Photo by Erika Fleegle
Founder Nick Ferrell presents his app, StreamMe, which connects users to what’s happening “right here, right now” through its dynamic ad-hoc networks that do not require friends or followers during the second annual AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear Demo Day, June 2, 2015, at North Shore’s Stage AE.
By Erika Fleegle
Look out Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley-type technology is coming to our corner of the Rust Belt due in part to the second annual AlphaLab Demo Day, which was held at North Shore’s Stage AE June 2.
Fourteen start-up companies from Innovation Works’ AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear accelerator programs were featured. The event was the culmination of the past 20 weeks of efforts to get the entrepreneurs’ ideas off the ground, while also giving them a chance to pitch to investors and press from around the nation.
The morning’s program began with an introduction by Jeremy Garvey of Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney, one of the event’s headlining sponsors.
“Being an early-stage start-up entrepreneur is like swimming the English Channel without using your arms and legs, with somebody tying a weight to you, in the dark, with people throwing stuff at you,” he said, quoting a friend. “It’s incredibly hard to do what these people are doing and I am in awe of them coming up here and pouring themselves out and making things work.”
Rick Lunak, Innovation Works CEO, followed Garvey by giving attendees a little more insight on the day’s “Scaling Up” theme. Emphasis was placed on improvements, new product development, market expansion since The Demo Day itself had grown from being hosted at AlphaLab’s Southside facilities with about100 attendees to the latest event on North Shore, which attracted 800 pre-registrations, according to Lunak.
In terms of the scaling up of the Pittsburgh start-up scene itself, “There are clusters (of start-ups) forming,” Lunak said, “and they’re having positive impacts on our community.”
Investment numbers are the highest they’ve been since 2001 as Pittsburgh ranks 11th in investment dollars per capita and fifth in deals per million residents nationally, numbers that place the city among tech hubs like San Francisco, Calif.; Austin, Texas; and Boston, Mass., according to a 2014 Ernst & Young report.
Innovation Works is set to become a Northside resident as the seed-stage investor will move from its current Hazelwood location and make its new home at Nova Place, the new innovation and tech center destined to take the place of Allegheny Center Mall.
Ilana Diamond, managing director of AlphaLab Gear, noted that since the incubator’s founding as one of the world’s first software accelerators in 2008, AlphaLab has helped companies that understand that “done is better than perfect.”
“Our companies get their products out of the lab, into customers’ hands and then rapidly improve until they have a product that customers love and that excites investors,” Diamond said. “Even after we push our companies out of the nest, they continue to soar. AlphaLab alumni are among the fastest growing companies in the region and beyond. Our programs are consistently ranked at the top of national and international accelerator program rankings.”
AlphaLab was ranked 13th internationally in 2014’s book of Accelerate: Founder Insight’s in to Accelerator Programs.
For Garvey, Lunak and Diamond, as well as other attendees, Pittsburgh is for the “cool kids,” the innovative, hard working bunch that is constantly creating and marketing products and services that are going to make a difference.
One by one, mentors from local institutions like StartBot, Thrill Mill, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh proudly introduced their associated mentees to the audience.
The first of the companies to pitch was Seekahoo, presented by co-founder Zack Parme. As a master electrician, Parme often ran into problems with sites like Angie’s List and Home Advisor that promised marketing for and reviews of home repair companies and contractors due to their skewed results and data. Seekahoo puts control in the hands of the contractors, enabling them to market themselves when and how they want, all from a simple-to-use mobile platform. Contractors can showcase their work and credibility by posting before and after photos, while answering questions from homeowners. There is also a social media option.
Rorus Inc., pioneered by recent graduate Corinne Clinch, takes what we know about filtered water and turns it on its head. While working on a research project, Clinch tested a new method of water purification involving embedded silver nanoparticles that purifies sewage water within seconds. Rorus’s product, DEW (Device for Emergency Water), provides a foolproof way for those affected by natural disasters to get fresh drinking water without the concerns of recontamination or misuse, all at the price of $5 a week. Clinch and her partners plan to take DEW to India to pilot the product with Emmanuel Hospital Association during the monsoon season.
The remaining companies presenting throughout the morning provided innovative solutions to nearly every concern imaginable. Emplify, the brainchild of Alex Gindin, is a software program that works closely with managers and employees to improve employee engagement and retention in the workplace. Engagement is also the goal for EthosIO, a text analytics-based system that helps advertisers and marketers target and engage their audiences through personality analysis, proving that no two customers are alike.
For those concerned about their safety on the road, Maven Machines has created a wearable headset primarily for truck drivers that use sensors and algorithms to alert drivers and transportation companies of their driving habits, creating the potential to save a life and have safer drivers on the road.
Suitable, a career development platform for college students, recommends possibly career options based on the completion of relevant course work and internships.
Health concerns were addressed by AbiliLife, Bansen Labs, and Trusst, who address biomedical solutions for neurological diseases, new possibilities for neuromuscular rehab, and the elimination of pain through innovative, supportive lingerie design respectively.
CapSen Robotics is preparing for the future of robotics by commercializing 3D computer vision research from MIT to provide state-of-the-art software for object detection, tracking, scanning, and measuring in cluttered environments enabling new applications in factory and warehouse automation. StreamMe appeals to the “instant gratification” generation with a fear of missing out by connecting users to what’s happening “right here, right now” through ad hoc networks that don’t require friends or followers. Users can follow streams of photos and social content they care about without sifting through noise and advertisements.
For travelers, PathVu tackles the local issues by providing the first global map of sidewalks, providing pedestrians with real-time data for an improved walking experience, while TravelWits combines the best of destination, transport, and lodging while staying within the user’s budget and other constraints, revolutionizing the way we plan vacations and maximizing the value of a trip. And there’s something for the kids, too. Alysia Finger of AE Dreams devoted her time at AlphaLab to create a connected environment for an Internet of Toys, eliminating the screens of phones and iPads for more engaged, imaginative play. Her first product, Turtle Mail, prints messages from children’s families that can be sent through a mobile app while bringing their favorite toys to life.
The entrepreneurs had praise for their mentors and the city as well: “I think everyone in Pittsburgh just wants other Pittsburgh companies to do well. And that’s really important to have when you’re trying to start your first venture,” one noted as part of an event highlight.
Others remarked on the vast pool of resources the Pittsburgh area has to offer as well as the constant network of support they have found among their mentors and peers.
For more information on AlphaLab, AlphaLab Gear, and any of the startups featured at Demo Day, check out their website.