print edition of Providence Business News
Far from the latest fad in reality television, the newest class at Providence-based Betaspring’s startup accelerator fosters a strong sense of community and collaboration while working to meet their goals.
“Sixteen teams sounds like a lot, but … it’s really like a school classroom,” said John Bittner, founder and CEO of Splitwise, one of this year’s Betaspring teams. “For anything you ask, there’s a really broad range of ideas and opinions right there for your team.”
Since its inception in 2010, the accelerator program has launched 28 companies and supported almost 100 entrepreneurs, including Max Winograd, CEO and founder of NuLabel Technologies Inc. – a company commercializing liner-free label technology. Winograd was part of Betaspring’s inaugural 2009 program and said that the mentors offered “unconditional support” to his company and helped them prepare for “all the future problems that we – as first-time entrepreneurs – couldn’t possibly anticipate.”
This year’s class includes companies from as far away as California and Tel Aviv.
“It’s really fun, and I think that it’s a community where age doesn’t matter, being male or female doesn’t matter. You are driven by ideas and getting a really positive experience out of it,” said Hannah Chung, chief creative officer and co-founder of Sproutel – a group that creates interactive toys to help children deal with chronic illness.
The group’s first product, Jerry the Bear, is focused on helping children with Type I diabetes learn to live with their disease. Jerry – named after a burly, bear of a man that Chung and co-founder Aaron Horowitz used to work with – teaches kids how to eat healthy, check their blood glucose and insulin levels, and even use an insulin pump by practicing with the bear before they’re old enough to regulate themselves.
Sproutel is one of three groups with a health care focus in this year’s spring class.
Thryve is developing a tool to help people better track their diets. Care Thread, meanwhile, is a team of doctors developing a real-time communications platform for the health care industry.
“It’s really cool … to take other people’s journeys and compare them to ours,” said Chung.
The inherently collaborative atmosphere is one of the things that makes the Betaspring program so unique, according to the teams. “You can be working on something in your house or your basement but you might not ever get out the door and talk to people. That’s what Betaspring is really good about. Getting you in the situation to talk to people not just in a user standpoint but from a business point,” said Horowitz. “It’s very collaborative, and people see each other as part of a community together.”
In addition to the small cluster of health care startups that Sproutel is a part of, nearly one-third of the fledgling companies in the spring class are breaking into the education sector. LessonWriter is developing a tool that uses media content to create lesson plans, Prepmatic is a creator of standardized test-preparation tools, RecoVend is developing an online service to lower costs of university purchasing and JumpOffCampus is a service that helps streamline the off-campus housing experience for students, universities and landlords.
The related clusters of companies aren’t coincidence, said Melissa Withers, Betaspring’s chief of staff and ‘nerd-whisperer’: “It just reflects that there’s a lot of market opportunity in that space. Startups go for the big prize. It’s not surprising that they’re in huge markets, but ones that are tough to break into.”
Withers added that Rhode Island is a “perfectly great test bed for these ideas,” since the Ocean State has a strong education sector and a tech-based community that is close-knit. “I don’t think we’d be able to attract this [many] companies if it wasn’t obvious that Providence was a good place to start your business.”
Some of Betaspring’s companies are already well on their way to success by the time they enter the accelerator.
“Most of our companies are already in the market and already have customers or are very close to acquiring customers,” said Withers. “All of them are at some inflection point where they need to go to another place to advance their venture.”
Tel Aviv-based GBooking – an online tool for search, comparison and booking of service providers – received an investment by Yandex, the “Google of Russia,” according to Withers, and Splitwise – an online mediation platform that lets its users quickly track and calculate expenses in sensitive, cost-sharing situations such as between roommates or families – helps organize more than $4 million in monthly spending from its 22,000 users.
“Entrepreneurship can be a lonely thing,” said Splitwise founder Bittner. “If it’s just the founding team, just you, the two of you, the three of you every day … it’s hard to find someone to talk to even about a technical problem or a personnel issue. You bypass all that at Betaspring. It’s the wisdom of the crowd for everybody.”
Bittner, who is originally from Boston, said one of the greatest strengths of the Betaspring program is its location. “Providence is a perfect size for a city, because it’s really possible to meet people here,” he said. “Whereas hitting the entrepreneur scene in Boston is like jumping in the ocean, we go to these meet-ups, and I feel like I know people.”
Withers said that 2012 is going to be an especially significant year for Betaspring. Along with its recent move to larger Chestnut Street offices in Providence’s Knowledge District, the accelerator is now offering two sessions a year instead of one.
“We will be able to do more companies in one year than we did in three years combined,” she said.
The big expansion is being paid for from a $4.25 million fund, $2 million of which comes from a federal grant. Withers said Betaspring would have expanded the program even without the federal money, but that the $2 million was “incredibly important” and will help Betaspring and its mentors jump-start 80 to 100 companies by the end of 2013.
This year’s class started Feb. 6. Teams that choose to remain in Providence for 12 months after completing the program are eligible for a $50,000 equity investment from the city.
Vernon Rauch, Rhode Island native and CEO of TwoBolt – an online marketing service that helps small to mid-sized businesses launch multichannel marketing campaigns without hiring an agency – has been on both sides of the Betaspring fence. Last year, Rauch acted as a mentor to companies in the accelerator program.
“Now that I’m on the student side, I think getting that startup spirit and that excitement of energy back is unbelievable,” said Rauch. “Sitting down with a 22-year-old and saying, ‘How would you do this?’ is fantastic.”