Accelerator Helps Entrepreneurs Hone Ideas, Shape Dreams

Meetings of  the Minds

The team at AnyCafé

The team at AnyCafé: from left, Evan Choquette, chief information officer; Logan Carlson, CEO; Chris Urciuoli, president; and Ryan Noon, chief technical officer.

‘Community’ and ‘network.’ Those were the two terms used time and again by members of the second cohort of Valley Venture Mentors’ accelerator program to describe the program — and they speak volumes. While those involved with the 36 ventures are competing against each other for prize money, they are also staring down the same challenges of entrepreneurship, thus making that journey a little less daunting for their colleagues.

Jas Maggu was relating some personal sentiments. But she was also speaking for every member of Valley Venture Mentors’ second accelerator cohort — and also anyone who’s tried to turn an idea into a business.

Jas Maggu

Jas Maggu, founder of AuthenFOOD

“As an entrepreneur, it can get really lonely, and you have huge ups and downs,” said Maggu, who has launched a venture called AuthenFOOD, which will bring gourmet, healthy foods right to one’s doorstep. Through her participation in the four-month accelerator program, which wrapped up a week or so ago, she finds she is far less lonely.

And also more enlightened, more confident, better connected, and, in her mind, better able to stare down the many challenges standing between her and success.

She is not alone in these sentiments. Indeed, as BusinessWest talked with several members of the 36-member cohort — some of whom had already given final presentations before their peers, while others were going to have to sleep on it another night and stand at the podium the next day — many common sentiments were expressed.

Individually and collectively, they spoke of camaraderie and shared learning experiences; gaining a firmer grasp of their specific concept, the market for it, and what it will take to advance it; making important connections; and simply being able to share common challenges and emotions that explain what Maggu meant when she spoke of loneliness.

These sentiments came from a diverse audience trying to advance a seriously eclectic mix of business concepts. For example:

• Joe Salvador is on the verge of bringing to the market a new silencer, or noise suppressor, for firearms, a product he believes will resonate with shooters trying to not only improve their accuracy but save their hearing;

• Chris Urciuoli heads a team of fellow Western New England University engineering students trying to seize what they consider a huge opportunity with a product that will enable the user to brew a cup of coffee anytime and anywhere — hence the corporate name AnyCafé. They’ve already heard from the CEO of Keurig, who told them he believes they have the next logical entrepreneurial step in the ongoing saga of the K-Cup;

• Dr. Alex Louizos is a vascular surgeon and co-founder and CEO of Nanotech Galaxy, which is working to produce software that will enable surgeons to operate more efficiently and healthcare providers to reduce their expenses;

• Lora Fischer-DeWitt has developed a line of jewelry called Scout Curated Wears that is already in a number of gift stores in the region, including Cedar Chest in Northampton;

• Angela Lussier has launched a venture called Speaking School for Women, which, as that name suggests, was conceptualized to help women become better public speakers and, overall, more effective communicators;

Lora Fischer-DeWitt

Lora Fischer-DeWitt, founder of Scout Curated Wears

• Tom Skypek is co-founder of an online networking tool he bills as a “Match.com for government contracting professionals”; and

• Terra Missildine, already a serial entrepreneur — she has a ‘green’ cleaning company — has launched a family-friendly co-working space called Cultivate. She jokingly notes that she wishes she was in the accelerator before she opened the doors (more on that in a bit), but she nonetheless credits the experience with helping her attain early success.

Vastly different people with a wide range of ideas and a common dream (actually, several of them) — that’s what the cohort is. As for what it’s about … we’ll let the entrepreneurs do the talking.

In the course of doing so, they go a long way toward validating the optimism expressed by those who believe the intense accelerator regimen will help steel its participants for the rigors they will face and create a host of new employers for the region.

2016 VVM Accelerator Finalists (in alphabetical order)

AnyCafé: Developer of hot beverage solutions for the future, including the Travel Brewer
Celia Grace: Fair-trade, ethical wedding dresses that give back and empower women around the world
DaVinci Arms: Designer and manufacturer of firearms suppressors and accessories for mission-critical applications
Homebody Holistics: Maker of all-natural, hand-crafted, herbal cleaning solutions using no harsh chemicals or additives
iRollie: Niche-market phone-case manufacturer and online retailer featuring the rolling tray phone case
Livingua: An app that connects travelers to locals who know the language and culture wherever and whenever they want
Name Net Worth: Connective platform that leverages trusted relationships to measure and strengthen a user’s personal and professional networks
Need/Done Inc.: Instant help for kids at home from people your parent network trusts
Prophit Insight: Software company that helps healthcare providers identify and acquire unique sources of physician referrals
Scout Curated Wears: Designer, curator, and producer of thoughtful women’s accessories
Sumu: Works with property managers and landlords to post fee-free apartments to help users find their next home
Treaty: Nanotechnology company whose flagship product is FogKicker, a biodegradable anti-fog solution made from nanocellulose

Getting Down to Business

“Joe’s the man.”

That opinion was expressed loudly by someone in the conference room at VVM headquarters in Tower Square — exactly whom wasn’t entirely clear to BusinessWest — but there were several heads nodding at the suggestion.

‘Joe’ is the aforementioned Joe Salvador, and the commentary about him was not simply in reference to his suppressor concept — although that’s part of it. It’s clear that, over the past four months, he’s been able to help several of his cohorts, through everything from valuable connections to words of wisdom.

“Joe has put me in touch with someone I’m courting to be an advisor,” said Skypek. “And I know a lot of that has happened across the board; there’s a nice community of people here who are all in this together.”

Joe Salvador

Joe Salvador says the accelerator process has helped him better articulate his suppressor concept and identify target audiences.

Such reflections cut right to the chase when it comes to explaining the accelerator and its inherent value — to those taking part and the region as a whole. Indeed, while the 36 participants are competing against each other for bigger shares of the $250,000 in prize money that will be awarded at the Accelerator Awards on May 26 — everyone will get at least $1,000, and the top prize last year was $35,000 — they are, as Skypek said, in this together.

‘This,’ specifically, being the struggle — because that’s exactly what it is — to turn an idea into a viable business. So, in many ways, the accelerator is a type of support network.

The cohort members are in various stages of development — Missildine and Fisher-DeWitt, as mentioned, were already in business, while those at AnyCafé entered the program with simply a concept — but they all have the common goal of accelerating their progression.

The program they were chosen to be part of helps in that regard in several ways, from rugged weekend boot camps focusing on specific aspects of business management to back-and-forth between participants, to interaction with mentors who can help the entrepreneurs with the issues right in front of them while also assisting them with seeing around the corner and anticipating what will come next.

Much of this support could be described as a form of tough love, or challenging the participants, said Missildine, among others, noting that friends and family members, while they mean well, will often tell entrepreneurs what they think they want to hear.

“Here, you’re confronted on your assumptions, and you have to essentially prove things,” she explained. “And that’s important, because as an entrepreneur, you don’t always have someone pushing back on you regarding the assumptions you make about your business.”

Salvador said the various efforts to challenge his team to identify a market for its product and outline a course for moving forward have certainly helped in the progression of DaVinci Arms, which he described as a spinoff from Wilbraham-based FloDesign, which has developed noise-suppression equipment for several applications, including the military.

“When we started this, we had a really strong product that we had developed, but we really didn’t have the business side locked down — you had two engineers running the company,” he explained. “Through VVM, we’ve been able to gain a laser focus on every aspect of what was needed to grow our startup.

“We needed to have our financials really well-addressed, what our customers and market segment were, how we were going to engage that customer segment, what we were looking at for funding, how we were going to raise that funding, and much more,” he went on. “Basically, all the minutiae that builds up the business, that’s what we needed help with: the details of financing, marketing, and sales, all coming together.”

Dr. Alex Louizos

Dr. Alex Louizos credits the accelerator with helping him create more effective presentations for his software concept.

Through all of that, VVM and its accelerator program helped DaVinci hone its presentation and target it to a specific audience, he explained, adding that, before, the team was giving highly technical presentations that effectively went over the collective heads in the audience.

“At the start, I knew that suppressors were selling like crazy, but I didn’t know who they were selling to,” he explained, adding that, through the accelerator experience, the venture has gained key contacts, identified its primary audiences, and drawn a road map for moving forward, starting with product demonstrations and putting the suppressors in the hands of distributors in gun-friendly states like Florida, Texas, and Utah.

Missildine said the accelerator process has also helped her with the audience-identification process and other aspects of her business. She’s grateful for the help, but wishes it had come earlier; if it did, she might have done some things differently.

“I’m a lifelong entrepreneur, and I’m extremely impulsive,” she explained. “I opened the doors to my business in the second month of the accelerator, and already see what I would have done differently if I had gone through the whole experience prior to launch.”

Elaborating, she said she would have shopped, and negotiated, more effectively for a space for the co-working venture — she joked that she has the highest overhead of any venture in the Valley — and she would have expanded her team and not tried to do everything herself.

Through the experience, though, she’s proven what she’s believed all along — that her concept is scalable. And along the way, she’s found “camaraderie and community” on a scale she couldn’t have imagined.

“The accelerator plugs you into so many more resources than the homework that you do,” she explained. “By going through this, I feel that my company’s in a much better place.”

In Good Company

Louizos feels much the same way about his venture, which centers around using artificial intelligence — what he calls “smart software” — that empowers doctors to diagnose patients more quickly and also enables hospitals to analyze data in a way that saves both time and money. He credits the accelerator experience with helping him sharpen his business focus and better articulate complex subject matter.

“When I started the accelerator, I couldn’t describe what I was doing in a way that a 5-year-old would understand,” he noted. “I received lots of critical feedback in a way that helped me explain my idea in a way that makes sense to everyone and also creates some enthusiasm about it.”

Summing up the experience, he said it helped him identify and understand the weakest aspect of his business — because, as the saying goes, it’s only as strong as that point — and improve upon it.

Meanwhile, the team at AnyCafé didn’t exactly have a business when this accelerator session started. Instead, they had a concept, and a bold one at that — to bring to the market a device that would brew a single cup of coffee anywhere the consumer chooses.

The key to this concept — and what has apparently kept others from bringing something like it to store shelves — is battery technology that fuels the heater in the thermos-like device, team members noted, adding that they have perfected this technology and are ready to scale up this operation.

But the science was and is only a part of the equation, as the accelerator experience has shown them.

“We didn’t have much entrepreneurial experience, but we knew we wanted to do this,” said Urciuoli. “Over the past four months, VVM has taught us the way you have to think to succeed as a startup company; they’ve given us the spirit and the knowledge to go out and create our product and a plan to get it to the market and millions of individuals.”

Logan Carlson, another of the AnyCafé partners, agreed, and, echoing Salvador, said the accelerator experience has provided insight not available in the college classroom — especially the engineering classroom.

Tom Skypeck

Tom Skypeck was one of many who used the term ‘community’ to describe the 36 accelerator participants.

“It’s been a tremendous teaching experience,” he said. “Our knowledge has increased exponentially, just because of all the amazing people who are here.”

Maggu has been part of this teaching experience from many sides — she was a venture capitalist “in another life,” as she put it, and has been involved with VVM as a mentor. Now in the role of entrepreneur, she understands, even more than she did before, the importance of connections and learning from others going through similar experiences.

The accelerator process has given her both. Indeed, through her involvement with the program and connections made, she’s been able to forge a partnership with Fitness Together, one of several health clubs she works with to help individuals lose weight by eating better.

And she’s also learned by listening to and interacting with the other 35 participants.

“It’s been great to be part of this tremendous community,” she said, “where everyone you know is going through the same phases that you are.”

Like Maggu, Fischer-DeWitt said the prospect of starting a business can be very isolating. She then added another adjective: scary.

Things are somewhat less so than four months ago, she said, making frequent use of the words ‘network’ and ‘community,’ as so many others did, to describe what VVM, and especially the accelerator, creates.

“The connections have been amazing,” she said, adding that her business is growing rapidly — she’s now in 130 stores and has sales representatives in more than 20 states — and her experience in the accelerator will help her manage that growth and continue the expansion process in a smart fashion, literally and also figuratively.

Only the Lonely

The four AnyCafé partners now have matching dark brown golf shirts with their company’s logo. They had them on as they made their final presentation that Friday evening.

But they have much more than this wardrobe option, thanks to the accelerator. They have, as Urciuoli, said, much more of an ability to think as businesspeople, and not simply engineers with an idea.

Their learning curve, similar to that of other participants, but also unique in some ways, is what the creators of the accelerator program had in mind when they conceptualized it.

That, and making entrepreneurship just a little less lonely.

And in that mission, they have succeeded beyond all expectations.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]