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Company Launches

MakerHire tries new approach to hooking software developers up with their next job

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 10, 2013 10:11 AM


Right now, software developers are probably the most intensely-recruited workers in Boston.

But Tom Summit, a long-time tech recruiter based in Newburyport, says that despite fielding cold-calls and being spammed on LinkedIn, developers often don't consider all their options when they're ready to change jobs. "Engineers don't create a market for themselves," Summit says. "When they're ready to make a move, they ask a friend who works at an interesting company to help them get an interview. Logic says you should get multiple offers to maximize your compensation, but many of them don't."

Summit's new site, MakerHire, isn't for every software developer. He says it'll curate the good ones, and then similarly select a group of "financially viable" tech companies that are actively hiring. Hiring managers — not recruiters or HR execs — will be able to see the developers' LinkedIn profile or résumé, and request contact. "A candidate can release the information to them if they want, or not," Summit says. One key feature: hiring managers must specify how much the job pays up front, as opposed to asking developers to navigate the interview process before they find out.

Summit's site already lists startups like Backupify, Shareaholic, Yesware, and CustomMade as participants in MakerHire's first "showcase," an online event that lasts for a month; he says his goal is to enable developers to evaluate at least fifty different companies when they're ready to jump. MakerHire charges a placement fee when someone is hired through the site: 12 percent of the individual's first-year salary. (That's lower than a traditional recruiter's fee, which typically start at around 15 percent.)

"When engineers call their friends, they may get a good-enough job offer," Summit says. "We're trying to make it possible to explore the market for your skills, even if it turns out your friend's company is the best place for you."

The Greatest Pitch aims to create 'Shark Tank'-like web show, with an already-controversial assist from entrepreneur fees

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 18, 2013 08:54 AM


Cape Cod entrepreneur Jonah Lupton launched his new website early Saturday morning, The Greatest Pitch, touting a new online video show that would put entrepreneurs in front of an investor panel, similar to ABC's reality show "Shark Tank." The Greatest Pitch site promises "an incredible opportunity for entrepreneurs to pitch in front of professional Investor Panels consisting of top Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists with a chance to secure the funding needed to take their company to the next level." For a small $30 application fee, entrepreneurs could submit their ideas for consideration.

Almost immediately, the sniping on Twitter started.

Why was Lupton, a self-described serial entrepreneur, charging entrepreneurs $30 for the mere chance to present their ideas to a panel of as-yet-unnamed investors?

To quote Phil Beauregard, a Boston entrepreneur who co-founded the restaurant software startup Objective Logistics, "Are you really charging people to pitch 'top angels and VCs?' What's up with that?" (Lupton hasn't yet answered.)

As it happens, I had lunch with Lupton last month, and one of the things we discussed was the Greatest Pitch, the latest in a string of a startups he has created. Lupton is a former wealth manager for Cambridge Appleton Trust who left in 2011. He told me he's hoping to create a web video show with "bigger ideas" of "higher quality" than you see on "Shark Tank." Entrepreneurs all over the world will apply, and Lupton's show will be filmed in locations where he finds the highest concentration of interesting ideas. "We will go to new cities every three to four weeks," he says. He plans to put together a 10 to 12-person investor panel of "professional investors that are going to add value." Lupton says that watching the show online will either require a paid subscription, or will be underwritten by sponsors.

But Lupton is charging $30 for any entrepreneurs who'd like to be considered for his show (something that "Shark Tank" doesn't do, I'd point out). He says it is both to "weed out some of the crazy ideas" and "to help pay for some of the production costs." He says his hope is that the application fees from entrepreneurs will cover half of the cost of producing the show, and Lupton would cover the rest. (He estimates it will cost $100,000 to shoot in each different city.) As for getting people to shell out money to watch a web series, Lupton says, "I'm hoping I can crack that model."

After the site's launch over the weekend, and some of the questions about his plan started surfacing on Twitter, I called Lupton to check in. He said that he hoped to start producing the show in May, but that he couldn't share the names of any investors who will be listening to pitches — and potentially investing — yet. Interested investors "can apply on the website," he said. Lupton added that he was also talking to investors about putting together a $5 million "angel fund" that would either invest in every company that presented, or would invest whenever a panelist decided to put money into a company. He also said he was "talking to a couple TV networks this week" about The Greatest Pitch.

Lupton also explained in e-mails that he hasn't previously raised angel money or venture capital for any of the startups he has founded; all have been boot-strapped. His own investing track record, he wrote, consists of investing in several friends' startups through an entity called Parabolic Ventures, which he says is not a traditional venture capital or seed-funding firm. As for his Twitter following that is more than 500,000 strong (I'm jealous), Lupton says he spends about 45 minutes a day following about 1,000 new people on Twitter, hoping that most of them will follow him back.

But charging entrepreneurs to get in front of investors is something that raises peoples' hackles. "If it's such a good deal, I should be paying [to look at it], not the entrepreneur," says prolific angel investor John Landry.

Jason Calacanis, perhaps the highest-profile crusader against charging for access to investors, calls the practice "predatory," and says via e-mail that "no real angel or investor would knowingly participate."

Lupton says that he was "obviously expecting some skepticism," but that most of his advisors had told him that the application fee would help screen out inventors with perpetual motion machines and patent medicines, and that entrepreneurs would not only be getting face time with investors, but also exposure to the show's online audience. One of his advisors, Elise Moussa, the founder of an online education startup called BE, told me that she'd paid a $100 application fee to be considered as a prospective presenter to the angel investing group Golden Seeds. She wrote via e-mail, "I do find when I pay, even if $50 or less, my application is read and I get a reply. Unlike applying to [the accelerator program] Tech Stars [which doesn't charge a fee, where] I didn't even get a reply."

I acknowledge that $30 is not a lot of money, and that Lupton is far from the only person asking entrepreneurs to pay to get in front of potential investors. But I do wonder about the strategy of asking entrepreneurs to foot part of the bill of launching a new site/show that will give some small percentage of them face-time in front of this still somewhat vague group of investors. People may pay $30 to enter a weekend road race, but they understand what the potential upside is: prize money, or perhaps a medal. With the Greatest Pitch, the upside is still pretty hazy.

What do you think?

Figuring out your own eyeglass prescription? PerfectSight Opticals may soon have the app for that

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 31, 2010 10:00 AM

I've been hearing good things about yet another MIT Media Lab spin-out, PerfectSight Opticals, which comes out of work done at the lab's "Camera Culture" group.

A group of four Media Lab researchers developed a plastic lens assembly (cost: $2) that can clip onto the front of a mobile phone. When a user looks through the lens at the mobile phone's screen, she sees a set of parallel lines. She presses keys on the phone to make the lines overlap, and in about two minutes, the phone displays the proper prescription data. (See the videos below.)

The project won a $5,000 award at last spring's MIT Ideas Competition, and a small team working to commercialize the technology also was chosen as a finalist for the MassChallenge start-up competition this summer. The team says that "uncorrected refractive errors" (near-sightedness and far-sightedness) affect about 600 million people, and are the second most common cause of blindness worldwide. As you might expect, the majority of those people live in less-developed countries, where there isn't a Lenscrafters on every corner, and where the lowest-tech equipment for diagnosing eye problems still costs around $100.

Leading the venture are Chika Patrick Ekeji, a Sloan School of Management student who'll finish his MBA next spring, and Vitor Pamplona, a visiting PhD candidate at the Media Lab.

Ekeji writes via e-mail, "We are working on productizing the prototype...We are in discussions with several potential partners in that regard, and our current plan is to have a [Version 1] product available in six months or so."

The company isn't yet actively raising money, though Ekeji says they may talk with some individual angel investors soon.

PerfectSight doesn't yet have a Web site, and when I e-mailed with Ekeji earlier this month, he said they hadn't yet incorporated.

Two videos about the original MIT project, below:

[ Second video is from the Media Lab's LabCast series, by Paula Aguilera and Jonathan Williams. ]

How fantasy sports site HuddleHub ended up as the punchline of a joke on late-night TV

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 27, 2010 08:38 AM

fallon.jpgFree exposure on national television is one of those things every small company dreams of.

But what if the exposure comes in the form of a punchline in a late-night monologue?

It happened to Boston-based HuddleHub earlier this year. The site will enable users who manage fantasy sports teams through different services, like, Yahoo, and CBS Sports, to access them in one place, either on the Web or via a mobile app, and get access to live statistics. HuddleHub's official launch is this coming Monday.

But back in March, on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," HuddleHub found itself the butt of a joke in the host's monologue. At the time, the site was starting a beta test for the baseball season.

"There's a new program called HuddleHub that manages all of your fantasy sports teams," Fallon said. "They call it the perfect solution for someone who's too lazy to keep track of being too lazy to play actual sports."

The company clearly took the joke as good-natured ribbing; they quote it on their Web site. But how'd it happen?

The company sprang for a booth at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas in March, and happened to get a prime piece of real estate: right between PayPal and Rackspace, the Web hosting provider. Co-founder Patrick Hereford said he was initially skeptical of the value of being at a trade show, but the location attracted lots of media visits, and subsequent HuddleHub mentions on blogs run by CNN and PC World, Hereford writes.

How much traffic did the NBC mention generate? Fewer than 1000 visits to the site, Hereford says. (CNN and PC World together drove about that much traffic, he adds.)

What has actually done better for generating awareness has been participating in various online discussion forums about fantasy sports. "Interacting with people on a somewhat one-to-one basis in a public forum has been really good for us," he writes.

Interesting data point from the world of start-up PR...

AisleBuyer: Augmenting the real-world retail experience with an iPhone app

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 17, 2010 08:00 AM

aislebuyer.jpgMost of us have had a chance to use self-checkout systems at stores like Home Depot, Shaw's, and CVS by now. At some places, they're popular enough that there's no difference between the length of the cashier's queue and the self-checkout queue.

But what if you could scan items in the store as you put them into your shopping cart, using your iPhone, and pay with a credit card — without waiting in line? That's the idea behind the new app from Boston-based AisleBuyer, which showed up on the iTunes Store over the weekend. The free AisleBuyer app also lets you read product descriptions and reviews on your iPhone. The company calls it the "world's first mobile checkout system," and I had a chance to try it out yesterday morning at Magic Beans, a Brookline store that is the company's first retail partner. (Magic Beans sells toys and baby accoutrements like crib bumpers and $600 strollers; they operate four stores around the Boston area.)

I downloaded the app in a few seconds as I was walking to the store. Interestingly, it's branded as a "Magic Beans" app, not an AisleBuyer app (the company says that once it has a half-dozen or so retailers using the app, it'll create a "meta" AisleBuyer app that lets you select the store you happen to be in.)

The app can help you locate a store using your iPhone's GPS, or give you information about current deals. But the main function once you are in the store is the ability to use the phone's camera to scan the bar codes on items. I tried seven items, and most scanned within a few seconds. One item (some bubble bath) didn't seem to scan, and a few others had price tags stuck over the bar codes.

Ideally, after scanning, the AisleBuyer app will be able to pull up product descriptions, a star rating, and some buyer reviews for items. At Magic Beans right now, only some items (mostly those also offered on the store's Web site) present the star rating from previous buyers. With those items, you can also click to see a product description — though the interface doesn't make it obvious that you can do that. And while the app will tell you how many buyer reviews exist for a given item, you can't actually read them. Aislebuyer's CEO, Andrew Paradise, explained that the company was rushing to get the app out, and will remedy those problems in future releases. (He also says you'll soon be able to store items that you don't want to purchase now, but may want to pick up on a later visit.)

aislebuyer2.jpgOnce you've decided to purchase an item, you can add it to the virtual shopping cart on your phone. It keeps a running tally of how much you're about to spend, including tax. The first time you click the "Checkout" button, you have to enter your credit card info and billing address to set up an account. It took me about two minutes to peck in my data. (I bought a $4.99 spray bottle of scented hand sanitizer.) Once the purchase was complete, it turned into a digital "receipt" on the phone, with a verification code that you are supposed to show to a store clerk before you leave. Even if there's a long line at the register, Magic Beans founder Sheri Gurock explains that a clerk will happily hand you a bag and send you on your way.

Magic Beans isn't yet offering any discounts or coupons through AisleBuyer, but Gurock said she will likely experiment with that soon; AisleBuyer will allow her to create special offers that will pop up on the iPhone screens of people who've downloaded the app, encouraging them to come into the store.

My verdict on version 1.0 of the app: it doesn't (yet) consistently provide you with detailed information or useful reviews of a product when you might be on the fence about buying it, but it could very well help you avoid a long line at the cash register. (Gurock says Magic Beans' busiest time is Saturday mornings, when parents stop in to purchase last-minute gifts before heading off to birthday parties.)

AisleBuyer is aligning itself with brick-and-mortar retailers in an interesting little app-skirmish. One one side are apps like ShopSavvy, RedLaser, and Pic2Shop. They make it possible to compare in-store prices to those at online merchants (which, you may have noticed, are sometimes lower, even when shipping costs are taken into account.) And their pitch seems to be, "Go check out the product at BestBuy, but purchase it wherever it's cheapest."

But AisleBuyer is positioning itself as an ally of the real-world merchant — a way for them to encourage shoppers to use apps to provide a layer of additional info (as long as you don't want to hunt for lower prices), and a convenient self-checkout option.

That could be a tough sell, given that the most tech-savvy consumers (those most likely to have an iPhone and regularly add apps to it) are information omnivores, wanting to know everything about a product they're evaluating (including critical reviews that haven't been "blessed" by the merchant) and all of the purchase options.

Magic Beans plans to begin promoting the AisleBuyer app in its stores this Thursday (though you can download it and use it now.)

With 13 employees, AisleBuyer is moving into new office space in Kendall Square later this month. The start-up has raised some angel funding (individual investors include Gerald Kraft and Phil Cooper, both formerly of Charles River Associates), and plans to announce a Series A funding round in September. The company is currently a finalist in the MassChallenge competition as well as the PepsiCo10 start-up contest. Paradise didn't want to be specific about other retailers who may deploy AisleBuyer, but he did say that office supply superstores are a high priority for the company. An Android version of the app is in development.

(In the photo above, from left to right, are Andrew Paradise of AisleBuyer, Sheri Gurock of Magic Beans, and Chuck Ball of AisleBuyer.)

A123 Systems spawns another alphanumeric battery company: 24M Technologies

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 16, 2010 07:06 AM

ymc.jpgBoston's newest battery developer, 24M Technologies, is launching with a leg up on your typical start-up: two founders from MIT, a seasoned entrepreneur as CEO, $10 million in funding from North Bridge and Charles River Ventures, and a slice of a $6 million grant from the Department of Energy. Oh, and they've got access to some nascent technology originally developed at A123 Systems.

A123 felt the technology, a hybrid of lithium ion batteries and what are known as "flow" batteries, was too far out to be a priority within the Waltham company; in an analyst call last week, A123 chief executive David Vieau said it could take the better part of the decade to turn it into a product. The new venture, 24M, will be based in Cambridge, and will initially focus on large battery systems for utilities. (A123 is already beginning to sell its lithium ion batteries to utilities who want to store power produced by wind turbines, for example, and then release it in periods of high electrical demand.)

A123 has an equity stake in the new company and a board seat for the intellectual property they've contributed, but the company isn't investing cash in 24M. What's still mysterious is whether A123 will have the exclusive right to purchase the technology that 24M develops — or any preferential options to buy the company itself. "We have a business agreement with them that they chose not to talk about on their earnings call [ last week] and that we'd rather keep that way for now," 24M Technologies CEO Throop Wilder wrote in an e-mail.

Starting early in 2009, Wilder had been an entrepreneur-in-residence at Charles River Ventures, looking at energy storage technologies, which he believes are "the next true great market. I talked to a fair number of scientists doing work in this area, and North Bridge introduced me to Yet." (Yet-Ming Chiang, pictured above, is a co-founder of A123 and a materials science professor at MIT.) Throop had been a co-founder of the security start-up Crossbeam Systems, and before that the software company American Internet Corp., acquired by Cisco for about $56 million. The third founder of 24M is W. Craig Carter, another MIT materials science prof.

For his part, Chiang says that "within A123 are all kinds of technological innovations that bubble up, and in every instance, A123 sits down and says, 'What is the best way to bring this to commercialization, if we think it could be significant.' A lot of those projects get developed internally, but in this particular case, after a lot of thought, it was concluded that if we spun it out it'd have the very significant benefit of leveraging private capital." When I asked Chiang if A123 would have the ability to prevent a rival from buying 24M, perhaps by topping any purchase offer, he said that conceptually it would, but wouldn't be more specific.

MIT professors are permitted to spend 20 percent of their time working with commercial ventures, and Chiang, who sees each work week as consisting of at least 168 hours, plans to continue taking advantage of that allowance. But he didn't want to detail how much time he would be spending at A123 versus 24M.

Wilder says the team will be primarily made up of scientists at this stage, and "will be expanding to 10 to 20 people within the next six months, all with a strong technical orientation."

24M came out of an exercise, Chiang says, "where we took a clean sheet of paper and asked, 'If you were to invent the ideal energy storage device for utility applications, what would it be? We took concepts from flow batteries, which are similar to fuel cells, but don't give off exhaust. And we looked at all of the overhead in materials and components in batteries that don't directly serve the function of storing energy. So, essentially, we were trying to take the high energy density of rechargeable batteries without the overhead, and decrease the complexity and improve the energy density of flow batteries."

The electrical grid has "so many points where you can improve efficiency and lower costs by adding some storage capacity," Chiang adds. Wilder says, "when you're looking at applications in the grid like mitigating peak power [needs] or transmission congestion, or enabling renewable energy sources, you need batteries that can last longer [than what is available today.] We're working on the five-year out, next-generation, long-duration storage technology... Simple systems that could go into a sub-station in New York, for example, and have very good long-duration storage."

Now that they've talked a bit about the company's formation and funding, Chiang says "we'll go back into stealth until we have a product."

Here's the official press release, and here's CNET's coverage of the company, which explains that the name 24M comes from 24 molars, "a level of concentration of active material in the storage media."

(We first reported on the VC firms funding 24M, the company's CEO, and its MIT connections last Thursday on Twitter.)

Mercavo hopes to create a marketplace for valuable sales leads... the Glengarry leads!

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 28, 2010 02:48 PM

Anyone who has ever worked in or around the sales department has seen "Glengarry Glen Ross," the 1992 Alec Baldwin/Kevin Spacey drama in which a boiler room of salesmen all covet a collection of supremely valuable sales leads: the Glengarry leads.

"These are the new leads," Baldwin says. "These are the Glengarry leads. And to you they're gold, and you don't get them. Why? Because to give them to you would be throwing them away. They're for closers."

A new Concord start-up, Mercavo, wants to create an online marketplace where technology sales leads can be bought and sold. It's like the movie's stack of Glengarry leads crossed with Apple's iTunes Store model. Mercavo has been conducting a private beta for about a year, CEO Doug Atkinson says, but will offer its first public demo Thursday night at the Tech Cocktail event in Cambridge.

The company traces its roots to LeadSpark, a company Atkinson started in 2004 (and still runs) after he left a VP of sales gig at the Internet marketing company eDialog. LeadSpark employs about twenty people who dial for dollars all day, calling technology executives to try to find one who might be shopping for some better security software, for instance. That lead then gets passed along to one of LeadSpark's clients, who are predominantly big enterprise tech companies.

How did the idea for Mercavo emerge? "Our client would want us to find a specific sales opportunity — call it a diamond," Atkinson says. "And we'd be calling around and we'd come across another sales opportunity that might be valuable for a different company. A ruby. But we had nothing we could do with those rubies."

He and David Im, formerly at KMT Software and PingPoint, built Mercavo to see whether "you could sell ephemeral knowledge about a sales opportunity in an e-commerce transaction."

So now when LeadSpark's employees come across an opportunity that isn't relevant to a LeadSpark client, it goes into the Mercavo database. Atkinson says he has another local sales development company that is also pouring leads into the database. A lead that tells you, for instance, that a VP of e-commerce at a "very well-established e-tailer" is looking to "improve e-mail metrics and get better pricing" will cost you $379. (The lead comes not just with contact info and a time frame in which the executive plans to make a purchase decision, but a paragraph describing the opportunity, and the executive's complaints about his current situation.) Atkinson says that Mercavo will sell the lead to only three buyers, since he wants the VP to have a few different vendor options, but not to be overwhelmed by sales calls. And he wants to give each of the companies that purchases the lead a fair shake.

When a sales development company adds a new sales lead to the site, and it is purchased, it keeps between 70 and 80 percent of the $379 purchase price, and Mercavo pockets the rest. That's similar to the model Apple uses with app developers on its iTunes Store.

"There is a lot of inefficiency and negative connections in the sales process," Atkinson says. "The idea of Mercavo is to create transparency. Eventually, we'd like to see [executives looking to solve a problem] post an opportunity themselves, and say, 'here's what I need,' as opposed to issuing an RFP and hoping it gets to the right people."

In its private beta phase, Mercavo has been working with about sixty tech companies who've been examining and purchasing sales leads from the site.

The company has been funded with about $50,000 in friends and family money, and Atkinson has just begun to have conversations with venture capital firms about a Series A round.

Right now, the company is primarily focused on adding more sellers of leads to its marketplace, he says: "We just need some jet fuel to acquire sellers.

Can Neuroscouting's software produce better baseball players?

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 14, 2010 01:25 PM

Screen shot 2010-07-14 at 9.12.11 AM.pngOne of the more intriguing start-ups I've been hearing about this year is Neuroscouting, currently operating out of the DogPatch Labs space in East Cambridge. The company is developing game-like software for evaluating athletes' brain performance — like the way their visual and motor systems respond to an oncoming curve ball — and also improving it. The company will focus first on baseball, but Neuroscouting's tagline ("The science of elite performance") implies that the company will eventually expand to other sports.

Several sources familiar with the company told me that the Red Sox are evaluating the technology for future use, but a team spokesperson didn't respond to multiple calls and e-mails requesting comment. Neuroscouting co-founder Wesley Clapp wrote in an e-mail that "breaching our confidentiality agreements would jeopardize everything that we are working so hard for." Clapp earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and the company's technology is based on recent insights into neuroplasticity — the way the brain can change and improve based on certain kinds of training and experiences. Clapp's co-founder, Brian Miller, earned his PhD in neuroscience at UC/Berkeley.

Neuroscouting's Web site pitches the software it is developing as useful to teams for both scouting and coaching. "Our software tools...analyze and enhance the brain functions required to respond successfully to the intense visuomotor demands seen on the professional field," the site claims. "As a result, they provide a powerful scientific complement to current scouting and player development strategies."

A tweet from venture capitalist Mike Hirshland describes Neuroscouting as developing "videogames for pro athletes." Hirshland is a partner at Waltham-based Polaris Venture Partners, which operates the DogPatch Labs facility; DogPatch provides several months of free office space to promising start-ups. Hirshland said this morning that Polaris hasn't (yet) invested in Neuroscouting.

The company has met with at least one local angel investor, but Clapp wouldn't confirm whether they're seriously seeking funding at this point. The company was founded in 2007.

New mobile start-up, EverTrue, aims to help colleges stay close to young alums

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 25, 2010 08:34 AM

evertrue.pngWho better than a recent business school grad to launch a new start-up that is creating mobile apps to help universities stay connected to their alumni?

Brent Grinna started working on EverTrue while at Harvard Business School; he graduated last month, and around the same time, the company launched its first app, Brown Alumni Connect.

Grinna says EverTrue is focused on building "young alumni engagement tools" that will deliver news, sports scores, video, and an event calendar to alums via their iPhones (and eventually, Android phones and BlackBerries, too.)

"When you move to a new city, you can update your contact information so friends can find you, and you can use the app to find other alumni in the area," he says. Grinna adds that schools often don't dedicate much energy to communicating with young alumni, who aren't likely to become big donors for a decade or two. That's exactly the demographic that Grinna expects will be attracted to EverTrue's apps. ("Mobile giving" will also be rendered easy, presumably in small amounts, for those note yet ready to have their name chiseled on a building.)

Grinna has been bootstrapping the company thus far, following the advice of Jeffrey Bussgang, an entrepreneur-in-residence at HBS and a partner at Flybridge Capital in Boston. "Our plan is to sign up some more schools, and then raise some funding," he says. In addition to Brown (Grinna's undergrad alma mater, where he was captain of the football team), he says the company is in discussions with other New England colleges and boarding schools. EverTrue has developed a prototype app for HBS, but the school hasn't yet signed a deal with EverTrue.

CloudSwitch launches in SF; CEO lists five reasons corporate customers still fear the cloud

Posted by Scott Kirsner June 22, 2010 04:00 PM

Burlington-based CloudSwitch, one of the better-funded cloud computing start-ups in town, officially launches Wednesday at the Structure 2010 conference in San Francisco. While many small businesses have gravitated to cloud-based storage and server horsepower because of the cost savings and flexibility they offer, CloudSwitch aims to make cloud computing "safe" for larger companies. Run by former SolidWorks CEO John McEleney, CloudSwitch has raised $15.5 million from a trio of local venture firms: Matrix Partners, Atlas Venture, and Commonwealth Capital Ventures.

CloudSwitch sells software that's installed in a corporate data center to enable a customer to easily use cloud services from providers like Amazon and Terramark to run their own applications. "You make no changes at all to your underlying app," McEleney says. "And you get complete encryption of all the data. The customer keeps the keys, and no one else has them."

CloudSwitch co-founder Ellen Rubin explains that big companies may want to "spin up" a few hundred extra servers when they're testing a new application to see how it will work in the real world, or for already-live applications during times of high demand, like a travel Web site during the height of summer vacation season.

"We see people saving from 30 to 50 percent, compared to maintaining servers and storage in their own data center," Rubin says. "The real savings is being able to shut it off when you don't need it, rather than running it 24/7."

The company charges a minimum of $25,000 a year for access to up to twenty servers, with pricing scaling up based on the customer's needs. McEleney says they're selling mainly to directors or VPs of IT infrastructure, and executives responsible for application development, as opposed to CIOs. "We don't want to get caught in the spin cycle of someone asking, how does this fit into our 10-year cloud strategy," says McEleney.

CloudSwitch has 24 full-time employees, and McEleney says they're hiring a bit on the business side, and "even more on the engineering side."

I asked McEleney for his list of the top five reasons big companies are still anxious about cloud-based services. Here's his run-down:

1. The cloud is not as secure as your data center (primary concern around multi-tenancy)
2. Moving to the cloud is hard
3. If I move to the cloud, am I going to be “locked in”?
4. The cloud is more expensive than buying hardware
5. No one is really using the cloud

As for that last concern, McEleney concedes that there isn't yet a list of Wal-Mart-sized companies using cloud-based services (or at least talking publicly about it.) But he says CloudSwitch is already working with some big financial services and pharmaceutical companies that just aren't willing to be named, and has been having meetings with a number of other potential customers in the Fortune 500.

At the Structure 2010 conference this week, there are a few other local folks speaking, including Akamai CEO Paul Sagan and Michael Skok of North Bridge Venture Partners. Also, Somerville-based Cloudant will be launching its "cloud ready" database service at the conference, along with CloudSwitch.

You say you're a big fan? Then prove it, on Fantourage

Posted by Scott Kirsner May 10, 2010 09:00 AM

Blending celebrity worship, social networking, and multi-level marketing is a new Boston start-up just coming out of beta this month, Fantourage.

The site allows fans to create online fan clubs for their favorite bands, actors, or sports stars — and gives celebs that opt to work with Fantourage an opportunity to reward their most fervent fans with prizes. For example: for the recent MGM release "Hot Tub Time Machine," Fantourage worked with the studio to aggregate fans of the movie online, with the #1 fan winning an actual hot tub. (The fact that "Hot Tub" co-star Rob Corddry tweeted about the promotion didn't hurt.) How do you prove that you're a devoted fan? Founder John Davie explains that you earn points by posting messages, taking quizzes, creating videos, or interacting with other fans on the site. But the ways to accumulate really big points? By recruiting other fans into a Fantourage fan club, or by purchasing tickets or merchandise through the site. 

"This is no different from an airline giving away frequent flier miles or first-class upgrades," explains Davie, also the founder of Dining Alliance, a group purchasing network for restaurants. The site has been working with "The Soup" on Comedy Central to give away passes to be on the set when the show is taped, and with Donald Trump to give away a trip to New York City and a meet-and-greet with The Donald. Fantourage also gave away tickets to last night's Celtics/Cavaliers game, but they're not yet officially working with the team. "We had a Cavaliers fan and a Celtics fan competing to win tickets," Davie explains. "We were using that giveaway to test out the concept."

Davie says that he started developing the idea for Fantourage after studying the way fans of Dane Cook interacted on the comic's Facebook page; that got him thinking about how celebrities might benefit from a way to find out who their most loyal fans were, and reward them with incentives and discounts — in much the same way big corporations do with their loyalty programs. He also started thinking about how to ban haters from an online social network; on Fantourage, the top 10 percent of a celebrity's fans become moderators with the power to hide negative posts (though they can only nuke one per day.)

"We had some meetings in LA with PR firms who said that their celebrity clients were interested in social media, but not always using it," Davie says. "We told them we were developing a way to reward fans without posting twenty times a day on Twitter like Ashton Kutcher."

Davie funded the creation of the site along with partners Matt Focht and Todd Delehanty; its construction was supervised by chief technology officer Jeff Durso. Davie says he is working on the site part-time while he continues to run Dining Alliance, a company he founded a dozen years ago. He's hoping to raise a first round of outside funding for Fantourage soon.

Davie says the site will generate revenue through affiliate fees (helping point fans to ticket or merchandise purchases on other sites); money paid by celebs for managing fan rewards programs; and eventually, virtual goods that are sold on the Fantourage site.

RelayRides: Like Zipcar without the car fleet

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 12, 2010 10:07 AM

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When you first heard about how Zipcar worked, didn't it sound a bit strange? You're supposed to go online to reserve a car before you want to drive it? How do you ensure that people return the car when they say they're going to? What about keeping it full of gas, and keeping the inside from looking like a rental car at the end of spring break? How could car-sharing possibly work in America, which has celebrated car ownership for more than a century?

These days, Cambridge-based Zipcar has 350,000 members and a fleet of 6,000 vehicles in the U.S. and London, and the company could go public as soon as this year. 

And there's a new car-sharing start-up in town that sounds, well, a bit improbable: RelayRides.

RelayRides is similar to Zipcar, except the company doesn't actually plan to purchase any cars. They're going to use your wheels. 

The idea comes from Shelby Clark, a former management consultant and executive now finishing up a degree at Harvard Business School. Clark says he went to HBS "with the goal of starting something with a social mission and social impact" — in the case of RelayRides, increasing the utilization of cars that are already owned, and potentially preventing some number of new cars from being purchased. 

Clark is a Zipcar member, and says that when he lived in San Francisco, the service enabled him to avoid buying his own new car. "I think there's a real trend of people rejecting ownership in favor of access," Clark says. "You look at things like Netflix, RentTheRunway, Zipcar, or various textbook rental programs. You get the benefits of ownership without the hassle and cost."

Clark says that as a Zipcar member, he has occasionally run into car availability issues, and been forced to reserve a car several miles away. So he started thinking about how a car-sharing service might be able to station more cars in more neighborhoods around a city, without having to ensure that they were being used often enough. The answer: don't own the cars. 

RelayRides will enable car owners to rent out their own cars to others, and earn anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $8,000 a year, Clark says, depending on how popular their vehicles are, and how centrally-located.

What if you could send a non-virtual cupcake to your Facebook friends?

Posted by Scott Kirsner April 8, 2010 12:20 PM

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Launched last week by former Googler (and current Harvard Business School student) Subha Townsend is the new gifting service DashGift. Rather than allowing you to send virtual gifts to your Facebook friends on special occasions — really just nifty little icons that show up on your Facebook profile — DashGift aims to make it simple to send along real goodies like a free movie ticket ($10) or a cupcake from Sweet ($3.25), the Boston bakeshop.

"The whole notion of virtual gifts is an interesting phenomenon," says Townsend, who built the service with her husband Rick, who is also a Harvard grad student. "But I started thinking that rather than just sending along a graphic, if I was actually with my friend in California when I found out she'd gotten engaged, I'd want to take her out for a drink or for dessert. Yes, you can send them flowers or a gift in the mail, but in this time and age, so many of your relationships are digital — no one has everyone's address. Sending flowers would mean calling them, asking for the address, and ruining the element of surprise."

There are other gift-related apps on Facebook that let you input the recipient's address and send something real in the mail, Townsend acknowledges, "but this is an innovative model, because the recipient gets a code, and they can go to the store or the Web site to redeem the gift. And everyone on Facebook can see that I sent you a cupcake." The message that accompanies the gift can either be made private or public.

For now, the gifting options are limited. If the recipient is in Boston, you can buy them a cupcake from Sweet or a cake from Finale; eventually, you'll be able to buy them a beer from Tommy Doyle's Irish Pub. If the recipient lives somewhere else, you can make a $10 donation in their name through GlobalGiving, or buy them a $10 movie ticket they can redeem through Fandango.

Townsend says the idea price point for this kind of "micro-gift" is between $3 and $10. "After $10, there's a huge drop in people's willingness to pay." 

Townsend is just wrapping up her first year at HBS, and she plans to spend part of the summer working at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. But she adds that her husband and other team members "will be working full-time over the summer on DashGift."

Townsend says they're not really out trying to raise funding at present. To build awareness, they've been doing some advertising on Facebook, primarily to students in the Boston area. They're also hoping that by expanding the number of retailers who participate in the service, they'll be able to get some signage or promotion in their stores and restaurants.

What do you think?

(Another Cambridge start-up in the non-virtual gifting space is KangoGift, which lets you send real gifts from local shops using your mobile phone.)

Vidgame couple build new venture around 'social gaming' trend

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 26, 2010 10:00 AM

If you're a Facebook user, you've no doubt been invited to take part in Vampires or Mafia Wars, two free online games that invite you to start a clan of vampires (or a mafia family) with your friends, complete challenges to earn points, and establish dominance over other groups. Both are examples of "social gaming" — games that spread through social networking sites, are relatively inexpensive to build, and generate revenue by selling virtual goods or currency to players, for real money.

Disruptor Beam, the latest start-up from husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Jon Radoff and Angela Bull, plans to play in the social gaming arena. Radoff mentioned the new venture on his blog last Friday; we met earlier this week to talk in more detail.

"We think there are three important elements to a role-playing game: story, character-building, and progression," Radoff says. "A lot of the existing social games have the idea of progression, of advancing through a world, but they don't have the other two." Radoff likes to say he and Bull have been building social games since the early 1990s, when they launched a text-based fantasy game called "Legends of Future Past" on the CompuServe online service.

GamerDNA was the most recent company that Bull and Radoff started together; it was an online gathering place for die-hard gamers. The company raised more than $5 million in venture capital from Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston. Last year, after cutting its staff in half, GamerDNA was acquired by a New York-based gaming site for an undisclosed sum.

What was the lesson there? "GamerDNA built a lot of great stuff for a year or so before thinking about revenue," Radoff says. "Thinking about revenue first could have made a difference." (Bull left GamerDNA in early 2009 to start work on Disruptor Beam. That's Radoff and Bull at the center of the photo, taken at a GamerDNA office-warming party.)

This time around, Radoff and Bull aren't raising venture capital (at least initially). Their plan is to work with content partners who will help fund the development of social games and also share in the revenues. Disruptor Beam's business model will mimic that of the two leaders in social gaming, Zynga and Playdom: selling virtual goods and currency that give you status, skills, or help you advance in the game. 

Radoff says the company is working on three games simultaneously — two with partners, and one on its own. The nice thing about social games, he says, is that they can be inexpensive to develop (costing $100,000 and up), "which lets you experiment, building games for different audiences, with different game play mechanics."

The first game to launch, perhaps as early as May, will be "Gods of Rock," which Disruptor Beam is developing independently. Your role is that of an aspiring rock star who needs to write songs, obtain instruments, and generate income. "Eventually, you can become a music mogul, sign up your friends' bands, and help produce them," Radoff says. (No drugs or booze in "Gods of Rock," though Radoff notes "there will be energy drinks.") The start-up is working on a second, history-based game in collaboration with Powderhouse Productions, the biggest producer of non-fiction TV programming in New England.

Trying to improve your work life, relationships, or attitude? Yana wants to help

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 25, 2010 11:00 AM

Existing social networks don't necessarily lead you to a happier life; more likely, they make you jealous about your college roommate's three-week vacation to the South Pacific, or upset about your would-be boyfriend's decision to keep his relationship status set to "single."

But a new Boston-based site called Yana is designed to promote setting goals that lead to contentedness and good health. (The name stands for "you are not alone.") Users can lay out goals like "stop procrastinating," "save money," or "live in gratitude," and communicate with others who share those objectives. The site also makes it easy to recommend books (like "The Happiness Project") or share tips ("find an exercise buddy.") 

Co-founder Rebecca Xiong observes that "people spend a lot of money on self improvement — $11 billion in DVDs, books, and counseling sessions — but most of that is happening off-line now. We're trying to build a community, and help move some of the spending online." (Xiong counted the self-improvement books on her own shelf: 32.) She says the Yana site that's live now is "still a prototype." A more official launch will happen this summer.

Xiong had been a founder of the nightlife listing site, which was bought by AOL last year. She left AOL on January 1st to start focusing on Yana full-time. (Last month, I wrote about former CEO Evan Schumacher's new start-up.) Her co-founder, Jason Toy, is based in San Francisco.

The company doesn't yet have offices, and Xiong hasn't raised outside funding. "It's too early for VC," she says, "and doing consumer Web stuff these days doesn't require a lot of capital." 

That's one more good tip on achieving happiness: don't put yourself in a position where you need to beseech investors for money.

(The photo of Xiong above is by Mark Doerschlag.)

On the Radar: Rally, which mines Twitter to improve your social life

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 22, 2010 08:00 AM

While the team from Silicon Valley-based Plancast was down at South by Southwest earlier this month, hustling to generate buzz among the thousands of digerati at the conference, Mark Soper was sequestered in Cambridge, working to get his new service, Rally, ready for launch.

Plancast, if you haven't tried it, is one more social media site that asks you to supply it with information about your life: in the case of Plancast, trips you're planning to take, concerts you're attending, or Celtics games you're going to. The site makes these plans public, and other people can "follow you" to discover interesting stuff to do (or perhaps stalk you in person.) They can sign on to participate in events you're involved with, making them appear more popular. I've been using it, and it's kind of a chore. I already maintain my own private calendar, create free and paid events using Eventbrite sometimes, list things on Upcoming, and occasionally sign on to attend events listed on Facebook. Now Plancast, too?

In contrast, Rally requires much less effort. You grant it access to your Twitter account, and it scans all of your friends' tweets to try to find messages that hint at what they are planning to do: "Can't wait to see Hot Tub Time Machine on Friday night," for instance, or "Looking forward to the MassTLC annual meeting on March 31st." Rally grabs the tweets that seem like they relate to something happening on a day in the future, and places them on a single page. Here's what my pastry-centric friends are looking forward to tomorrow, for instance:

Without Rally, I never would've known about this particular Starbucks deal. If you click "Add Plan," you can turn any tweet about an event into a more "formal plan," specifying the details. The service makes it easy to send that plan out as a tweet of your own, and have other folks sign on to indicate that they're going to participate. As you formalize plans on the site, you collect points, which Soper says will mean that your plans will be featured more prominently in the future.

You can see what your friends are planning over the next couple days by visiting Rally's site, and the company also sends out a daily e-mail digest of what's happening.

Of course, Rally often grabs tweets that don't really pertain to an event, simply because they mention a day or date: "Really hung-over this morning. Not looking forward to work on Monday," for example. 

Soper says, "Right now, our accuracy is running about 70 percent, but we want to get it into the 90s. I don't think it'll ever be perfect. It's a difficult natural language problem to figure out what's actually an event, as opposed to just someone mentioning a day."

Soper says the Rally concept has been evolving since last year, and that he launched a private beta with about sixty users in January. He has been building the site with a Python developer in India, and hasn't yet raised any outside funding. Eventually, he wants Rally to connect to Facebook, too, to look for future activities that people mention in their Facebook status updates.

The idea for Rally, he says, "came out of my own frustration of being busy all week, and not having time to banter back and forth with friends, and hear what's going on. By the time Friday rolls around, I have no idea what's happening for the weekend."

Interestingly, Soper says he had a chance to meet Plancast founder Mark Hendrickson last year, when Hendrickson was in Boston talking to some prospective investors, including Bijan Sabet at Spark Capital. How'd he find out Hendrickson was coming? Soper used Plancast, and "joined" a plan Hendrickson had published to go out for drinks one night. They had a friendly talk about what they were both working on, but Soper says his hope is that Rally's ease-of-use will appeal to a wider range of people — not just the in-the-know digerati who are always happy to give one more social media site a whirl.

On the radar: Blueleaf, a secure online space for discussing investment goals

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 18, 2010 11:31 AM

The new money management site that I've been hearing about this month is Cambridge-based Blueleaf, founded by John Prendergast and Chris Thorpe. It aims to help you centralize all your investment accounts in one secure place online, and make it easy to discuss with a spouse, friend, or financial adviser whether you're on the right track to saving for retirement or building a college fund. You can grant access to your info to people you trust; have online discussions about whether it's time to sell a certain stock or mutual fund; and even hold on to historical info if you decide to move an account to a different bank or brokerage.

The company has mainly been boot-strapped by its founders so far, with a bit of outside capital, but Prendergast tells me they will have more to disclose about other investors soon.

I asked Prendergast about the initial inspiration. He wrote in an e-mail:

What we're trying to do with Blueleaf is connect people, their families and their financial advisors (if they have them) to ALL their investment and savings accounts and to one another. Its about simplifying the investing process and enabling those "kitchen table" conversations we all have huddled around stacks of paper. Families need to manage retirement, college savings and other investments and most of us collaborate to do it; wife to husband, son to mother (I manage my mom's money), advisor to client, etc. But until now there has been no way for everyone in that conversation to see the same information in one place and work together online.

Prendergast is a former techie at Jeffries & Company, the investment bank, who now serves on the board of Oneforty, the Twitter app store; Thorpe, Blueleaf's chief technology officer, worked at Tellme Networks and earlier in his career at Viaweb (an early e-commerce service acquired by Yahoo.) Working alongside them is Chris Paul, formerly the VP of engineering at Visible Measures, the video analytics firm in Boston.

The first line of code for Blueleaf was written last December, Prendergast tells me, and the Web site went live in January. The company is now running an invitation-only beta that will last for a few months, he says. Prendergast expects that some of the site's features will always be free, but there may also be a subscription-based premium version.

Blueleaf is definitely a start-up in the same vein as, the personal finance site acquired by Intuit last fall for $170 million. 


Zthere turns smartphones into a collaborative tool

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 15, 2010 09:54 AM

Ever try to use your mobile phone to talk someone through changing a tire, fixing a complicated piece of industrial machinery, or defusing a bomb — and just wish you could just draw them a picture, or point to the relevant wire you're trying to get them to yank?

A Cambridge start-up called Zthere has a nifty solution to that vexing situation. The company has developed software that uses a smartphone's built-in camera and its ability to record and transmit spoken instructions to enable what you might call "annotated collaboration." Just snap a photo of that ticking time bomb, and a far-off expert can draw on the photo, drop virtual push pins on key spots, and talk you through the steps you need to take. 

Zthere's founders are serial entrepreneurs Matthias Wagner and Dan Ostrower. Ostrower writes via e-mail, "The idea was born out of frustrations that Matthias and I have had during years of hardware development and entrepreneurship. For example, flying people to Asian manufacturers to solve problems we felt there should be a way to solve remotely. ...We started asking ourselves, 'How could you show a tech in a factory how to use a thermal camera without sending him to training and without having someone next to him showing him what to do?'"

Ostrower says they like to describe the concept as similar to WebEx or LogMeIn (services that let you hold online meetings or access a remote computer) — but for the real world. Development of the product started last fall, and Ostrower showed me an iPhone demo last week that looked pretty smooth. You can choose to record and store a "session" to be viewed later — an annotated photo with audio that talks the viewer through replacing an air conditioner filter, for example. Or, if you have access to a 3G or WiFi network, you can collaborate in real-time, pointing and dropping push-pins on one another's screens and asking questions.

Zthere plans to release a free iPhone app later this year; an alpha test is happening now. Next will be an Android app and a Web-based version of the software.

As for the revenue model, the current plan is to offer a subscription-based service to business customers. "We are targeting segments and applications where Zthere can have significant payback — equipment service, remote manufacturing management, construction management, public safety, military, etc.," Ostrower writes. His hope is that it'll be a new way for people in big companies to share their expertise, no matter where they're based.

Ostrower tells me he and Wagner have been self-funding the company thus far (and relying on hired contractors for development), with the goal of raising outside capital at the right time. Their previous start-up, RedShift Systems, a developer of inexpensive thermal imaging cameras, has raised $18 million so far (RedShift is still working on getting a product to market). Ostrower was also an early team member at SMaL Camera Technologies, which was acquired by Cypress Semiconductor in 2005. (Cypress flipped it to years later to Attleboro-based Sensata Technologies, which went public earlier this month.)

Here's the YouTube video demo:

If you're interested in participating in Zthere's beta test, Ostrower says their bias is toward teams of business users who need to collaborate.

$10-a-month math help, from Newton-based TenMarks

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 2, 2010 08:00 AM

Joining Boston's cluster of e-learning ventures is TenMarks, a company focused on helping kids improve their math skills. 

Following an initial assessment test, students get a customized curriculum that can cover any of 1000 mathematical concepts from fractions to the area of a triangle. "When kids listen to music, they want to hear their own playlist," says co-founder Rohit Agarwal. "Any kind of media and content that kids are consuming outside of the classroom is personalized to them. But fundamentally, teaching hasn't changed."

The company is initially planning to market the subscription-based service ($10 a month, following a 15-day free trial) to parents with kids in grades three to ten. But there are also pilot programs happening at Boston-area schools, and a national after-school program, and Agarwal says TenMarks will also pursue that kind of high-volume customer relationship.

The company hopes to eventually expand its online learning programs to other subjects. "Parents have told us that they want grammar and vocabulary to be next," Agarwal says.

TenMarks co-founder Andrew Joseph says the company has already developed "hundreds of thousands of questions and problems, which each have three hints to help students get to the answer, and a step-by-step solution that shows exactly how to do it." There are also more than 2000 video lessons, of three-to-five minutes each.

TenMarks, founded in late 2008, raised its first outside financing last September, from a group of angel investors that included Jill Preotle, Jean Hammond, and Kelly Pope, formerly VP of technology at Classroom Connect. The company officially launched its service last month.

Numote prepares to launch 'social remote control' for iPhone, Android, and TV

Posted by Scott Kirsner March 1, 2010 07:05 AM

I love the slogan for Numote, a new TV remote control technology launching this month: "Waste your time better." 

Founder Vijay Kailas finished up at Harvard's Graduate School of Design in 2008, and started developing the Numote concept shortly thereafter.

"We call it a social remote control for television," Kailas told me last week "It helps users find content to watch, interact with their friends, and get recommendations of shows they'll like." You can see what your other Numote-using friends are watching right now, and whether they love (or hate) a particular show that's coming up next. Numote also helps you find content related to a show online — tapping into Ellen DeGeneres' Twitter feed, for instance, while watching her talk show.

One element of Numote is a mobile phone app that will be available for the iPhone and Android platforms sometime in March, Kailas says. (There will be both free and paid versions.) And in April, the company plans to start selling the second piece: a small set-top Bluetooth receiver (they call it "the pebble") which lets you use your phone to change channels. The pebble, designed by ex-IDEO staffer Gerd Schmieta, will sell for about $70. (See photo below.) "We plan to sell it through our own site, and several online retailers," Kailas says. 

"Right now, on your on-screen programming guide, you just get a blurb written by somebody who probably doesn't watch the show," Kailas says. "We're creating a community that explains the appeal of the show — what people like and don't like. We're using your social graph to make recommendations, because most of the time, you discover great shows through your friends." Numote will tap into your existing network of friends using Facebook Connect.

The company has been funded so far by Kailas' friends and family, and an angel investment from David Rose, founder of Ambient Devices. The company doesn't have office space of its own yet, but is based in and around Central Square. (I mentioned them briefly in yesterday's Globe column on challenges facing start-up consumer electronics companies in Boston.)


Recorded Future: It's like Google Meets Nostradamus

Posted by Scott Kirsner February 18, 2010 07:44 AM

recordedfuture.jpgWhat if you could scour the Web for predictions, forecasts, and estimates about what might happen next year, or in a decade?

The founders of Recorded Future, a new Boston area start-up, believe there is value in applying Google-like search capabilities and a simple interface to a tightly constrained set of data: occurrences that are expected or predicted to happen tomorrow and beyond. The site presents three input boxes — what, who/where, and when — and presents text search results, charts, or timelines. You might search, for instance, for IPOs in Massachusetts that are expected to take place this year, or pharmaceutical companies in Europe planning to begin clinical trials in 2011. You can also set up e-mail alerts to be notified when Recorded Future finds fresh data. (It searches across blogs, news outlets, and social media sites.)

"Recorded Future allows financial analysts, intelligence analysts, and predictors to organize and aggregate future observations with ease," the company explains in a short description on its YouTube channel. On the company's LinkedIn page, the company, founded in late 2009, boasts that its "customers are some of the top government agencies and trading firms in the world."

Christopher Ahlberg is co-founder and CEO, but he isn't talking about the company yet. "We want to stay out of [the] public eye for a bit longer," he e-mailed yesterday. He wouldn't confirm where the company is based or when they're planning to formally launch, either. But like Ahlberg's previous start-up, the business intelligence firm Spotfire, Recorded Future seems to have operations both in Boston and in Sweden, Ahlberg's country of origin. (Spotfire was acquired by Tibco in 2007, for $195 million in cash, and Ahlberg stuck around as an EVP there for just under two years. Spotfire had raised about $40 million in funding over its 11 year lifespan.)

Also involved with Recorded Future as a founding member of the board is Andy Palmer. He didn't return my calls or e-mails seeking information about the company. Palmer did, however, post a completely unbiased comment (using his Twitter username "pigratdog") on the company's YouTube page: "This is an incredibly powerful results navigation interface — truly game changing."

I'm told by a local venture capitalist that Recorded Future hasn't yet raised a venture round, but has only received money from its founders and angel investors.

And while the Recorded Future interface, with its three input boxes, looks remarkably similar to the travel search site Goby, there's no link between the two companies except for Palmer, who serves on both boards. While conceptually similar, "it's not the same technology," Goby chief executive Mark Watkins told me yesterday. "They're a completely separate company." Neither Flybridge Capital Partners nor Kepha Partners, two local firms that have backed Goby, have invested in Recorded Future (yet).

While there are all kinds of questions about how well Recorded Future will do at locating and labeling information about the weeks, months, quarters and years ahead, harnessing the wisdom of crowds with this kind of temporal search could prove valuable.

Recorded Future's homepage features a quote from British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: "What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens."

Here are two YouTube videos that offer a good feel for what the company is up to:

Read My E-mail: The New Innovation Economy Inbox Blog

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 21, 2009 07:28 AM

I started a new blog this week that'll hopefully make my life a bit easier, and might also provide you some useful supplemental info about what's going on in New England's Innovation Economy.

It's called "Read Scott's E-mail: Inside the Innovation Economy Inbox."

Basically, I get way too much interesting e-mail about company launches, product debuts, fundings, executive comings-and-goings, and conferences to ever blog about here, or write about in my column. For much of this stuff, there isn't much that I'd really want to add: if there's a cool event happening, you may just want to know where it is and how much it costs, without any commentary from me. If a company gets $10 million in VC funding, often that's just worthy of noting, without my interviewing the CEO about how great it is that investors have coughed up $10 mil to support his idea.

So "Read Scott's E-Mail" is a chance for me to share some of the stuff that might be worth knowing about, occasionally with a quick remark at the top.

My intention isn't to embarrass anybody with these e-mails, but rather to help spread the word about stuff that people intend to make public. But if you're sending me a message and you absolutely don't want it to appear on "Read Scott's E-Mail," just let me know and I'll honor that.

The reason I'm doing it using the blog service Posterous, instead of here on, is that Posterous makes it extremely easy for me to just forward selected e-mails and have them show up as posts -- including any photos, videos, or PDFs that were included in the original message. (Posterous, incidentally, is partly backed by Bill Warner, a Cambridge-based angel investor and entrepreneur.)

As always, I welcome your comments here or there.

On the Radar: Bluefin Lab, Making Sense of Sports Video

Posted by Scott Kirsner October 5, 2009 07:17 AM

You know you may be onto something interesting when you make a few inquiries about a company and suddenly their Web site disappears. That was the case Friday after I made a few inquiries about Bluefin Lab, a stealthy start-up based in Somerville.

The company's roots trace back to Michael Ben Fleischman's PhD work at the MIT Media Lab. Fleischman created software that could analyze vast amounts of sports video (and the accompanying audio and embedded text) to learn, for example, what a home run, foul ball, and fly-out looks like in baseball, and make each of those scenes easily findable. Imagine being able to view all of the strike-outs in a baseball game by the starting pitcher, or the field goal attempts in a football game, without needing human beings to tag and index the video manually.

The company has already banked roughly $500,000 in SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants from the National Science Foundation, most recently in August, and Waltham-based Kepha Partners has added a sprinkling of seed funding. Helping to launch Bluefin are Fleischman, Media Lab director Frank Moss, serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer, and Media Lab researcher Deb Roy. A permanent CEO hasn't yet been hired and the company, I'm told, isn't likely to launch before 2010.

Here's a bit more about Bluefin:


On the Radar: Cortera, Kind of Like Yelp for Business Credit

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 22, 2009 10:00 AM

Officially launching today at the Demofall Conference in San Diego is Cortera, a company based in Quincy and Boca Raton, Florida.

Cortera aims to be a kind of "wisdom of the crowds"-driven business credit agency. CEO Jim Swift likes to describe it as "Yelp for business credit." And in the same way that the user-powered review site Yelp has taken on established players like Zagat, Cortera has Dun & Bradstreet in its sights.

Cortera has quite the interesting back-story. It was founded in 1993 as, long headquartered in Dedham, and sold a minority stake to Internet Capital Group in 2000 for $450 million in stock, just a couple weeks before the Nasdaq crash (you can imagine how well that worked out.)


On the Radar: GraphEdge, Tracking Trends Among Your Twitter Followers

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 16, 2009 07:10 AM

Visiting Hangout Industries in Downtown Crossing earlier this month, CEO Pano Anthos told me about a former employee, Waldron Faulkner, who was working on a nifty new Twitter analytics service.

When Hangout moved its development team from Boston to Glendale, California earlier this year, Faulkner, who had been VP of product development, didn't make the move. Since June he has been working on a start-up of his own, GraphEdge (formerly called VoxBot.)

Faulkner calls GraphEdge a "social analytics platform" that can let you know how many of your Twitter followers are real people (as opposed to spammers' accounts or automated "bots"); who are the most popular other Twitterers among your followers; and how quickly you're adding new followers, among other things. The service is designed primarily for companies that use social media to reach their customers, though Faulkner acknowledges it'll appeal to all of us vain individual Twitter users as well.

Here's more on this very young company:


The InnoEco Awards from Tonight's TechStars Demo Night

Posted by Scott Kirsner September 10, 2009 09:40 PM

The TechStars Boston Investor Evening tonight filled up the atrium of Microsoft's NERD Center in Kendall Square; Microsoft exec Reed Sturtevant told me that at about 280 people, it was the biggest crowd the place has seen thus far.

Nine companies presented short overviews of what they've built this summer, and most wrapped up with a request for funding.

Here's my totally subjective list of awards, along with some notes on who was there.


MIT's Legendary Media Lab Spawns Two New Companies

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 31, 2009 07:24 AM

kaliouby.jpgThe Media Lab at MIT has quite the track record for producing pioneering new companies. Some have been wildly successful (like vidgame-maker Harmonix), some not (like nTag, a developer of electronic badges for conference-goers), and some have fallen somewhere in the middle (Internet personalization pioneer Firefly Network.)

The two latest businesses to come from the lab are Affectiva, a Waltham-based company that will make wearable sensors for people with autism; and a still-unnamed start-up from robotics researcher Cynthia Breazeal in the toys/games space. Neither has been officially announced yet, and neither has raised funding -- though Affectiva plans to begin testing its product in the market later this year.

And there's also a new entrepreneurship program at the Media Lab, run by Joost Bonsen and Sandy Pentland, that aims to educate students about the process of transforming their prototypes into marketable products. That could produce even more new businesses in the years ahead -- though part of the entrepreneurship program's mission is to also get students working more effectively with the lab's corporate sponsors to integrate their research with the sponsors' own businesses.

Here's more on the two new start-ups:


On the Radar: VoltDB, Just the Latest Database Company from Mike Stonebraker

Posted by Scott Kirsner August 3, 2009 07:05 AM

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright used to quip about his productivity, explaining, "I just shake buildings out of my sleeves."

Mike Stonebraker and Andy Palmer might say the same about new start-ups.

The pair were involved in getting Andover-based Vertica off the ground (and raising $23 million for the database company). Then there was Byledge, a still-stealthy Boston company working on a new approach to travel search (and funded by Flybridge Capital Partners and Kepha Partners.) Separately, Stonebraker (pictured at right) and Palmer are involved with a handful of other fledgling companies, including StreamBase Systems, CloudSwitch, and BlueFin Lab.

Their latest collaboration is VoltDB, a sort of sister company to Vertica that is operating out of Vertica's Andover offices.

What's VoltDB up to?


Three Great Ideas from Summer Demo Day at Babson College

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 29, 2009 07:45 PM

I spent the afternoon today watching seventeen great student-run start-ups present short pitches about the businesses they're trying to build. This was the first-ever Summer Venture Program Demo Day, organized by Babson College and the Olin College of Engineering.

I'd encountered a few of the student entrepreneurs before, at various networking events. But here are three of the ideas that were brand new to me, and struck me as worth knowing about:


On the Radar: VentureFizz

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 28, 2009 09:35 AM

Launching this week is VentureFizz, a site that aims to gather news and info about the Boston-area tech scene. Oddly, it is run by a Malvern, Pennsylvania recruiter named Keith Cline. (Cline also runs a very thorough blog on Northeast Venture Capital Funding and M&A Activity.)

What's Cline up to with VentureFizz?


On the Radar: Smashion, for people with a passion for fashion

Posted by Scott Kirsner July 15, 2009 03:25 PM

Occasionally, I'll let you know about a new company in town that's worth having on your radar screen. These aren't in-depth stories, just "quick hits" that'll let you know what I'm hearing about, and invite you to check out their sites for yourself.

Launching this month is a new site, Smashion, that aims to outdo eBay when it comes to buying and selling apparel and accessories. No offices or funding yet -- it's a virtual company still, using Amazon's cloud computing services.



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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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March 3: Web Innovators Group
Demos, drinks, and schmoozing at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge.

March 7-8: MassDigi Game Challenge
Competition for aspiring game developers... plus panels and keynotes related to the business of play.

April 3-4: Mass Biotech Annual Meeting
Issues facing the region's life sciences community.