Entrepreneurs air concerns at ‘Disruptivate!’
Entrepreneurship is alive and growing in New Hampshire, but some say more can – and should – be done to incubate the state’s startup ecosystem.
That sentiment was the common thread emerging from the business owners presenting at Disruptivate! 2012, a conference held April 11 at the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel in New Castle.
“Many of us are sick of having to travel to Boston and Cambridge for stuff,” said Mark Galvin, managing director of the New Hampshire Innovation Commercialization Center, which presented the inaugural conference. “We think we have it here.”
Marc Sedam agreed. Sedam, executive director of the UNH Office for Research Partnerships and Commercialization, said there is “a thirst and a hunger in this area” for an “aggregation of like-minded ideas and people who are interested in entrepreneurship.”
But here in New Hampshire, “we are somewhat balkanized,” he said. “(Entrepreneurs are) not focusing on the ‘we.’”
However, that could change, he said – in part because of events like Disruptivate!, which “are really catalyzing to do things differently.”
About 200 people attended the daylong conference, which paid homage to “disruptive innovation,” a buzz phrase that refers to a technological or business innovation that disrupts existing markets and often displaces an incumbent.
During the morning session, seven “Disruptivators to Watch” – representing six New Hampshire companies – delivered short presentations on how they are bringing their transformative ideas to market.
“Being disruptive is not the goal it might have been in eighth-grade lunch,” said Jeff Carlisle of OurHealthConnector, one of the six featured businesses. “Disruption is a consequence of innovation, (and) innovation is a consequence of problem solving.”
The problem he identified and set out to solve with his company concerned electronic medical records, which have long been recognized as essential to improving the quality of health care and driving down cost. But, he said, slow progress has been made of the records, and they are often not available to a patient’s many specialists.
To tackle that problem, his company has designed patient-owned and managed electronic medical records, which can be accessible to all caregivers and stored securely and permanently online.
“It engages the patient fully,” Carlisle said. “They own and control the medical record.”
Another presenter who is working in the health care arena was Rob Graybill of Compass Healthcare Advisers, a Bedford-based startup that aims to lower health care costs by offering consumers cash incentives for choosing the lowest-cost providers in their region.
In the health care industry, said Graybill, “up until now, you’ve had very little opportunity to find out what things cost.”
What many consumers may not realize is that costs can differ widely from one facility to another, with hospitals in the state often offering the same procedures that sometimes differ in price by thousands of dollars, he said.
Since launching, he said his company has saved consumers in New Hampshire more than $1 million, and that two hospitals have lowered their rates on some procedures to improve their ranking, which “benefits everybody who has health care and insurance.”
But health care was not the only market that these entrepreneurs are working to disrupt.
Two of the presenters built mobile apps that aimed to shift business analytics and fantasy sports.
Jeffrey Vocell had the idea for Trendslide while working as a product manager at Draeger, a large medical device company, where he was “flying blind,” unsure of how the products he was managing were performing in real time.
So he developed an app, which recently launched in the iTunes App Store, that he said lets business owners “get a pulse on their business in 10 seconds or less.”
Using data sets from Twitter, Google Analytics and SalesForce – which will be expanded to include more sites in the future – the app allows users to see historical and up-to-the-minute graphs showing performance.
Vocell, whose office is in the abi Innovation Hub in Manchester, said he believes New Hampshire has the right ecosystem to grow more businesses like his own. He was able to find funding locally, raising $100,000 in seed capital from Incutio Growth Engine, which has its U.S. base in Manchester.
“Here in New Hampshire, we could do a lot better of thinking bigger,” he said. “A lot of time we don’t swing for the fences … We have the perfect set of people in this state to really go against the big players and the big spaces and really achieve results.”
Encouraging entrepreneurship in young people in college in the state is another way to help boost the state’s startup ecosystem, said Bryan Pellegrino, CEO at BuzzDraft, a daily fantasy sports site that offers an engrossing user experience and cash prizes and rewards for playing.
Encouraging young people to launch their ideas into businesses while they have little skin in the game “is going to lead to more innovation coming out of New Hampshire,” he said.
Asked whether he had faced pressure to relocate his company away from New Hampshire, Peter Antoinette of NanoComp Inc. said “for the most part, no.”
“It always impresses me how much innovation there is across the breadth in New Hampshire,” he said. “You think (of) ‘Cow Hampshire’ – I disagree.”
NanoComp, which is based in Concord, has developed a platform technology “that’s trying to disrupt virtually everything in materials,” he said.
Since 2004, the company has been growing carbon nanotubes “from science to products and now to scale.”
The ultra lightweight and strong nanotubes are highly conducive, and are made into sheets, tapes and yarns that could be used to do anything from make bulletproof vests to replacing copper wire.
“(We’re) trying to use this to drive multibillion-dollar markets,” he said.
The company, which employs 51 people in the state, is now building a manufacturing facility in Nashua and has plans to hire 250 to 400 more workers in the next few years, Antoinette said.
With his company, New England Footwear Manufacturing, Doug Clark also is trying to disrupt the way that manufacturing has been done in the past.
Clark has envisioned a way of making sneakers that gets rid of up to 90 percent of the labor costs in conventional shoemaking, by developing a manufacturing process that makes heavy use of 3D tools and mechanization.
“We are trying to make shoes without labor,” said Clark, who said his ultimate goal is to drive manufacturing back to the United States.
“My vision at this point, I think the time is right, to wake America up and innovate and make value,” he said.
But finding investors in the state to back his company proved challenging, if not impossible.
“I looked for nine to 10 months for money locally and in the startup phase, we found it was very difficult,” said Clark, adding that the company eventually had to take foreign money. “I was very frustrated that in order for me to start my business I had to take money from China.”
The conference also featured keynote talks from Les Otten, former CEO of American Skiing Co., and University of New Hampshire President Mark Huddleston, who spoke of some of the challenges facing UNH and higher education in general.
Erik Dodier, CEO of PixelMEDIA in Portsmouth, took the microphone at the end of the day’s final audience participation panel and encouraged attendees to “keep this momentum going.”
“It’s really about building this community,” he said. “A rising tide floats all boats – you need more talent here. You need more funding here.”