Thursday, December 15, 2016

Winter Wonderland of Innovation #MIN93

Each Mass Innovation Nights event is different. This month's event (MIN93) was a first: an event within an event! Boston Winter is a new thing this year, meant to enliven City Hall Plaza. It features a holiday shopping market with vendors in cute little chalets, food stalls, heated tents with various attractions, and the centerpiece, a wonderful custom designed ice skating path.  MIN93 fit right into this winter wonderland with a holiday shopping themed night in the Vinopolis tent.
Boston Winter at City Hall Plaza -- Amazing Setting for MIN
The Vinopolis tent was really crowded. It's nice to see such a good turnout for local shopping on a really cold night.
Vinopolis Tent Looks Pretty Full Already
Because of space constraints in the tent, the presentations happened via live video before I got there. No I wasn't watching Facebook Live or whatever while sitting in traffic on I93 (disabled truck at the Government Center exit -- huge delay).  See the presentations on Youtube with the handy dandy links I've provided. Presenters for the night were:
Amooti had lots of beautiful African art/craft/fashion items for sale at their table including the beautiful giraffe-patterned bowl shown below. Amooti is an online market place for designers, artists, and other sellers of African-inspired products to sell their wares. It struck me as a kind of Etsy-like or even Amazon-like site.
Amooti's Table
I didn't know giraffes ate Hershey Kisses :-)
One Savvy Mother curates and sells fashion accessories that are ethically sourced and earth-friendly. If you're looking for high quality and stylish fashion items like jewelry, scarves, socks, handbags, and such and you want to minimize the impact on our planet, this is your place to shop. I tried on the soft, cozy alpaca finger-less gloves. I decided I didn't need them, but they were definitely stylish and comfortable. It was tough choosing between One Savvy Mother and Made Organics for my vote for Audience Choice.
One Savvy Mother with Some Warm Gloves
Made Organics produces a moisturizing body butter handcrafted from all natural, organic, and fair trade ingredients. They pride themselves on the short list of high quality ingredients and on the light and fluffy texture. The body butters and balms come in a variety of scents/blends. I tried a sample of the white mint cocoa, their most popular blend. It felt nice on my skin and the scent was subtle and pleasant. I gave them my vote.
Made Organics
Kyu by Kesi is on a mission to put humanity back into fashion. This luxury brand is not only stylish but also socially conscious, with great attention paid to ethical production. The table was getting lots of attention and  Audience Choice votes.
Beautiful Clutches from Kyu by Kesi
And so, the Audience Choice winners for the night were in ascending order: EventHues, Made Organics, Amooti, and Grand Prize Winner: Kyu by Kesi.

I didn't even come close to visiting every table, but despite the crowd, I did manage to meet and photograph a few more of the entrepreneurs and check out their products.

Unleash Possible is a how-to book for marketing and sales people that takes on the practical realities of B2B marketing.
Unleash Possible (Dig that Led Zeppelin shirt!)
I remembered Jade Robot from MIN90 and was pleased to see him again. He was selling his appealing robots and again emphasizing that they appeal to both girls and boys -- no need for special girly robots. Also he was rocking an MIT T-shirt. Therefore, I award him Best Costume of MIN93 because the Institute at the Center of the Universe (it's a family thing) is even cooler than Led Zeppelin (well, maybe that's a stretch, but still...)

Jade Robot Repping the Institute at the Center of the Universe
Konenkii  fearlessly curates gift boxes for women "north of 40" (I tried to insert a joke here about plowing the back 40 or living north of I495 but couldn't come up with one) who want to age fearlessly and have some fun fearlessly. This month's theme box is "warmth" and that shawl looked mighty warm, so maybe I should give her Best Costume.
Un Mundo is a Boston-based community selling bracelets to raise money for charity and encourage good deeds. They also offer social impact and marketing consulting for startups. Half of all proceeds go to charity. The bracelets on sale at MIN93 benefit Resilient Coders, a Boston-based organization that teaches coding to young people from traditionally under-served communities. I bought a really pretty orange and white bracelet, which I love. Maybe I should give her Best Costume for the Santa Hat, but I guess that counts as Best Hat :-)

Un Mundo

American Bench Craft had cool leather wallets and warm knit hats for sale.

Checking out American Bench Craft
The Look Book scavenger hunt seems like a really fun way for kids to get to know a destination. They were selling the Boston Look Book and introduced me to their plush owl mascot, Hunter. They had some Boston postcards too. By the way, they did develop a Look Book of Lowell for the Kindle some time back, so if you want to do a Lowell scavenger hunt, check it out on Amazon.
Team Look Book with Hunter the Owl
The crowd really got to me so I set off to explore the winter wonderland and get a hot pretzel (yes, with mustard) and a hot chocolate. I loved watching the Zamboni groom the skating rink between shifts of skaters, visitors taking selfies with the huge lighted BOSTON sign,  and kids pedaling like crazy to light the human-powered Christmas tree.

Zamboni Grooming the Ice
Human Powered Christmas Tree Lights
The holiday market had all kinds of stuff ranging from gadgets from The Grommet to nativity scenes. One of the cute chalets was full of items by several Boston-based Etsy artists.  Another one was full of those Russian nesting dolls. Oh and I spotted an olive oil chalet too.
Entering the Holiday Market

Cute Chalet Full of Art
Watching the skaters glide along the ice path brought back many happy memories of skating on the Charles River at Ware's Cove when I was a kid. Sure, a carefully designed refrigerated track is not the same as  the winding Charles from Auburndale Park to the Moody Street dam, but ice is ice and skating is skating. So instead of an Expert Looking Expert this month, I give you Skaters Looking Nostalgic, plus as an added bonus, a beautiful poem by Gail Mazur, which makes me wonder if our skate tracks ever crossed on the Cove's ice: Ice by Gail Mazur

Skaters Looking Nostalgic

Friday, November 18, 2016

#MIN92 #EdTech -- My Recap

Crowd Beginning to Fill the Space at Dassault Systemes
Dassault Systemes hosted Mass Innovation Nights' #MIN92 event at their spectacular building in Waltham on Wednesday night. The event showcased educational technology.
There Was Pizza
Lately, no MIN event is complete without pizza and our generous hosts continued the tradition. It wasn't as amazingly cheesy as at District Hall last month :-), but it was good and satisfying nonetheless.
I recognized a few of the entrepreneurs and their products as soon as I walked in.  

Smartick was there with their method for developing kids' math skills.  Saw them at #MIN90 back in September. I'm still happy to see people taking on the challenge of building up the math skills of kids from ages 4 thru 14, especially girls. Math is very important, no matter what those kids are going to do when they grow up. 
History UnErased
I was thrilled to see History UnErased again. I first met them at EforAll. They were in last winter's accelerator program. Their mission is to "unerase" the stories and history of LGBTQ people with content and training for educators so that young people in grades K-12 will have a more positive and inclusive experience of history. We need a thoughtful and inclusive history more than ever.  P.S. They got my vote for Audience Choice.

The chosen presenters were:
  • Didart 
  • ScholarJet
  • IvyLadder
Winners of the Audience Choice Vote were:
  • ScholarJet - Grand Prize
  • Cognii
  • Flye App
I didn't make it around to every table, but I did meet most of the presenters and prize winners.

I loved how Didart combines technology and hands-on craft experiences to teach kids about culture, craftsmanship, and the environment. Kids get to take a virtual journey to a country such as Guatemala and learn techniques from traditional craftsmen and at the same time use the materials in the artisan kits to make things themselves.  Their team also had the best T-shirts, so I hereby award them both Best Costume and Best Prop of MIN92.

Some of the Craft Materials from the Guatemala Artisinal Kit
The guys from ScholarJet wowed the crowd with their energetic presentation. Their concept of action-based scholarships is extremely innovative to say the least, possibly revolutionary. Imagine if instead of writing an essay or submitting a resume, students could compete in some sort of challenge like a road race that benefits a community cause or a clothing drive or some kind of engineering challenge and win scholarship money for it. ScholarJet's web platform allows educational institutions and donors to create and donate to action-based scholarships. Needless to say, they won the grand prize in the Audience Choice voting.
ScholarJet Talking Action-based Scholarships at their Table
ScholarJet Rocking the Presentation made a big impression with their Chrome browser extension for simplifying the college application process. It provides real-time advice and help right in your browser as you work through the Common Application. at the Table Talking about the Common Application
IvyLadder's Student Career Academy is designed to help Millennials and Gen-Z learn how to pick a career, create a personal brand, develop a compelling resume and other skills needed to make the transition from school to work.

Cognii provides an artificial intelligence tool for interactive learning and assessment. Think of it as a virtual learning assistant.

Flye App is  a location-based scavenger hunt game that allows kids to learn about their surroundings in a fun and innovative way. It runs on both IOS and Android. Pretty cool.

Flye App Demo
I took a lot of photos and met a lot of entrepreneurs and even amazed someone when I said that I basically like to photograph entrepreneurs and slam poets.
Eduporium with a Table Full of STEM Items in their Discovery Bundle
Videoing Lyriko Talking about Learning Languages through Music
Finally, for the traditional Expert Looking Expert photo, I give you Andreas aka  Proper Orange at the mic.
Expert Looking Expert

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Great Time at the Efor All Summit

David Parker Welcomes Us to the EforAll Summit
A wide range of people from all over the US and parts of Canada converged on Lowell for the EforAll Summit on November 3. The E in EforAll is Entrepreneurship. And "All" really does mean all: millennials, people of color, old people, middle-aged people, small cities, mid-sized cities, American cities, Canadian cities, techies, non-techies, and so on. With so much diversity, just standing in line for breakfast was already an inspiring experience. I felt like the summit had already met my expectations before I even sat down. The keynote speakers were wonderful. The panel sessions were dynamic and interesting.  What an excellent day!
Crowd Listening to Desh Desphande's Keynote
The first keynote speaker was, of course, Desh Deshpande. No matter how many times I hear Desh Deshpande speak, I come away inspired.  His summit keynote asked "do entrepreneurs change the world or does the changing world create entrepreneurship opportunity?"  What I took away from it was that whichever way you look at it,  the world is changing, and either you lead it or grudgingly accept it. He reminded me that cultural shifts don't happen top down. I think that's something I learned from my Mom a million years ago during the civil rights movement, but it applies equally to the "New Economy".  We all need to be in on making the New Economy work. Entrepreneurship is a career, not a one time deal.  Entrepreneurs need to learn to fail fast, try again, and not give up.

There were 3 panel session tracks: City Leaders, Program Managers, and Entrepreneurs & Millennials.  I decided to mix and match based on the panel topics rather than stick with one track. First up for me was How to Keep/Attract Young People in Mid-Sized Cities.  The brain-drain out of mid-sized cities is something I think about a lot. Why does every talented young person have to be sucked into Boston or New York (or gasp, shudder, Silicon Valley, which seems to be becoming a mega-city)? Heck, even Boston has had trouble keeping millennials. How can places like Lowell and Lawrence compete?
How to Keep/Attract Young People in Mid-Sized Cities Panelists
How to Keep/Attract Young People in Mid-Sized Cities Panelists
For the most part, the panel was very thoughtful. Before you try to attract more millennials to your mid-sized cities listen to the ones who are already there. Seriously, they may not give a darn about how late the bars are open. Every young person I asked what they were looking for said "opportunity." Other things that came up were affordable housing and transportation. When someone finally did ask the panel how small cities within the orbit of larger metro areas can flourish, specifically the Gateway Cities in Boston's orbit, the panelists concluded that we focus too much about Boston and instead need to work together on housing and transportation to include Gateway Cities. I could do a whole blog post on why transportation is key (making a mental note of it), but suffice it to say that I-495 is not the best way for people to get from Lawrence to Lowell or vice versa. My beloved valley needs to work on connecting our cities.

Another cool thing at this panel was  that the folks from the Pond Deshpande Center in New Brunswick showed a couple of clips from The Millennial Dream. The optimism and the commitment to social impact of the young people in the two clips I saw made me want to see the whole film and gave me some hope for the future of our mid-sized cities.
Keynote Lindsay Hyde and Facilitator John Conley
Lindsay Hyde's keynote focused on the some of the challenges that woman entrepreneurs face. She absolutely nailed it with "Women are often too conservative on their company's value." We need to have the confidence to ask big and to work the network. She was so inspiring I decided to join her roundtable discussion at lunch. Good stuff.
Crowd Taking Notes
Keynote Ed Rauch Describing his Path from Trader Joe's to Daily Table
Keynoter Ed Rauch emphasized purpose in his talk. My notes from his talk read like little motivational post-its to put over my desk:
  • Core purpose is crucial for entrepreneurs. 
  • Profits are the results not the core purpose. 
  • The three questions to ask about your project: is it possible? viable? desirable?
  •  Failure is critical but fail around your purpose.
  • Love people and use things.
What else can I say about it?
Fireside Chat with Ted Leonsis
The speaker I was most looking forward to, Ted Leonsis, did not disappoint. In fact he exceeded my expectations. From his personal story about how he started out mowing lawns on Andover St in Lowell and upsold Jim Shannon on a specialty lawn cut (best origin story ever) to his memories and lessons from the golden days of high-tech in the I-495 belt, I was riveted. He emphasized both historically and currently tech innovation happened and happens outside of Silicon Valley.  In talking about Washington, DC where he's based now,  he immediately brought up affordable housing and transportation as key issues for DC's huge millennial population.

The post-it going over my desk from his talk is: The entrepreneurial economy isn't about being the "Uber of" or the "Zuckerberg of", we need a different measure of success.
Inclusive Entrepreneurship Panel Watching Key Points Being Written on the Whiteboard
Next, I attended the Inclusive Entrepreneurship panel in the Program Manager track. The panel featured lots of diverse takes on how to be more inclusive. Different programs are looking for different criteria for ideas  and they're also working with different immigrant groups and languages. Somebody suggested that we need a "Yelp" to help entrepreneurs find the right advice/program for them. The panelists all agreed that what and how much they contribute to the community not just how many people they will hire is how they evaluate ideas. The post-it over my desk for this one is: Confidence, competence, collaboration.
Writing Down the Talking Points

Lots to Discuss
Then it was over to the newly renovated UTEC Hub building for the Defining Entrepreneurial Success panel  (City Leaders track). I was eager to see the renovations and eager to hear from leaders from Lawrence, Holyoke, Providence, Somerville, and Chattanooga.
Entering UTEC's Newly Renovated Hub Building
Look What They Found Under the Dropped Ceiling During Renovation
The audience had a wide range of questions for this panel, ranging from what metrics they use to how to factor in climate change.  Just what are the criteria for an entrepreneurial city's success?
I love that Somerville actually tries to measure happiness to see how they're doing as a city.  There are definitely other measures of success than "number of jobs created for people under 30".
Several panelists spoke of the need for affordable housing and transportation. Those two things seemed to be a theme that threaded throughout the summit and definitely matched up with what I was hearing in the hallway conversations with young people whether they were from Lawrence or Fredricton. A couple of panelists mentioned that these things are important to the aging population of their cities too. After housing and transportation, the next most frequently mentioned thing was public spaces that encourage people to meet each other and exchange ideas that might lead to innovation.
A Long List of Questions Grows
After all the stimulating panels, I was kind of tired and headachy for the final keynote by John Harthorne of MassChallenge, but once again he was so inspiring that I overrode the fatigue. He reminded us of MassChallenge's mission to "restore creativity to the soul of the economy." My post-it takeaway:  create value and solve problems!

John Harthorne
The summit ended with the presentation of awards to:
  • MassDigi from Worcester for Innovation
  • Nuestras Raices from Holyoke for Engaging Diverse Entrepreneurs
  • Kyla Pacheco of Action Worcester! for Top Entrepreneur
  • Taskforce Fredericton Startup Network for “Top Collaborative City-Wide Effort Promoting Entrepreneurship in a Mid-Sized City”
Photographing Award Recipients
I could go on and on about all the wonderful people I met and the amazing projects they're doing. It was almost like every encounter I had would make a good blog post. The main thing I took away from the summit was a feeling of optimism for the future of mid-sized cities in the new entrepreneurial economy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

EforAll All Ideas Pitch Contest Recap

Olu Ibrahim -- Kids in Tech
Last Thursday's EforAll All Ideas Pitch Contest at Middlesex Community College in Lowell attracted a huge crowd. It was standing room only for the pitch presentations. The tables were busy and the hallway crowded. It was really bustling. The wonderful thing about an "all ideas" pitch contest is the range of products, services, and nonprofit organizations being presented. Tables showcased everything from a wood fired pizza provider to after school programs. Attendees got to vote for a "Table Favorite" that we wanted to add to the already chosen finalists.
Bennett Brothers Balm
At the very first table I visited Harry and Heath Bennett did a very professional job of telling me the story behind Bennett Brothers Balm and convincing me to vote for them to have a chance to pitch. I don't think anyone was surprised when they won the Table Favorite slot. The idea for Bennett Brothers Balm came when a friend of theirs was diagnosed with cancer. They wanted to raise money for cancer research at Dana Farber and produce something that might make their friend more comfortable during chemo. They came up with a lip and body balm that they make in their parents' kitchen and sell online and at various events. They want to move up to the next step with a facility that will allow them to get the approvals necessary to sell their balm at places like Whole Foods and hospital gift shops. They took full advantage of the opportunity and totally nailed the pitch. The audience voted them Fan Favorite, so they took home a check for $500. EforAll has had young entrepreneurs pitch before (a 14-year old pitched a pet adoption website a few years back) but the Bennett Brothers at ages 7 and 11 are the youngest ever to pitch at an EforAll pitch contest.
Crowd Checking Out the Tables
I very much enjoyed talking with Olu Ibrahim about her Kids in Tech project. We were on the same page about getting more kids in our beloved Merrimack Valley interested in computer and information technology at a younger age. This valley has a long history of technology development and innovation from way back and the top 5 unfilled jobs in the valley right now are in tech.
Olu Ibrahim Pitching Kids in Tech
Phoenix Rising Pizza impressed judges and audience with a very well thought out pitch and business plan for their mobile wood-fired pizza. That's right, they operate a mobile brick oven and make classic Neapolitan style pizza on site. This is taking the food truck craze to the next level!  Not surprisingly, they won the $1000 first prize.
Team Phoenix Rising Pizza Accepting First Place Check
Flaire pitched a wearable safety device that you can attach to jewelry or some other accessory so it doesn't attract attention. It's a simple and discreet way to call for help in an emergency. You just press a button to send your location and a request for help to your emergency contacts. Team Flaire won second place -- a cool $750.
Flaire Team
Another truly brilliant idea was the curbside service for picking up food scraps and composting them by Roots Compost. Just fill the bucket with your food waste and they pick it up and turn it into nutrient-rich soil. The service is currently available for Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, Methuen, and Haverhill. They took home the $500 third prize.
Nancy - Roots Compost
The Judges were Denise Ban of Simply Khmer, Matteo Forgione of Forgione Engineering, Shankar Hedge of Iris Group, Kim Morrissey of Middlesex Community College, and Leah Okimoto of Aaron's Presents. They listened intently, asked good questions, and took their time deliberating. I agree with their picks, so they must be good judges, right? :-)
Lianna Briefing the Judges before the Pitches
Other chosen pitchers were The MILL - Maker Innovation Lab, ZwiftPay, and the wild card, MyCostello, picked out of a pottery jug from The Pottery Mill this time instead of a hat. I enjoyed them all. I loved ZwiftPay's idea for a wireless payment platform to pay for gas. I can picture gas stations adopting this quickly - especially around here where credit card skimmers are popping up almost daily. The Maker Innovation Lab's maker space in Lawrence is already nurturing makers making cool things. Jerry Costello's  MyCostello Software does custom software to help you manage your data. Oh, and there were a couple of student pitches from MCC students to round out the time while the judges deliberated. Ideas just flew around all over.
Team ZwiftPay
The Pottery Mill had live demonstrations.
Pottery Mill
As I mentioned above, the tables were very busy and the hallway crowded, so I didn't get a chance to talk to every single one of the entrepreneurs, let alone take their pictures. It was great to see Jonathan Richmond pushing Takeoff Space, an excellent idea for working with brilliant but disadvantaged students to improve their chances for getting into elite colleges.  I enjoyed talking with Viera Admin Solutions , Creare, Rival Gymnastics,  and Drip Edge Furniture too.
Viera Admin Solutions


Drip Edge Furniture

Rival Gymnastics

Takeoff Space
It was such a great event that I can barely capture it in a blog post.  Entrepreneurs of our beloved valley, get yourselves to the next EforAll Lowell Lawrence event! You will be glad you did.