Seasoned and budding entrepreneurs, investors and college students filled a classroom on the Piscataway campus of Rutgers Business School for TechLaunch's first “BullPen” event, a pitch competition for tech startups held on January 25.
A panel of judges awarded the first-place spot to Philadelphia-based RistCall, which was among the four startups in the competition, the first event that TechLaunch has hosted since emerging from its long hiatus. RistCall enables hospitals and nursing homes to provide better patient-nurse communication through smart-watch technology.
The other companies in the competition included PeduL, a Newark-based college-tuition crowd-funding platform; Princeton-based Smart & Rare Predictions (SRP), a provider of big data and analytics focused on the self-storage industry; and Philadelphia-based Whose Your Landlord (WYL), a Web-based platform designed to enhance the rental experience by matching high-quality renters with reputable housing providers.
TechLaunch, the New Jersey technology accelerator, operated from 2011 to 2014, but changed focus because there weren't enough startups that its founder, Mario Casabona, considered suitable for funding.
Casabona, who introduced the BullPen concept at the event, told the crowd that the accelerator model "wasn't really sustainable," but that he has high hopes that this event and other such competitions planned for this year will help achieve TechLaunch's goal of bridging the gap between and early-seed and early-stage tech companies. The next BullPen event is slated to be held in March.
The pitch competition is designed to help provide mentorship and guidance to fledgling tech companies which, in turn, will improve the quality and quantity of available deals for investors.
"I've noticed that deals in New Jersey are not that exciting," Casabona said. "I hope this will change it."
Hospital Stay Credited For Product Idea
During the competition, RistCall founder and CEO Srinath Vaddepally told the audience that he had come up with the idea for his three-year-old company after a harrowing experience in a hospital. While hospitalized with severe abdominal pain, Vaddepally fell to the floor from his bed while trying to reach the call button at around 5 a.m. It was nearly a half hour before a nurse found him lying on the floor.
RistCall intends to disrupt the traditional call-bell system found in hospitals and nursing homes, by replacing it with reliable and user-friendly smart watches designed to improve patient safety and patient-nurse communication. Vaddepally noted that healthcare facilities in the U.S. comprise a market estimated at $1 billion.
RistCall expects to sell nearly 1,500 watches for a total of $230,000 by the end of this year, and 8,000 of these devices for a total of $9.2 million by 2020. Vaddepally said that these projections offer the "most pessimistic outlook" for sales growth, and that he expects the company to beat these estimates over the next few years, given the anticipated demand for this technology.
The company also doesn't believe that it has to worry about any competitors undercutting it on pricing. "Our solution is one-third cheaper than any competition in the market."
Startup Launches Higher-Education Crowd-funding Platform
Crowd-funding platform PeduL seeks to reduce the financial strain of college tuition on students, who are often deep in debt by the time they graduate.
PeduL helps provide financial assistance to college students with funds donated to its platform, a sort of Kickstarter for the university crowd. Last week, the company launched its platform with a fund-raising goal of $600,000.
The company's executives contend that PeduL provides a unique opportunity for those who believe that a college education can land them a better-paying job. "Going to college can make the difference between poverty and prosperity," said Kayla Jackson, the company's COO.
PeduL cofounder and CEO Chisa Egbelu said that he had started the company because increasing college tuition rates forced many of his friends to quit school. "I was sick and tired of seeing my friends drop out of school because they could not afford it."
PeduL has drawn support for its idea from celebrities and business executives, including Virgin Group honcho Richard Branson, rap/hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, former Cleveland Cavaliers and Rutgers University basketball player Dahntay Jones, and Google executive Valeisha Butterfield-Jones.
Rental Rating Service for Millennials
Anyone who has ever lived in substandard housing would probably embrace technology that prevents people from facing a similar fate.
That's exactly the idea that Ozo Ezeugwu came up with for his startup, Whose Your Landlord, a Web platform that matches good renters with like-minded landlords through landlord reviews, verified tenant information and real-time rental listings. Essentially, the service rates landlords in order to give prospective renters some insight into what they can expect before signing a rental contract.
Ezeugwu, cofounder and CEO, is targeting the Millennial generation, the perfect demographic for this type of service because it typically rents rather than buys housing. Whose Your Landlord has had acquisition offers from online crowd-sourced review site Yelp and from private investors.
Ezeugwu came up with the idea for the company while attending a student meeting at Temple University. During a discussion on the meeting's topic, how students can avoid bad housing situations, Ezeugwu came up with the idea of giving students the opportunity to rate their landlords, so that other students wouldn't fall victim to undesirable housing situations.
Ezeugwu said that the information Whose Your Landlord offers "provides real-world value to our user base."
Company Uses Data Analytics to Uncover the Hidden Value of Self-Storage Facilities
The owners of the country's self-storage facilities can make their properties more profitable if they apply data analytics to their operations, according to Mike Gersten, chief revenue officer of SRP.
Gersten said that his company is using predictive analytics to extract data from self-storage facilities, allowing owners to maximize efficiency at these properties and thereby reduce operational costs and increase profits. With an estimated 53,000 such facilities in the U.S., Gersten noted, self-storage is one of the most profitable sectors in the real-estate industry in the past 30 years, and is an ideal candidate for this technology.
"Smart money is in there because it's so profitable," he said. "But national brands are coming in and putting people out of business."
So far, SRP has raised about $250,000, but is seeking another $500,000 for its operations. The company is also looking at other potential markets, such as sports venues and trucking companies, that could greatly benefit from data analytics.
The competition's judges included Frank Graziano, an investor, entrepreneur and CEO of Warren-based technology company Chromis Fiberoptics; entrepreneur Seth Tropper; Katherine O'Neill, executive director and investor with JumpStart New Jersey Angel Network; and entrepreneur and investor Henry Wojtunik.