Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

Fourteen local startups that could make life better

OffGridBox is building easily shippable systems that can supply electricity and clean water to remote areas, like this village in Rwanda.
OffGridBox
OffGridBox is building easily shippable systems that can supply electricity and clean water to remote areas, like this village in Rwanda.

Before graduation season rolls around, there’s another rite of passage that takes place in Boston and Cambridge this time of year. Instead of teary parents and well-compensated commencement speakers, there are ambitious founders and grizzled investors.

In April and May, a succession of startup “demo days” is organized by entrepreneurship programs like Techstars Boston, the Fintech Sandbox (focused on financial services), MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, and the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. Like newly minted graduates, some of the startups that hit the stage at these demo days will go on to wild success — and others will never quite figure it out.

But looking at the opportunities these entrepreneurs are chasing is a good way to get a sense for where technology is headed, and what rough spots in our world could still use some sanding. I asked a handful of the folks who serve as mentors to the programs to offer their opinion on which companies are most promising, and I also incorporated my own impressions.

Two former community bankers from Arlington, Patrick Boyaggi and Mike Tassone, are trying to bring down the cost of a mortgage with their startup RateGravity. How? By collecting information online and analyzing it to match borrowers with the most appropriate community banks or credit unions. By squeezing salespeople and brokers out of the process, Boyaggi says, they’re helping borrowers save, on average, almost $30,000 over the life of a loan. So far, RateGravity is only active in Massachusetts, though that should change soon.

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Sea Machines is building unmanned workboats for “dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs,” in the words of founder Michael Johnson. That could be charting the depths of a harbor, limiting the damage from an oil spill, or ferrying supplies to an offshore platform. Johnson says that with an initial funding round of $1.5 million, the company is hiring more programmers and business development execs, as well as looking to deploy early versions of its product this year in the United States and northern Europe.

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Ideally, you’ll never need to get an MRS scan (that’s magnetic resonance spectroscopy), a way of imaging the brain to diagnose things like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, or multiple sclerosis based on the concentration of certain chemicals. But BrainSpec, born at a 2015 brainstorming session at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, wants to disseminate software that would let more doctors and researchers use MRS scans as part of their work.

Founded in Tuscany, OffGridBox is building rugged, easily shippable systems that crank out electricity and clean water using an array of solar panels. Chief executive Emiliano Cecchini says that after years of experience deploying renewable power systems in places like China, South Africa, and Colombia, “we learned that the trick is to preassemble everything — to put it together in a product, instead of a project that takes forever to install.” Cecchini says 28 OffGridBox units are already out there in the world, and the company is focusing on deploying more this year in Rwanda to test a pay-as-you-go model for delivering water and power to villages there.

Bonzer aspires to be a blend of Zipcar car-sharing and the Hubway bike rental system. Imagine if you could pick up a compact electric car at a charging station and drop it off at any other charging station in the city. Bonzer has been testing the idea with Chinese-made electric cars that seat three and travel at a top speed of 25 miles per hour.

One-fifth of people worldwide need prescription glasses but don’t have access to them. PlenOptika wants to introduce a new kind of handheld device for optometrists that will enable them to work more efficiently, seeing more patients each day.

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Adaptt Intelligence is combining software and sensors to make buildings more intelligent about which spaces humans are occupying, and which are empty, so that less energy is wasted cooling, heating, or lighting vacant areas.

And for people who feel like the temperature in their office is never quite right, another venture, Wristify, is developing a wearable device that cools or warms the inside of your wrist to get your entire body feeling cooler — or less chilly.

Employers compete like crazy to attract the latest crop of college grads with perks like unlimited vacation, shuffleboard tables, and cold brew coffee. FutureFuel, founded by ex-Google employee Laurel Taylor, wants to enable companies to help repay a new employee’s student loans as a benefit. A mobile app developed by the company makes it easy for job seekers to find companies offering student debt repayment through the system.

Can a few extra dimensions help you do better in the stock market? Virtual Cove wants to help traders “uncover new insight” by viewing data in a virtual reality headset, allegedly improving their ability to detect and respond to tremors in the market.

If you’re more into the commodity markets, Telluslabs is collecting and analyzing satellite imagery to make better forecasts about agricultural yields. Is it going to be a good year for the corn harvest in Iowa?

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With involvement from former New England Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, Exero Labs is trying to make football safer by bringing to market a clip-on accessory for helmets to reduce the severity of head impacts.

Might a local toy shop be better able to compete against the online behemoths if it could offer same-day delivery? Veho Technologies could make that possible. The company wants to build a delivery network with independent drivers — think Uber, but with minivans and SUVs — who’d get paid for schlepping items from Point A to Point B.

Remember all those people who didn’t show up at polling places on Nov. 8 because they were too busy, or couldn’t get time off work? Voatz wants to make voting in municipal, state, and federal elections more accessible by making it as easy — and secure — as using a mobile banking app. “There are tons of lower-stakes elections where they can get traction before going after US political elections,” says Russ Wilcox, an investor with the Boston firm Pillar.vc. “If they break through, it could have a big impact.” The startup uses blockchain technology, ID verification, and biometrics to ensure that each voter votes just once.

And after you’ve clicked the “vote” button, it calls you an Uber to haul you up to New Hampshire to vote again.

Just kidding.

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