These bimonthly events are the brainchild of Mario Casabona, founder and CEO of TechLaunch (Kinnelon), and they provide a way for him and other angels in New Jersey to see startups up close that are ready for funding.
Companies apply to present at the TechLaunch BullPen, and the ones that are chosen receive some mentoring as well as help with their pitch preparations. Casabona is clear that he puts on these events, usually in conjunction with a tech meetup and a university, in order to improve deal flow for the angel community. The next BullPen event will take place at Montclair State University on Sept. 19.
A panel of investors — including Jay Bhatti, cofounder and CTO of BrandProject (New York); Peter Kestenbaum, mentor/coach and investor in emerging companies; Ken Silbert, founder and president of Silbert Partners (Warren); and John Ason, a professional angel investor — gave feedback to the presenters.
SportsGuru (New York), a place for fans to talk about sports on video, was presented by Ken Zamkow, founder and CEO. Sports information dissemination is undergoing disruption, said Zamkow, and will continue to undergo disruption, in a way similar to the music industry’s disruption by the iPod. “Fans want a voice,” he said, and “publishers are thirsty for more content.” Video is the best-performing asset for online sites in terms of monetizing content through advertising, he added.
“One of the things that inspired me to launch SportsGuru was that I was having a hard time finding good video content about some of my favorite teams,” he told the panel of investors. Also, he said, viewership is shifting from cable to digital, and that is starting to hurt companies like ESPN.
“For a company like ours, this creates a great opportunity to become a leading player in the space. … We have technology to automate the creation of video, we have a community of fans to crowdsource the creation of video, we curate the best parts and we distribute those videos over a network of publishers we work with and a variety of platforms.
“We’ve built a distribution network over the last few months. Videos have been syndicated with some of the top names in news and sports” such as the L.A. Times and the New York Daily News, he said. Since it started syndicating, the company has seen dramatic growth in viewership, and has begun generating revenue, he added.
Audience members asked about how SportsGuru differed from its competition, including Facebook Live, and also if it had any patents. Zamkow said that the company doesn’t have any patents, but added that his company’s “competitive advantage is the network effect and having the entire chain” of technology, along with a community and distribution network. Moreover, “Facebook isn’t turning you into a sportscaster,” whereas SportsGuru does.
Kestenbuam noted that he would have liked to have heard more about the curation process through which the startup selects the best videos for posting. Silbert thought that, to keep people engaged in making videos, “you have to find a way for multiple people to be big hits. Otherwise, six months go by and people are getting $10 checks, and they will move on to the next thing.”
Morgan Berman, founder and CEO of MilkCrate (Philadelphia), presented her company, which helps large organizations expand their social impact and retain millennial employees. The platform does tracking and reports on engagement opportunities — such as volunteer openings or sustainable life choices — that are available to employees. It has Android and Apple apps for users, and offers a desktop version to companies for monitoring their progress. “We call it the ‘Fitbit’ for engagement,” Berman said. At the time of the presentation, the company was in a Series A funding round, and had commitments for about half of it.
“Young people, who are making up a large part of the workforce now, are actually willing to take a pay cut to make a difference in the world. So, employers are looking for ways to connect their values with their employees’ values and create a values-driven company,” she explained. The startup also works with other verticals that are looking to engage large groups and enable them to have different types of impact. For example, the a nonprofit organization is engaging 20,000 high school students to “check-in” at museums. Universities and real-estate LEED certification companies are also using the platform.
During the audience Q & A, Berman said that the company has exit opportunities through large LEED certification companies and sustainability consulting firms. Asked about the market, she said that companies were currently spending about $240 million per year to engage millennials and do good.
Bhatti said that Berman should have made better use of the phrase the “‘Fitbit’ for engagement,” bringing it up earlier in the presentation. He added that one of the things that concerns investors when they look at these kinds of startups is whether “this something that people will use for a month and then get bored of using it? We want to make sure you are sustainable with the employers,” who will only pay for something their employees keep using.
Asim Akram and Venkatesh Iyer, co-CEOs and presidents of Orion C2S (Bridgewater), a cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) enterprise targeting large complex organizations, said that their iConstellation solution helps companies identify and retain high-value assets and optimize their IT spending. Assets can be servers, databases or even vendors. The solution helps identify which assets are the most valuable and should be kept and which can be eliminated, thereby reducing cost, risk and complexity due to redundancy and a large asset footprint. The company’s platform “bolts on top” of configuration-management-database (CMDB) programs that list assets, and does all the analysis needed. “We have been working with a lot of our clients on one-time projects to validate the product,” said Akram. The company launched in 2016 “with a solid pipeline of customers,” he added.
An audience member asked about the quality of the data in the CMDB programs they are bolting on top of, noting that if the data is garbage, “how useful is your product?” The co-CEOs answered that they use intelligence programs to test if the data is good or not.
Ason told Akram that his presentation was too busy. “I had trouble figuring out what you are doing and how you are doing it,” he said. “Most investors would not understand this space at all.” Silbert suggested that they concentrate on a case study of their biggest client, showing — rather than telling — what they are doing for them and explaining how it works. Also, “Whenever I hear ‘enterprise,’ I think long, long sales cycle.” Most investors would often want to go faster, he said.
The BullPen events always highlight a student presenter. This time, it was Rachel Catena, founder and CEO of The Buzz, a student company out of FDU. The Buzz is a mead-infused antioxidant health drink. Catena said that mead, which is fermented honey and water, creates “energy for the gut.” Some of the other ingredients are chokeberries, rosehips and elderberries, and all of them have health benefits. A secondary mission of The Buzz is to plant more wildflowers to support bees. The team has also designed a biodegradable seed-embedded label that can be planted by the consumer.
Members of the audience thought that the seed-embedded label should be protected by a patent. They also asked about the target market. She explained that it’s made up of people who are between the ages of 25 and 40 and want to make an environmental impact.
Bahti gave some specific advice. He told Catena that his fund has had a lot of experience with food and beverage companies, and that the number-one thing beverage companies need is to set up a distribution channel. Liquids are a very hard sell, are hard to ship and need shelf space. He advised her to make a name for the drink in New York City first because if beverages can prove themselves there, they will be in demand for national distribution. He also said that $20 million dollars in sales is the magic number that a beverage company would need to reach in order to become successful.
The panel chose SportsGuru as the best investment of the evening. The audience voted for MilkCrate.