MassChallenge, the popular accelerator program based in Boston, visited WGBH last week to unveil this year’s list of 128 finalists for the MassChallenge program.
All of the finalists will spend the summer working with MassChallenge’s vast network of mentors to fine-tune their businesses. Between 10 and 20 will emerge as winners of no-strings attached grants of between $50,000 and $100,000 each.
Earlier this year, I participated as a Mass Challenge judge, first reviewing 60 applicants digitally, and then judging 15 companies in person over two days. Participating in the process proved surprisingly rewarding and enlightening. More than 1700 companies applied to this year’s MassChallenge, and it’s fair to say that nearly all of them could have emerged as finalists. Many were already fully formed companies, creating revenue, adding employees and pushing their dreams to reality. Others were little more than ideas on paper, but even then often arrived with reams of thoughtful analysis, talented and dedicated founders, and real opportunities to build sustainable and important businesses.
The list this year included a large number of life science and tech startups, but also a surging number of what Mass Challenge calls social impact companies – businesses driven as much as by improving the world around them as by profit. A huge number of entrepreneurs, it seems, see business as a powerful tool for social good.
I was also struck by the diversity of ages and experience levels of the entrepreneurs. The stereotypical image of “three guys in a dorm room” as startup founders didn’t quite apply. Many of the companies were founded by women, and many by mid- or even later-career professionals with deep knowledge of a particular industry or niche. Those founded by experienced professionals, in fact, often had the biggest head start, with real customers, and real differentiation. One company, for example, aims to help large retailers more quickly stock their shelves with missing consumer goods. It was founded by someone who previously worked for a large candy manufacturer, spending thousands per month to monitor when candy shelves were empty. That’s the kind of targeted idea that only comes from direct experience in that field. It’s unlikely anyone is going to think of that in a dorm room.
Several other companies that are now finalists stood out for me:
• CarKnow LLC, which is building ways to harvest data from your car, and build an app ecosystem for your vehicle using that data. Fascinating stuff built upon years of research by its founder.
• The Artisan’s Asylum, of Somerville. A remarkable place inside an old warehouse where anyone who wants to build things can try their hand at a variety of crafts. An utterly unique idea, that needs MassChallenge time to fine-tune its business plan, and create a sustainable future for itself.
• ChopChop, of Newton, a children’s magazine about healthy recipes families can make together at home. They will use their MassChallenge time as a finalist to refine their digital strategy.
I was asked often in recent weeks why WGBH, the nation’s largest producer of PBS shows, among other things, has an interest in startups. The answer is simple: as a place that has fostered creativity and innovation for decades, across all types of media, WGBH has a keen interest in helping to spark innovation. We have resources to offer many of the MassChallenge companies, and hope to learn from their new approaches to longstanding problems. We wish them well and stand ready to help any of the finalists however we can.
Jim Bodor is director of product management for WGBH Digital. WGBH is the nation’s largest producer of PBS productions, including such well-known brands Masterpiece, NOVA, Antiques Roadshow and Frontline. The WGBH Digital team builds digital products for those brands, pbskids.org and such local productions as High School Quiz Show and 89.7 FM.