Saturday, June 28, 2014

First Ever Pioneer Valley Innovation Night -- #PINSMASS01 Recap

City Hall
The City of Holyoke hosted the first ever Pioneer Valley Innovation Night at the City Hall Auditorium on Thursday night. It's exciting to see the Mass Innovation Nights concept expanding to the Pioneer Valley. It's a great way to showcase innovative products and get entrepreneurs from diverse industries together. It was great to see Marcos Marrero, Director of Planning and Economic Development, again after having met at the Merrimack Valley Sandbox Summit. Marcos introduced me to Jeff Bianchine, the city's creative economy coordinator. Both were excited for the City of Holyoke to be hosting this event.

Getting Ready for the Event
Product innovators came from all over Massachusetts and even from Connecticut to participate, including some Mass Innovation Nights alumni. The auditorium was gorgeous (and huge) with plenty of room for innovators' tables and experts' tables on either side as well as a presentation area. Great venue. Products ranged from a new kind of bookmark (for real paper books) to spherical salt.

A New Kind of Bookmark
Keep Your Place Bookmarks showed off a line of  laminated markers that mark the exact line on a page where you left off reading. Simple and clever at the same time, this struck me as a great idea. I expect to see these in local indie bookstores soon.
Books with Places Carefully Marked
I remembered Vocoli,  the Digital Suggestion Box, from #MIN62. They are onto an excellent way to improve employee engagement by helping your organization actually act on employee ideas.  It was great to hear their story of how one employee idea submitted through Vocoli saved one of their users $100K!
Talking about Vocoli in the Light from Stained Glass Windows
uTHRiV, offers resources for personal development to teach people about "living a more fulfilled life, as well as how to give a positive mindset away." T=Thinking. H=Health. R=Resources. V=Village. Those are the "four core areas of life" that uTHRiV aims to work with.
Light thru Stained Glass Illuminating uTHRiV
The folks from Afar Salt came out from Boston with their pearl-shaped salt (for food and spa products).  The salt comes from Lake Assal in Djibouti, East Africa - the saltiest body of water on earth. The pearls form naturally and grow to various sizes over time. I loved talking with them about how the salt compares to the trendy Himalayan salts and about where exactly Djibouti is.
Team Afar Salt
Different Size Salt Pearls

Jean of Blessed Creek had the most compelling story about her own experience with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis led her to thinking about people's skin, the biggest organ of the human body,  and how what you put on your skin ends up in your system. This led her to begin making her own soap, lip balms, cleaning products, and even dog shampoo without harmful ingredients. She came from Connecticut for this event, and usually sells her wonderful soaps etc. at farmer's markets. She brought her farmer's market tent with her. That definitely cut down on the glare as the late afternoon sun streamed through the stained glass windows.

Jean of Blessed Creek
Also from Connecticut - and Chicopee - were Family Nutrition Consultants, who work with folks with diabetes, weight gain or loss issues, kidney disease,  heart disease, cancer and other conditions who need help with integrating healthy eating habits into their lives.
Family Nutrition Consultants
The coolest product of the night was Crookhook, a device that attaches to the front of a police car and extends out to grab a stopped or moving vehicle. The idea is to avoid  dangerous high-speed pursuits. So many high speed chases start with a vehicle stop that grabbing the car and thus preventing the pursuit in the first place seems like a big win. They brought a car equipped with the hook and demonstrated it for me in the parking lot. Be sure to check out the video on their website for a demo of Crookhook in action.
Team Crookhook

The Crookhook Car - Best Prop of PINS
Crookhook Folded and Ready to Deploy

Crookhook Extended
Another familiar face was #MIN62 alumnus Greg with the Gentoo vest. The vest is designed to make it easier and more comfortable for people who are receiving outpatient treatment with an infusion pump to go about their daily lives. When people are already stressed by illness, the treatment shouldn't add to the stress. The Gentoo vest definitely helps reduce the stress of outpatient chemo.
Greg and the Gentoo Vest
In the Mass Innovation Nights tradition, there was an "Experts Corner." At PINS it was more than a corner, it was a whole array of experts, so many that I think I need to do a separate blog post on the experts. So for now, I'll close with one of the many experts looking very expert.

Expert Looking Expert
Werner of Renaissance Advisory Services Advising Me on my Plan to Retire to a Yurt at Otter River

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mass Innovation Nights #MIN63 Recap

Welcome to MIN @ Autodesk
#MIN63 (63 already?!?) convened at Autodesk in Waltham on Wednesday, June 11. I was still all fired up from the Sandbox Summit and ready to discover, photograph, and write about Massachusetts entrepreneurs. Autodesk was a most generous host. Not only did they provide a wonderful space, but they also provided pizza and the appropriate beverages. Thank you, Autodesk!

And Salad Too!
The crowd started to build early on. I think this is the first MIN in ages where I got to visit every table before the presentations started.
Early Crowd
An extra-added feature of #MIN63 was the Babson Summer Venture Program's student entrepreneur showcase. Babson even brought a busload of program participants to the event.

Bobbie C Greets The Babson Bus
It was a rich and diverse mix covering everything from keeping track of where your family members are to charging your electric vehicle, with humor and outdoor gear rental too.

I loved the idea of dondeEsta, a family safety app that uses cellphones to help you know where your family members are. I definitely could have used that when my mother was out late at night delivering food to food banks.

OktopusInsights had the best prop with their stuffed octopus. Their cloud-based SaaS platform brings together email marketing and unique analytics algorithms to glean multi-dimensional insights about source, response and click-stream data, as well as measure audience interactions and affinity across email campaigns.

Simplifying paying a parking ticket is the next best thing to not getting the ticket in the first place. TicketZen enables you to pay it with your phone. Just scan a ticket's bar code, enter your credit card and submit payment. It would be cooler to invent parking spaces that pay for themselves AND magically get you back to your car before your time expires :-) but until then, at least they're making it easier to pay the ticket.
Oktopus - Best Prop
ViewGuard manufactures accessories for all kinds of screens: smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops and TVs. Anything that reduces glare and protects the screen is a good innovation in my book. And they were handing out free ViewGuard Anti-Glare Matte Screen Protectors.

Wellapets uses virtual pet games to teach kids to stay well. The  first game, free on Android and iOS, teaches kids to manage asthma by caring for a lovable pet dragon that has asthma. It is adorably cute and gets its message across. I awarded Wellapets "Best Costume of #MIN63" for the colorful T-shirt, too.

Merrimack Media gives indie authors everything they need to get their work out there: crowdfunding and support, quality book publishing, websites, and social media and promotional campaigns. It's a one-stop shop for self-publishing, and it has a cool name.

Wellapets - Best Costume
GearCommons  brings the sharing economy outdoor gear rental. They connect people who own gear with the people who need it. Kayaks, tent, backpacks, whatever - you can post it on GearCommons and make money by renting it to someone in your neighborhood. Hmm, next winter when I want to try snowshoeing, maybe I'll be able to rent snowshoes from someone nearby.

PowerHydrant is a computer-vision robot that provides a hands-free, automatic, and affordable conductive charging solution for electric vehicles. Each device can charge up to four vehicles simultaneously (time-sharing, an old concept withe a new use). Imagine charging whole fleets of electric vehicles simply and affordably.

TheGahlik delivers a new spin on fake news, way funnier than that other news vegetable.

Explaining PowerHydrant
Merrimack Media
The two companies featured in the Babson Summer Venture Program showcase were Jossle and HigherMe. Jossle takes college student marketing to a new level by empowering students to become leaders by building your brand on campus. HigherMe uses data and video to help retail and service employers find better employees faster.

Team HigherMe Looking Entrepreneurial
Team Jossle Looking Entrepreneurial

Some of the Babson Summer Venture Program Attendees
GearCommons Looking Outdoorsy
I got lots of great photos, so maybe some of them will appear in future blog posts. And finally, since there was no Experts Corner this time, Product Architect (and alum of the Institute at the Center of the Universe), Scott Lawton, agreed to look expert for the closing "looking expert" photo.

Expert Looking Expert

#Sandbox_Summit Day 2 Recap (part A)

UML Inn and Conference Center
Day 2 was full of connections, inspiration, and learning. The energy inside the conference center made the gray skies outside irrelevant. Once again, it was a mix of big events and small moments.
Governor Deval Patrick Keynote
By far the highlight of the day was Governor Deval Patrick's keynote.  My biggest takeaway, besides a renewed enthusiasm for my home state of Massachusetts, was the three keys for economic growth: education, innovation, infrastructure. Every one of those is vital and we all have the ability to contribute in those areas. Growth is a choice. Let's make it happen.
Listening to Governor Patrick
According to the governor, the entrepreneurial spirit in Massachusetts is expanding. Massachusetts is first in the nation for entrepreneurial activity and Massachusetts grew twice as fast as the nation as a whole.   "Entrepreneurship for All" is a big part of the strategy to grow our economy.  There is so much good stuff happening in Massachusetts and we don't even know it. As the governor put it "We don't know enough about what our own mojo is." I totally resonated with his statement that "Community is understanding the stake you have in your neighbor's dreams." For me, this is what distinguishes the Massachusetts start-up environment from a certain other part of the country, which shall not be named. Community is a thing, a real thing, here despite the notion that we're missing the collaboration gene and despite the ridiculousness of non-compete agreements. We've got something really good going on here, so good that one of the things our governor has been exporting on his trade missions around the globe is the concept of nurturing entrepreneurship for all.

Massachusetts has a lot going for it. We need to know our own mojo and we need to tell other people. We need to get the Massachusetts story out there. Telling stories is critical to success. Hmm, I think I see my contribution to the community shaping up :-) So what do we need to do to make things even better here? Know our story and tell it. Get rid of non-competes. Raise the tolerance for failure here. Let's do that!
Social Impact Pitch Contest
A social impact pitch contest and a high tech scalable ideas pitch contest - with the audience judging -showcased more entrepreneurs and culminated in an exciting final pitch contest with judges. I think I'll have to do a separate blog post on the pitch contests.

Plenary Panel 1
It was tough to choose among the three breakout session tracks because all the panels looked great. I finally went for the Community | Building Consensus and Creating an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem session because the panelists were from winners of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Working Cities Challenge.

Community: Building Consensus Workshop
I could write a whole blog post/essay about what I learned about building shared vision and making sure that the your accelerator/innovation district/whatever meets what your particular city's needs.  I'll save that for later.
Community Workshop Table
My biggest takeaway from the breakout session and maybe from the summit as a whole, is also the smallest. People from widely differing regions, backgrounds, and skills make unexpected connections.  It's the small moments like a guy from Springfield responding to a question from a woman from New Brunswick about disaster recovery and entrepreneurship a couple of years on after the disaster. His lessons from the tornado offered ways to look at her community's post-flood issues. That was just one of the hundreds of instant connection moments arising from the amazing mix of people at the summit.

Friday, June 13, 2014

#Sandbox_Summit Day 1 Recap

This Way to the Summit!
Day 1of the Sandbox Summit was jam-packed with great keynote speakers, great workshops, an exciting pitch contest, and so much networking that it was impossible not to connect or learn something new.
Desh Deshpande Giving Inspiring Keynote
Inspiration came from everywhere, starting with the inspiring keynote from Desh Deshpande, co-founder of the Deshpande Foundation. He told the story of his entrepreneurial journey from India to Canada to the USA and from failed start-up to multiple successful start-ups. And he really means it when he talks about "Entrepreneurship for All".

Just a few of the nuggets of wisdom I noted from his keynote:
  • For entrepreneurs, every problem creates a new opportunity. 
  • Naivete is one of the greatest attributes of the entrepreneur. 
  • You go places you never knew you could go when you become an entrepreneur. 
  • Entrepreneurship isn't just tech. It is creative problem solving in context. Every individual is ultimately positioned to solve problems. 
  • When you get feverish about a problem you figure out a way to solve it. 
  • We need both technical innovation and social innovation. 
  • If there's no risk, it's really not an entrepreneurial opportunity.
Nonspec Networking in the Lobby
Networking was non-stop from breakfast through the end of the day. I spotted people meeting with potential investors and mentors in the hallways and the lobby. So much happened outside the structured agenda.

Pitching Workshop

The lunchtime keynote was Ahkil Nigam from MassChallenge, another inspiring speaker. Two things struck me about Mass Challenge, the diversity of entrepreneurs and the commitment to community. 

Ahkil Nigam Keynote
The picture that Ahkil Nigam painted of the entrepreneur "scene" in Boston is far different from what most people think of when they think "start-up" or "entrepreneur." The entrepreneurs at MassChallenge are all kinds of people in all kinds of fields,  not just 20-something techies. 70% of MassChallenge companies are non-tech. 21% of MassChallenge founders are 40 or older. Who knew? How do we get the word out to the world?

MassChallenge is about building a community, not just running a competition. It's all of us working together that will change the economy. If the whole ecosystem grows, we all win. The major nugget of wisdom I took away from his talk is "It's not about my piece of the pie, it's about the whole pie." That resonates deeply with the values I grew up with.  I'm psyched to get out there and bring the community together around creating jobs and solving real problems.

Mentoring Workshop
The break-out panel sessions/workshops provided great insights and interaction with other attendees. Spread throughout the day, they offered a chance to learn from other people's experiences. I attended one on pitching (insert baseball joke here :-)), one on mentoring, and one on starting a social impact enterprise.  I was having insights right and left and up and down like crazy. I should do a whole blog post on each topic.

In summary:
  • Pitching has a lot in common with slam poetry.
  • Mentoring is important.
  • After all these years I finally appreciate that my mother is a social impact entrepreneur.
Cheryl Hajjar Pitching Indigo Pixies
It was great fun for me to run into so many people I know from previous Merrimack Valley Sandbox events and from Mass Innovation Nights.  I loved catching up with everyone and hearing how they have fared since last I saw them.  The best thing was seeing how everyone had improved their pitches. This was particularly evident in the first pitch contest - local + consumer product + retail ideas.
The pitch contest featured three scheduled presenters and two wildcards. Cheryl Hajjar of Indigo Pixies, Maeve Jopson  and Cynthia Poon of Increment, Lucky Henry of CollegePower were the scheduled presenters and the wildcards went to Nkese Applewhite of Oshun Undies and Jessica Valentin of My Creative Learning Center. 
Nkese Applewhite
Maeve and Cynthia passed the O-rings among the crowd and folks were having so much fun they didn't want to give them back. All the presenters engaged well with the audience, which was good because we all got to be judges -- winner decided by fan voting.
Real Time Voting
The voting went right down to the wire, with Indigo Pixies and College Power neck in neck. Watching the bars change on the slide in real time was tense but exciting. College Power barely edged out Indigo Pixies.

Challenges of Starting a Social Impact Enterprise
At the end of the day, I went home thoroughly inspired.