growing file sharing and synchronization service, and Bit9, a Waltham security company where Houston once worked:
Several summers ago, an MIT student named Drew Houston showed up for an internship at Bit9, a Waltham network security company. After graduation, he landed a job there as a software engineer, but left in May 2007 to do his own start-up.

Since then, Bit9 has had a pretty good run. It has grown to 150 employees and set up sales offices in Europe and Asia. Among the customers it helps protect from hacker attacks are the Air Force, 7-Eleven, and Toyota Financial Services. Last Monday, it announced a fresh round of venture capital funding: $34.5 million, bringing the total amount Bit9 has raised to more than $70 million.

But the business that Houston started in 2007, Dropbox, has proven to be a rocket ship. Dropbox helps more than 50 million people store and synchronize digital files so the latest version can be accessed from any device. Investors have pegged the San Francisco company’s current value at $4 billion. Steve Jobs, the late Apple chief executive, tried to acquire it. Dropbox has raised $257 million in venture capital — some of it from Sequoia Capital, the same Silicon Valley venture capital firm that just put money into Houston’s old employer, Bit9.

Has there ever been a summer intern who has done so much, so quickly? (Forbes estimates Houston’s net worth at $400 million. He is 29.) And how did Houston become the latest product of the Bay State to become an entrepreneurial rock star in California?

Here's a bit of "bonus material" related to the column, including one of the first demo videos Houston created for Dropbox. Would you have invested if you saw this?

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Ex-Microsoft evangelist Abby Fichtner will head new 'hackerspace' in Kendall Square focused on big data

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 3, 2012 06:00 PM

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The inaugural director of a new "hackerspace" in Kendall Square called hack/reduce is Abby Fichtner. Until last month, Fichtner was a Microsoft evangelist responsible for building and maintaining relationships in the local startup community. She's also a co-organizer of Boston's Lean Startup Circle.

Hack/reduce aims to be a central node of Boston's burgeoning "big data" scene, serving as both a gathering place and office space for entrepreneurs and developers. It'll also offer its members access to high-powered servers, data storage, and sample data sets that can be used for projects. (Members may pay an annual fee to support hack/reduce and access certain services, but the space will be open to the community.)

The new space has so far raised about $3 million a group of venture capital firms and tech companies like IBM, Dell and EMC, says Chris Lynch of Atlas Venture, who has been spearheading fundraising. And back in May, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick announced that the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative would give hack/reduce $50,000 over two years.

The prime movers behind hack/reduce are Lynch and Hopper founder Frederic Lalonde, who recently moved to Boston from Montreal. Steve Papa, co-founder and CEO of Endeca (which is now part of Oracle) is also an advisor.

On the choice of Fichtner to head hack/reduce, Lynch says, "We kissed a lot of frogs. We found good business people and super-technical people. But Abby already has a following, and she has experience building a community. She has a larger-than-life personality, and she is a developer. She can also really relate to younger people. She's a little edgy and left-of-center."

"Big data is a real opportunity for Boston to excel," says Fichtner, who is perhaps better known by her Twitter handle @HackerChick. "We have so many smart people here. We can bring in all these domains like life sciences and finance and even musicians and artists, and connect them with developers to really foster innovation."

Hack/reduce will be located in the Kendall Boiler & Tank Building, on the edge of Kendall Square. The hack/reduce space isn't open yet, but Hopper, an online travel site that hasn't yet launched, is based in the same building.

Fichtner stars the new job on Monday: "I just want to hit the ground running, and get the space opened as soon as possible."

Social gaming startup Disruptor Beam brings on Hank Howie as new chief operating officer

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 30, 2012 09:00 AM

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The Boston game development studio Disruptor Beam is adding an industry veteran as its chief operating officer: Hank Howie, formerly head of Blue Fang Games and more recently the co-founder of Beach Cooler Games. Howie will oversee the business operations at Disruptor Beam as CEO Jon Radoff spends more time focusing on product; the seven-person studio is currently working on an online game tied to the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

There's no release date yet for the Facebook-based game, which Radoff says has been in development since last December. But Radoff hints that it'll be later in 2012 or early 2013.

Earlier in his career, Howie was president of Blue Fang Games, the creator of Zoo Tycoon, a top-selling PC game, and also the Facebook games Zoo Kingdom and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? In 2009, Howie tried to shift Blue Fang from a developer of PC & console games to a more Facebook and mobile-oriented studio. But Blue Fang dissolved in 2011. Howie's next venture was Beach Cooler Games, a virtual studio — it relied on contractors rather than full-timers, and didn't have an office — that produced the mobile game Universal Movie Tycoon in partnership with the Toronto-based game publisher Fuse Publishing. Beach Cooler has also been working on a second game with Fuse, which Howie wouldn't name, but which will be released later this year.

"I'm trying to finish up Beach Cooler's obligations, and I'll be starting full-time at Disruptor Beam on August 1st," Howie says. He'll be responsible for business development, licensing, distribution deals, and publisher relationships.

Disruptor Beam's staff, along with an army of more than 30 contractors, is working solely on the "Game of Thrones Ascent" game right now, Radoff says, working with HBO and George R.R. Martin, the author of the novels upon which the cable series is based. "We're trying to bring triple-A, console-like game sensibilities to social gaming," he says, "with higher production values and more immersion than people have seen so far." The fans of "Game of Thrones," he points out, have "super-high expectations" for anything linked to the epic TV series, which is set in medieval times and focuses on the rulers of a fictional realm called Westeros.

Disruptor Beam raised a seed round of funding earlier this year from a group of investors that included CommonAngels, Romulus Capital, and current and former executives at Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems, one of the area's most successful gaming companies. At the time, Radoff said it was under $1 million.

What's the best way to launch a new crowdsourcing startup? Just crowdsource the marketing campaign, says Cambridge-based PieceWise

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 24, 2012 07:28 AM
If you're launching a crowdsourcing startup, what better way to formulate a marketing campaign than by asking the Internet community for advice?

Cambridge-based PieceWise is designed for people who are trying to plan out a project "and they don't know exactly how to do it," says co-founder and CEO William Neely. "Instead of hiring a consultant, you can put some prize money out there, and everyone can give their ideas."

So PieceWise is practicing what it preaches, offering $1000 to those who supply advice about how the four-person company should conduct its first marketing push. "We haven't been very creative in coming up with marketing ideas," Neely admits. "We want to gather some crazy ideas from this campaign, like when [RunKeeper founder] Jason Jacobs ran the Boston Marathon." (He did it dressed as an iPhone, to promote his new iPhone app.)

Neely says PieceWise is similar to 99Designs, where users create a bounty for the best-designed logo, for example. "But the really cool feature we have is that the prize is collaborative," he says, meaning that it can be split up among multiple contributors. (At 99Designs, only one winner takes home the cash.) Users can vote on the best ideas, and that determines how the cash is allocated — even though the person who posted the prize in the first place may choose to run with an entirely different set of ideas. (Neely says the PieceWise team will review winners to try to figure out whether there has been any vote-rigging going on.) And when there are projects that communities of people feel strongly about — say, making their neighborhood safer after dark — any user can add money to the prize pool.

Neely says PieceWise was founded by three friends who met at Kansas State University, and a fourth founder from University of Kansas. They began moving to Cambridge last September, seeking out a supportive startup ecosystem. They've raised about $70,000 in angel funding to build the site. At this stage, Neely says, "we're trying to get people to post projects and participate." The company is based at the Cambridge Coworking Center in Kendall Square.

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Pre-launch coverage of Kayak.com, from 2004

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 20, 2012 08:34 AM
The stock of Kayak.com, the travel site, starts trading today on the Nasdaq exchange. The company will have a market cap of about $1 billion.

Since it's always fun to look back at the early days of successful startups, I went into the Globe's archives...This may be the earliest coverage of the company, from my "@large" column in the Globe on August 23rd, 2004.

Despite travel slump, online firms flourish

Remember that economic downturn? 9/11? The war in Iraq? Spiking oil prices, and airlines introducing fuel surcharges?

While that witches’ brew of nasty factors sent much of the travel industry into a prolonged funk, the online travel companies based in the Boston area hardly noticed. They not only survived – they thrived.

“When the travel industry overall was doing very badly, online travel kept growing,” says Terry Jones, the founder of Travelocity, one of the most popular travel sites. “Travel is now bigger than the next five categories of e-commerce, combined.” This year, consumers in the U.S. will spend $53 billion booking travel online, according to Cambridge-based Forrester Research. That number is expected to soar to $110 billion by 2009.

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Mystery Gift Machine wants to solve the group gifting problem

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 18, 2012 09:24 AM

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Ever try to coordinate a group of people to buy a single gift for a friend or family member? It's almost always an enormous pain.

Adam Stober, right, wants to change that. His new startup, Mystery Gift Machine, aims to make it easier to organize group gifting through the magic of Internet technology. You tell the web site who the recipient is, what the occasion is, and how much you'd like each person to contribute. Then you share the gift campaign with others, and they can choose to chip in (or not). Everyone suggests their own idea for a gift they think would be a hit with the recipient, and the web site makes the final decision. (Stober says, somewhat mysteriously, that humans at the company the pick now — but he's hoping eventually it'll be automated.) Neither the givers nor the recipient know what gift has been selected until it arrives.

"We've done massages and concert tickets and nice dinners already," says Stober. "We just gave someone a remote-controlled quadcopter and he was thrilled. If we ship a gift that the recipient doesn't like, they can easily return it."

The site also offers to send you a daily birthday report by e-mail, filling you in on today's birthdays so that you can post a Facebook message, and alerting you to upcoming birthdays in time to send a group gift via Mystery Gift Machine.

Stober says he has been working on the project for about ten months; he left his full-time gig at Fiksu, a Boston startup that helps its clients promote their mobile apps, back in May.

The MIT roots of Google Glass, the wearable information display

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 16, 2012 11:47 AM

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This week's Boston Globe column focuses on a group of MIT students who developed some of the first wearable computers — and are now working on Project Glass at Google. Glass is an effort to develop a light-weight, wirelessly-linked, wearable information display. Google took the wraps off late last month, with a demo for software developers in San Francisco.

One of those MIT alums, Thad Starner, is now a technical lead at Google, and also a professor at Georgia Tech.

Starner told me last week that his initial motivation for developing a wearable computer was that he wanted to be a better student: "I was spending $20,000 a year at MIT, and I wasn't remembering it. I decided to make a system that would let me take notes while I was also paying attention in class, and better retain things."

Starner has been wearing a computer regularly since the summer of 1993. "It's just part of my life," he says. And during our phone interview, he mentioned that the Globe was the first newspaper to cover his work, back in 1994, in a mini profile. I hadn't yet stumbled across that article in my research. Starner was wearing a pair of info-glasses of his own design at the time (not a prototype of Google Glass), so I asked him if that system was what reminded him of the coverage 18 years ago. You know it...

Here's that feature on Starner, and the photo that ran with it.

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Carbonite co-founder and CTO Jeff Flowers hiring and raising money for SageCloud, new cloud storage venture

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 12, 2012 10:10 AM

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Carbonite co-founder and CTO Jeff Flowers has a new startup: SageCloud, which is working on "a new cloud storage technology," according to his LinkedIn profile. SageCloud doesn't have an office yet — its seven employees all work from home — and it also doesn't have a web site. While Flowers didn't want to divulge more about what the company was up to, he did say that the company plans to launch its product in late 2012 or early 2013.

And Flowers mentioned that the company is "hiring operations folks to build and run our data centers."

So far, the company has been bankrolled by Matrix Partners of Waltham and a half-dozen individual investors, including Carbonite CEO and co-founder David Friend, who has collaborated with Flowers on numerous other startups, including Sonexis and Faxnet. Friend also sits on the board of SageCloud. Boston-based Carbonite sells a data backup service to individual consumers and small businesses for an annual fee; presumably SageCloud will be focusing on a different slice of the storage marketplace, or offering a different kind of storage solution. (In the photo above, Flowers is on the left, Friend on the right. Photo credit: AP.)

A first formal round of venture capital funding is in the works, according to Flowers, likely led by cloud and software-as-a-service specialist David Skok of Matrix.

Flowers ceded the CTO title at Carbonite in April of 2011, and finally resigned from the publicly-traded company in April of this year — though he remains on the board. Carbonite's IPO took place last August.

"Carbonite is not involved directly in SageCloud other than both David Friend and I sit on the boards for both companies," Flowers explains via e-mail. "I still retain an office at Carbonite in my role as board member and consultant to the company."

What does it take to raise that next round? Founders of Kinvey and Backupify, which just collected $14 million in total, weigh in

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 11, 2012 12:00 PM

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Getting that first few million dollars from investors is tough enough. But convincing them to keep funneling money into a startup that hasn't yet hit the big time can be even harder.

So I asked two Cambridge entrepreneurs what they thought the critical factors were in raising their most recent round. Both Sravish Sridhar of Kinvey (pictured at right) and Rob May of Backupify announced new funding today: $5 million for Sridhar's company, and $9 million for May's. Sridhar's new money comes from Avalon Ventures and Atlas Venture, both with offices in Cambridge, and May's includes Symantec, the security software biggie, as well as Avalon, General Catalyst, and Lowercase Capital.

Setting goals and hitting them is crucial, says Sridhar. His 14-person company, Kinvey, handles much of the back-end infrastructure required by mobile app developers, offering it as a subscription service.

"After our seed round last August, one goal was getting our first 2,000 users," he says. "We beat that by three months earlier this year. Another was creating partnerships with companies like Adobe, Urban Airship, and Microsoft. Despite not having a vice president of business development, we got them to sign up to work with us." A third milestone was making the Kinvey service available to any user — not just beta-testers. Finally, he says, investors wanted to see that the company could bring on board technical folks who had experience scaling up complex systems — and Kinvey managed to hire veterans of Akamai, Raytheon, Brightcove, and Fidelity. One of the company's investors, Rich Levandov of Avalon, told Sridhar that he though the founder's sense of humor was helpful in building the team: "He said being funny and charismatic could help our company hire just about anyone." He also invited the company's early investors to just about any significant company meeting, to keep abreast of Kinvey's progress.

Kinvey's $5 million in funding today is considered the company's A round, following last summer's $2 million in seed investment. The company participated in the 2011 TechStars Boston program.

At Backupify, which helps companies and individuals make backup copies of the data they create with various online services like Google Apps or Salesforce.com, May says one obvious thing investors like to see is metrics heading in the right direction. "We pulled into the low single-digit millions, in terms of revenues," he says, "and we crossed 5,000 paying business customers." But he also says that demonstrating that a company has figured out how to effectively sign up profitable customers is vital: "I think we showed that we could take money, hire sales reps, do advertising and grow our monthly recurring revenues." When sales reps talk with prospective customers and demonstrate the Backupify service, May says, "they have close rates of 40 to 50 percent." The company has 30 employees, and is now "mostly hiring salespeople, but also some engineers," says May. Backupify's latest $9 million in VC money represents the company's third round of funding; the company has raised almost $20 million so far.

PowerPoint presentations and promising prototypes may help entrepreneurs raise their initial capital, but clearly metrics and momentum are what matter when it comes to keeping the money flowing.

CloudTop, MIT $100K winner, moves west for Y Combinator

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 6, 2012 04:17 PM

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The latest winner of MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, CloudTop, has moved to Palo Alto to take part in the Y Combinator summer program for startups. A number of Boston-area entrepreneurs and investors tried to persuade the CloudTop team to stick around, though it sounds like no one offered to write a check.

The company is building "dead simple" uploading tools for digital files that can be used by web sites and mobile app developers; an example of the early product can be seen at Filepicker.io.

"The four of us rented a house [in Palo Alto] and are cranking away," CEO Brett van Zuiden, right, writes via e-mail. "We're actually planning a launch of our mobile product soon..." Zuiden, who is originally from the Bay Area, says that "investors" and "culture" played a role in CloudTop's decision to head west.

Bill Aulet of the Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship tells me that CloudTop won entrance to Y Combinator shortly after winning the $100K, but before MIT started taking applications for a new summer accelerator program of its own, the Founders' Skills Accelerator. Y Combinator, born in Cambridge but now operating exclusively in Silicon Valley, offers $150,000 in convertible debt to every startup that gains entrance, as well as exposure to a wide range of angels and venture capitalists at its concluding "demo day" event. But it also takes an average of 6 percent of a startup's equity at the outset. (The Founders' Skills Accelerator doesn't ask for any equity, but also doesn't guarantee as much funding...and it's only in its first year.)

It sounds like several local lights, including Rich Miner of Google Ventures, Jo Tango of Kepha Partners, and serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer, tried to persuade van Zuiden and the CloudTop team to build the company in Boston. In particular, they emphasized the challenges of hiring programmers in the Valley, and the assistance that the MIT alumni network could provide them in Boston. But the company may have seen bigger benefits in being close to major cloud players like Dropbox (founded by another group of MIT alumni), Facebook, Apple, and Flickr, says Russ Wilcox, an entrepreneur who spoke with van Zuiden around the time that CloudTop won the $100K.

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Quant5 angling to become the Nostradamus of 'big data'

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 3, 2012 10:16 AM

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Can the right mathematical models, coupled with oodles of business data, predict the future?

That's the belief at a quiet new Cambridge startup, Quant5. The company has been working since last September on a new software-as-a-service offering that will perform "predictive analytics," and this summer, it is conducting beta tests with eight customers.

The team includes Doug Levin, formerly CEO of Black Duck Software and Ayeah Games; Monster and HP veteran Todd Wildman; and Marcelo Ballestiero, founder of Spirits Tecnologia in Brazil. They've been collaborating with a group of PhD candidates at MIT's Operations Research Center, Wildman says, "to take cutting-edge academic research and turn it into working solutions." (Wildman is on the left in the photo, Ballestiero on the right.)

"At a high level, we're trying to take the data that companies collect — whether it's from business intelligence tools, customer transactions, social media, or financials — and help them use analytics and visualizations to find new revenues," says Levin. Quant5's first application will focus on helping companies analyze their customer base, looking for opportunities to cross-sell other products to existing customers, reduce customer churn, or identify products that should be priced differently. "We've been working with a bed and bath products retailer," Levin says, "and one thing they'd like to know is what is the next product they should offer to a customer who has just bought a set of bed sheets. We looked at 90 million records of purchases, and applied some very sophisticated math, to get at these really interesting relationships between one purchase and the next."

dlevin2.jpgThe company can also examine customer data to try to forecast churn — for instance, customers shelling out a lot for a software company's product, but not using it very extensively. Levin says Quant5's software-as-a-service offering will be complemented by a professional services group that can help link the software to various existing sources of data at a company. "Many companies have these Fort Knox data depots, where they collect enormous amounts of critical data that's inaccessible, or just not analyzed regularly," he says. He touts the company's "Fisher Price" approach to user interface design, allowing users to easily alter the factors that shape different predictions using sliders, for instance. (Levin's in the photo at left.)

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Plexxi pulls in another $20 million, to help networks and applications 'crack a beer and get along'

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 29, 2012 07:30 AM

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In today's cloud-oriented technology world, everyone expects that applications, servers, and storage have become on-demand resources. You should be able to use them like a Slurpee machine, turning them on or off at will, and choosing either an extra-large or a small, depending on your current needs.

And yet, says, Plexxi co-founder Mat Matthews, the communication networks that move all that data around are "still really rigid. Applications have become fluid, but networks haven't really adapted to that." The company is developing new software and networking hardware that can help networks adapt to the demands of the applications their users are running, whether they need extra bandwidth, low latency, or extra-strict security.

The company is announcing a new infusion of venture capital funding today: $20.1 million, bringing the total amount the startup has raised to just over $48 million. This third round of funding came from North Bridge Venture Partners and Matrix Partners in Waltham, as well as Lightspeed Venture Partners in Silicon Valley. The company's most recent venture round happened last summer.

In July, Matthews says, the company plans to start its first wave of beta tests, "starting first with cloud providers and also some financial customers, like big banks and hedge funds." Plexxi's product should be commercially available later this year or in early 2013, he says.

The company has 30 employees, and expects to be at about 45 by the end of the year. Employees are split between offices in Cambridge and Nashua, New Hampshire. "Nashua is perfect for datacomm and networking talent, but the other aspect of what we're doing is software that understands network topologies, advanced analytics, and visualization techniques. That talent pool is really around Kendall Square and MIT." (They consider Cambridge the company's headquarters.)

Plexxi calls its approach "affinity-based networking," and its web site cleverly suggests that it allows networks and applications to simply "crack a beer and get along."

HubSpot exec spins out YouSpot, to offer digital marketing services to small businesses (updated)

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 22, 2012 08:15 AM

Update: Talk about a quick change-of-heart...

Last night (August 8th), YouSpot founder Jonah Lopin sent an e-mail to friends telling them that "as we've gotten a bit further down the path, we have determined that our current incarnation and timing is not sustainable." He said that instead of YouSpot, he'd be dedicating his time to M80 Labs. I asked him about that, and here's what he said via e-mail:

M80 will be launching multiple products that we are super psyched about in the coming months. As we launch these products, we'll be looking for traction that will serve as the basis for building a company. We want to test our ideas on the web and move quickly based on what is working.

Our first launch will be in September, and it is going to be awesome.

Lopin didn't want to say much about M80 at this point, but did say that it won't be operating in the digital marketing space. While HubSpot had been willing to "carve out" part of his employee non-compete agreement agreement so that he could develop YouSpot, that agreement still prohibits him from competing with his old employer with a different venture, he says.

My original article on YouSpot is below...

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Things are proceeding rather swiftly for YouSpot, one of the newest digital marketing startups in town.

Earlier this month, executives at HubSpot, a Cambridge firm that helps mid-sized companies market through search and social media, were talking about the possibility of developing a new product to target small businesses. But the decision was that "it would've been hard to pursue two markets at the same time," says Jonah Lopin, who was employee #6 at HubSpot. "Doing it internally would have been a distraction, especially since HubSpot still has a lot of market share to build with medium-sized businesses."

So Lopin left the company last Friday to start YouSpot, which is developing a "radically simple" HubSpot-like offering for sole proprietorships and small businesses. (The company isn't licensing HubSpot's software.) Lopin says that HubSpot co-founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah came up with the YouSpot name, and that HubSpot itself is the first investor in YouSpot. The startup is currently operating out of Deloitte's incubator space in Waltham. (Lopin also happens to be a Deloitte alum.)

HubSpot has helped pioneer the practice of "inbound marketing," a set of techniques around creating useful content on blogs, web sites, and Facebook that prospective customers will discover on their own, often with the help of search engines. But a subscription to the HubSpot software starts at $200 a month, and it is most relevant, Lopin says, to companies big enough to have a marketing department — or at least a staffer dedicated to marketing.

"There are millions of small businesses that aren't doing inbound marketing yet because of the cost and complexity," Lopin says. "We want to help these small business owners do marketing the right way on the Internet in a way that gets results." And, he adds, "We will be much cheaper than $200."

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Yes, you can work for Facebook in Boston — if you're special

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 22, 2012 08:05 AM

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The Facebook web site doesn't list Boston as a location where the company has job openings, and a Facebook spokesperson says the social networking giant has "no plans to open an office in Boston at this time."

And yet, you can work for Facebook in Boston, right across from South Station on Atlantic Avenue. If, that is, you're an extra special engineer that Facebook absolutely must have on its payroll.

The company confirmed to me yesterday that a small number of Facebook employees now work out of a shared office space in Boston. "We're always hiring the best engineers we can find," a spokesperson wrote via e-mail, and sometimes those top programmers simply don't want to relocate to New York, where Facebook has an office, or the company's Palo Alto headquarters.

The shared space in question is WorkBar Boston, which rents desks starting at $250 per month. (A dedicated office is $1000 per month.) The Facebook crew showed up earlier this year, sources tell me, and while it's still just a handful of folks, the number is growing. Could it eventually serve as the seed of a larger Facebook presence? Interesting notion... Several WorkBar employees haven't returned my phone calls or e-mails.

Since Facebook doesn't advertise for employees in Boston, presumably these are people the company has actively recruited. (Some of them are also people who've worked at other Facebook locations in the past, but needed to move to Boston for personal reasons.) A little LinkedIn trolling turns up software engineers like Edwin Smith, Olivier Chatot, and Ryan Mack, who all list their location as Boston.

In its early days, Facebook had an advertising sales office in Boston, which it shuttered in 2006.

Yesware gets $4 million in new funding to help salespeople manage e-mail communications (and soon, phone calls too)

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 20, 2012 01:00 PM

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Yesware founder Matthew Bellows tells me that he waited as long as possible before collecting a second round of funding for his Cambridge startup. This spring, the company, which helps salespeople manage their e-mail communications with prospective customers, was about three weeks from running out of cash.

Yesware had launched its product and announced a seed round of $1 million last September. "We wanted to make as much progress as we could possibly make on that $1 million, to help increase our valuation," Bellows says. "We had investors who were talking to us about putting more money in last December or in January. But we were thinking about pushing the company as far as we could, while also thinking about the likelihood of getting the money into the bank before you run out."

The checks cleared in April, from new investor IDG Ventures as well as previous backers Foundry Group and Google Ventures. (Bellows knew the team at IDG from his days as VP of sales at Vivox, one of their portfolio companies.) Yesware raised $4 million more in this second round of funding.

Yesware helps salespeople keep tabs on who is opening their e-mails, on what kind of device (a mobile phone or a desktop computer, for instance), and which links they click. Bellows says Yesware has so far only been available for Gmail users who also use the Google Chrome browser. As of today, the service will also work with the Firefox browser, and Bellows says the company eventually plans to support Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail client used by the bulk of corporate America. The company also wants to support users on mobile phones and tablet computers.

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With $12 million in funding, EqualLogic veterans are launching new 'big data' venture, DataGravity

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 20, 2012 08:25 AM

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EqualLogic was one of those local tech companies that came this close to going public before it was scooped up by Dell for $1.4 billion in cash. The Nashua, NH-based storage area networking company had already registered for an IPO and kicked off its road show.

Now, a group of EqualLogic alumni are doing another startup, DataGravity. It's also located in Nashua, NH, and it sounds equally ambitious. Co-founders Paula Long, right, and John Joseph have just raised $12 million from two Boston venture capital firms, Charles River Ventures and General Catalyst, and they expect their eight-person company to grow to about 25 employees over the coming year. Long says the company is mainly adding engineers, along with some product management executives "to help make sure we build the right thing for customers."

Long left her last job, at a Boston robotics startup, last May, and Joseph peeled off from Dell around the same time. They're both being cagey about what DataGravity is up to.

In the world of data storage, Long says, "people talk about dollars per gigabyte and dollars per IOPS [input/output operations per second]. We think there's going to be a new model that looks at dollars as they relate to information. What is the value of the information you can extract?"

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Rethinking old name, Heartland will henceforth be known as Rethink Robotics; Boston company adds $30 million to coffers

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 19, 2012 12:01 AM
Heartland Robotics is announcing a big new funding round today — $30 million — and changing its name in advance of its first product launch. The Boston company will now be known as Rethink Robotics.

brooks.jpgTo go with the new name, they've revamped their web site. But it still doesn't include product images or even a vague description of what their first product will be. Founder Rodney Brooks, right, the former MIT prof who also helped get iRobot off the ground, has only said the company wants to introduce robots to manufacturing environments where they haven't been used previously, and help make American manufacturing more cost-competitive globally. Back in November 2010, I collected all the scuttlebut I could about what the company is up to. Sources back then said the company was developing an inexpensive bot that would be easily trained to do repetitive tasks, and would be safe working around humans. Brooks has apparently likened Rethink's product to Apple's iPhone, meaning it'd be intuitive to use, and that the company will try to create a community of developers who'd write software for it.

Rethink is planning to exhibit at next January's Automate trade show in Chicago, but company spokesman Mitch Rosenberg confirms that the product will be unveiled before then.

From today's press release:

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Appeering, new site from Puretech Ventures, turns disjointed tweets into conversations you can follow

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 18, 2012 07:31 AM
Ever wish the torrent of tweets was a little easier to comprehend? That a thousand fragments of Twitter commentary could be glued together into something approaching actual insight?

zohar-sm.jpgUnless you're immersed in Twitter all day long like certain Twitter obsessives (raising hand), the probable answer is "yes." A new site called Appeering wants to make it easier to identify hot topics on Twitter and follow sometimes lengthy exchanges among users — even if you don't have a Twitter account yourself. The site was developed by a team at Boston-based Puretech Ventures, which more typically builds new biotech and medical device businesses. Puretech is taking the wraps off Appeering this week, as the big BIO International Convention descends on Boston.

"If you sign up for Twitter and you're interested in biotech, figuring out who to follow is a huge task, and then you only see pieces of a conversation," says Puretech CEO Daphne Zohar, right. "It can be hard to figure out what people are saying." Appeering has created curated lists of 1000-2000 influential tweeters in politics, finance, tech, and biotech, and that allows it to surface the topics, companies, and hash tags that are trending in those industries.

Zohar says that two software developers at Puretech started working on Appeering earlier this year, and that the current site is a beta. "We'd like people to use it and give us feedback," she says. Eventually, the economic model will be to maintain a free site for individual users, but also create a premium version to help professionals track news in their fields — including conversations on Twitter about their employers and competitors.

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New startup, Price Intelligently, wants to help mobile developers and SaaS companies figure out whether their pricing is right

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 7, 2012 01:15 PM

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If you're about to launch a new mobile app or software-as-a-service product, Patrick Campbell says that when it comes to determining the perfect price, most likely you simply throw a dart at the wall and guess.

"Most people will base it off of competitors' pricing, or do cost-plus," says Campbell, right. "But value-based pricing — finding out what a product is actually worth in the customer's mind — is really the gold standard. We're making that easy to do."

Campbell is leaving the online retailer Gemvara to launch Price Intelligently; his two co-founders, Aaron White of Boundless Learning and Christopher O'Donnell of HubSpot, are keeping their day jobs. (White and O'Donnell have been pals since their prep school days at Phillips Exeter.) The trio started developing the idea for Price Intelligently earlier this year.

"You can hire an expensive consulting firm to go out and interview customers, but we wanted to create a less expensive approach that'd be equally good," says Campbell. They've developed a five-question survey that, if sent to 40-60 prospective customers — or users who've been participating in an alpha test — can provide a price range, or help structure different pricing tiers. "You can't ask what the price should be," says Campbell, "but you can ask things like, 'At what point is the product starting to get so expensive that you might not purchase it?' or 'At what point is it so cheap that you question the quality?'" The survey also asks how likely the respondent is to purchase the product on a scale of 1 to 7: not likely at all, or extremely likely.

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SCVNGR finds $12 million more to support LevelUp mobile payment product

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 7, 2012 09:00 AM
SCVNGR, the Boston company that originally set out to develop mobile games that could be played in the real world, has raised another $12 million from investors. But the money will go to support a newer SCVNGR product that seems to be building more momentum: the company's LevelUp mobile payment offering. It lets you pay for retail transactions simply by showing the screen of your mobile phone, and it allows merchants to offer a discount — like $2 off your first purchase — to lure you in, as well as continuing rewards for long-term loyalty. (I wrote about LevelUp back in March.)

The company says that 3,000 merchants in eight cities now accept LevelUp as a form of payment. Users are spending about $2 million monthly with the app. The new funding will enable the company to roll out LevelUp in more cities, the company says.

SCVNGR has now raised about $32 million in total. The new round includes prior investors like Google Ventures and Highland Capital Partners, but also new participants like Transmedia Capital and Continental Investors. The company's press release indicates that the $12 million is part of a larger round the company is raising, and CEO Seth Priebatsch told me it will also include some corporate backers.

I asked Priebatsch about the decision to announce the funding before the round was completed. Here's what he said:

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Watertown's Athenahealth wants to promote more disruptive innovation in e-healthcare

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 6, 2012 08:00 AM

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A new initiative at Athenahealth, "More Disruption Please," wants to support fresh ideas in networked healthcare — and ideally create a spot for the Watertown company as a central node. Reps from the company are down in D.C. this week promoting the initiative at the Health Datapalooza conference.

Publicly-traded Athenahealth helps physicians manage their patients' electronic medical records, communicate with patients, and also get paid by insurance companies — all with cloud-based software and services. Spearheading the "More Disruption Please" program is Kyle Armbrester, a recent Harvard Business School grad. "We're trying to create new relationships with entrepreneurs and innovators and developers who are doing out-of-the-box thinking around healthcare," he says. "That could be a new scheduling tool for doctors, business intelligence software, or ways for different doctors who may use Athenahealth or other networks to share images or charts when they refer patients back and forth."

The initiative will entail sponsoring hackathons and holding a big annual conference in Maine each September (last year's inaugural edition attracted more than 200 people). But it'll also involve creating APIs so that startups can easily plug in to the Athenahealth system — while protecting patient data, of course — and also doing some seed investing in early-stage businesses. "We'd host the startups at Athena, pilot their technology, and help them roll out through our provider base," Armbrester says, adding that a few million dollars have been set aside for that purpose. And the company's search for and support of disruptive ideas in e-healthcare, he adds, "will drive our acquisition strategy." (Armbrester, incidentally, first met Athenahealth chief executive Jonathan Bush while Armbrester was serving as the chief information officer for Charlie Baker's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2010.)

One key focus of "More Disruption Please" will be creating value for the doctors in Athenahealth's network, Armbrester says: "We want to make their lives better, not sell them out to pharmaceutical companies." He says that two models Athenahealth looks at, in terms of companies that have created successful ecosystems around them, are Salesforce.com and Apple. "They've created huge value by supporting developers and startups that want to plug in to their businesses."

I have just one question about the new Athenahealth initiative, which sounds great: do real disruptors say "please"?

After helping lead e-book revolution, E Ink co-founder goes nuclear

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 4, 2012 10:24 AM
I get a lot of e-mails from entrepreneurs about a lot of different kinds of companies they're starting.

But it is not every day — nor every decade — that I get an e-mail from someone who is working on a new venture that will design and manufacture nuclear reactors.

So I was somewhat stunned when Russ Wilcox, former CEO and co-founder of the display-maker E Ink, e-mailed Friday afternoon to let me know that he had signed on as CEO and co-founder of Transatomic Power. The company, Wilcox informed me, is designing a "modular and rail-shippable" 200-500 megawatt reactor, "suitable for the replacement of coal plants." It could be manufactured at a central facility, and then shipped to where it is needed. His co-founders are Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, both PhD students at MIT's nuclear engineering department.

The reactor will rely on nuclear waste to produce power. They call it a "waste-annihilating molten salt reactor," and it can run entirely on the used fuel pellets produced by today's reactors, while reducing the volume of that waste. It's targeted initially at replacing coal plants, and later older nuclear plants, Wilcox explains, "which together make up about 60 percent of U.S. electricity production." He says the company's reactor design could produce roughly thirty times the electricity per pound of fuel, compared to traditional light water reactors.

Transatomic has so far raised $760,000 from individual investors, Wilcox says. I obviously asked about the high cost of developing a new reactor technology and bringing it to market.

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Jewelry e-tailer Gemvara pockets $25 million in new funding

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 4, 2012 08:00 AM

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How much investor interest is there in Gemvara, the Boston-based seller of customizable jewelry? Chief executive Matt Lauzon, right, says that the company just "raised twice as much as we thought we were going to raise" in its latest dance with the VCs. The new round, totaling $25 million, was led by Sergio Monsalve, a former eBay executive who is now a partner at Norwest Venture Partners in Palo Alto.

Gemvara was started by Lauzon and Jason Reuben in 2006, while the duo were undergrad students at Babson College, and originally incubated by Highland Capital Partners. (I first wrote about the company in 2008.) The Gemvara site displays about two million items, but the company doesn't own any inventory. The pictures you see online are computer-generated, and the jewelry is manufactured only after you place an order.

"We think the market is moving toward made-to-order, and a very personalized experience," Lauzon says. "We want to lead that." The new funding will go toward expanding the products the site offers — adding bracelets, for instance, and more products at an entry-level price point. "We're also continuing to improve the user experience and our own analytics," he says. The company has 75 employees, and is setting up a more permanent presence in Manhattan, Lauzon says, where most of Gemvara's products are manufactured.

Gemvara raised $15 million last spring, led by the British VC firm Balderton Capital. (All of Gemvara's previous investors, including Cambridge-based Highland Capital, participated in this latest round.) In total, the company has now collected about $50 million in funding. Lauzon has recruited executives from Rue La La, Zappos, and Victoria's Secret, among other established e-tailers. Last year, Lauzon was named to Inc. Magazine's list of 30 entrepreneurs under the age of 30 (he's 27.)

Gigavation wants to defend that vulnerable USB port on your computer

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 1, 2012 08:14 AM

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Gita Srivastava, CEO of the information security startup Gigavation, has a pretty alarming sales pitch. She'll ask an IT executive to "bring in your most protected computer, and then we'll demonstrate how vulnerable that machine is to a USB drive or another peripheral plugged into the USB port. We show that you can use the USB port on any computer to compromise the entire network."

It's a scary scenario, and some companies, Srivastava tells me, try to deal with the vulnerability of USB ports by simply filling them with epoxy so users can't plug in anything, or trying to ban USB drives from corporate campuses.

Gigavation, co-founded by Srivastava and Charles Herder, another MIT alum, is working on a combination hardware/software product it calls the Gigashield, and targeting customers in defense, healthcare, and financial services. "For the first time, you can secure the USB port," Srivastava says. "It's a huge claim." They've been cultivating the company since 2008, relying mainly on funding from friends and family. (After MIT, Srivastava went on to earn a degree at Harvard Law School; Herder, the CTO, went to work at Texas Instruments.)

The Gigashield (a product rendering is at right) is a USB hub that has a software layer that guards against "data leaking out, or attacks coming in," Srivastava says. "As long as our product sits in between a computer and a USB device, communications in both directions is totally secure." The software is a collection of algorithms designed to detect things like complex attacks and device spoofing. What's that? "It's when you plug in a mouse, and it looks and feels like a mouse, but after a few months it sees a file it is looking for, and it can download it and send it somewhere else," Srivastava explains. "Any device connecting over USB can carry malicious code, so we treat every device as untrusted."

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Head of Disney's Cambridge research lab departs

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 30, 2012 10:57 AM

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Joe Marks, who last year helped set up a new R&D lab for the Walt Disney Company in Cambridge, has left the company to work on a new startup.

Marks tells me the East Cambridge facility will remain open. The Disney web site lists three employees and a consultant as working there (in addition to Marks, whose picture hasn't yet been removed.)

But one of those employees, Amber Brown, is joining Marks at his new venture, Upfront Analytics. The company will be based in Dublin, Ireland. It's in stealth mode, with no web site yet. (Marks, who ran a Mitsubishi R&D lab in Cambridge before joining Disney, grew up in Ireland, and he also set up a Disney research lab there.)

Among the projects Disney has been working on in Cambridge are 3-D printing of large objects; tracking mentions of Disney in the blogosphere; delivering "a Disney cinema experience to the developing world in a way that makes economic sense"; and supplying information via mobile devices to help theme park visitors steer clear of crowded areas.

I've contacted Disney by phone or e-mail to inquire about the future of the Cambridge facility, and whether a new chief has been chosen yet, but haven't heard back. When I visited the lab last Friday, no one answered the door.

Update: a Disney spokesperson informs me that Jessica Hodgins is now overseeing the Disney lab in Cambridge. Based in Pittsburgh, she also oversees Disney labs there and in California.

Update #2: Jonathan Yedidia informs me by e-mail that he's the only senior researcher currently working at the Cambridge lab, but that the staff includes "a junior researcher, three professor consultants who visit regularly, four post-docs (three hired and starting soon, one in the process of finishing the hire), and seven lab associates." (Lab associates are paid interns who usually stick around for anywhere from three months to a year. The professor consultants he mentions are Hanspeter Pfister of Harvard, Wojciech Matusik of MIT, and Marc Alexa of the Technical University of Berlin.)

Former SpeechWorks chief executive out raising money for Xtone, startup that wants to speech-enable mobile apps

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 25, 2012 09:19 AM
In the days before Siri, one of the most innovative speech startups around was Boston's SpeechWorks International. The company mainly focused on bringing speech recognition to the phone systems of customers like Amtrak, United Airlines, and FedEx, helping handle calls more efficiently. But the company was also working on "multi-modal" technologies for mobile devices way back in 2001, thinking about how we might speak commands as well as punch buttons on our phones. (This was before most phones had touchable screens, young readers.) SpeechWorks went public in an IPO that saw its shares triple on the first day of trading, and then was acquired in 2003 for $132 million by the Burlington company that grew into Nuance Communications.

Now, the former CEO of SpeechWorks, Stuart Patterson, is out talking to local venture capital firms to raise money for another speech-related business. Xtone, founded in Virginia in 2004, wants to help developers of mobile apps add a layer of "Siri-like" speech functionality to them. Patterson tells me that once he closes the company's next round, he'll be setting up shop in Boston and hiring staff up here; Xtone already has several consultants in the area — some of them former SpeechWorks employees.

"We're not in core speech technology," says Patterson, who became CEO of Xtone in January. "We're building a platform to help customers develop new services that use this new modality of speech with their mobile devices, which has been proven by the success of Siri." He says the Xtone platform will let app developers add speech functionality without having to develop it differently for different mobile operating systems, like Apple and Android: "It's a write once, run anywhere platform." (The simplicity of using Xtone's platform to script conversations that users can have with an app will make Xtone more appealing for developers, he asserts, than trying to work with different APIs to take advantage of the built-in speech recognition capabilities of different operating systems.)

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Scenarios for 38 Studios going forward

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 23, 2012 01:29 PM

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I've been talking to people this morning about the most likely scenarios for 38 Studios, the Providence-based game development shop that seems to be running out of money after receiving a $75 million loan guarantee from Rhode Island. As of today, the company's CEO and senior VP of product development have updated their LinkedIn profiles to indicate they're no longer with the company.

I spoke with game industry executives and venture capitalists who've invested in other developers of massively-multiplayer games. Not everyone wanted to talk on the record, but here are some of the scenarios they sketched out for what happens next at 38. (I left a message today for 38 Studios seeking comment, but haven't heard back.)

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New mobile app, About Last Night, will chronicle mischief and triumphs after dark (and of course, offer deals)

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 22, 2012 12:34 PM

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Two brothers from New Hampshire are in New York today to introduce their new startup, About Last Night, at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference. Darren and Derek Dodge are notable entrepreneurs both because Darren spent a year-and-a-half working in new media for the Ashton Kutcher empire — and because their father is a high-profile Google executive, Don Dodge.

Their iPhone app, developed in collaboration with Cambridge-based Mobinett Interactive, is "a social network especially for nightlife," says Darren (he's on the right in the photo). "It's about the party last night, the concert, or the date. It's very photo-centric, and you can follow people or locations like a bar or nightclub." The app is intended to help guide users to where the best action is on a given evening — venues and events can be rated by users of the app — or show them what mischief their friends were up to the night before. (Yes, you can keep certain things private so that only you can see them.)

Businesses can use the app to send out special offers to the people who follow them, such as two-for-one appetizers. And the most active users of the app can earn bronze, silver, and gold medals, which make them more visible to other users of the app.

"We're raising money now," says Derek. "When the kids come back to school in the fall, we think that'll be a huge factor in getting people to spread it around."

Derek Dodge tells me that he dropped out of University of New Hampshire to start another company, 1Mind, aimed at "helping you find people who are really awesome and whom you should know." The About Last Night app sprang from that business, and took only about three months to create, he says.

Their father, Don, is a developer advocate at Google. Aside from being a supportive parent, he says he has no official role with the company — though he is serving as an unpaid PR consultant to the pair, and introducing them to friends like MC Hammer.

Travel site Kayak buying tickets for IPO road show; take-off could be impacted by Facebook share price

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 21, 2012 01:08 PM
Kayak.com, the travel site with its headquarters in Connecticut but most of its employees at its technology office in Concord, Mass., is preparing for its IPO road show, the series of investor presentation that precede an initial public offering. Kayak first announced its plans to go public about 18 months ago. CNBC reported last week that Kayak was hoping to raise $150 million in the offering, and sources close to the company told me on Friday that the company was hoping to kick off its road show sometime in May, hitting cities like Boston, New York, Toronto, and San Francisco. The IPO could potentially value Kayak at $1 billion.

Kayak CTO and co-founder Paul English told me that he couldn't comment on the company's IPO plans because of the "quiet period" mandated by the Securities & Exchange Commission. Interestingly, English owns a bigger percentage of Kayak than the company's CEO, Steve Hafner: 8.9 percent of the company, versus 6.9 percent for Hafner, formerly an executive at Orbitz. (And English recently also acquired the title "president," as of an SEC filing on May 8th.) General Catalyst, the Cambridge VC firm that incubated Kayak in its earliest days in 2004, owns the largest chunk of the company (30 percent). Kayak brought in $224 million in revenue last year.

Kayak's IPO has been delayed because of stock market "choppiness," says Boston investment banker Peter Falvey, but also because of the emergence of a potential new rival: Google Flights, the product of Google's 2010 acquisition of ITA Software, a Cambridge company.

Now, Kayak's IPO fortunes could hinge on the aftermath of the Facebook IPO last Friday. Falvey says that the social network's offering "has been the most anticipated IPO ever, and now its stock is trading down 11 percent from the offering price. We may all be reading too much into the Facebook tea leaves right now, but I suspect that will be deemed a negative" for other tech IPOs in the pipeline, like Kayak.

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On the eve of the IPO, some Facebook ancient history

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 17, 2012 10:28 AM
Now that everyone has concluded that Facebook is going to be the most successful IPO since the invention of stock exchanges, I thought it'd be fun to look back at some early Facebook history.

So here are five links from (or about) Facebook's early days. Would you have bet on Facebook becoming the planet's dominant social network, back in 2004 or 2005? If you were a VC who met with co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard sophomore, in 2004, would you have invested — especially when he insisted that he was perfectly suited to keep on running the company?

zuck2.jpg- February 2004: "Hundreds register for new Facebook website," from the Harvard Crimson.

- April 2004: "Are we a match?", the first New York Times coverage of Facebook.

- September 2004: "Online adversaries: Rivalry between college-networking websites spawns lawsuit," from the Boston Globe (the paper's first coverage of Thefacebook.com.)

- September 2007: "Why Facebook went west," my column on Facebook's decision to leave Cambridge for Palo Alto.

- June 2009: "Where in the world is Eduardo Saverin?" from Boston venture capitalist Larry Cheng, who introduced Facebook's founders to the VC firm where he worked at the time, Battery Ventures.

Game startup Disruptor Beam collects funding to work on games tied to TV shows

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 10, 2012 09:11 AM

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Just about two years after I wrote about the creation of a new game development shop, Disruptor Beam, co-founder Jon Radoff tells me the firm raised its first outside capital this week. The money comes from a trio of angels with ties to Harmonix Music Systems, the Cambridge company that created "Rock Band" and "Dance Central," as well as former E Ink chief executive Russ Wilcox.

Radoff didn't want to be specific about how much Disruptor Beam had raised in this seed round, but he did confirm it was less than $1 million.

"We're spending a lot of time thinking about the convergence of tablets, TV, and social gaming," Radoff says, adding that the company has plans to announce its first licensing deal with a television show in the next few weeks.

It sounds like the new funding will allow Disruptor Beam to go from a small firm building games for outside clients to one that creates products of its own. (Disruptor Beam worked with Waltham-based GSN Digital to build "50 Cent's Blackjack" recently, and had built another game for Ayeah Games, a startup that called it quits last year.) Radoff talks about making "story-oriented" games linked to popular TV shows and books, which will allow players to "interact with characters they know and like, and really live in those worlds."

When I spoke with him two years ago, Radoff mentioned that the studio was working on a social game called "Gods of Rock" that would invite players into the world of music superstars. That game never launched. "We never found good partners in the music industry," Radoff says.

Radoff co-founded Disruptor Beam with his wife, Angela. Investors in the seed round include CommonAngels; Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopoulos, CTO Eran Egozy, former COO Mike Dornbrook; and Wilcox. The company operates out of the WorkBar shared space in Boston's Leather District.

Heartland Robotics will unveil first product by January 2013 (if not before)

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 7, 2012 02:44 PM
One of the stealthiest Boston companies I've been obsessed with for a couple years now is Heartland Robotics.

Why?

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was the company's first investor. Rodney Brooks, founder of Heartland and previously a co-founder of iRobot, left a tenured faculty position at MIT to dedicate more time to the company. The team includes a CEO with experience at Dell, and other employees from Bose, NASA, 3M, and Dean Kamen's DEKA Research.

And the company has a big vision: "Robots will change the way we work," Heartland's web site proclaims. "They will have intelligence and awareness. They will be teachable, safe and affordable. They will make us productive in ways we never imagined."

scotteckert.jpgBrooks has apparently told people that Heartland is working on the robotics industry's version of the iPhone — an affordable-enough device (their target price is about $5000) that will be intuitive to use, and that will spawn a community of app developers who write software for it. It'll be designed to perform a variety of packaging or light manufacturing tasks, sources have told me. The robot may also be capable of being "trained" to perform a certain repetitive task just by moving its arm and gripper. Heartland's product, according to those who've seen it demoed, could potentially put robots in lots of small and medium-sized business. (Here's my 2010 background report on what the company is up to.)

Now, it looks like Heartland is laying the groundwork for a launch, perhaps at the 2013 Automate trade show in Chicago, put on by the Association for Advancing Automation. Heartland CEO Scott Eckert (pictured at right) confirmed that the company will be an exhibitor at the show, but wouldn't say much else.

Heartland also recently hired Mitch Rosenberg to run marketing; he'd previously headed up marketing and product management at Kiva Systems, a maker of warehouse robots recently acquired by Amazon.

That makes it seem like the company could have something to announce fairly soon — perhaps even before next January.

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Former E Ink chief executive Russ Wilcox joins board at Harvest Automation, details angel investments

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 3, 2012 10:00 AM
Russ Wilcox has been busy, both personally and professionally, since he left the Cambridge display-maker E Ink in 2010. E Ink had helped to pioneer the market for e-books with paper-like displays that consumed very little power. It was acquired by a Taiwanese company, Prime View, in 2009.

First, Wilcox took his family on a year-long trip around the world, which ended last July.

Now, Wilcox, who helped start E Ink back in 1997, is once again getting plugged in to Boston's startup scene. Harvest Automation is announcing today that Wilcox will join its board; Harvest makes robots that move potted plants around at nurseries. (I last wrote about the company in November, when Harvest raised $7.8 million from investors.) Harvest is "poised for an exciting product launch and sales growth," Wilcox writes via e-mail. "As a director I hope to actively share the operating lessons we learned at E Ink."

Wilcox tells me he's hoping to start a new venture in the energy sector, and he has also been making a string of angel investments. (You can find him on AngelList.) They include:

  • PowerInbox, trying to make the inbox more interactive (I wrote about them here recently)
  • Calimmune, working to "engineer immunity" to patients with HIV
  • DriveFactor, collecting data about how you actually drive.
  • Imprint Energy, working on flexible, low-cost, rechargeable "zinc poly" batteries.
  • AmberWave, a materials company working on new solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductors.
  • Gen9, building the first "fab" for synthetic biology, enabling low-cost production of custom genes.

That last one was co-founded by Joe Jacobson, an MIT Media Lab prof who was also a co-founder of E Ink with Wilcox.

Northeastern students create a shirt that knows when you're slacking off on your workout

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 1, 2012 09:56 AM

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Could a skin-tight shirt festooned with sensors improve the quality of your work-out?

A team of Northeastern students and profs have built a prototype that could point the way to the future of coaching and personal training for some elite athletes — and perhaps eventually hard-core gym rats, too. The Squid shirt is a tricked-out short-sleeve shirt from Under Armour that monitors how your delts, pecs, and lats are performing. (It also tracks your heart rate.) The shirt knows if you're hitting your exercise goals, and also if both sides of your body are doing equal amounts of work. It can relay that information via Bluetooth to a mobile phone or laptop, which would allow a coach or personal trainer to keep tabs on how you're doing. The shirt can also give you feedback via vibration if you're slacking off.

"It's a way for a trainer or coach to sign up an athlete for a workout, and collect data on how they do with it," says Adam Morgan, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. "They can target different muscle areas that they might want to develop with an individual or a group of team members."

squid2.jpgTrevor Lorden (pictured here) showed me how it worked, using a seated row machine. He said that it only takes him about two minutes to don the Squid shirt and affix the dozen disposable sensors. (The shirt can be washed in a machine, as long as it's dried on low heat.) Since the team is still developing the Bluetooth connection, he was connected to a laptop by a cable. Ali Aas, who helped develop the mobile app and web site, showed how the information about Lorden's workout could be viewed. You could see a calendar showing which days he'd worked out, and how his average intensity compared to the goal he'd set on various exercises. It also showed on a spectrum whether the exerciser is favoring one arm versus the other, or working out in perfect symmetry.

Faculty advisor Mark Sivak told me that they'll be testing the shirt with Northeastern athletes this summer. They see the initial market as college and professional sports teams. The Squiddoos may soon add additional sensors to monitor the biceps and abdominal muscles, and Constantinos Mavroidis, another faculty advisor to the project, said they've had some early conversations with a medical device company interested in the Squid shirt about tracking blood pressure and breathing.

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Two remaining employees of Play140 picked up by Oomba, new 'digital objects' startup from Atari's founder

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 24, 2012 09:29 PM
Play140 was built atop one of those concepts that either could've caught fire...or not. The premise was that Twitter, in addition to being a communications channel, could also be a place for people to play word games with one another. The Cambridge company's first game, The Acronym Game, invited players to develop the cleverest phrase to accompany a random string of letters.

shawnb.jpgWell, T.A.G.N.Q.B.O. (The Acronym Game Never Quite Broke Out.) Last August, the company's Twitter account and blog went quiet. Play140 employees — including two of the three founders — started finding other jobs. By this month, only chief executive Shawn Broderick (pictured at right) and CTO Michael Johnson were left.

Tonight, Broderick announced on the company's blog that the company was being acquired for an undisclosed amount by Oomba, a stealthy California startup. One of the company's founders is Nolan Bushnell, best known for creating Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, and also inventing the early videogame Pong. Broderick, now Oomba's president, tells me that the company will soon be headquartered in Massachusetts.

Oomba's profile page on AngelList describes the company this way:

Oomba is a Digital Object Trading™ platform that communicates with the virtual goods databases of online and mobile games through a secure, robust protocol. Working with the voluntary cooperation of game publishers, transactions can be initiated, escrowed and recorded by Oomba with complete accountability to the buyers and sellers.

(Broderick says Oomba has raised money from angels and a venture capital firm, but hasn't yet disclosed the details.)

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Ambient Furniture and more, at this week's Media Lab member meeting [ Video ]

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 23, 2012 02:48 PM
Any time you visit the MIT Media Lab, you can expect to stumble across some jaw-dropping whiz-bangery... and that's doubly true when the researchers there pull out all the stops to impress the major corporations who fund the lab. It happens this week at the lab's spring member meeting, with presentations on bionic limbs, synthetic organisms, intelligent software agents, fluid interfaces, and "engineering memories." (Paging Philip K. Dick.)

Giving one of the talks is Media Lab lecturer David Rose. He's a local entrepreneur who founded Ambient Devices and, more recently, Vitality, a Cambridge startup that created a line of smart pill bottles that could remind you to take your medicine — and notify a family member or doctor when you'd missed a dose.

Rose's latest work at the Media Lab focuses on household objects that have wireless connectivity, barcode scanners, and displays built in. Essentially, what if your coffee table could display your Facebook photo albums as you talked about a recent vacation? What if your trash can could scan empty packages and automatically re-order products from Amazon? What if your doorbell could chime when your kids were on the way home, using location info from Google Latitude?

The video overview is well worth a look... and if you want to follow the event's live webcast, it'll be here, starting Tuesday morning. You can also follow the Twitter hash tag MediaIO.

Ambient Furniture overview from David Rose on Vimeo.

Silver Lining Systems, working to demolish data center bottlenecks, raises $2 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 19, 2012 11:03 AM

Update: In February 2013, SilverLining changed its name to Infinio Systems, and announced that it had raised an additional $10 million from Highland Capital Partners and Bessemer Venture Partners.

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A startup with roots at Columbia University is growing in Kendall Square, and building a team chock full of Netezza and Endeca veterans.

Silver Lining Systems doesn't divulge much on its web site, but it does have $2 million in initial funding from California-based Lightspeed Venture Partners, Cambridge's Founder Collective, the NYC Seed Fund, and several angel investors, including Endeca founder Steve Papa; Rob Soni, a special limited partner at Matrix; David Murphy of Blue Coat; and BladeLogic co-founder CEO Dev Ittycheria.

Silver Lining co-founder and chief executive Vishal Misra, a Columbia computer science prof, tells me the company wants to demolish some of the data center bottlenecks that can impair the performance of cloud-based applications and services. Dan Rubinstein, another Columbia prof, is another founder, as is Joshua Reich, a Columbia PhD who is now a fellow at Princeton.

"We're targeting data centers and virtualized environments, and trying to solve the performance problems with storage and networking," Misra says. When a company has hundreds or thousands of virtual machines running on servers in a data center, Misra explains, "if you think about it, every machine is running similar software, and that means the bits are almost identical on all those virtual machines. But the way storage and networking works is that those servers go and fetch the same bits again and again from the storage system. Our thinking is, if the same bits are traveling over a network to multiple CPUs, why not store them or cache them locally?" He says the idea springs from a new kind of networking architecture called "content-centric networking."

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Cambridge's PowerInbox launches API to help users do more with e-mail than just read it

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 18, 2012 11:00 AM

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PowerInbox has a pretty compelling proposition for both senders and recipients of e-mail. For recipients, the company wants to make it possible to do more than just scan your incoming messages; you're able to take action, commenting on Facebook photos, scheduling appointments, or donating to worthy fundraising campaigns. And for senders, the company says that by making it easier for users to engage — and buy stuff— more easily, e-mail becomes a much more effective tool.

Today, PowerInbox is releasing its Connect API, which makes it easier for companies to deliver these more functional and interactive e-mails, and for users to see them in their inbox without having to download any special software. (That's assuming you use e-mail clients from Fuser, Unified Inbox, or Smak; others will still require a download.) It'll be interesting to see if larger e-mail companies, like Gmail or Outlook, decide to embrace the Connect API.

"We think that interactive e-mail can be as big of a trend as mobile and social are," says Matt Thazhmon, founder and CEO of PowerInbox. (He's pictured at right.) The company isn't yet focused on monetizing the product, but Thazhmon hints that it may eventually be able to up-sell certain services to marketers, in return for bringing more visitors to their web sites or making more purchases happen inside the inbox.

Already, PowerInbox makes it possible to see a live Groupon countdown without leaving your inbox; view a video from Boston-based Vsnap; or make a donation via Boston-based Fundraise.com.

Thazhmon says the eight-person startup is outgrowing its current Kendall Square space. PowerInbox has so far raised $1.9 million from venture capital firms like Founder Collective, Atlas Venture, and Egan Managed Capital, along with angel investors including Mike Dornbrook (ex-Harmonix COO), Russ Wilcox (former E Ink CEO), and Eric Groves (ex-Constant Contact SVP.)

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Boundless Learning, Flat World Knowledge, and the future of textbooks

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 16, 2012 10:35 AM
This week, my Globe column focuses on the recently-filed lawsuit against Boundless Learning, a Boston startup that offers online "course materials" intended to replaced traditional printed textbooks.

From the column:

In Boston, it can seem like most of the city’s population has either authored a textbook, assigned one for a course they teach, or purchased one recently.

So that makes a recently filed lawsuit our city’s version of Viacom v. YouTube, or the Department of Justice v. Microsoft, one of those cases that everyone in our tech- and education-oriented town will follow. Three of the largest publishers of textbooks are suing Boundless Learning, a Boston start-up trying to popularize free, Web-based textbooks.

Techies and students may line up on the side of Boundless, which asserts that printed texts are too expensive - and often out of date by the time they hit bookstores. And isn’t it about time the placid textbook industry was shaken up by some disruptive innovation?


But textbook writers and some educators may find themselves sympathizing with the publishers suing Boundless for copyright infringement. They say the digital texts resemble their copyrighted works a bit too closely, which could over time chisel away at the economic rationale for writing and publishing high-quality, peer-reviewed texts.

It’s one of those cases that pits content creators trying to earn a living in the digital age against consumers who would prefer to get everything for free.

Here's a bit of supplemental material worth reading...

• I wanted to talk a bit in the column about different models of offering texts for free, including one developed by Flat World Knowledge. They make new textbooks available online for free, but charge reasonable prices for the paperback, audio book, or e-book versions. And of course, the textbook authors get a decent chunk of that revenue. But as usual, I ran out of space in the column. So here's my correspondence with Boston College management professor John Gallaugher, who has published a text with Flat World.

• Here's the lawsuit filed against Boundless by Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan:

Publisher Complaint

• And here is Boundless' response to the lawsuit, posted on the company blog.

TalkTo raises $3 million for app that lets you text questions to businesses

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 11, 2012 09:00 AM
We're all accustomed by now to text-messaging friends and colleagues to coordinate brunches, ask questions, and schedule meetings. It's often the quickest way to get an answer from someone, even if they're multi-tasking.

So why can't you text message a business?

levinson3.jpgMaking that happen is the goal of a new Cambridge start-up called TalkTo, which just released its iPhone app. (There's also a mobile web version.) "We wanted it to be incredibly simple to text any business in America just as easily as you text a friend," says co-founder and CEO Stuart Levinson. (He's pictured at right.) "The business doesn't have to install anything new to communicate with customers, or learn a new piece of software, but the consumer can send a text to do things like make a restaurant reservation or find out if a particular product is in stock."

To demonstrate, co-founder and CTO Riley Crane sent a message to the Whole Foods Market on River Street, asking whether they carried Nutella. Within a few minutes, he got a response: nope, but they do carry similar hazelnut and chocolate spreads.

You can use the TalkTo app to ask any question of a business, but it also streamlines the process of asking common ones. For example, confirming the operating hours of a business, making a reservation, or asking how much a particular product costs.

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Intuit buys Boston-based AisleBuyer, startup developing check-out technology for mobile phones

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 10, 2012 03:55 PM
Intuit, the big California software company that helps consumers and businesses manage their money, is buying a Boston startup, AisleBuyer. The purchase price isn't being disclosed, but AisleBuyer has raised about $11 million in equity and debt financing since it was founded in 2009.

AisleBuyer developed technology that allows consumers to scan a product's barcode in a store, see reviews and ratings, and, if they choose, pay for that product with a credit card without having to stand in line at a register. I test-drove the technology in 2010 at Magic Beans, a small local chain that sells kids products. Last year, AisleBuyer announced a partnership with Big Y Supermarkets, based in Springfield, but the startup hadn't announced any other users of its technology since then.

AisleBuyer chief executive Andrew Paradise tells me that the Intuit relationship began last October, when he spoke at a conference in Chicago immediately after Chris Hylen, who heads up the Payment Solutions business unit at Intuit. "We started talking afterwards," Paradise says. The companies began a very quiet pilot test earlier this year with a few Intuit customers, exploring how AisleBuyer's mobile check-out technology could be integrated with various Intuit software products.

"While we were pursuing the partnership path, we realized that there were a lot of things we could do together if we were more fully integrated as one organization," Paradise says. "The vision around creating a mobile point-of-sale offering for small businesses turned into acquisition talks."

AisleBuyer had 37 employees prior to the acquisition, and not everyone will join Intuit. A three-person team in Palo Alto will go to work at Intuit's Mountain View headquarters. The Boston employees who'd been working on AisleBuyer's small business product will stay where they are, and become Intuit employees. But a significant number of people who'd been working on an enterprise version of AisleBuyer's technology will lose their jobs; Paradise wouldn't be specific about the number.

AisleBuyer was a semi-finalist in the inaugural MassChallenge startup competition, in 2010. Intuit has long had a software development office in Waltham.

Crashlytics adds $5 million in funding, reveals early beta customers

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 10, 2012 01:12 PM
Investors are betting that as mobile apps continue to proliferate, software developers will need better tools for figuring out why they crash and eradicating bugs. A Cambridge start-up, Crashlytics, does just that, and the company is announcing $5 million in new funding today; Crashlytics raised its first million bucks just last October.

crashcofounders.jpg"I started the company because I had the problem," says co-founder Jeff Seibert. "There weren't any good tools for gathering information about why crashes were happening." (Seibert is pictured at right, with co-founder Wayne Chang.) He tells me Crashlytics' software code is now incorporated in more than 1000 iPhone and iPad apps, including apps from Yammer, Path, Kibits, Hipstamatic, Delta Air Lines, and Domino's Pizza. The Crashlytics code works only with Apple's iOS operating system, and Seibert wouldn't comment on a timeline for supporting Android or other operating systems.

The new funding round is led by Flybridge Capital Partners of Boston. It also includes Baseline Ventures, which had a very big payday yesterday with Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of Instagram, a Baseline-backed startup.

David Aronoff of Flybridge says that after last fall's seed round, "Jeff and Wayne built their product better and faster than we had even hoped for," and that "customer adoption went viral and shattered the end goals for the seed within the first month of private beta."

"This is money for the next two years," Seibert says. "It lets us ramp up the team quite a bit, and the goal is to get the product to profitability." Right now, Crashlytics is still running a private beta test, and hasn't yet started charging customers.

Seibert says the company will primarily be adding engineers to its team, but may also hire a few marketing or public relations employees as well.

I profiled Crashyltics co-founder Wayne Chang last November.

GrabCAD collects more funding, plans office warming party with Estonian president

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 4, 2012 01:07 PM
GrabCAD founder Hardi Meybaum tells me that his startup has added a few hundred thousand bucks to the $4 million funding round it announced back in January. The new money comes from individual investors like Doron Reuveni, CEO of uTest; Matt Mickiewicz, co-founder of 99Designs; and Ahti Heinla, formerly the chief technical architect at Skype.

And next Wednesday, the president of Estonia, Toomas Henrik-Ilves, will be in town to help GrabCAD inaugurate its new offices at the American Twine Building in East Cambridge. (The company got started in Tallinn, Estonia. Locally, GrabCAD had previously been shacking up at the Kendall Square office of Matrix Partners.)

The company has built a site that brings together mechanical engineers who design products and components of products, in part by offering a free library of 3D CAD (computer-assisted design) models that they can use in their work. Engineers can also set up profiles on the site and showcase their work. Companies that want to crowdsource the design of a new product or part can run challenges on GrabCAD, and potentially get dozens or hundreds of engineers thinking about their particular problem. The companies award prize money for the best design, and may later continue working with an engineer to move the product forward. GrabCAD charges an administrative fee for each challenge.

Meybaum says the Cambridge office currently has four employees, and the Tallinn office has 12. Meybaum says he expects the company to add another four jobs in Cambridge over the next few months. He splits his time between the two sites.

GrabCAD was part of the 2011 TechStars Boston class, after winning the Seedcamp London program earlier that year.

Here's a screenshot from the GrabCAD site:

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Aframe, British video startup that's setting up U.S. headquarters in Boston, raises $7 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 3, 2012 07:35 AM

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Aframe, a London-based startup, announced last week that it was setting up its U.S. headquarters in Boston, led by former Avid Technology executive Mark Overington. (I broke that news on Twitter back in October.) Today, the company is announcing a new funding round: $7 million from Octopus Investments, Eden Ventures, and Northstar Ventures.

Aframe is a cloud-based service that helps customers like MTV and the BBC run their video production processes more efficiently. Basically, anyone working on a media company's production team who needs to access raw or edited video can get it, securely, through Aframe. The Aframe service frees media companies from the headache of having to manage their own storage infrastructure for video; all they need is an Internet connection and the editing software they normally use. Monthly pricing starts at $99.

Aframe has now raised $10 million in total, all from European venture capital firms. I asked chief executive David Peto (pictured at right) whether he'd had any any talks with Boston-area investors. He told me he'd met with a few, but all of them "wanted to see us with a proper presence in the U.S. first."

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My life as a micro-laborer: Exploring Mechanical Turk, Skyword, TaskRabbit, GrabCAD and more

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 1, 2012 10:15 AM
Here's today's column from the Boston Globe, about sites that enable small jobs to be distributed to a global network of freelancers. I'm publishing it here in its entirety because the Globe's website seems to be down this morning.

Plus, I'm sharing a bit of additional perspective from MIT Sloan School of Management professor Ofer Sharone and Diane Hohen of Milford, NH, who runs errands for TaskRabbit. I'm also publishing my e-mail exchanges with TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque; Tom Gerace, the founder and CEO of Skyword; and Stephen Reed, an attorney at the Boston firm Beck Riden Reed.

(Update: This column led to an episode of NPR's "On Point" that aired April 3rd, 2012.)

Here's the column...

The "micro-labor" trend seems great for businesses and consumers, but a tough way to make a living for micro-laborers

A few weeks ago, tired of the niggling questions of editors and the constant press of deadlines, I decided to chuck it all and become a Turker.

What is a Turker? It’s someone who performs small tasks that can’t be automated. Once you sign up on the Mechanical Turk website, operated by Amazon.com, you can choose from an array of jobs that might take a few seconds or a few hours: you can translate documents from Tibetan to English, fill out surveys for academic researchers, or transcribe a 71-minute lecture about gastroenterology. How’s the pay? That last task offered $2.85 for work that would likely take several hours.

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With new mobile payment app, Cumberland Farms allows customers to buy gas with their phones

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 30, 2012 12:15 PM

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I don't usually drive from Brookline out to Framingham just to gas up, but I found myself pulling into a Cumberland Farms outlet on Cochituate Road a few weeks ago, to try paying for a tank of fuel without using cash or a credit card. About fifty Cumberand Farms locations in eastern Massachusetts are participating in a pilot test of a just-released mobile app called SmartPay, available for iPhone and Android, and they're offering a five cents a gallon discount if you use it. It was the perfect lure for a tech-obsessed cheapskate like me: trying out a new app for mobile payment, and saving money at the same time.

The app was developed by Cumberland Farms in collaboration with the Boston office of PayPal. (Last April, PayPal acquired Fig Card, a small Boston startup that was developing mobile payment technology.) It requires that you have an account with PayPal, the online payment service that is owned by eBay. In addition to the iPhone and Android versions, there's also a mobile web version for other phones.

My biggest qualm about trying the app was that I'd always been told that using your mobile phone at the gas pump would inevitably produce a Michael Bay-size fireball that would consume the surrounding neighborhood. But Dave Banks, the chief information officer of Cumberland Farms, said there were no known incidents of mobile phones sparking fires or explosions. (Static electricity is another matter.) And the company has had to get approvals from fire departments in each of the towns where it is deploying the SmartPay app.

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Veterans of Cambridge Technology Partners getting the band back together...at Cloud Technology Partners

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 28, 2012 08:22 AM

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Chris Greendale has a picture of the Blues Brothers hanging near his desk, and he talks about building his new venture, cloudTP, in part by trying to "get the band back together." That'd be the consultants Greendale worked with in the 1990s at Cambridge Technology Partners, the systems integrator that went public in 1993, and grew to about 4000 employees and $800 million in annual revenues.

Greendale was a founder and head of sales and marketing at Cambridge Technology Partners, and he says about one-third of the team at Boston-based cloudTP has that other CTP on their résumés. Founded in 2010, cloudTP has 35 employees, and Greendale expects it to be at 75 by the end of the year. "Our biggest challenge right now is hiring people," he says.

CloudTP focuses on helping large enterprises take advantage of the lower costs and increased flexibility of cloud computing, whether that entails using a public cloud or software-as-a-service offering (think Salesforce.com or Amazon Web Services) or creating a more secure and manageable "private cloud" inside the corporate firewall. Greendale also talks about "community clouds," designed to be used by a company's business partners and customers.

"Our customers want advice about what hardware and software to use, and they need help migrating their legacy applications to the cloud," says Greendale. "We're also one of the few vendor-neutral options that they have, when it comes to selecting the right vendors for a particular situation."

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Tracelytics collects $5.2 million to help customers keep an eye on their web apps

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 26, 2012 09:00 AM
A Providence start-up called Tracelytics is announcing today that it has raised $5.2 million in a funding round led by Bain Capital Ventures. That makes Tracelytics one of the best-funded alumni of the Betaspring accelerator program in Providence. (NuLabel Technologies has raised about the same amount, according to Betaspring director Allan Tear.) But Tracelytics CEO John Vigeant tells me the company has leased a new office in Boston's Leather District, and will be moving north from Providence in early April.

Tracelytics is a software-as-a-service company that helps its customers monitor and improve the performance of their web applications: how quickly, for instance, did a web site respond to a visitor's query about the inventory level of a specific product, and where were there problems? Tracelytics aims to provide a single view of complex applications that may run on numerous different servers across the Internet. It's already used by sites like GitHub and SeatGeek. Pricing starts at $95 per month.

The company was founded by a trio of Brown University grads in 2010; it now has eight employees. Vigeant, who joined as CEO in January, says the plan is to double in size over the next three months, primarily adding salespeople and engineers. (Access to talent is one key reason for the move to Boston.)

Investing alongside Bain in this latest funding round are Flybridge Capital Partners, Google Ventures, and Battery Ventures, who supplied seed funding to Tracelytics last year.

After departing HP, ex-Vertica CEO Chris Lynch has plans to make 20 investments in burgeoning 'big data' sector

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 23, 2012 09:42 AM

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On the afternoon of February 24th, Chris Lynch got up in front of the 150 employees of HP's Vertica division to make a speech. The group, focused on analytical software that wrings insight from real-time streams of data, had just moved to Alewife from Billerica, and most assumed that Lynch was simply christening the new location. They were ready to drink some beer, eat some cheese, and play some Rock Band.

Vertica had been acquired by HP for $350 million the prior February, and while the employees didn't expect Lynch to stay forever, they were surprised when he told them that he'd be leaving in March. "I said, 'I love you guys. This office is my gift to you.'" Lynch told the rank and file that he believed that a revolution was brewing in Boston around "big data" — collecting and analyzing vast amounts of information in real-time — and he wanted to be part of that revolution as an angel investor. While HP CEO Meg Whitman and COO Ray Lane tried to persuade Lynch to stick around at the company, his last day was last Friday. (Ex-VC and Vertica executive Colin Mahony is now running the Cambridge office.)

Lynch says that the HP purchase of Vertica was the second-best payday of his career (the top was ArrowPoint Communications, which went public and then was acquired by Cisco for $5.7 billion). He's now positioning himself as an angel investor focused on big data startups, primarily in Boston. His plan is to make 20 investments in the near-term; already, he has put money into a handful of local startups, including Hopper, Kinvey, Mortar Data, Power Inbox, and Hadapt. He says he often shares dealflow with Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners and Jeff Fagnan of Atlas Venture.

"I grew up in the tech industry in this area," Lynch says. "And it felt like for the last 10 or 15 years, we've been hibernating, and the West Coast is taking all the mojo. We've been at the front of waves of technology in the past, with minicomputers and then data networking. I want to help revitalize Boston. Big data is going to be to this region what networking was in the late 80s and early 90s."

"If you look at the way the web played out, at first people were creating discrete new businesses online, and then Main Street took it and integrated it into their existing businesses," Lynch continues. "Today, you have companies like Zynga and Groupon that have built their businesses on real-time analytics and big data, but the megatrend over the next year-and-a-half is that companies like Gillette and Fidelity are going to get on board. In a year or two, you'll be asking them about their analytics strategy, and how they're using data to gain competitive advantage. How are you using the information you have about customers to provide a better experience, and sell you more stuff? Big data is at the foundation of all of the megatrends that are happening today, from social to mobile to the cloud to gaming."

"I love people and a lot of how I invest is about stories," Lynch says. "I think about people and their mission, and I think if they're in the right market space, we'll figure it out."

Lynch's five investments so far are all in Boston, but he says he'll consider investing in other regions, too — just not Silicon Valley, which he regards as "over-invested" and "plastic."

In Boston, he says, "you have the best data scientists in the world here. You've had great companies created like Vertica, Netezza, and Endeca. I want to bring that mojo back that we had in the 80s and 90s."

With new 50 Cent Blackjack game, Waltham-based GSN Digital increases emphasis on Facebook games

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 21, 2012 10:55 AM

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When you think about teams creating Facebook games in Boston, the first place that comes to mind is the Harvard Square office of Zynga, the publicly-traded games studio.

But out along Route 128, there's another group hard at work on Facebook games: the Waltham office of GSN Digital, the game development arm of TV's Game Show Network. The 105-person office divides its time between developing web-based games for GSN.com, mobile games, and Facebook games — but lately, there has been a growing emphasis on the latter, according to Peter Blacklow, who runs the operation. (That's Blacklow at right, sporting a pair of the championship rings he has won playing fantasy sports.)

GSN Digital has just launched "50 Cent's Blackjack" on Facebook, a collaboration with the rap star. It has a 25-person social games studio in San Francisco, and last year hired two social games entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C., who'd formerly been working on a Bain Capital Ventures backed start-up called Join the Company. (Blacklow said he simply hired the founders, though Bain's website describes it as an acquisition.)

GSN Digital exists in Waltham because GSN acquired a local company that developed web-based games, Worldwinner. (Worldwinner allowed users to play games of skill and, if they were good enough, win cash.) Blacklow says that GSN.com is now the #3 games portal online, after Yahoo and Pogo. On Facebook, the GSN Games app is among the top 20 apps, and it includes games like "Wheel of Fortune," "Bingo Blitz," and "Deal or No Deal."

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Lifeables wants to help you sort through the social media chaff to save the most memorable stuff

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 20, 2012 02:45 PM

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Social media has evolved into an endless parade of significant moments, trifling snippets, and everything in between. A Boston start-up called Lifeables wants to help you cull the most important memories from that parade and stash them away in a digital scrapbook. Last week, the company started an open beta test of its service — which so far is entirely free.

Lifeables is focused at first on parents (and moms, more specifically.) You start it off with some basic profile information about your kids. Then, it lets you upload and organize photos and videos of your own, but more importantly, it lets you plug in to social networking services where you and your family already likely share pictures: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram right now, with plans to support others (like YouTube and Flickr) in the future. The Lifeables software can look at the stream of content in your social networks and label it as "things we're pretty sure are about your kids" and "things we think are about your kids." You then tell it that you want to "collect" a photo or video or status update for your digital archive, or ignore it.

Once you've decided to stash something, you can give it a title and add additional details. You also collect the Facebook comments about that item, but Lifeables will also allow you to invite non-Facebook users in your family to add more.

"We don't think this displaces the act of posting pictures from your mobile phone to Facebook," says Lifeables CEO Karen Macumber. Instead, "we want to be the ultimate collector for you, pulling the content from the sources that are most relevant and important to you." In one sense, Lifeables offers you a way to "sequester" the content that matters most, storing it for posterity, but in another it lets you organize and annotate your family's content and then share it again on social networks.

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Amazon buys warehouse robotics start-up Kiva Systems for $775 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 19, 2012 06:08 PM

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First, Amazon.com acquired Diapers.com and Zappos.com, two e-tailers that that rely on robotic systems from Kiva Systems to help run their warehouses more efficiently. On Monday, Amazon decided to acquire Kiva itself, paying $775 million in cash and announcing that Kiva will remain headquartered in North Reading.

Kiva was founded in 2003, and the company had raised just $33 million in funding; its original backer was Bain Capital Ventures of Boston, where partner Ajay Agarwal made the investment and also helped broker an introduction to Staples, an important early customer. Last November, Kiva CEO Mick Mountz told CNN Money that the company's revenues had surpassed $100 million, and that Kiva had 240 employees.

This is Amazon's most significant acquisition of a Massachusetts company ever -- and its first since the late 1990s, when it bought a couple of Cambridge start-ups, including Exchange.com and PlanetAll. (The only bigger purchase Amazon has made in its corporate history was paying $1.2 billion for Zappos.com.)

I wrote last December about a management shake-up at Kiva, involving the quiet departures of five senior executives.

In 2010, I wondered when Amazon might become a Kiva customer, following its purchases of Diapers.com and Zappos.com. From that piece:

[CEO Mick] Mountz says that his company has been in discussions with Amazon for a while, and that "we're both interested in working with each other." As for the Zappos and Quidsi acquisitions, that "just accelerates the conversation with Amazon, if nothing else. Everywhere Amazon looks, they're buying a Kiva system."

One individual close to the discussions between Kiva and Amazon says that the Seattle e-commerce pioneer may want to own a chunk of Kiva before agreeing to work with the company, or buy Kiva outright. Amazon is also apparently interested in having access to the software code that runs Kiva's system and its robots, to better integrate with its order fulfillment processes, which Kiva considers proprietary. (Amazon didn't return calls seeking comment.)

And in 2008, I wrote about Kiva as part of the growing robotics cluster in Massachusetts.

Here's some video I shot at the company's "demonstration warehouse" in 2008:

To build brand in home decor, Wayfair adds blog overseen by former Better Homes and Gardens editor

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 16, 2012 08:05 AM

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Back in October, Back Bay e-tailer Wayfair hired Kristine Kennedy, the former East Coast editor for Better Homes and Gardens, to oversee its new content strategy. The home goods site has always been at the top of its class when it comes to attracting searchers to its site, but has never maintained a design blog before.

Now, Wayfair is starting to promote Kennedy's new My Way Home blog, which features design ideas from about a dozen contributors that she calls the Wayfair Homemakers. There are subtle links at the bottom of each blog post for anyone interested in purchasing some of the items featured, like an Aalto vase.

In June of last year, Wayfair brought in its first outside capital — a ginormous $165 million round — and ditched its somewhat generic original name, CSN Stores.

I asked Kennedy a few questions via e-mail.

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New iPhone app Beerdog wants to create packs of social suds-lovers

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 15, 2012 08:17 AM

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Dedicated beer-drinkers may occasionally have trouble remembering everything they've tried over the course of a night out. Enter Beerdog, an iPhone app launched this week by Boston-based TBD Media. It lets you take pictures of beer bottles, cans, and tap handles to keep tabs on what you've tasted. The app uses image recognition technology to identify the brew, and then lets you append a comment. You accumulate points for every beer you scan — especially rare ones — and you can follow and communicate with other Beerdog users.

The beer apps niche is as crowded as the Cask n' Flagon on a game day, with two successful apps, BrewGene and Pintley, developed in Boston. Both focus more on reviews, ratings, and making recommendations than Beerdog, and both have 4.5-star ratings in the iTunes Store. Like Beerdog, both are free. A third beer app built in Boston, RedPint, encouraged drinkers to share their favorite ales with friends, and was acquired last year in an all-stock transaction by Untapped, yet another company that makes a beer app.

Beerdog may have a leg up on competitors; its founding team includes CEO Kevin Bradshaw, a mobile gaming veteran, Devin Kelly, a former VP of marketing for AB Inbev (which makes Beck's, Budweiser, and Stella Artois), and Eric Spitz, the ex-CFO of Narragansett Brewing Company.

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Who operates Boston's best mobile network? New data from SwayMarkets ranks AT&T, Sprint and Verizon

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 14, 2012 08:02 AM
Are you a speed demon who loathes dropping calls?

Nick Chory from the Cambridge start-up SwayMarkets sends along an interesting infographic about the best-performing 3G wireless carriers in Boston, based on factors like data speed and signal strength. And SwayMarkets monitors the experience of actual subscribers, as opposed to relying on marketing claims made by the carriers.

The top-line results? Verizon subscribers get the best signal strength, fastest data transfers, and least latency. (See the infographic below.)

SwayMarkets was founded by a trio of EnerNOC alumni, and their plan is to collect data about mobile carriers' performance in big cities that could then be sold to companies that, for instance, have a large sales force relying on 3G tablets and want to know what carrier to use in different cities to ensure solid coverage. The data could be valuable for consumers, too, Chory says: "If your subscription is up for renewal, wouldn't it be great to know what carrier is the best for you if you work downtown and live in Cambridge?"

SwayMarkets has already produced two free apps for iPhone users: DataMonitor, which keeps tabs on your monthly data usage so you don't incur extra fees, and NetSnaps, which tells you how the WiFi or wireless network is performing where you are.

"We've been collecting anonymous data with both of the apps and analyzing it," says Chory. "We're presenting it for Boston first, but we can do it in any geography." Though the data is collected only from iPhone users at present, the company asserts that it's valid no matter what sort of device you're using on the Sprint, AT&T or Verizon networks. (And SwayMarkets plans to soon start collecting data through other devices.)

Here's SwayMarket's infographic on the best cellular service in Boston:

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Quattro veterans launch Adelphic with $2 million and visions of delivering more relevant mobile advertising

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 13, 2012 08:01 AM

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Can mobile advertising be redeemed?

Most people have gotten pretty good at tuning out the ads that intrude on apps and mobile websites, in part because they're not well-matched to what you're doing. (Unlike, say, Google's textual ads that use your search terms to try to intuit what's on your mind.) A new Lexington start-up, Adelphic Mobile, hopes to try to grab your attention — and make mobile ads more valuable for publishers, marketers, and app developers — by delivering more relevant messages.

The company is coming out of stealth mode today with $2 million in funding from Waltham-based Matrix Partners, and a trio of veterans of Quattro Wireless on its team. That company was bought by Apple in 2010, and its product became Apple's iAd system, which delivers ads to many apps distributed through the iTunes Store.

"We're living through the hangover from the first generation of mobile advertising," says Jennifer Lum, Adelphic's co-founder and CEO. "The device is personal, and it's location-aware, but if you look at the click-through rates of mobile advertising and the performance stats, it's not where it needs to be." Lum's co-founder, Changfeng Wang, is also a Quattro veteran, and earlier in his career he worked for Enpocket, a mobile marketing start-up acquired by Nokia, and Engage, an Internet advertising company that was part of the CMGI empire in Andover. "What's missing in the mobile advertising space is so clear," Wang says. "Advertising is about sending the right message to the right audience at the right time, and that's not really happening in mobile." The third Quattro alum at Adelphic is Joe Grabmeier, the company's chief financial officer.

The company hopes to make mobile ad inventory more valuable for publishers and app developers, in part by better understanding the user's recent activity, the device they're using, where they are, and the content they're currently interacting with. "Right now, it's very hard to purchase advertising at scale that let's you reach, say, males carrying an iPhone 4S at 9 a.m. in the morning, in a major metro area," Lum says. Mobile advertising availability — what those in the industry call "inventory" — is growing at "explosive rates," Lum says. "But the agencies and marketers buying that inventory need to be able to do so in a way that makes sense."

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A year after its launch, mobile app developer Mobiquity surpasses 100 employees

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 12, 2012 08:08 AM

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If you're old enough to remember the late 1990s, you remember that web development shops popped up in every big city, and they grew like sunflowers in August. Every small, medium, and large business needed a web site — pronto! — and firms that could deliver one were in high demand. Boston was home to Digitas, Viant, Sapient, Scient, and iXL, among many others.

In the web boom era, Bill Seibel was running Zefer, a web development firm founded by Harvard Business School alums that raised $150 million, tried to go public twice, and went bankrupt in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, in 2001. At its peak, Zefer employed nearly 500 people.

These days, there's a similar need in corporate America for service providers who can quickly design and deliver mobile apps. And Seibel is once again at the helm of one of the fastest-growing in town: Wellesley-based Mobiquity. Launched last March with $5 million in funding from Sigma Partners and Longworth Venture Partners, Mobiquity has already surpassed 100 employees and set up three branch offices, Seibel tells me.

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Amazon has landed (almost) in Kendall Square

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 7, 2012 02:44 PM

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When I dropped by the ninth floor of the Cambridge Innovation Center this afternoon to verify that Amazon was getting ready to move in, I found a team of workers prepping the space. There aren't any Amazon employees in residence yet, but Amazon's smiley logo is already emblazoned on a few of the frosted glass doors. Amazon's new digs used to be the Cambridge outpost of Linden Lab, the developer of the virtual world Second Life. (Linden is based in San Francisco.)

I broke the news just before Christmas that Amazon was laying the groundwork for a Kendall Square office, and my understanding was that they hoped to open it in February. Things seem to have progressed a bit slower than Amazon might have liked on the real estate front, perhaps because there's no hotter (or pricier) neighborhood for tech and biotech employers than Kendall right now.

The number of Cambridge jobs listed on Amazon's HR site has been growing; today, I counted 32 open positions, from software engineers to technical recruiters to quality assurance testers who will work on products like the Kindle Fire and Amazon's Video on Demand service. Amazon is also hiring a few research scientists, presumably to work on blue-sky ideas rather than current offerings. Despite the job listings, the Seattle e-commerce company still hasn't made any public statements about its presence in Cambridge.

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Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs developing therapeutic video games to enhance your cognitive functions

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 7, 2012 08:15 AM

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It's a pretty counter-intuitive concept, but what if playing video games could actually help improve conditions like depression or ADHD? A low-profile Boston start-up called Akili Interactive Labs is developing its own games to try to prove that hypothesis, and the company will conduct its first "before-and-after" brain imaging studies on players this spring.

Akili is being incubated at PureTech Ventures, a Back Bay firm that seeds new life sciences start-ups, and its acting chief executive is PureTech founder Daphne Zohar. But Akili is pretty different from the typical PureTech project: the start-up has brought on board veterans of Lucas Digital Arts and Electronic Arts who have worked on games like "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" and "Medal of Honor."

"This is a whole new way of delivering therapeutic benefit in the field of cognition," says Zohar. "What if a child with ADHD symptoms, instead of taking Ritalin, could play a game?" She says the company will likely focus on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder first, with plans to study how games might affect other conditions, including stress, depression, and anxiety.

Akili has been working first on games for iPhones and iPads, and testing them so far with about 50 healthy individuals, "to hone both the science and usability," Zohar says. The company is in the process of "setting up collaborations to run pilot tests in multiple patient indications with leading academic investigators," she adds.

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iRobot re-org aims to enable company to dedicate more resources to emerging applications

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 28, 2012 07:05 PM

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Bedford-based iRobot is announcing a reorganization tonight that will create a new emerging technology division at the company, in addition to the more established businesses focusing on home robots like the Roomba and military robots like the Packbot. The company is also naming a new chief operating officer: Jeff Beck, who'd previously led iRobot's consumer division. Chief executive Colin Angle says that no jobs will be lost as part of the reorg. The company laid off about 55 employees last October, anticipating a drop in its military revenues.

The new structure "will allow us to pursue new opportunities more aggressively," says Angle. "Before, if you wanted to create a small business unit to pursue some new application, you had to beg for resources from a division that was designed to do something else. We think this will give us a more efficient, steerable organization that's able to put energy against these new market opportunities."

What, specifically? I asked Angle if the company was interested in the kinds of warehouse robots that companies like Kiva Systems and Symbotic (formerly CasePick) are selling. "We're less interested in that," he said. "We're active in healthcare, with our InTouch partnership that's working on remote presence technology for doctors, and we're interested in mobile, connected robots for security and retail." A retailbot, he said, "could interact with customers, help them find products they need, and serve up information. The shopper can have the best of both worlds: the kind of comparison of product features that you get online, with the instant gratification of taking home the product." All three of those new applications could take advantage of iRobot's Ava platform for mobile robots (pictured at right.) And all three areas, Angle added, "are multi-billion-dollar markets ripe for disruption with our technology."

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Two local companies, StarStreet and DraftKings, prepare to launch new fantasy sports sites

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 27, 2012 03:30 PM

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Two local start-ups are getting ready to launch sites that will let sports fans assemble a new fantasy sports team each day, and potentially win money based on that night's results. It's part of new wave in the online fantasy sports realm that most call "daily fantasy," geared to those who might not have the free time or attention span to stick through an entire season.

"There are probably 15 or more players in the daily fantasy space," says Jeremy Levine, founder of Somerville-based StarStreet, mentioning sites like DraftStreet, FanDuel, and DraftDay.

StarStreet, which has up to now operated a fantasy stock market where traders use real money to buy shares in professional athletes, is launching its daily fantasy site Tuesday at noon. Levine says the company is focusing on basketball first, with plans to do baseball next. Users play head-to-head against other users, and they can do so for free, or by putting anywhere from $1 to $50 into a pool. "Let's say you want to put in $10," Levine says. "We add a 7 percent commission, so you're paying $10.70, but you have a chance to win $20." This kind of online wagering is legal because fantasy sports are considered a game that requires skill, rather than a game of chance.

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Fleye testing technology at New England ski resorts to create customized video highlight reels

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 24, 2012 01:31 PM

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It's always too bad that during those epic ski runs or new-personal-best triathlons, there's no film crew from ESPN trailing you to create a highlight reel that you could watch over and over. But a small New Hampshire start-up, Fleye, wants to fill that void. And this winter, they've been testing their system of high-definition cameras, RFID tags, and computers at two New England ski areas, Mount Sunapee and Wachusett Mountain.

Fleye sets up an array of HD cameras atop poles along the side of the slopes — especially around the terrain parks. The cameras run all the time, storing the video on computer hard drives in the base lodge. (It's eventually uploaded to Amazon's cloud storage infrastructure.) For $10, skiers or snowboarders can purchase an RFID tag that communicates with the cameras, letting them know when you're zooming past their field of view. That essentially creates a "label" on the few seconds of video that are relevant to you.

When you get home, the Fleye website can show you only the clips that you appear in, and give you a chance to delete certain clips (wipe-outs, perhaps), or rearrange the sequence. Eventually, there will be the option of adding music or other enhancements. The $10 fee includes access to one day's worth of video content; if you return to the mountain on another day with your tag, Fleye will let you access those clips for $7.50. In addition, Fleye can set up big-screen TVs in the base lodge that know when you're standing near them, thanks to that RFID tag hanging from your zipper pull, and can play the video clips that star you.

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MIT prof who invented early e-mail system donating records to Smithsonian Museum

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 16, 2012 10:35 AM

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V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai has nothing against the tech pioneers who started sending one another messages over the Arpanet — the Internet's predecessor — in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He just asserts that he was the first person to build an e-mail system that would evolve into the type of e-mail we use today, with fields for the sender and recipient, subject lines, and that devious BCC field. Last year, Time referred to Shiva as "the man who invented e-mail."

And today, Shiva, an MIT professor, is in Washington to donate the original code for his e-mail system to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Shiva started building the e-mail system at Newark's University of Medicine and Dentistry when he was just 14, in 1978. He copyrighted the term "EMAIL" in 1982, shortly after he'd started attending MIT as an undergrad.

"There was no way to patent software then, so I submitted the first U.S. copyright on e-mail, and also the manual," Shiva says.

His e-mail system consisted of about 60,000 lines of code (see below), and it ran on an HP mainframe. Instead of using the @ symbol, e-mail addresses employed periods to separate the username from the location where they could be found. (For instance, kelly.rms would represent a user named Kelly at Rutgers Medical School.) The system had 80 or 90 users in the early days, a number that rose into the hundreds after Shiva headed off to college.

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Lawsuit alleges that Visible Measures yanked first employee's stock options after he left

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 14, 2012 05:23 PM

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When Rishi Dean announced that he was leaving Visible Measures last year, the company's founder sent out the usual laudatory e-mail. Dean had been the first employee at Visible Measures, a Boston start-up that measures online video viewership, and Brian Shin, the company's founder and CEO, wrote, "Rishi's impact here can literally be summed up by saying that without him, there is no way that we get [sic] to the point where we are today. Period."

Dean left the company last June to go work at Nanigans, a Boston start-up that helps its customers run ad campaigns on Facebook. Not too long after that, according to a lawsuit that Dean filed in December in Massachusetts Superior Court, his former employer decided to terminate stock options that are worth about $2 million. Visible Measures claimed that Dean had violated the terms of his non-compete agreement (Nanigans and Visible Measures are rivals in a broad sense, in that both sell services to marketers) and his non-solicitation agreement (even though Dean claims not to have solicited any Visible Measures employees or customers), as well as that he disclosed confidential information about Visible Measures. Dean (pictured at right) says none of that happened. Dean worked at Visible Measures for the company's first five years, and while Shin tried to persuade him to stay at the company, according to the suit, neither he nor anyone at Visible Measures expressed concern that Nanigans was a competitor.

Dean's lawsuit asserts that he was one of the largest holders of Visible Measures stock options at the time he left, and that Shin and the company's board "each will gain personally from the wrongful termination of Dean's stock options, because their stock or options will not be diluted through Dean's exercise of his stock options." You can read the full text of Dean's legal complaint here.

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The Facebook & Brightcove IPOs, and what they tell us about Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 13, 2012 01:14 PM
Sunday's Globe column took a look at two companies that got their start in Harvard Square in 2004: Facebook and Brightcove.

One left, one stayed. One was founded by a first-time entrepreneur, the other by an entrepreneur who'd built a public company before. One wasn't able to raise money here, and one was. One focused on consumers, the other on solving a business problem.

Facebook's forthcoming IPO is expected to value the company at about $100 billion. Brightcove will be worth somewhere around $300 million when it goes public.

I asked Todd Dagres, founder of Spark Capital in Boston, for his take on why Boston can be so hospitable to start-ups like Brightcove while it gives fledgling companies like Facebook a cold shoulder.

Here's his take:

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Without making waves, data start-up CargoMetrics is collecting info about what gets shipped where

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 10, 2012 08:36 AM

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How secretive are the folks over at CargoMetrics?

When co-founder Scott Borgerson showed up at a VC mixer at Quincy Market last month, his name tag read just "Scott." No company affiliation. When I tried to confirm with him afterward that he'd been at the party, his response was: "Maybe."

His investors at the Boston office of Summerhill Venture Partners wouldn't tell me who made the investment in CargoMetrics, when it was made, or how much they invested. "It benefits the company to be in stealth mode right now," e-mailed Summerhill partner Will Kohler.

But the company has been hiring steadily in Boston, and LinkedIn currently lists a dozen employees, including co-founder Rockford Weitz. (Both Weitz and Borgerson are Fletcher School alums, and fellows at the Gloucester-based Institute for Global Maritime Studies.)

So what is the company up to? CargoMetrics is collecting data about the movement of commodities by ship, and selling that data to hedge funds. (Ships report on their location through tracking systems like AIS, but CargoMetrics seems to be combining that with information about what's on board.) According to a job posting, the company "has developed a groundbreaking analytics platform which offers comprehensive, dynamic information on the movement of the global supply of the world’s commodities." Useful if you're trying to make a profit buying or selling commodities futures.

Borgerson (pictured at right) is former Coast Guard officer, and was the founding director of the Coast Guard Academy's Institute for Leadership. He's also an expert on Arctic shipping.

The 10 most powerful women in Boston tech (plus 5 up-and-comers)

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 8, 2012 10:02 AM
Who are the most powerful women on Boston's technology scene? Here's the Innovation Economy list.

I considered three factors:

  • Impact (how big of an organization do they oversee, how large of a fund do they manage, how much revenue does their company generate, etc.)
  • Connectivity (how well-networked are they, and how much mentoring of younger executives/entrepreneurs do they do)
  • Thought leadership (speaking, writing, and commenting in the media)

The top ten are followed by five rising stars. When individuals are active on Twitter, I've included their Twitter handles.

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Leadership switch at the Harvard Square office of Zynga, social games company

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 6, 2012 10:52 PM

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Nabeel Hyatt, the entrepreneur whose gaming start-up became the core of Zynga's Cambridge outpost, left the company Monday. Taking over as general manager for Cambridge is Fareed Behmaram-Mosavat, a Pixar Animation veteran who joined Zynga along with Hyatt when Zynga acquired their company, Conduit Labs, in 2010.

The Cambridge office of Zynga launched its first game, "Adventure World," last September, and has grown to about 40 employees. "The office is still strong and growing," Hyatt writes via e-mail, "with a solid success with 'Adventure World' and some other projects underway." (The game became "Indiana Jones Adventure World" a few months after its debut.)

Zynga went public in December (the picture at right is from Hyatt's blog). Hyatt tells me he plans to announce his next move soon.

Conduit was funded by Charles River Ventures and Prism VentureWorks, and Hyatt helped start the weekly OpenCoffee meet-up in Cambridge with Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital.

Axio, Cambridge start-up working on a wearable device to enhance concentration, gets into new accelerator program in China

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 3, 2012 08:27 AM
What if you could put on a pair of headphones that would help increase your focus and performance?

And not just by playing Parliament Funkadelic really loud?

A Cambridge start-up called Axio is working on just such a device, leveraging an auditory phenomenon called binaural beats. Essentially, the theory is that playing two tones of different frequencies in each ear can have a beneficial effect on the listener's brainwaves.

Axio founder Arye Barnehama isn't saying too much about the start-up's product. But he says that "focus is a huge problem, for athletes, programmers, students, and business executives. Our goal is to be a consumer health product. We're looking at a couple different form factors, but one is a headset that would integrate with a smart phone and a PC." The headset would include an EEG sensor for monitoring brain activity. And similar to the Zeo sleep monitor, Axio would be able to chart the ups and downs of your concentration level over the course of a day or week on a phone or PC screen.

Barnehama says Axio's headset would work in tandem with "cognitive training feedback software" that would help users "train their brain to maintain that optimized state."

The company has already raised a seed round from local angels, including Bill Warner, and has also won admission into Haxlr8r, a brand-new accelerator program especially for start-ups working on hardware. The program runs for fifteen weeks in Shenzhen, China, where it focuses on designing and testing a prototype, and then wraps up with investor presentations in Silicon Valley. "The idea is that you're close to the manufacturers who are going to make your device," Barnehama says, "and that lets you do faster iterations because you're right there."

Barnehama and co-founder Laura Berman are both students at Pomona College in southern California; they're both studying cognitive science and computer science. Barnehama is originally from western Massachusetts. "I started the company last summer, and for our college winter break, I sort of came home and stayed," he says. Ben Rubin, co-founder and CTO of Zeo, has signed on as an advisor to Axio.

"It's one of those companies that could end up back in Boston after three months in China — or not," Rubin writes in an e-mail. If it boomerangs back to Boston after Haxlr8r, it would be "part of the cluster we are building around consumer health technology," he says. The start-up is currently working out of the Cambridge Co-working Center in Kendall Square. Barnehama and Berman head to China later this month.

"Everyone knows those days when they felt amazing, whether it was on the golf course or in the library studying," Barnehama says. "You don't have them every day. But we believe we can use technology to make that possible."

Who wouldn't love that? I'm eager to try it out...especially since it took me much longer than it should have to write this post.

As Facebook heads toward an IPO, let's look at the company's Boston connections

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 1, 2012 02:38 PM

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Facebook is always going to be thought of in Boston as "the other one that got away."

Like Microsoft in the 1970s, Facebook was, in the first decade of the 2000s, gestated on the Harvard campus, and key moments of its early history took place in Harvard Square. Bill Gates and Paul Allen had been inspired by an issue of Popular Electronics they purchased at Out of Town News featuring an early personal computer, and Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin had their first meeting with a venture capitalist at Henrietta's Table.

Both companies, of course, left Massachusetts, creating jobs and enormous wealth in Seattle and Palo Alto, respectively.

As Facebook's long-anticipated IPO approaches, I've been thinking both about the company's Cambridge roots, and also some local people and institutions who will make bags of money from the public offering.

The money first...

A Boston-area VC firm, Greylock Partners, one of the grand-daddies of the venture capital industry, led Facebook's second major round of funding in April 2006. The round gave Facebook $27 million in funding, and valued the company — which at the time had just seven million users — at roughly $500 million. (As of January 2012, the site had about 800 million users.)

"That was a way out-on-a-limb investment — a very controversial deal," one local venture capitalist told me this morning. "There were arguments within Greylock about why it could be a bad investment."

While the Greylock investment in Facebook's 2006 round was led by David Sze, a partner in the firm's Silicon Valley office, another Boston VC told me that Bill Helman, a Greylock partner in Waltham, did some key analysis that showed "that Facebook had a reasonable amount of revenue, and was growing like a weed. His position was, 'I can guarantee you 100 percent that we aren't going to lose money.' Of course, no one would've thought the up-side was going to turn out to be what it was." Greylock's 1.5 percent stake in Facebook could be worth a billion dollars or more after the IPO. (Helman didn't want to comment on his involvement in the Facebook investment.)

Who'll get a share of Greylock's winnings? Harvard's endowment, for one, which has been an investor in Greylock since the firm's founding in 1965. (Ironically, Harvard could've made much more: the university's money managers had been consistent supporters of Accel Partners, the Silicon Valley firm that led Facebook's very first round of venture capital funding in 2005, but decided not to participate in the Accel fund that made the Facebook deal. Accel owns 11 percent of Facebook, compared to Greylock's one percent and change.) Amos Hostetter, the Continental Cablevision founder, is another who'll benefit. Bill Kaiser and Bill Helman, the two investing partners in Greylock's Massachusetts office, will pocket handsome sums, as will Henry McCance, Greylock's chairman emeritus. (Helman sits on the board of the Harvard Management Company, which oversees Harvard's endowment.) In 2009, three years after making the Facebook investment, Greylock moved its headquarters from Massachusetts to Silicon Valley, and the firm's center of gravity is most definitely out west now.

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How Supermechanical raised $550,000 for a new wireless device — without VCs or angel investors

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 31, 2012 08:15 AM

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What do you do if you're two recent MIT grads with a killer idea for a new wireless device, and you want to get it into the hands of consumers within a few months? In Boston, venture capitalists and angel investors are notoriously reluctant to invest in hardware. And moreso when it's hardware that will be pitched to consumers.

For John Kestner and David Carr, who'd started a company called Supermechanical together, the answer turned out to be Kickstarter. The crowd-funding site enables anyone from filmmakers to artists to would-be entrepreneurs to raise money from individual supporters. But few have used it as effectively as Kestner and Carr.

They set out to raise about $35,000 so they could produce a few hundred of their Twine devices (pictured at right). Twine was designed to be what Kestner calls "a minimal Twittering object" — essentially, a wireless node that could send information via e-mail, texts, or Tweets about what was going on in its environs. Was there water seeping into a basement, a heating system failure, or a door being opened? Twine would report on it. And the two-inch square device could be programmed over the Web, using a simple, menu-based interface.

As students at the MIT Media Lab, and later as founders of Supermechanical, Kestner and Carr had been thinking about embedding intelligence and communications capability in everyday objects, like wallets and tables. But they realized that one key component needed to be created: "We found we were spending 80 percent of our time implementing the wireless technology that would make all these things work," Kestner says.

They narrowed down the features to the point where they thought they could sell the Twine devices for about $100. Then they created a video (see below) that encapsulated the concept.

They launched their Kickstarter campaign last November, early in the week of Thanksgiving. "We weren't expecting to raise a lot of money," Kestner says. "We just wanted market validation and enough momentum so that once we started making [the devices], we'd be able to sell them." A $99 pledge on Kickstarter promised you a single Twine device — batteries and shipping included — from the first production batch. For $125, you'd get Twine plus an external moisture sensor or magnetic switch. (Twine users can also plug in their own sensors to the device.) They promised delivery in March.

A post on the blog ReadWriteWeb called the project "amazing," and two days later Engadget noted that "Twine connects your whole world to the internet." "The blog coverage gave the project some initial rocket fuel," Kestner says.

Later that week, as Kestner and Carr were preparing their respective Thanksgiving dinners in Somerville and Cambridge, the project had blown past their $35,000 goal: "We were at $100,000, and it was like, 'Oh, boy.' We're ambitious people, but we weren't expecting this."

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Symbotic, formerly known as CasePick Systems, de-stealths a bit with a demo of its warehouse robots

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 30, 2012 08:15 AM

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CasePick Systems is a company I've been tracking since I had my first meeting with its founder, John Lert, on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2007. Lert didn't want me to write about the company at the time, but he showed me some nifty animations of how an army of robots might be able to move merchandise more efficiently around warehouses.

I've written about the company throughout the years, like when it was acquired by C&S Wholesale Grocers, a privately-held New Hampshire company, and when it named Jim Baum, formerly chief executive of the data warehousing firm Netezza, as its new leader. (Lert, the founder, moved on last year.)

But I didn't get a chance to see the bots in action until last Friday afternoon, when Baum (pictured at right) invited me over to the company's Wilmington headquarters to see a demo. He wanted to talk about the company's new name — it'll be known starting today as Symbotic — and also the hiring spree its on. (Baum mentioned they're about to outgrow the Wilmington facility, and are hunting for new space.)

Baum had just returned from a company event in Newburgh, New York, where Symbotic's first production system is deployed at a massive grocery warehouse owned by C&S. The warehouse assembles cases of merchandise onto wooden pallets, which are then trucked to Stop & Shop stores around New York. The Symbotic system only operates a portion of that warehouse, but it consists of 168 bots that move boxes at up to 25 miles per hour.

Symbotic's proposition is that bots are not only more efficient at moving product onto and off of warehouse shelves as needed, but that companies that purchase its technology can store more product in less warehouse space.

Baum didn't want me shooting any video of the bots in action — "we're still slightly paranoid," he said — but I did get to see them moving merch around a test track. (See the image below.) The bots followed white tape on the floor, and used finger-like metal rods that extended horizontally to pull boxes off of a shelf. They communicated wirelessly with a central computer that told them where to pick up and drop off the items, and also ensured that they'd avoid collisions which each other. They can also ride elevators to get from one level of a warehouse to another.

While C&S remains the majority owner of Symbotic, Baum says that he hopes the company will do its first non-C&S deployment sometime in 2012. "One reason we haven't had to talk much about what we're doing is we have an amazing pipeline of business," he says. "The connection to C&S has give us an opportunity to talk to very big, very risk-averse buyers."

How is Symbotic different from Kiva Systems, the better-known warehouse robotics company located just a few miles away in North Reading? Kiva's short, squat bots typically move big racks of open boxes to an order-picker who removes individual items and then packs them into a box that'll be sent to a customer. One example would be filling a box with three different pairs of shoes for a Zappos.com order. Symbotic, on the other hand, builds short, squat bots that grab closed boxes of merchandise and bring them to another robot (made by a third-party vendor) that puts them onto wooden pallets, at which point they're loaded onto a truck and sent to a retail store. Kiva's bots help to fill boxes full of items, and Symbotics' bots build pallets stacked with boxes.

Baum says the company will probably double in size this year, to 200 employees. As he has been setting up Symbotic as an independent company, he has also created a board of directors that includes Tony Affuso, chairman of Siemens PLM Software, and Jit Saxena, the founder of Netezza.

One last note: Baum tells me the robots are built primarily from locally-sourced components, and assembled in Wilmington.

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Photo: Two Symbotic robots move boxes around a simulated warehouse; they navigate by following the white tape on the ground.

How does a small Boston start-up get to the Super Bowl? Connections.

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 27, 2012 08:27 AM
It isn't often that a seven-person company gets drafted to help with a Super Bowl advertising campaign. But the opportunity presented itself to Boston-based Promoboxx last fall.

Promoboxx founder Ben Carcio tells me that it was one of those phone calls he wasn't sure would be worth making. "Whenever you talk with mentors and investors, they're always trying to introduce you to other people in their networks, and you always wonder if the call will be worth the time," Carcio says. Dave Balter, founder of BzzAgent, suggested that Carcio get in touch with a media analyst and occasional investor in New York named Richard Greenfield, who in turn introduced Carcio to Avi Savar, a founder of the social media agency Big Fuel. The agency was working with Chevrolet on its Super Bowl XLVI campaign, and "they'd always tried to have a program that would better involve Chevrolet's dealers, but they could never execute it right," Carcio says. During their first meeting, Savar "was finishing my sentences."

So Big Fuel signed up Promoboxx to create co-branded pages for 3,000 Chevy dealers, who in turn help share the Super Bowl-related content (like the TV ad below) to their audiences on Facebook, Twitter, and other social channels. Carcio adds, "We also created a dealer scorecard, so each dealership can see how they rank among other dealers" in terms of generating Bowl-related buzz for Chevy.

Carcio says that the Big Fuel collaboration turned into the start-up's biggest project thus far; Promoboxx was founded in 2010, and participated in the TechStars Boston program last year. The company raised $565,000 in funding last month. Promoboxx's primary focus is helping brands customize promotional campaigns with their retailers or distributors.

"What I learned," Carcio says, "is that you've got to make every phone call, because you can never be sure what could happen."

Here's what the Promoboxx-created Facebook page looks like for one local Chevy dealer, Herb Chambers Chevrolet of Danvers:

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And here's the ad Chevy will be running during next Sunday's Super Bowl. It's pretty funny:

Ambient Devices shifts focus from sports scores and weather forecasts to energy usage

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 23, 2012 08:15 AM

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After more than a decade of existence and just over $10 million in funding, Ambient Devices is still one of those companies that has generated more media buzz than jobs or revenues. The consumer electronics company built umbrellas with handles that glowed blue when it was going to rain, frosted glass orbs that changed color in tandem with major stock market moves, and desktop sports scoreboards. Ambient pioneered the idea that all kinds of devices — not just laptops and phones — would communicate with wireless networks to bring you information.

Two of Ambient's three founders have gone on to other ventures — David Rose now runs Vitality, which makes intelligent prescription pill bottles, and Ben Resner was developing a new kind of information display for cars when I caught up with him last January. Former Ambient product development chief Nabeel Hyatt runs the Harvard Square office of Zynga, the social gaming company that went public last year. Carl Yankowski, the former Palm and Reebok CEO brought in in 2007 to lead the company, only stuck around for two years.

ghandi.jpgBut the third founder, Pritesh Gandhi, is still there, running a slimmed-down Ambient that he says turned profitable last year. (The company has eight employees.) And this week, he's heading to San Antonio to announce a new focus for the company: digital displays for homes and businesses that will show how much energy they're using, and ideally encourage them to conserve. He'll be showing off new Ambient prototypes as part of the Distributech conference and tradeshow, which brings together utilities and vendors working on "smart grid" technology.

Here's how the new devices work: some utilities now charge consumers more at moments of peak energy demand — like a hot day in August — than days when there's less demand. It's called "time-of-use billing." Gandhi says that no major Massachusetts utilities have started doing it, but "utilities in states like California have realized that the most effective way to alleviate some of the stress on the grid and educate their customers about energy consumption is with variable pricing." When consumers have a display (see below) that shows them how much energy they're using and how much it costs, Gandhi says it can reduce their energy consumption by about 25 percent. And like previous Ambient products, the Energy Joule changes colors to get your attention. When prices are average, it's green. When they're above average, it's yellow. And when prices are at their highest, it's red.

"We think utilities would buy the devices and give them out to their users, or they'd be available at retail locations with a subsidy, not unlike what you see with compact flourescent bulbs today," Gandhi says.

The company has been working for about four years to deploy devices with Pacific Gas & Electric's business customers, Gandhi says, but the new push is about getting the devices into homes. The company has done some pilot consumer testing with Baltimore Gas & Electric, but is hoping to land a large-scale commitment this year.

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What does your mobile phone usage say about your credit-worthiness?

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 20, 2012 08:15 AM

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Does the number of text messages you send, or the time of day you make your first phone call, say something important about how credit-worthy you are?

Cignifi, a small Cambridge start-up with roots in the UK, believes it does. The company is out raising $2 million in funding to commercialize its technology this year, after a pilot test in Brazil in 2011.

"There's a vast market of consumers in countries like Brazil, China, India, and the Phillipines who want access to financial services like credit cards, loans, or insurance," says Jonathan Hakim, Cignifi's chief executive. "But while they may have jobs, and some have bank accounts, there really is no credit history for them." One thing they do have? Mobile phones.

Cignifi has developed sophisticated modeling software that can look at usage data from consumers' mobile phones and make predictions about who that person is and how they live. There's no single data point — like making lots of short calls between 2 and 5 a.m. every morning — that suggests that someone is a bad credit risk. But Hakim says, "The way you use your phone is a proxy for your lifestyle. It's not random. So we're looking at things like the length of calls, the time of day, and the location you make them from. Also things like whether you top up [a pre-paid SIM card] regularly. We want to see how stable the patterns are. When you look at that, you can create these behavioral clusters that give you information about users' appetite for new [financial] products, and their ability to repay a debt."

Cignifi plans to pitch the technology to financial services firms in Brazil first, and perhaps Mexico next. (The firms would obviously need to hash out a partnership with mobile operators to get access to usage data.) Last year's test in Brazil ran data for three million cell phone users through Cignifi's software, and produced a behavior-based score that resembles the FICO credit score many U.S. consumers are familiar with, which runs from 300 to 850 points. Then, the company compared its predictions about their credit-worthiness against actual credit card debt information for that same group.

"After that big lab experiment in Brazil, the next phase is to go and commercialize it," Hakim says. He describes the start-up as an "arms merchant," providing software that enables financial services companies to sell products profitably to consumers they couldn't previously reach.

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Constant Contact acquires Boston-based CardStar to help small businesses run loyalty programs

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 19, 2012 06:00 AM

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The acquisition talks between Constant Contact chief executive Gail Goodman and Andy Miller, founder of the mobile app start-up CardStar, began to get serious last summer.

First, Goodman had a drink with Miller at the MITX Innovation Awards last June. (She was there to pick up an "Innovation Hall of Fame" award for building the Waltham company into a major force in digital marketing for small businesses, with 900 employees; CardStar took home two awards, too.) Then, she was on a panel with Miller as part of FutureM week in September. What started out as vague discussions about how Constant Contact might partner with CardStar,  which makes an app that lets consumers store their frequent-shopper card info on mobile phones, turned into conversations about how Constant Contact might acquire the small Boston start-up.

"The two teams started to get really excited about the potential as the weather got colder," says Goodman. By early December, they'd agreed on the terms — which aren't being disclosed. The purchase is being announced this morning. It is Constant Contact's third acquisition since 2010, as the company seeks to diversify beyond its core business of helping its customers conduct e-mail marketing campaigns.

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Survey On The Spot raises $750,000 to collect customer input via mobile devices

Posted by Scott Kirsner January 12, 2012 01:48 PM
A decade ago, entrepreneur Geoff Palmer and Ken Kimmel, then the chief marketing officer at Dunkin' Donuts, were brainstorming about the potential of the early cameraphones that were just starting to reach the market.

"Suddenly you had phones with cameras built in, and we started talking about taking pictures of the donut cases in our stores," Kimmel recalls. "You can tell a lot about how well-run the restaurant is if the donut case is well-stocked and beautiful."

The spit-balling didn't go anywhere... until 2009, when Palmer and Kimmel decided to start Survey On The Spot, a business that would use mobile phones as data collection devices. Their premise was that if businesses asked customers to use their own phones to fill out a survey, the feedback would be fresher, and the response rate higher than with traditio