There are few places where you’ll find artisanal bakers rubbing shoulders with software executives who are chatting up bootstrapping entrepreneurs and do-it-yourself crafters. But a roving monthly meet-up has been bringing together the most unlikely collections of people, united by the fact they are launching some kind of product — whether it’s a whoopie pie or a website — in Massachusetts.
“It’s everyone from companies with labs to the kitchen-table start-up,” said Tim Stansky, one of the organizers of Mass Innovation Nights, which is celebrating its 50th event Tuesday night with a showcase of the more successful products that have come out of its gatherings since 2009.
A rough mix of product pitch events by entrepreneurs and school science or crafts fairs, Mass Innovation Nights began in April 2009 as a way to highlight businesses while bringing more people to the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, where the first events were held.
After the museum was flooded in 2010, Mass Innovation Nights became a nomadic networking event, holding meetings around the Boston area and in the process becoming a magnet for inventors, job hunters, venture capitalists, and early adopters seeking the next big thing.
From its inception it has hosted 500 products.
‘The idea is to be supportive to all businesses.’
The 50th event, to be held at The Boston Globe in Dorchester, will feature displays from alumni such as Cuppow, which makes lids to turn canning jars into travel mugs, and Vsnap Inc., which provides an online video-messaging service.
Among the promising start-ups Mass Innovation Nights has helped are Project Repat of Roxbury, which makes blankets and bags from used T-shirts — it had its first sale of a custom blanket at one event — and Noteflight LLC, a music software company that has built a program for creating and editing music online.
Some presenters did not fare as well, like the outfit that made doggie poop bags or the company making baby blankets, neither of which was able to follow through after its Mass Innovation Night spotlight. Some 90 of the 500 companies that have made presentations at Mass Innovation events have gone out of businesses.
But many are doing well. Collectively, companies that have made presentations have raised more than $500 million in venture capital, angel funding, grants, and awards.
“For your little home-grown grass-roots event, that is kind of a knock-me-off-my-chair number,” said Bobbie Carlton, who founded the monthly event after being laid off from her marketing job in Boston. Today, she runs her own public relations agency in Woburn.
The only requirement for a company or entrepreneur to make a presentation at Innovation Nights is that the product be available to the public.
“You can find innovation anywhere,” Carlton said. “The idea is to be supportive to all businesses.”
One of the biggest hits was a whoopie pie from Chococoa Baking Co. in Newburyport, which was started by husband and wife Julie Ganong and Alan Mons, after they were both laid off during the 2008 financial crisis.
“People said it was the best software there,” Ganong joked about the debut of the 2-inch cream-filled pies at the March 2011 event, which also featured mobile apps developers and other computer products. “We really thought the whoopie pie needed a makeover, and that’s what innovation is all about.”
Chococoa Baking is making about 10,000 pies a week and selling them in Whole Foods Markets in New York.
While food products such as organic chocolate bars and roasted chickpeas have been among the more popular items at Innovation Nights — 53 products in all — computer-related products and software dominate. More than 200 tech companies have used the venue as a launching pad. For some, it was the first time they had pitched gadgets or gizmos to the public.
“Running through the sales presentation publicly is a little different from running through it in your basement,” said Gerard Murphy, cofounder of the New Hampshire start-up Mosaic Storage Systems Inc., an online photo storage company.
It launched an early version of the service with just two employees. Today, the company has grown to five and has raised $875,000 in venture funding.
While Innovation Nights offers a chance to demonstrate a product, and perhaps develop connections and customers, they also force the youngest start-ups to work toward a deadline.
“That’s somewhat important in our world,” he said. “You can tweak a product forever. At some point you have to ship.”
Michael B. Farrell
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