Betaspring class vies for investor attention

By Emily Greenhalgh
PBN Web Editor

It’s never the end for prospective businesses at Betaspring, according Melissa Withers, the startup accelerator’s chief of staff and “nerd-whisperer.” More

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INNOVATION

Betaspring class vies for investor attention

PBN PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE
OPEN EXCHANGE: Thirteen companies, along with lawmakers, investors and entrepreneurs, participated in the open house for business accelerator Betaspring on Sept. 27.

By Emily Greenhalgh
PBN Web Editor

Posted 10/8/12

It’s never the end for prospective businesses at Betaspring, according Melissa Withers, the startup accelerator’s chief of staff and “nerd-whisperer.”

“[The accelerator] is the beginning of a relationship that sometimes lasts years,” said Withers at the Providence accelerator’s Sept. 27 open house. Thirteen startups and prospective companies participating in the fall session were introduced to a full house of investors, entrepreneurs and lawmakers.

Betaspring accepted applications from teams in the fields of Web/mobile, physical technology and gaming. While it may sound like the accelerator cast a limited net, this session’s startups represent industries from biking, to dining to world travel.

The startups are more than halfway through the 12-week, mentorship-driven program that will introduce them to experienced business leaders, financial advisers and legal counsels who will help turn their fledgling businesses into viable and fundable companies.

Betaspring founder and Managing Partner Allan Tear called the accelerator, “One of the best examples of what a public/private partnership should be.”

It has been a banner year for the startup accelerator, which will help launch more companies in 2012 than it did in its previous three years. Thanks to a $4.25 million fund, $2 million of which came from a federal grant, Betaspring was able to move from one to two sessions a year. The accelerator hopes to bring its total number of companies jump-started to between 80-100 by the end of 2013.

In the last 12 months, 500 companies have applied to Betaspring, according to Withers. The startup accelerator chose 29. “We don’t take ideas, we take people. Taking people is always the best investment,” said Withers. “Being part of their journey is a great gift that we get from working at Betaspring.”

The current class includes Autobike, the brainchild of Kevin Smith and Sean Simpson. The product is an automatic-shifting bicycle that takes the work out of riding. Originally from outside of Detroit, Autobike sought to recreate the thrill cycling represents during youth in a product for the everyday rider. “Bicycling … was always a hobby of ours, a ticket to discover new things, to get outside and have fun,” said Simpson.

When building their idea, the group aimed to turn the whole bike into the focal point rather than a carbon-fiber frame or special wheels. “We wanted to bring technology and product innovation to the everyday, casual, recreational rider,” said Smith, adding that “the everyday person often gets ignored in the bike community.”

Taking inspiration from the growing cycling population in the Motor City, the makers of Autobike wanted to remind people that, “You don’t have to be hard-core … to be a cyclist and enjoy it,” said Smith. The Autobike shifts itself, creating a smoother, more enjoyable experience for the rider. “We wanted it to be simple,” said Smith. “Shifting gears can be a hassle and it takes away from the experience.”

Providence’s lively food scene helped spark the idea behind Crunchbutton, which offers one-button ordering of restaurants’ best items. With a single click on either their computer or smartphones, hungry customers can order and pay for their favorite foods for either pick-up or delivery. “Providence seems like the perfect city for this sort of thing since it has great food and people who care about food,” said Cruchbutton CEO and ‘chief eater’ Judd Rosenblatt. He added that the company, now headquartered in the capital city, is already in the process of “curating Providence’s best restaurants and the best items at its best restaurants.”

New to the city, the makers of Crunchbutton have asked hundreds of people at college communities as well as working professionals and restaurant staff in order to compile the list of the best food Providence has to offer. “One of the most amazing things is that we’ve talked to the people who are actually in the restaurants,” said Rosenblatt. “They understand what the best food is on a completely different level.” The Crunchbutton team isn’t looking to assemble just the most popular items, but also the best the restaurants have to offer.

In contrast to Crunchbutton, in which the consumer takes the stage, at Greentape, the restaurants are the focal point. Focusing on shops that serve organic and locally grown products, Greentape, which hails from San Diego, lets business owners install a sensor that sends a pulse to shoppers in the area, bringing in additional streams of revenue through loyalty programs. By downloading an app, consumers are automatically connected to qualifying restaurants, who can decide to send out an alert to customers walking by, deliver walk-in rewards and send product stories to smartphones.

At WorldBrain, education travel-industry veterans Laura Wallendal and Jakob Garrow designed a way to help teachers and parents plan learning exeriences beyond the clasroom with a Web-based service to help educational travelers explore the planet.

This year alone, 1 million educators will try to plan a trip, and three out four trips won’t happen “and it’s not due to lack of interest,” said Wallendal. “These teachers are remarkably busy, and they aren’t equipped with the tools to make these trips a success.” Calling it part Kickstarter, part Kayak, Wallendal said WorldBrain, now based in Providence, captures and automates the most difficult part of planning educational trips for middle school, high school and college teachers.

Interested educators simply visit the WorldBrain website and answer the question: Where do I want to take my students? The program takes the teacher through a series of short questions and creates a free, informational website where interested students and parents can sign up. From the website, different travel companies can bid on the trip, giving the teachers and students the best possible deal.

The Betaspring experience has gone above and beyond expectations, according to Wallendal: “It’s been unbelievable, amazing. I love it.” For WorldBrain, the accelerator’s mentors have been a key part of developing their company. “We’re staying in touch with about 15 different mentors to develop our business,” said Wallendal, who said that having “people with the experience and background of growing companies themselves, and starting companies, and lifelong entrepreneurs who really love this stuff to point us in the right direction has been great. They point us away from common mistakes.”

Autobike’s Smith said his Betaspring experience “has been nothing short of fantastic. The resources and level of engagement across the board have been phenomenal.”

Emphasizing Withers’ point about many companies’ longstanding connections to Betaspring, graduates such as Sproutel, the makers of Jerry the Bear – a stuffed animal focused on helping children with Type I diabetes – and Splitwise, which developed a program to help with expense-sharing, participated in last month’s open house.

At the end of the current 12-week session, CEOs of the 13 fledgling companies will present at a launch- day event, hoping to gain equity investment and support. Launch day is the final step in the 12-week session, though Betaspring offers space for rent to companies wishing to remain in the community. “We see a huge upside in helping startups stay together,” said Withers. “Being solo is really dangerous for most startups, you really need people there to share the highs and share the lows.”

Companies that stay in Providence are eligible for a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. •

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