Jersey City startup Apprentice is riding high. The company recently closed an $8 million funding round led by Pritzger Group Venture Capital (Chicago) that, on top of an earlier $2.5 million seed round, brought their total funding to $10 million.
The team is going to need every bit of that money to take their unique pharmaceutical workflow product to more customers, said Angelo Stracquatanio, cofounder and CEO.
Stracquatanio and cofounder Gary Pignata started the company in 2014 with the idea of helping pharmaceutical manufacturers by incorporating artificial intelligence and augmented reality into the workflow of scientists in labs and engineers in manufacturing suites.
The good news for Apprentice: Customers saw their vision and helped them develop their product. “Our customers were really collaborative in this process, and the customers are the ones that helped us understand the best ways to leverage the technology,” Stracquatanio told us. “Without them, I don’t think we could have gotten to this point.”
The company stayed small as the duo developed their first products. “Last year around this time was our first external round of financing,” Stracquatanio noted. “This was our first stamp of approval from the external world validating us in the industry and validating the concept of what we are doing.” The $2.5 million round was led by Silverton Partners (Austin, Texas).
In February 2018, the company released its latest product, an all-day workflow tool for scientists in the lab or the engineer in a manufacturing suite. The tool guides the scientist’s or engineer’s process step by step, piece by piece, and gives “cool” augmented reality (AR) instructions. It answers questions about how to actually go about doing a task; demonstrates techniques; and brings up photos, videos or 3-D AR content. So, as the scientists or engineers go through their workflows, they can actually understand what they’re doing.
The new product includes some cutting-edge computer vision modules that capture everything that’s happening, Stracquatanio said. It also has the “industry’s first conversational AI [artificial intelligence] ‒AR platform,” he said. “You talk to it in a similar way you would talk to Alexa or Google, but we have two-way communications. … When a person talks to our software, it talks back, and the data is captured to provide real-time feedback to that operator or scientist, so they know when they’ve done wrong and what they need to do to correct it. If they need help on what to do, we can provide an AR demonstration.”
One would think that scaling such a customized product into different workflow environments might present a challenge for the company, but Stracquatanio said they’ve got that all under control. “We’ve started building ‘out-of-the-box’ integrations, and can connect to a number of different electronic document-management systems. Those media-management systems have the content that we can pull into our system.” The startup has also developed an API, so it can “ingest data from home-grown applications” and then send that data to any number of other systems a customer might use.
Also, once Apprentice connects to content-management or document-management systems, it has automated software to convert those documents into AR workflows. “If I have a 150-page batch record for example, we’ve developed all these new tools to take it and bring it into augmented reality, and augment the content they have with a photo, video or 3-D content. This provides a rich set of data to the scientist as he or she goes through the process.”
How will Apprentice deploy its most recent round of capital? For one thing, the money will allow the company to extend its customer base. “What we are focusing on is expanding current customer users, expanding the number of scientists and engineers using our product at customers we already have. A second focus will be to broaden the number of sites and new customers that we are working with.” Eventually, Apprentice will scale by looking at new markets and new customers, Stracquatanio said.
Another area is R&D. “We will be investing a lot more in our AR.” Stracquatanio noted that the company’s motto is “We don’t just augment reality, we augment human ability.” So Apprentice will be bringing in more AI capabilities, more machine learning capabilities and more contextualization capabilities. “We want to use augmented reality to have a better understanding of where the individual is, what they are working on and what they are interacting with, and stitch all this together to create a very sophisticated engine that will empower the individual as they go through their workflow.”
Stracquatanio noted that the company has been helped a lot in its journey by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA). “One of the venture capital funds we have today was introduced to us through the EDA, and we’ve had multiple customer introductions through the EDA, as well as multiple introductions to government. The EDA has been incredibly helpful for us to leverage their network and capabilities within the state and within the larger venture community.”
While New Jersey is home to both Stracquatanio and Pignata, when they were fundraising the two often got questions from the venture community about why they are located here. “I have a locked and loaded answer for that,” Stracquatanio said. “There are 3,000 pharma and biotech companies in the state of New Jersey. In addition to that, we are already leveraging the greater New York area for personnel resources.”
“We have the best of both worlds. We get to pull from the resources of New York City without paying New York City prices, and we can get to all those pharma customers in a half hour. There is no better place on the planet to locate this organization.”