In Unusual Twist, Nightclub App Took Summertime TechLaunch BullPen

Mario Casabona and his team at TechLaunch (Kinnelon) have been holding BullPen pitch events since 2017, but never in the pitch competition’s history has a consumer-facing company in the entertainment industry emerged as the winner.

That’s what made the June 2021 TechLaunch BullPen unusual, as the judges, who usually vote for business-to-business pitches, awarded first place to TheClub (Ewing), an interactive app for partygoers seeking to find and enjoy the music of particular DJs, whether at parties or through live streaming at home.

Casabona is the founder and managing director of TechLaunch. The panel of judges for this BullPen were: David Stengle, founder and CEO of Board++ (Princeton) and Princeton director of Startup Grind; Jessica Gaffney, founder and CEO of Wavework (Wayne); Will Lutz, general manager for entrepreneurship, commercialization, and enterprise development at the New Jersey Innovation Institute (Newark); and Sharon Waters, managing director of JumpStart NJ Angel Network (New Brunswick) and CEO of Waters Strategies (Bloomfield).

The winner of each TechLaunch BullPen event receives $15K in professional services from TechLaunch’s partners and is guaranteed a pair of pitching slots at upcoming meetings of JumpStart NJ Angel Network and Tech Council Ventures (Summit).

The next TechLaunch BullPen event is scheduled for Sept. 29. As of this writing, the business accelerator is still accepting applications from startups that want to compete.

Cultivate Health Systems

Cultivate Health presenting at the TechLaunch BullPen | Screenshot by Esther Surden

The first startup to pitch was Cultivate Health Systems (Red Bank), presented by founder and CEO Owen Burns. The startup offers a hands-free, voice-assistant healthcare technology called “EMT Assist,” which provides real-time actionable guidance for emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in the field.

Burns said that he had been a business development executive, but became an EMT after a tragic incident happened to a next-door neighbor’s teenage daughter, who died from toxic shock syndrome. It would have taken only two questions to correctly diagnose this problem, questions that should have been asked of any teenage girl, he said. It wasn’t until after he went through his training, however, that he realized how difficult it was to assess patients in the field.

Cultivate Health Systems is also following the trend of decentralization in healthcare, with more care being given at the end points of the healthcare system, such as at urgent care offices. EMT Assist’s voice assistant is loaded with questions, answers and protocols that are coded and made available to EMTs.

“The patient’s medical history is brought in, as is clinical data, and then we bring in medical taxonomy” that the system can use to feed the right questions to the EMTs to ask the patient or family. The startup uses blockchain technology to make sure that there is a secure communication of data between the various points in the system. Burns noted that a major 911 call center is working with the startup to see how it can integrate its data with that of EMT Assist.

An audience member asked about the company’s financial model, and Burns said that the company was planning to use a model based on subscriptions.  Stengle said that the presentation didn’t clarify who the specific buyer was and what specific problem EMT Assist was solving.  He also wondered about the value of voice technology in noisy environments, which are often encountered in emergency situations.

Gaffney said that she appreciated the overall mission of the startup to provide intelligence to facilitate proper treatment on the front line. Waters noted that she had some concerns about the subscription pricing model because she knows that “EMT squads are often strapped for cash, and the towns that support them are strapped for cash.”  Lutz commented that the style of the presentation didn’t work well for him. “I would have liked to hear, maybe a little earlier on, a very quick elevator pitch of what it is you’re doing.”


TheClub was pitched by Darrel Frater, founder and CEO. Frater noted that, during the past year, DJs have learned how to livestream their DJ sets. However, “there are several issues with current live-streaming platforms that prevent DJs and attendees from having a great party experience.” For one thing, he said, there are “massive copyright issues.” DJs also lack the ability to monetize these performances, and there’s poor functionality for user engagement.

The app Frater launched allows partygoers to find and attend parties in real time. DJs use their livestreaming “as a business tool to increase their exposure, revenue and engagement with audiences, while partygoers use this as a social platform that helps them plan and enjoy the nightlife experience.”

TheClub is a marketplace company, Frater said, and it captures revenues from viewers, DJs and venues, as well as brands. He added that TheClub is building out features that will allow these DJs to livestream without any copyright issues, so they can maximize their opportunities for monetization.

In the audience participation portion of the BullPen, Frater was asked about use cases, since the line between virtual and real has been blurred in the last year or so. He noted that people are using TheClub app as a way to vet where they want to go that night. They can see the livestream and say, “Oh, that looks like fun, I want to go to that event.” Or they can stay at home and cast the livestream to their personal TVs, and have five or six friends over.

Gaffney wanted to know more about how the company would use the money it raised to recruit the DJs, and what kind of incentives they would be given. She also wanted Frater to go into more depth about his business model.  Waters was happy to learn that Frater had put $75,000 of his own money into the business, demonstrating his skin in the game.  Lutz wondered how many people were sitting at home thinking that they wanted to hear some DJ music. “I’m sure there’s plenty of them,” he told Frater, but “I’d like you to address that a little bit.”


Murat Sonmez presents trust-d. | Screenshot by Esther Surden

The other BullPen participant was trust-d (Holmdel). CEO Murat Sonmez discussed his startup, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to find and rate “bad actors” who are trying to rent vacation properties.  Sonmez said that vacation rental landlords and property managers are plagued by problems, and while guest screening usually relies on criminal data, other sources should also be used to gain a complete picture of a renter’s potential to cause harm. “We are bringing in relevant data, reviews from the house as well as reviews across social media, and putting the relevant data points together through our proprietary AI engine.” The engine produces one single metric that will easily allow property owners and managers to see if they should rent to someone.

An audience member asked about the possible mistakes that could factor into the rating of a guest, and about the startup’s liability for inaccurate assessments of bad behavior. The member also wanted to know about biases in the AI. Sonmez noted that the score can change over time, as a renter achieves a better online reputation.

Judges Lutz and Stengle said that Sonmez needed to have a better answer for how he is preventing bias from slipping into the score. Stengle also noted that the presentation concentrated on too many accomplishments that were too far off in the future. “It doesn’t make me want to open my wallet,” he said.

After the presentations, Casabona commented, “These presenters truly highlight TechLaunch’s reach and impact in an increasingly diverse community of startup technologies. I’m continuously impressed with the degree of talent and passion among our BullPen applicants, and eternally grateful for the generosity of our mentors, who make such a difference in these entrepreneurs’ futures. And a shout-out to Senior Mentor Cristian Ossa, who helped bring in the win for TheClub, as well as senior mentors Eric Korb and Robin Bear, who produced and hosted the BullPen, respectively.”

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