Yesterday, I got a last-minute invite to the party at Unpitch, which in the past was super-secret and off limits to journalists not named Scott Kirsner. In other words, I got to do in person what I did over email, last year: Ask investors which companies they liked.
Hot tech events come and go in Boston. Right now, Unpitch feels like it’s on the upswing. It started in 2013 as an antidote to the ridiculous practice of charging entrepreneurs to pitch investors. In addition to removing the pay-to-play, Unpitch took early-stage startups off stage, eliminated slide decks and sat down founders and potential investors across tables from one another, in private pitch sessions paired by the event’s organizers.
It’s invite-only for both investors and entrepreneurs. I’m told about 250 companies applied this year, for some 26 spots. Most of the 26 haven’t had much press. Only a handful have been covered by BostInno. Some you might even call “stealthy.” For investors, it ends up being a well-picked crowd drawn from the networks of organizers Phil Beauregard, Abby Fichtner, Scott Kirsner and the NEVCA. Diane Hessan, who founded the company that eventually got acquired by Omnicom and became C-Space, which hosted Unpitch, said she was “blown away” by Boston investor participation.
Most of the check-writers I ran into at this pitch event were angel investors; few venture partners. Some firms sent their associates and principals–with a few notable exceptions, including Chip Hazard of Flybridge and Dayna Grayson of NEA. Grayson came up with North Bridge in Boston and now gets up here from Chevy Chase, Md., once in a while for her board seats at Onshape and Desktop Metal.
Update: Vociferous complaint later forced me to revise my reckoning of the number of VC partners in the room, somewhat: There were a few more than I thought. I guess I was just on the wrong side of the room. Or, maybe the right side…
Anyway, here are a few more testimonials I gathered:
- The cohort of startups in Unpitch gets stronger every year: Ty Danco, an angel investor and one of Techstars Boston’s directors, told me. “It is dead certain,” he said, “that several VC-funded companies come out of this crowd.”
- Sarah Hodges, partner at Pillar VC, said: “The quality of the startups this year was impressive––I had a tough time selecting just four that I was interested in meeting.”
- David Chang, angel investor: “More hustle than I’ve seen in the past, and I was surprised how much research a few of them had done beforehand. One of them freakishly (in a good way) recalled an experience/lesson from one of my own startups from 10 years ago.”
At the event and afterward, I talked with a few of the investors who were there, off the record, asking them which companies they liked. Here’s what I gleaned:
- Upstream: A handful of investors mentioned this water monitoring startup for agriculture. The company’s pitch to users is dead simple: Upload a GIS file and Upstream analyzes satellite imagery to provide email alerts on how much water farm fields are getting. Founder Marshall Moutenot has an impressive tech resume: Crashlytics (acquired by Twitter), then Wistia, then Drift. This is new territory. Editor’s note: The founders emailed me to note the users aren’t farmers, as I originally wrote, but investors, cities and environmental groups that buy, sell and monitor water.
- Flare Jewelry: We wrote about this company making jewelry to protect women from sexual assault back in July. They’ve apparently come a little ways since then. More than one investor I talked to at Unpitch liked the looks of their jewelry and how it would enable users to alert police or their friends, without having to pull out a phone.
- ConnectRN: This is like Uber, but for hospital managers: Basically, some 5 to 10 percent of a hospital’s staffing is flexible, as nurses call in sick or patient demand increases. ConnectRN is a hospital staffing platform with a pool of last-minute registered nurses. Their first placement was set to start a shift Wednesday night in Baltimore, founder Mike Wood told me. It’s one of three companies I picked for the BostInno Beat, Wednesday.
- Tengu Pay: One investor described this to me as “a cross between Venmo and Flywire for the Indian market.” That sounds pretty interesting. The company’s website doesn’t say much besides “coming soon…” and establish that its office is probably at CIC in Kendall Square.
- CozyKin: CozyKin is like Uber for nanny shares. That’s when a couple families get together to share nannies for small kids. With daycare centers costing roughly the equivalent of a mortgage on a house on the Cape, it’s a sought-after arrangement. Looks like a couple of the co-founders come out of MIT Hacking Medicine.
- MyBarber: This company is a little like Onsite, Manicube and Virtudent: MyBarber makes men’s haircuts a perk for employees. In other words, a barber comes to your office and cuts hair. Whatever you think about hair clippings, it’s a pretty interesting play. Still, a lot of men have a kind of weird loyalty to the place they get their haircut. And for good reason: If you get a bad haircut, nobody laughs at the barber.
- CliqBit: We wrote about CliqBit last February. A couple of Wellesley kids trying to make the next Snapchat is… a long shot. It’s good to see Hannah and Olivia getting some investor interest. (And from what I understand, that interest is in earnest.)
- DOCTA Group: This is a telemedicine and company for the African market. The founder, Cedric Foudjet, has a couple years under his belt working as a consultant in patient experience. (Hospital executives everywhere are desperate to figure out what that phrase means, right now.) I gather that Ghana, which just went through a smooth, democratic transfer of power, is among the first countries he’ll target.
- FP Robotics: I don’t know much more than “stealthy robotics company” about this one, but knowing Boston’s talent bench in this industry–and a dime dropped by an Unpitch investor–are enough to pique my interest.
- MultiModel Research: This is one of a couple of machine learning companies focused on text that investors were talking about at Unpitch. The other is MarketMuse. MultiModel is initially focused on healthcare applications, like analyzing doctor’s notes. MarketMuse adds semantic analysis to content marketing efforts.
- User Interviews: “Know your customers,” says everyone, but nobody does it. User Interviews aims to change that for its customers; we got a First Look at User Interviews back in May and, judging from the enthusiasm for them from more than one investor at Unpitch, they are worth a second look right now.
Here’s hoping Unpitch stays hot and doesn’t get any bigger.