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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Tech startups pivot to solve new problems in the pandemic

This year's crop of MassChallenge companies is pursuing learning pods, restaurant safety, and remote work

Shahjehan Khan, researcher at the consulting company Advocates for Human Potential, volunteers virtually with the startup Generus from just outside his apartment in Winthrop. The lunchtime event encouraged employees to donate books through the Prison Book Program.
Shahjehan Khan, researcher at the consulting company Advocates for Human Potential, volunteers virtually with the startup Generus from just outside his apartment in Winthrop. The lunchtime event encouraged employees to donate books through the Prison Book Program.Photo by Cassie Rogers (CUSTOM_CREDIT)/Cassie Rogers

For many of us, the colliding crises of 2020 feel like daily chaos that must be trudged through.

Entrepreneurs are different: Many of them see opportunity in the chaos. And among the 130 companies participating in the MassChallenge summer entrepreneurship programs in Boston and Providence, you can find plenty of evidence. The nonprofit programs usually bring together startups from around the world to share a large office space, learn from mentors, and rub shoulders with investors and executives from larger companies — but this summer, MassChallenge is trying to deliver all that programming virtually.

Many of these startups were created around one idea, but have quickly adapted their business plans to solve problems created by the coronavirus pandemic.

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California-based NurturePods.org was originally focused on matching single parents who live together in homes with other single parents — a “co-living” arrangement that would help address the high costs of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. But the two working parents who started the company, Deborah Tu and Joey Jelenik, saw that the spring’s sudden shift to remote learning created a more urgent problem.

“Parents face a dilemma,” says Tu, who is currently on maternity leave from her full-time job at Google. “How do you watch children at home, make sure they’re learning, and also work? The answer is, they can’t.” She and Jelenik realized that the software they were using to match single parents into shared housing could also be applicable for setting up “pods” of kids who would learn together. NurturePods has a 14-point matching system, Tu explains, that takes into account criteria like children’s age, location, size of the group, and the families’ criteria for reducing health risks, like whether everyone needs to be socially distanced at all times, or whether all of the families need to agree to avoid airline travel for the duration of the school year.

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Another key criteria: whether the parents plan to share responsibility for supervising the kids, or whether they plan to hire a “pod leader,” like a teacher or babysitter, to do that.

Tu says that NurturePods is building up a database of teachers looking for this kind of work. The company started matching families in the Bay Area over the summer, and is now planning to expand to Greater Boston.

Garrett Weinstein, a recent graduate of Tufts University, started a site called TravelEZ last year to collect information about how accessible restaurants were to people with mobility impairments. But over the summer, he realized another dimension was becoming important: What were restaurants doing to provide a safe dining experience, given concerns about COVID transmission in public spaces? So Weinstein is planning to launch a new mobile app, CareFull, next month. The app will let restaurant owners communicate what they’re doing, but will also gather reviews from diners. Are tables spaced six feet apart? Are patrons wearing masks when they’re not seated at a table? Is there a hands-free way to get in and out of the restroom?

Based on the data the app collects, Weinstein says, CareFull will categorize restaurants as “not compliant,” “compliant,” or “outstanding.” He says the app will have “over 100 reviewed venues” when it launches next month, and that the startup has plans to expand to New York, Washington, and Miami by the end of the year.

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Nitesh Mehrotra is a former manager at Cisco Systems, the networking and communications giant based in San Jose, Calif. After his family’s planned relocation from Boston to San Jose didn’t work out, he started a company that would help other workers moving to new cities find their ideal neighborhood to live in. The startup’s main customers were recruiting and relocation departments in large tech companies. As they suddenly stopped moving workers around the United States, “our business nearly went under due to COVID,” Mehrotra says.

To try and save it, he decided to adapt to the emerging “work from anywhere” model, and target individuals thinking about buying or renting a home further away from their company’s office — or moving to another city and becoming a fully remote worker. His site, NextBurb, can calculate a commute distance, if you need to get in to an office — or it can give you information about the quality of schools, the closest dog park, or the crime rate. The startup plans to make money by connecting people with real estate agents who can help them purchase or rent a home.

Like NextBurb, a startup called Generus was originally founded in a world where people worked together in offices. It would help companies arrange volunteer events for employees — things like helping to support 5K charity races, making sleeping mats for refugees, or preparing meals for community supper programs. By late spring, chief executive Jamie Larsen was noticing that companies were looking for ways to keep their work-from-home employees connected to one another.

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“Companies can and did do online happy hours, but in volunteering together, you get all of the good brain chemicals — and you can really bond employees, helping them find that meaning and purpose,” she says.

Larsen says that running volunteering events as a video meeting, rather than in-person, is “five to ten times as hard. You have to be incredibly artful with facilitation” — especially since many people spend a good chunk of their day in video meetings.

What do participants in a virtual volunteering event actually do? They might read letters from prisoners and collect books to donate to the Quincy-based Prison Book Program, say, or take a painting lesson and donate the resulting artwork to Household Goods, an Acton nonprofit that helps people furnish their homes.

Generus has signed on four new clients in August. Larsen says she believes human resources executives at companies “want to make sure their employees are staying healthy and well in this work-from-home economy,” and that part of that will be by providing new kinds of programs, like online volunteering, that help employees stay connected with colleagues and do something positive for their community. And the work-from-home economy, Larsen says, “could be around for a long time.”

To some people, that may sound depressing. To entrepreneurs trying to grow businesses, it sounds like opportunity.


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