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Innovation Economy

Can technology help face-to-face networking?

The Cambridge start-up Trovare is designing a rubber wristband called Amico, a new entrant in F2F networking.

The Cambridge start-up Trovare is designing a rubber wristband called Amico, a new entrant in F2F networking.

When you walk into a crowded bar, cocktail party, or conference hall, how do you know who’s worth meeting?

It’s a problem that scads of technology start-ups have tried to solve, without much success. Turns out that developing a device or mobile app that can supplement serendipity, figuring out which people in a room share your interests or helping you land your next big sale, is harder than building a computer that can win at “Jeopardy.”

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“Getting a critical mass of users is your first problem, and that was a challenge for us,” says Tushneem Dharmagadda, who started developing a mobile app called Plug back in 2007, to help people make connections at business events. “At some events, we’d get 25 percent of the people using our app, but you want more like 60 or 70 percent for it to be really useful.” Dharmagadda is now focusing on a different business idea.

The newest entrant in what you might call F2F social networking (that’s face-to-face, of course) is a Cambridge start-up called Trovare. Trovare means “meet with” or “discover” in Italian, and the founders and backers of the company are all from northern Italy. They’re designing a rubber wristband called the Amico, which is packed with electronics, a battery, and a Bluetooth wireless link.

Once you’ve used a smartphone to load elements of your Facebook profile onto the bracelet, it can help you find people nearby who like the same movies or went to the same college. Whenever you come within 30 feet of someone who shares some of your interests, three white LED lights start flashing and the bracelet vibrates.

“We want to give you a push to start talking with someone,” says Trovare founder Fabrizio Filippini, without telling you exactly what piece of your profile matched someone else’s. “We believe the emotion of meeting and getting to know a new person got lost in the social networking revolution, when you can just look at their profile on Facebook and LinkedIn and instantly know everything about them.”

But if you insist on learning exactly why your bracelet suggested you sidle up to someone, you can open the Amico app on your phone to see where your passions overlap. The app can also show you a Top 10 list of things that nearby people like. Are you in a room full of Bruins fans, or people who listen to “This American Life”? (Or both?)

Filippini says the company has developed a few working prototypes of the Amico bracelet, but is trying to raise money to move the product toward mass production. He says the company may soon test the bracelet on a college campus in Boston, since he views students as promising customers. Filippini says he hopes to sell the bracelet for about $40. It would require charging once a month.

Obviously, the bracelet isn’t very interesting if only three people at a gathering are wearing one. And with all of these F2F networking technologies, there’s a question about who will use them. Would the people you might most want to meet on campus — say, the captain of the basketball team or the president of Future Supermodels of America — wear an Amico? Filippini says one way to address that problem is giving away bracelets to certain alpha dogs and taste-makers.

Another Cambridge start-up, Proximate, has a different strategy. It built an online ticketing system for events, so when people register to attend, they can also provide their LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter information. Then, Proximate can send attendees an e-mail before the event highlighting a few people they ought to seek out.

“At a science conference, we might be able to connect two researchers with similar interests who might wind up publishing a research paper together,” says Proximate founder Evan Morikawa. But even Morikawa, who studied computer science at Olin College, says writing software to make the right introductions is tough. “If you have 40 mutual friends with someone, either you already know each other and shouldn’t be introduced by the system, or it would be the most mind-blowing introduction ever,” he says.

And when a person re-introduces you to someone you already know, you might smile and joke about it, Morikawa says. When a computer does it, you’re not as forgiving.

Numerous local start-ups have learned that lesson — and others. An MIT spin-out called nTag Interactive raised $23 million for a digital conference nametag that could communicate wirelessly with other nametags, helping connect you with the right people in a busy convention center. It went bankrupt in 2009. Parallel Cities released an iPhone app in 2010 that never took off, and Mixer designed a mobile website last year.

“People wanted it in theory,” says former Mixer executive Andrew Grochal, “but they didn’t seem ready to have their smartphones be part of the networking experience.” Even at tech-oriented events where Mixer set up a table at the door to encourage attendees to use the service, “a lot of people said, ‘Maybe I’ll try it later,’ ” Grochal says.

As someone who attends lots of cocktail parties and conferences, meeting people randomly can be fun, but I still feel there’s an opportunity for technology to improve F2F networking, either by helping me meet people at companies I’m interested in, or by helping people with story ideas or news tips find me in a packed room. I may be a bit of a schmoozing obsessive, but I do sometimes wonder if I’m meeting enough new people at events — and also meeting the people most worth knowing.

“Trying to change people’s behavior when it comes to meeting other people is a really challenging space,” says Grochal. “Maybe someone will crack it, eventually.”

The pick-up line of the future may be, “Hey baby, my Amico bracelet said we should meet.” For now, it remains, “Come here often?”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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