Start Me Up: Cambridge’s Tech Innovators On How They Did It (Part I)

Whether they make solar-powered benches or develop applications that help you organize your inbox, Cambridge’s emerging entrepreneurs seem to agree on one thing: The key word in “startup” is just plain “start.”

But putting your idea into practice can get a little messy, especially here in the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. In 2015, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development recorded an estimated 4,800 individual businesses in the city—and that’s not accounting for the more than 3,000 Cambridge residents who file taxes as self employers or “unincorporated businesses.” Essentially, it’s a sea of emerging ideas.

Luckily, that means there are a lot of brilliant brains to pick here, too. We enlisted the help of the people behind 10 already flourishing local startups, who told us what they built and why they’ve been successful. Come for the certifiably cool products. Stay for the advice.

(Part II in this series, featuring the folks who founded Wistia, CareDash, Jobcase and more, is available here.)

nutonomyWho’s This? Karl Iagnemma, CEO and co-founder of nuTonomy.

What’s a nuTonomy? As the leading developer of software systems for self-driving vehicles, this startup is a clear reminder that the future has arrived. Last summer, the company launched the world’s first public trials for a driverless car service, and its autonomous cars hit Boston’s streets just this January.

Where’s that idea come from? Iagnemma met his business partner, Emilio Frazzoli, at MIT. Both worked in robotics, and after Frazzoli put the first prototype of autonomous vehicles on the streets of Singapore, the pair started developing nuTonomy from there.

Cool, but how’s that working out? Since it was founded in 2013, the company has expanded to two offices— one in Cambridge, and another in Singapore. Their cars have also been tested in Europe.

Any advice? Simply put: Find an unmet need, and meet it. “For example, nuTonomy’s approach to building software for autonomous vehicles is unique because it is rooted in robotics,” Iagnemma says.

sonic bloomWho’s this? Justin Stanizzi, co-founder of Sonic Bloom.

What’s a Sonic Bloom? Sonic Bloom provides a number of digital tools for getting to know music better. Whether that’s music for podcasts, music for videos or music for music’s sake, Stanizzi says making tunes more accessible is the company’s mission. “Cambridge is at its best when we blur the lines between technology and art,” Stanizzi says. “Sonic Bloom is building the tools necessary to make the complexities of music more accessible to the people who want to build experiences with it.”

Where’d that idea come from? Stanizzi and his cofounder- in-crime Eric Robinson started thinking about the gap between technology-creation and music-making in high school. They played the same video games, but had vastly different music tastes. After going to work for separate gaming companies, the two eventually landed in Cambridge, where they met up and got to work.

Cool, but how’s that working out? Sonic Bloom was launched in 2014 and has since developed its search tools from game-centric content outward to music for advertising, instructional videos and more. “We hope to change the way people find, license and use music,” Stanizzi says.

Any advice? “Fail gracefully,” Stanizzi says. “Fail smartly. If you want to break into the game industry, it’s a competitive, creative industry. You have to wear that creativity on your sleeve. Be the best designer, engineer, artist or musician, and start creating.”

perchWho’s this? Jacob Rothman, CEO of Perch and current graduate student at MIT.

What’s a Perch? Perch is a 3D camera system that quantifies and coaches movements as you lift weights and perform other “functional use” exercises. It’s a mathematician for your athlete-ician.

Where’d that idea come from? Rothman and other MIT athletes caught wind of today’s workout tech boom and ran with it to fit their own needs. The market is full of gadgets measuring heart rate, but there are fewer tools to measure strength, form and flexibility. Enter Perch.

Cool, but how’s that working out? This young startup was born in the summer of 2016. “We have made a lot of progress since our inception,” Rothman says. “We currently have prototypes in MIT’s weight room and have interest from many college programs, commercial gyms and weight lifters who are interested in beta testing.”

Any advice? As a student, Rothman highly encourages getting into the business world early. “You need to get out there to find people who are passionate about similar problems,” he says. “You need to get out there to uncover problems you didn’t know existed, and you need to get out there to get feedback on your ideas and your prototypes.”

platejoyWho’s this? Christina Bognet, CEO and founder of PlateJoy.

What’s a PlateJoy? It’s basically a nutritionist on your computer screen. Like a human being, it asks about your lifestyle. But like a computer, it won’t judge you.

Where’d that idea come from? Bognet ditched plans to go to medical school after graduating from MIT and set her efforts in the direction of disease prevention. “For most chronic conditions, diet change—not medication or surgery—is the number one treatment,” Bognet explains. She also pulled inspiration from her own weight loss endeavors, which she wished would have been easier. “I wanted to create something that would take two minutes.”

Cool, but how’s that working out? Just a few years old, PlateJoy has officially moved to San Francisco and is collaborating with physicians to create even more personalized meal plans.

Any advice? “Work on whatever you’re most enthusiastic about,” Bognet says. “Period.”

soofaWho’s this? Ed Krafcik, first hire at Soofa.

What’s a Soofa? Soofa is a startup providing “smart urban furniture” both throughout the states and internationally. Most notable are Soofa’s solar-powered device-charging benches, which can be found all over MIT’s campus and beyond.

Where’d that idea come from? “For us, the goal has always been—and continues to be—to really make sure that when you’re thinking about smart cities and bringing technology into public space, there’s always a connection to the people who live there,” Krafcik says. This call to involve the public in “smart cities” growth is what led to the invention of the original bench.

Cool, but how’s that working out? Soofa has installed furniture in over 50 cities across 23 states since 2014, and the company now offers a new product called the Soofa Sign, which shows transit information via a solar-powered display.

Any advice? “The number one thing that we’ve learned working in a government market is that persistence is the key word. The reality is that it’s such a risk-averse market,” Krafcik says. “The government doesn’t traditionally move fast. We’ve been successful largely because—one— we really believe in what we’re doing, and—two—it’s a matter of making sure that you don’t give up just because the first response might not be as favorable.”

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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