Newark Venture Partners Scores Big at First NVP Labs Demo Day at Prudential Center

Photo: The Newark Venture Partners Labs cohort members and managing directors with Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka and Donald Katz of Audible. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
The Newark Venture Partners Labs cohort members and managing directors with Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka and Donald Katz of Audible. | Esther Surden

Newark Venture Partner Labs held its demo day for its inaugural accelerator class on Wednesday at the Prudential Center, presenting a professional cohort that gave polished presentations to an enthusiastic audience.  

The startups pitched on a stage set up on the ice at the hockey arena, and during a break in the pitch sessions the New Jersey Devils’ mascot threw tee shirts to the audience.  Before the program began, investors and audience members had a chance to shoot goals on the ice.

More than 400 people attended the event, which was by-invitation only. A section of the arena was filled by folks from the venture-capitalist and angel communities in New York and New Jersey, as well as the investors in the NVP fund. The fund was established by Donald Katz, founder and CEO of Audible (Newark). Investors were Audible,  Prudential Financial and Dun & Bradstreet, among others.

Speaking to the crowd, NVP managing director Dan Borok pointed out that the accelerator, while established to create scalable, profitable companies, had a second mission of job creation in Newark.

“We don’t think there are any reasons why companies shouldn’t come to Newark,” he said. “First of all, Newark is a transportation hub, only 20 minutes from lower Manhattan, with a lower cost of living. It has dark fiber running beneath the streets, which has enabled super-high-speed internet access.” There is community here in Newark, and it’s a great place to build a company, he told the crowd.

NVP provides added value to its portfolio of companies by providing mentors from the company’s limited partners. “So we have big publically traded companies whose leadership, like Don Katz of Audible, has committed employees to be mentors for our portfolio companies. [We] think this is a great place to build a startup,” Borok added.

Borok called the nine members of the inaugural NVP Labs class “pioneers,” both for being part of the first class and also for moving to Newark to build their businesses. None of the teams have plans to leave at this point, Tom Wisniewski, NVP managing director, told after the presentations. “Our goal is to keep them all. Naturally some will choose to move at some point; that’s part of a healthy tech ecosystem.” Several teams we spoke to indicated that they would be staying the accelerator space at least for nine more months. The startups were provided with a free year of office space when they were accepted into the accelerator.

Speaking to the group, Katz noted that NVP had been founded to be a “seedbed for a new generation of young growth companies” in Newark, and that it “exists to accelerate the comeback of, not only the companies you’ll see here, but to accelerate the comeback of a great American city. We will do this by tethering Newark to the elements of the economy that are growing sustainable jobs and taxable revenue,” he continued. They will “reclaim Newark’s glorious history of innovation,” and “will deliver growth at all levels of employment.”

He added that high school graduates in a tech-comeback environment make more money than college grads in a city that has chosen manufacturing as a way to come back. He noted that Newark is building new places to live that will house the new residents in the city. He also noted that the jobs created by the tech companies will be filled by thousands of first-generation college graduates, many of whom come from immigrant backgrounds.

While the surroundings for NVP Demo Day were impressive, the startups who presented were the stars of the show. Descriptions follow:

Photo: Ron Fisher presents BowTie Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Ron Fisher presents BowTie | Esther Surden

BowTie is a plug-and-play chatbox solution powered by artificial intelligence and aimed at any business on any messaging plan, said Ron Fisher, cofounder and CEO. Today, people use apps to order food or make appointments, Fisher said. “We realized there was a better way to get things done…through messaging,” by using a conversational interface. Companies can offer these bots for better customer care, but they can also use them to upsell customers. So when a user is booking a hair appointment, for example, the bot can ask if they want other treatments. The user can also pay without ever leaving the messaging service. For the business owner, the bots are “as easy to make as they are to use,” he added.

Photo: Umar Akbar of Navinata Health Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Umar Akbar of Navinata Health | Esther Surden

Navinata Health is a content-marketing/knowledge exchange platform that is rebuilding the broken connection between pharma brands and busy physicians. CEO and cofounder Umar Akbar describes the problem this way. “On the pharma side, more than 70 percent of sales reps no longer have the access they need to physicians, and pharma’s traditional digital marketing tools are only reaching one percent of doctors.  On the physician side, today’s doctors are busier than ever. In cancer, where we are initially focused, you have physicians struggling to keep up with the 30 new cancer therapies approved each year.”  He added, “In our recent pilot in myeloma, we saw 30 percent physician engagement with our platform. In addition, we saw 65 percent repeat usage, with 85 percent of the physicians” planning to continue using the platform. Navinata has had traction, gaining income from trials with major pharmaceutical brands.

Photo: Max Adler of Alphachannel Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Max Adler of Alphachannel | Esther Surden

Alphachannel cofounder and CEO Max Adler said that his company connects brands to technology experts who create innovative advertising content. In the past, he noted, brands were able to reach their marketing goals by using a single advertising agency that could handle TV, radio and print campaigns. “But now brands must leverage” new technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, face mapping, and motion tracking. “The rise of these new mediums has brought about a new project-based era in marketing, ” Adler said. Studios have begun specializing, and brands need to know who the best specialists for their needs are, how long the engagements take and how much they cost. In this marketplace, brands can find and engage the specialist that best suits them. “We’ve done procurement-style due diligence, so that brands don’t have to,” he noted. The company has generated  revenue during the last six months, “and we have a ton of projects in our pipeline for Q1 2017.”

Photo: David Comiskey of Barkly Photo Credit: Esther Surden
David Comiskey of Barkly | Esther Surden

Barkly is a service for pet owners that offers on-demand pet care with just a few taps on a smart phone application.  David Comiskey, cofounder, said that the pet care industry hasn’t changed “since the leash was invented.” Your typical dog walking business is started by a neighborhood dog lover who struggles with the business, barely has a website and doesn’t accept newer payment methods. Since they struggle to make money, these businesses pay poorly, “and thus suffer from high turnover and poor quality service.” The Barkly software is simple. When someone signs up, they get a list of pet caretakers that have been vetted and are available. “For the first time ever, transparency is built into the pet care experience,” said Comiskey, who added that his company hadn’t “missed a single dog walk in the 25,000 dog walks” customers had requested so far. The pet services sector of the pet market is the fastest growing sector, and the most profitable, he pointed out.

Photo: Sam Caucci of Sales Huddle Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Sam Caucci of Sales Huddle | Esther Surden

Sales Huddle’s Sam Caucci spoke with a hesitant speaking manner until he asked the group, “How much longer can you stand me talking like that?”  His point was that customers have negative thoughts when they have to sit through a bad sales pitch from a sales representative. Sales Huddle is changing the way companies train their people, he said, and already has some big customers. Sales Huddle leverages mobile gamification, and “is empowering people … with training exercises employees want to do, not just have to do.” Employees can play the games anytime, anywhere, and the games take less than three minutes to complete. The company also supplies a management dashboard. Hand and Stone (Trevose, Pa.), one of Sales Huddle’s clients, saw 100 percent employee participation. Some employees were even “playing” the games on their own time. Sales Huddle made $1.1 million in sales this year, Caucci told the audience.

Photo: Grant Easterbrook Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Grant Easterbrook | Esther Surden

Dream Forward is a 401K technology platform that uses AI to “make the whole process less painful and get employees to save more,” said Grant Easterbrook, cofounder, who called himself one of the first “robo adviser experts.” The product solves a huge problem for key stakeholders, he said. For the employee, focusing on retirement is too confusing and too complicated; and there is no help when it comes to dealing with the excuses not to save for retirement. For the employer, 401Ks are too complicated and expensive to run, but the fact that employees aren’t saving comes back to bite them. And the distributor, a financial adviser or payroll firm that sells 401Ks, is looking for a differentiated offering that increases their margins and makes their clients happy. “Think of us as a virtual version of a friend or a financial advisor sitting next to you while you go through the 401K website, making sure you stay on track,” Easterbrook said. He added that his company is “laser-focused on our small plan market entry point.” Last week the startup announced a distribution agreement with Barnum Financial group.

Photo: David Einzig of KiDCASE Photo Credit: Esther Surden
David Einzig of KiDCASE | Esther Surden

KiDCASE founder David Einzig said that his company’s “going forward with the solution to the biggest problem parents of kids have these days, and that is to finally be able to track and manage their kid’s daily screen time.” The average amount of all types of screen time for kids is now five to seven hours a day, Einzig said. Until now, there hasn’t been an easy way to track and limit screen time. “For iPad, the iOS is a closed operating system. … There is no way for apps to know when an iPad is being used, how it is being used; and there is certainly no way to turn it off when parents don’t want it used until now.” Einzig added that he, along with a team of Apple-licensed developers and engineers, created the hardware/software solution, which uses an app connected to a hardware case. This is a “great case designed for young kids. It is a smart case that docks and locks onto the iPad, and only the parent can remove it,” and the app lets parents control the screen time. A new feature lets parents award bonus time for using approved learning applications or achieving fitness goals. The solution has been approved by Apple, and the company plans to ship KiDCASE in Q2 2017.

Photo: Jacob Katsof of UpChannel Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Jacob Katsof of UpChannel | Esther Surden

Jacob Katsof CEO and cofounder of UpChannel, a B2B SaaS (Software as a Service) play, said that his offering provides smartphone manufacturers with insights into their customers. “We give them the tools to use those insights to generate revenue and create cost savings throughout the entire lifecycle of each phone the manufacturer sells.” Katsof said that the company addresses a fast growing market: Tier 2 smartphone manufacturers, who make up 30 percent of global market share, and who are having trouble maintaining connections with customers. He explained that these manufacturers have this problem because “at their core, they are manufacturing companies” that started out making feature phones. UpChannel creates a preloaded app for them that includes the manufacturer’s brand and logo. The customized app can offer features that the client picks a la carte, including live chat response to prevent needless returns and information about the phone’s warrantee. A manufacturing dashboard manages the whole application, Katsof said. He then presented a case study of how Hyundai Mobile was using the company’s dashboard to find out where their phones were being sold and who was using them. UpChannel has already booked sales. cofounder and CEO Nina Wieczorek  offers a set of tools that helps app developers debug their applications faster. Sometimes a developed app will work on many devices, but crash on other ones, leading to unhappy users, she said. To fix the app, the developer needs exactly the same type of device as the one in which the bug occurred, and that device has to be connected to the developer’s computer, so that when “he is fixing his code he knows whether it worked or didn’t work.” It’s almost impossible to have all the devices you need, she said. To understand the bug, a developer has to rely on “bug reports” that “rarely have the right information.” While there are many products on the market to help testers find the bugs, she added, hers is the first product to “help developers fix them fast.” NativeTap does this by putting devices in their data center and letting developers interact with them in real time from their own device, using touch. On top of this, the company has built a virtual USB cable, which is what enables the apps to be tested and debugged in real time. Gesture recording replaces bug reports. The company wants to use its data to create an AI debugging assistant that could proactively detect a bug during the coding session and suggest solutions, she added.

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