Sweet Smell of Success
Valley Venture Mentors’ third annual Accelerator program may have been capped by the grants given to a dozen of its participants at a recent awards ceremony, but participants say the rewards of the program go far beyond dollars, encompassing everything from intensive business training and expert advice to exposure in the marketplace and critical networking. These entrepreneurs’ ideas are often potentially world-changing; VVM’s goal is to help turn that potential into reality.
By Kathleen Mellen
Ronny Priefer’s niece Ava was just 18 months old when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and almost died from diabetic ketoacidosis. If an alert aunt, who was babysitting, hadn’t noticed the telltale sweet smell of her niece’s breath (caused by a build-up of ketones), the toddler might have been in serious trouble.
“She realized something was wrong and took her to the hospital,” Priefer said, referring to the quick-thinking aunt. “If she hadn’t, the doctors think she probably would have died within hours.”
Ava’s story is not uncommon. Every year, more than 150,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; roughly one in four aren’t diagnosed until they develop diabetic ketoacidosis, which occurs when the body cannot use glucose as a fuel source because there is no insulin, or not enough insulin. When that happens, the body breaks down fat for fuel instead, which leads to a build up of ketones, which, in turn, causes the sweet-smelling breath.
Like others with type 1 diabetes, Ava, now 6, must monitor her blood glucose by pricking her finger six to nine times a day, every day, for the rest of her life. Those finger pricks and the associated pain, Priefer says, can cause compliance problems, and “low compliance rates correlate to higher diabetic complications.”
All of which got Priefer, a chemist, to thinking: since the initial indicator of the little girl’s disease was sweet-smelling breath, why not find a way to use the breath as a way to monitor diabetes?
Priefer, 42, a professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the College of Pharmacy at Western New England University, is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of a business startup in Springfield called New England Breath Technologies, which has, indeed, developed a way to measure blood glucose using a person’s breath.
“It’s 100% pain-free,” he said. “This is my way to help the diabetic community.”
Priefer and his business partners, Judi Grupp, the company’s CEO, and Michael Rust, a co-founder and chief technology officer, got a leg up in their efforts on May 25 when they were awarded $25,000 at Valley Venture Mentors’ (VVM) annual Accelerator Awards banquet. The group will use the money to run a clinical trial this summer.
The company is just one of a dozen that walked away with a share of $150,000 in prize money at the awards banquet held at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. The other finalists were Genoverde Biosciences Inc. in Amherst ($25,000), MEANS Database in Washington, D.C. ($22,500), Ernest Pharmaceuticals in Hadley ($12,500), M1 Tapes in Haydenville ($12,500), Lumme Inc. in Amherst ($10,000), Streamliners in Hampden ($10,000), Kwema in Miami, Fla. ($10,000), Nonspec in Carlisle (7,500), RecordME in Torrington, Conn. ($5,000), Barakat Bundle in Cambridge ($5,000), and ProjectMQ in Pooler, Ga. ($5,000).
They’ll all put the money to good use, but the true wealth they received was, perhaps, less tangible.
The companies participated in VVM’s annual, four-month-long Accelerator boot camp, now in its third year, which is designed to prepare high-potential startups for serious growth. As participants, they received intensive training and critical support from experts, investors, and collaborative peers; marketing exposure and public-relations promotion; and the chance to build a network of peers, potential advisors, and investors.
“We create career learning,” VVM CEO Liz Roberts said. “Usually people come to us with some proprietary experience or knowledge, who found a way, or think they have a better way, to solve a problem for a lot of people. They come here looking for the missing pieces.”
Priefer said he’d heard about the VVM Accelerator program and thought it would be beneficial for both the refinement of the business and networking — and he was right. “We not only gained the financial reward, but we were able to refine our business pitch, and make some solid connections for potential future investments.”
Akshaya Shanmugam, 29, was born and raised in India, where access to healthcare, she said, is “a privilege that not many people enjoy.” She hopes to change that.
“My goal in life is to address the challenges of healthcare that the developed and developing worlds face,” said Shanmugam, who received a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from UMass Amherst, and is an expert in the design of portable health monitoring, data analytics, and testing and validation.
She’s starting her quest with what she says is one of the most neglected diseases, addiction — specifically, smoking addiction.
Shanmugam is the program manager of Lumme Inc., a new business in Amherst that is developing technology to help people effectively quit smoking, by using what she calls “the ubiquitous power of smartphones.”
Lumme’s patented platform combines machine learning and wearable devices to automatically track activities and the context surrounding each activity. Based on that data, the platform can deliver personalized strategies on how to improve overall health. The group is also exploring the capability of using the platform to aid in the treatment of eating and obesity disorders, as well as alcohol addition.
“Any role I can play in bringing this technology to the masses and to make a difference in the world is meaningful to me,” she said. “All the rich data that we can provide surrounding human behavior can help shift the focus from treatment to prevention of diseases.”
Shanmugam and her teammates — company CEO Christopher Salthouse; President Deepak Ganesan; Abhinav Parate, head of research and development; Sherry McKee, a behavior-change expert — received an award of $10,000 at the banquet, money that will help the fledgling company launch its pilot program. But the most beneficial part of the experience, she added, was the networking she and her team members were able to do.
“We had the opportunity to meet so many personally and professionally accomplished individuals,” she said. “These were top people in their fields who we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.”
To be eligible to participate in the Accelerator program, a company must have earned less than $250,000 in revenue in the last 12 calendar months, but must also “think big,” Roberts said. “We aren’t here to support people who want to open a dry-cleaning business; there’s a lot of small-business support out there. We’re looking for people who, for example, want to create a franchise of dry-cleaning stores. You have to have ambition to scale. We are creating high-capacity, high-growth companies.”
This year’s winners were selected from a cohort of 36 teams who participated in the boot camp, which runs each year from January to May. They, in turn, were selected from more than 200 applicants. While 60% to 70% of all participating startups come from within a two-hour drive of Springfield, others come from around the world, including as far away as Ghana and the United Kingdom.
“We want Western Massachusetts to be the next startup region,” Roberts said. “The way business works now, it’s global, and it’s international. If you want to be a place of innovation, and you want to draw and retain people to this area, that’s a really key thing.”
At the close of the boot camp, the 36 startups self-selected 12 finalists following a high-stakes pitch contest. On May 25, 15 judges (angel investors and venture capitalists from Western Mass., Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and as far away as Atlanta), were each allotted $10,000 to ‘invest’ in the companies; they heard the finalists’ pitches, interviewed them, looked at their product demos, and independently determined the amount each company would be awarded.
“This is not a consensus piece,” Roberts said. “It’s actually how investing works in real life.”
VVM receives funding for this and other programs from MassMutual, MassDevelopment, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, among other sponsors.
The folks at Valley Venture Mentors say they believe in setting big goals. Through its mentorship programs and its Accelerator Awards, VVM aims to create nothing short of an entrepreneurial renaissance in Western Mass. by building what Roberts calls an ecosystem, in which startup businesses can grow and flourish, both locally and globally.
“When Valley Venture Mentors was founded in 2011, there weren’t the entrepreneurship programs in colleges that there are now, and there certainly wasn’t the support of an ecosystem,” Roberts said. “It’s hard to get started on your own, in isolation. They don’t know what they don’t know before they come in — how to find your customers, who your customers are. Do you have the presentation model? Do you actually have a flawed business model? Through the process of this program, we help them with all that.”
The proof the companies’ success, Roberts says, is in the pudding. In 2016, VVM startups created $7.9 million in earnings and attracted $11.3 million in outside funding — everything from angel and venture-capital investments to prestigious federal research grants. VVM startups supported 227 full-time and 613 part-time and contract jobs, in addition to spending $2.45 million on service providers outside payroll.
It’s worth noting, Roberts says, that VVM’s startups are also diverse. While 63% of the companies in this year’s cohort were women-led, and more than 50% were led by people of color, the numbers for similar programs are much lower, nationally (23% led by women and 20% led by people of color), according the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which supports women and minority entrepreneurs.
“There’s something about the way we’re doing this — it’s on nights and weekends, we provide childcare, we do a founder-blind application process — that’s really different,” Roberts told BusinessWest. “I think it’s something that’s specific to Western Massachusetts, that is human-friendly. They can succeed here.”
With the aid of VVM’s Accelerator program, they’re gaining the resources to do just that — with rewards that go far beyond a dollar sign.