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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Incubator grads take work, hopes into real world

Miguel Galvez (left), cofounder of NBD Nano, chatted with investor Phil Shevrin during a TechStars event in Boston.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Miguel Galvez (left), cofounder of NBD Nano, chatted with investor Phil Shevrin during a TechStars event in Boston.

Graduation season for New England college students doesn’t roll around until May. But for New England entrepreneurs, it seems to arrive in November. This month, a trio of so-called accelerator programs — designed to help entrepreneurs transform concepts into companies — held their equivalent of diploma ceremonies, typically dubbed “Demo Days.” That’s when graduating entrepreneurs get the chance to deliver a quick pitch for their ideas to an audience of prospective investors.

The three programs are pretty similar, offering entrepreneurs a place to work for about three months and connecting them with experienced mentors. They supply a small amount of seed money — anywhere from $12,000 to $50,000 — in exchange for a single-digit percentage of ownership in each company. And since they only accept about a dozen companies in each class, they can be tougher to get into than an Ivy League university.

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After attending demo days, meeting with companies, and talking to investors, here’s my take on the 10 coolest companies to come out of TechStars Boston, Healthbox Boston, and Betaspring, based in Providence. Not all will succeed, of course, but each addresses a real need.

NBD Nano is one of those companies you naturally root for. The Boston College spin-out is developing water harvesting technology that extracts humidity from the air and turns it into clean water for drinking or irrigation, without using much power. Cofounder Deckard Sorensen says the device design mimics the way that the Namib Desert beetle pulls the water it needs to survive from extremely dry air. One product they talk about is the water bottle that constantly refills itself.

Ovuline’s slogan is “We make babies.” The company has built an online dashboard to help women identify the four days, on average, when they are fertile during each cycle, and also sells a $50 “Smart Fertility” kit that includes vitamin supplements, a thermometer, pregnancy tests, and other supplies.

Hate that gear-grinding feeling every time you try to ascend Beacon Hill on your bike? Autobike designed a bicycle that knows when to shift, rendering that experience obsolete. Pricing will start around $1,000. And the on-board computer that controls the shifting is powered by your pedaling.

Many small businesses don’t update their websites often enough, but they may post information about a special event or a time-limited sale on their Facebook page. TouchVu makes it simple to convert that Facebook page into a website that looks equally good on PCs or mobile devices. The company plans to charge a $20-per-month subscription fee.

Healthy Delivery customizes a menu based on your diet goals or allergies, and delivers ingredients to your door along with recipes. You do the cooking. It plans to run a pilot test next year.

CoachUp founder Jordan Fliegel, a Cambridge native, says that private coaching helped prepare him for playing hoops at Bowdoin College and later in an Israeli professional league. The website he built helps parents find private athletic coaches for their kids and helps coaches attract new clients. Among this latest crop of accelerator grads, CoachUp has raised the most money so far: a $2.2 million round led by General Catalyst Partners of Cambridge and Breakaway Innovation Group of Boston.

Founded by former employees of the educational travel firm EF Education First, WorldBrain wants to make it simple for teachers to organize jaunts to Philadelphia or Montreal, and get students to sign up online. Jakob Garrow and Laura Wallendal say the last thing teachers need is more work — and planning a class trip is exactly that.

Fashion Project helps nonprofits get more money from charitable donations of high-end apparel and accessories, by marketing the goods online rather than in thrift stores. Donations are tax deductible. Fashion Project takes a 40 percent cut and passes the rest of the sale price to the nonprofit.

GeckoCap is a small, battery-powered cap that can be affixed to the top of children’s asthma inhalers. It glows to remind them when they’re supposed to take the next dose. The GeckoCap also sends information to a base station every time the inhaler is used. Parents can monitor medication adherence on a website or mobile app, and share the data with doctors.

ImpulseSave is making it just as easy to save money as it is to spend it. Users create savings goals (say, $3,000 for a Hawaiian vacation), and then download an app that nudges them to move money from checking accounts into special online savings accounts. You can visualize your progress, and friends can offer encouraging comments.

At least one new accelerator program is hoping to get started this winter: Bolt, which will seek to assist entrepreneurs designing new consumer electronics devices. Instead of three months, it will run for six, and may provide in-house design and manufacturing consulting to teams that participate.

What all of the existing programs have in common is they provide a stellar post-graduate education to a new generation of entrepreneurs. What isn’t clear, says Richard Dale of venture capital firm Big Data Boston Ventures, is whether investors putting money into young companies can keep pace with the growing number of accelerator graduates. Almost every start-up that participates is hoping to raise another $500,000 or $1 million to spend on marketing, or hire a few more people. Some will, but most won’t.

So I’m proposing a new course for the accelerator curriculum that would delve into generating revenues by simply selling to customers. Let’s call it “Surviving and Succeeding Without That Next Big Funding Round.”

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