Desktop Metal team, Savitz on Smart Lunches, LevelUp grows up

The case for Desktop Metal, the next big Boston innovation company

This past week, Ric Fulop was awarded the “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the New England Venture Capital Associations annual NEVY awards for the VC community (A good event for networking and celebrating the Boston innovation community, but also a bit of a surreal experience, since, you know, it gives out awards to venture capitalists.)

I believe that Fulop is most definitely one of the top entrepreneurs in the Boston-area, but I think a better title to bestow upon him is the “Best Executive to Lead the Startup with the Most Potential for Unimaginable Success.” He is a visionary and a great leader, but what he has built at Desktop Metal, the cutting-edge metal 3D printing developer, is bigger than Fulop alone.

This was quite evident on a recent trip I made to Desktop Metal’s headquarters in Burlington.

Sitting down with Fulop as he went through a presentation of what exactly DM is up to was an enlightening experience.

Fulop is best known as the founder of A123 Systems, the lithium-ion battery maker, and for five years as a VC with North Bridge. While at North Bridge, he led the firm’s investment in Markforged, which at the time was developing a carbon fiber 3D printing system. Fulop even sat on the company’s board for a while. In the past couple of years something interesting happened, Fulop pulled together a team of experts to go after the metal printing space at around the same time Markforged expanded its machines to also print metal. When I asked him about the two companies, Fulop told me that they are a “very different technology” from Markforged. I’m not sure what the exact nature of the relationship between the companies is, but Fulop included Markforged in his slide presentation as one of the companies he has backed as an investor.

The move to conquer the 3D metal printing space is a shrewd one for Desktop Metal. As Fulop pointed out, most of the hardware already being used for this type of fabrication is expensive, cumbersome, slow, and have an array of safety precautions that add time, cost, and instability to the process. The genius of Desktop Metal is that, as its name suggests, it is safe, affordable, and small enough to be used in an office.

The two products that the company announced, one that allows for fabrication on a small scale and one that is geared from the mass-production of printed metal parts have already made massive waves in the industry.

But more than Fulop and the product, it is the people that make up Desktop Metal that, from my experience touring their facility, will push this company into the same conversation as companies such as iRobot, and potentially beyond.

From its VP of software, Rick Chin, to its metallurgists to its lead engineer of sintering, Mark Sowerbutts, everyone I spoke with was giddy with joy to be working on this project. The passion that was evident for what they were building is unparalleled in my experiences engaging with local companies of all sizes.

Sowerbutts in particular, standing in a room surrounded by older sintering hardware — massive kiln like machines used to heat and coalesce the metal — was like a kid in a candy shop showing off the differences from what currently exists in the industry to the products that Desktop Metal has devised for the process.

More than the impressive numbers for the financial opportunity that exists in the industry that Fulop showed off, the 138 patents that Desktop Metal has filed for their innovations is incredible. And that is the product of those outside of the C-suite.

For Desktop Metal, how big they can grow depends on the people involved, and, in my experiences, what Fulop has pulled together is impressive.

As Fulop told me, “Nobody here is wearing training wheels. They’ve gone through $1 billion IPOs and have Ph.D.’s.” While that is impressive, their obvious love for what they are creating will be the defining feature as Desktop Metal grows into one of the areas potentially next big companies.

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 8.50.13 AMUnder-the-radar

This week,  DataPoint Capital’s Scott Savitz said that the company in his portfolio that isn’t getting the type of love it should is Smart Lunches, a fresh and healthy lunch delivery program for school systems.

The reason they are so under-the-radar, according to Savitz is that Smart Lunches’ CEO David Morris is “probably as modest and heads down as it gets and just doesn’t look at all for media attention.” In an email conversation, Morris concurred with Savitz’s assessment.

“All he cares about is providing the best service and killing it,” Savitz added. He also said that Smart Lunches is “somewhere around a million dollars a month in lunches with the start of the new school year.”

Savitz has a ton of praise for Morris, who he said “has built a great business, team, and product.”

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What went down this week…

$50M – That’s the funding number for LevelUp, the payments company that many people I’ve spoken to in Boston over the past few years had worried about. Many of the concerns had to do with the space — the payments space is highly competitive — as well as concerns a few years ago about CEO Seth Priebatsch’s readiness and maturity to lead the company.

While there were a couple public issues a few years ago, over the past four years, Priebatsch and the LevelUp team have been heads down, building out the product.

And that worked as it was it just got a $50 million lift from the likes of J.P. Morgan Chase, Highland, and GV.

I asked Priesbatsch if this was validation to prove the naysayers wrong, but he wouldn’t bite, showing just how far he has grown as a CEO.

What he did say was that “Boston’s a great place to build and grow a fintech startup. A huge amount of talent, a growing hub of activity and 6 long months of winter to force us to hunker down and actually get work done.”

“We’ve really appreciated the support we’ve received from the community here and look forward to using our new space in the financial district to host events, hackathons, learning nights and more.”

BIG Evolution – One of the most important networking events that helped promote some of the biggest up-and-coming startups in Boston was Webinno, which was run by NextView’s David Beisel. Companies like Dropbox and Crashlytics showed off their nascent products at the events that were always packed with a who’s who of tech and innovation leaders.

Webinno evolved recently to become the Boston Innovation Group, or BIG for short, and it just announced that it is shifting yet again to be more subject matter oriented. You can read more about it in Beisel’s blog post on the matter.  It was announced that the first of these will focus on voice computing. Should be interesting.

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Shoot me a note at dennis@utterlybiased.com if you want to write a story for UB or have some advice or insights.

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The Lull, through Grapevine, Maine and running

The “Lull,” reality or perception

This week, there is no central feature for Utterly Biased. Just a question.

What is your current perception of the Boston startup community, tech ecosystem, or whatever else you may want to call it?

Is it robust and thriving? Are there some incredible companies on the cusp of making national headlines or are there a whole lot of small wins that we are going to be seeing?

Or, as a few people have put it to me lately, is Boston in a lull?

For such a small word, “lull” packs quite an emotional kick. Webster’s defines it thusly: “a temporary pause or decline in activity,” and more specifically, “a temporary calm before or during a stormor “a temporary drop in business activity.” Whichever meaning you choose, it is not something you’d like associated with your business, and, it’s especially not the type of branding you’d want to saddle on an entire region’s innovation economy.

A slew of recent conversations I’ve been having with operators, founders, investors, and service providers have turned at some point to the theme that the Boston startup scene is eerily quiet at the moment.

Is this reality or just perception?

So, I ask you to send your thoughts my way. Is Boston in a downturn, or is this just the belief of a few. Is the ecosystem actually evolving as it should?

Send your thought to dennis@utterlybiased.com. I will publish some responses (you can request to have your opinion remain anonymous to the Utterly Biased readership.)

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Under-the-radar

This week, Dave Balter, a man who wears many hats, suggested a local company that he’s tight with that he believes isn’t getting the love it should. Balter singled out Grapevine, saying that the social media influencer marketing platform is “crushing it right now.”

Balter backed Grapevine through Boston Seed, and he is the head of its board of directors. According to Balter, who spends most of his time on his own venture Mylestone, Grapevine has really thrived since partnering with Chinese billionaire Bruno Wu’s Sun Seven Stars. That would make sense, Sun Seven Stars is an international private media and investment conglomerate that can help Grapevine take its social content monetization platform to a global market.

The market for connecting brands with social media influencers has been burgeoning as of late, but there have been two trends to keep an eye on. For one, YouTube, long the king of leveraging influencer marketing, especially with teens, has been seeing some blowback from major advertisers on how much control they have on the branded content that appears alongside their own advertising. While this doesn’t impact the influencers, per se, it is a signal to the marketplace, which has led some brands to look at YouTube alternatives like Snapchat and Instagram.

Second, Instagram has grown exponentially as a place for both branded content and influencer marketing.

Grapevine serves both platforms and should be able to whether changes in consumer tastes better than others in the space.

screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-4-00-23-pmWhat went down this week…

Maine – I met Kerry Gallivan, the CEO and founder of Chimani, a number of years ago at MIT’s VC conference. He looked a bit out of place hawking his outdoor adventure app, surrounded by three-piece suits and overly-eager to network aspiring venture capitalists. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to him and his story. That or the fact that here was this guy building a massive, aspirational project out of Portland, Maine — one of my favorite cities in the US — of all places.

Last year, Gallivan was listed in Outside Magazine as one of the “next pioneers” influencing the future of the America’s national parks. This week, Chimani announced a new product that should help it continue to dominate the national park tourist space.

  • The new Chimani Perks program is a membership savings club program for national park tourists. The program offers discounts on lodging, dining, activities, and more throughout the national park system, both inside the parks and in the neighboring gateway communities. Since its launch, Chimani — which has maps, content, and more for all 59 US national parks as well as those in the UK and Canada — has seen some rapid growth with more than 1.5 million downloads for its niche product. It customers aren’t the hardcore outdoor enthusiasts you might expect, but a large number of families, professionals, and retirees, what Gallivan called ‘windshield tourists’; a classification that makes up about 90 percent of national parks visitors according to the Chimani CEO. The number of active users each year is 750,000 according to Gallivan, and many of those use the park-specific apps to plan their trips rather than navigate them once they are there.  “Customers love our products, but we had to figure a way to make this business sustainable, which is the basis for this new Perks program,” Gallivan said. One thing is clear, its great to see some innovation happening in Portland and a good outdoor-focused business growing in New England.

FitRaceMenu, a platform for road race directors to manage, promote and grow their events, announced that it has sold off its race timing business to Second Wind Racing. RaceMenu, a stalwart of MassChallenge when it was at 1 Marina Park Drive, has quietly built a nice little business in the health and fitness space. Boston is actually a hub for these types of companies with Runkeeper, Inside Tracker, Spartan Races, Tracksmith, and more playing a major role in the active lifestyle and athlete industry.

I spoke with RaceMenu’s J. Alain Ferry, RaceMenu’s founder about the sale and how he is positioning the company moving forward. His response, “It may sound nuts, but it’s to compete against Square and Paypal.” He added that RaceMenu is “playing the long game.” Here’s more from Ferry, who seems to have figured out a way to actually bring innovation to the racing circuit:

  • “As of last week’s sale, we are singularly focused on software, and more specifically mobile payments. The endurance events industry offers a unique (and incredibly lucrative) opportunity for mobile payments. Ever wonder why every half/full marathon and large 5K under the sun has a pre-race expo but no post-race expo? The supply and demand are still there after the race, and even more so in many cases. But there’s no currency, nor will there be anytime soon. While increasing numbers of people run with their phone, that doesn’t really help all the merchants who want to sell to post-race “runners high” consumers. They’re willing to pay for better food, beer, race merchandise, running clothing, running shoes, massages, GPS watches, other race entries, etc. But how do they pay? There’s one thing which every single runner has on them after the race which can help. It’s their race bib. Timing companies use the race bib to identify the runner for scoring purposes. If you can connect their race bib to the credit card they used when registering online, you can also use the race bib for payments. Now you add this currency to an equation where supply and demand already existed and BOOM: you have a new market.”

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Jebbit and startup evolution, Skok on Zaius, UB on Medium

Do young founders evolve?

Last Thursday, Jebbit, an interactive marketing platform that has recently expanded into more data-driven products, held its first-ever customer conference, which featured talks from co-founders Tom Coburn and Jonathan Lacoste, as well as HubSpot’s Kipp Bodner.

The long-planned event, however, hit a bit of bad luck that, in the end, was quite fortuitous.

You see, the Jebbit Customer Conference 2017 was supposed to be held at Fenway. But when one of the Pirates-Sox games was rained out during opening week, that game was rescheduled to Thursday afternoon, and Jebbit’s inaugural event was without a home. With some help from the Sox, Jebbit was able to move its conference to the Commonwealth Hotel in Kenmore —  a spot with a great view of the Green Monster no less. At the event, Coburn and Lacoste unveiled a strategic shift that has been a long time in the making when it announced its Declared-Data Platform to the 100 customers in attendance — folks like Expedia, CBS, Gannett, Sonesta Hotels, and more.

If that wasn’t enough, Jebbit ended up with a whole bunch of tickets to the game up in the Budweiser Deck to bring over the conference attendees for quite possibly the greatest event after-parties ever.

Showing a lot of flexibility, Jebbit made the most of an unexpected turn of events on Thursday. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the company has been quietly adjusting to changes in online marketing for the past few years.

As Jebbit is out raising its Series A, they are dealing with something that I’ve heard again and again in Boston from companies built out of college or by young founders. For whatever reason, there seems to be a belief that unseasoned or young entrepreneurs in Boston cannot effectively scale their businesses.

This is something that has plagued LevelUp, Drizly, VentureApp, Attend.com, CustomMade, and many, many other young startups. Many in the VC world don’t expect these companies to be able to evolve to the market and grow. And so, they either hesitate to invest, or, even worse, if they are already involved, they push for a change in leadership.

With Jebbit, which was borne out of BC as a way to advertise to students through quick online surveys, shaking what they were, to what they’ve become, has been quite challenging. Now, as Coburn explains it, customers of its products are using Jebbit as an enterprise data tool that allows them to take mobile experiences to capture valuable customer data. “This opens up new use cases that an enterprise can use outside of marketing,” Coburn said.

As Coburn told me recently, getting a meeting with a local VC can pose a challenge. “I think they assume that what a young entrepreneur’s company was two, three, or four years ago is the same thing that company is now.”

Just for some perspective, Jebbit is a six-year-old company. HubSpot had been in existence for eight years when it went public. (Although, Jebbit was bootstrapped for three years while most of the team was building the company AND studying at BC.)

The Jebbit CEO told me that during the meetings he has had, he has had to fight to explain that over the last four years, the company’s primary product has matured into a data-driven marketing tool and is no longer a college student engagement program.

“People here in Boston, because they’ve known us, still think of us as a survey company, even thought we abandoned that years ago,” he said. “Could you imagine people thinking that you haven’t changed at all in six years?”

“You can decide to stay the course and build out what you’ve started, and that has worked for some companies locally,” Coburn told me. “Or, if you think it will be better for you, you go in a different direction.”

“What everyone was saying about us back then was true, we were a survey company,” Coburn said. “But as we’ve grown up so has this company.”

From people outside the company, I’ve heard that one or two local VCs have changed their minds about Jebbit as they try to fill out their Series A. The rest of the local VCs might be out of luck if they realize too late that these aren’t kids tinkering with a college student app. Like a few other young, local startups raising funding these days, Jebbit might be heading west to talk to investors who don’t have outdated, preconceived notions of the company.

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Under-the-radar

This week, Michael Skok of _Underscore.VC suggested Zaius, a marketing automation, analytics, and CRM software platform, as a local company that isn’t getting enough attention. According to Skok, Zaius “has built the next-generation B2C marketing platform to address fragmented data and customer experiences caused by legacy marketing platforms and patchwork of point solutions.”

“There is a massive market opportunity — the problem is as big for B2C companies as it is for B2B companies and can you imagine a B2B company without a CRM?” he said.

When I asked Skok why they are under-the-radar, he said that until recently the team has been focused on “building a best in class technology platform.” Over the last year, they have really achieved tremendous customer traction and brought on stellar sales and marketing leadership focused on expanding their Boston team out of their North End HQ.”

“The team is nothing short of phenomenal and they will not stay quiet for long,” Skok added.

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Submissions for Utterly Biased on Medium

With a shortened Utterly Biased this week, I thought it would be a great time to reveal a new way that Utterly Biased is trying to help Boston tell its story.

This week I launched Utterly Biased as a Medium Publication. Separate from the blog and the newsletter, UB on Medium will serve as an outlet for anyone in Boston who has a good story to tell or some piece of experiential advice that could be helpful to others looking to be more innovative and impactful in their lives and businesses.

Anyone interested in sharing their stories on the Utterly Biased Medium page, shoot me a note at dennis@utterlybiased.com.

This is the first in a series of different products that Utterly Biased will be pushing out to continue to serve as a megaphone for the untold stories and the truly innovative people from Boston’s innovation and entrepreneur community.

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