The Future 5 of Boston Tech
Sure, the latest initiatives from the Teslas, Apples and Googles of the industry tend to dominate the tech news space — and with good reason. Still, the big guns aren’t the only ones bringing innovation to the sector.
In an effort to highlight up-and-coming startups, Built In is launching The Future 5 across eight major U.S. tech hubs. Each quarter, we will feature five tech startups, nonprofits or entrepreneurs in each of these hubs who just might be working on the next big thing.
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For years, Boston has proven itself to be a mecca for innovative healthtech startups, especially amid this pandemic, with recent standouts like Ginkgo Bioworks and Amwell calling this port-side tech hub home.
But those healthtech giants had to start somewhere, and the city has been a magnet for entrepreneurs outside of the health sector recently too. From bringing equity to the nation’s cannabis industry to helping West African gig workers run their businesses, these local innovators have lofty goals and are in the midst of building some impressive companies — proving that Boston is fertile ground for all kinds of startups.
Built In spoke with just a handful of these local change-makers. It is clear that a big piece of the future is being built right here, right now.
West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria are some of the fastest growing tech hubs in the world right now. The region is home to more than 380 million people, many of whom are young, educated, and internet savvy, which has attracted tech giants like Twitter and Google.
Still, the majority of workers in West Africa are self-employed, and there is very little infrastructure to help them find clients and manage their businesses. This is the market Boston entrepreneurs Sydney Vandyck and Dan Heinen want to tackle with their new startup Ajuma.
Ajuma is an online marketplace where small businesses and freelancers in West Africa can find contract work. Customers post whatever job they need done on the app, which workers can bid on. Then, customers choose who they want to work with based on reviews, availability and cost, and pay workers through the app when the job is done using Mobile Money — a popular service in West Africa that allows users to send money via text message.
In the end, Ajuma aims to be among the first companies to help West African gig workers become “21st century mobile businesses,” Heinen told Built In. “As it stands now, yes, there is a growing startup and SaaS tech scene, but it’s nowhere near what we think it will be in the next five, 10 years.”
We’re very much interested in replicating this in different parts of the world.”
Right now, Ajuma is focused on more service-based jobs (painters, plumbers, etc.), but Vandyck and Heinen believe that the world’s shift toward remote and gig work — accelerated by the pandemic — leaves a lot of room for the company to expand into other industries and countries down the line. There is “unlimited potential” in this space, as Vandyck puts it.
“We’re very much interested in replicating this in different parts of the world,” Vandyck told Built In. “We’re not just Africa-focused, but Africa is such a huge market — you’re talking about over a billion people — so I think Africa is a terrain that we have to really understand and really compete for. Then we can also focus on other continents and different countries as well.”
Ajuma is headquartered in both Boston (Heinen’s hometown) and Accra, Ghana (Vandyck’s hometown, although he lives in Boston now). The company has done beta tests with about 100 workers living in West Africa so far, and plans to make an official launch soon.
Financial planning can be extremely stressful, especially for working people who don’t have the time or resources to learn the intricacies of money management. Patrick McDonough, a native Bostonian who grew up in a blue-collar family in Southie, knows this firsthand. After graduating from Georgetown University, he got a job at a bank and found himself pretty lost when it came to finances. So, he decided to create FiVana, a no-nonsense money management platform.
Essentially, FiVana is a financial literacy app, budgeting tool and financial advisor rolled into one, as McDonough explained. And it is designed for “regular people” — folks who don’t have the time to learn the ins and outs of financial literacy or meticulously budget every penny. Users simply plug in some basic financial information like how much money they make and how much debt they have. The platform then provides a jargon-free, step-by-step walkthrough of how to set up their “personal financial system,” with suggested investing, saving and spending tools.
Our messaging is ‘stress less about your money, enjoy living your life the way you want to live it.’”
FiVana launched in beta back in February with about 4,000 users. From there, McDonough realized that the platform was really resonating with nurses. So, he and his team have spent the last several weeks creating a personalized financial system specifically designed for nurses.
“Our messaging is ‘stress less about your money, enjoy living your life the way you want to live it,’ and I think that really struck a chord with nurses in particular,” McDonough told Built In. “Given everything that’s going on with COVID right now, the stress levels of nurses are through the roof. Nurse burnout is at an all-time high because the need for nurses has gone up, but there’s also a shortage of nurses right now. Then, if you couple that with the nature of being a nurse, you’re not terribly empowered financially.”
From a business perspective, targeting nurses is also a smart move for a company based in Boston, since the city is such a hub for medical organizations (especially during the pandemic).
Since its initial beta launch, McDonough says FiVana has pivoted to a B2B model and is looking to partner with hospitals that would like to offer its platform as a benefit to its employees. The company is also actively fundraising and hopes to add more people to its team of four soon.
Smart Startup HR (HR Tech)
When it comes to launching a startup, “people are worth their weight in gold,” says Boston entrepreneur and 20-year HR veteran Tasha Kitty. “Your people are your biggest differentiator.”
But, she added, it’s not uncommon for young companies to simply not have a dedicated people team. At companies like these, human resources tasks are typically done by an administrative person who doubles as a finance or legal person. Then, on top of that, they’re often overseen by a leader with little to no HR experience themselves. Eventually, this system breaks, leaving the company with a barrage of questions regarding things like promotions, professional development, culture and discrimination — and very few answers or guidance — which can cause good people to leave.
This is why Kitty created Smart Startup HR, a new boutique consulting firm that helps small and medium-sized companies address their high-level HR challenges. The company offers a variety of services, like leadership coaching, learning and development workshops, diversity, equity and inclusion training, and policy development — all aimed at keeping employees happy and a company running smoothly. Smart Startup HR isn’t for doing things like payroll or open enrollment. Rather, its team of consultants serve as stand-in chief people officers for companies who would otherwise be operating on a nonexistent (or very small) HR team.
This year has taught us that there are different needs that have come into the workplace that companies need to be ready for.”
Kitty says her company’s services have been especially important in the past year. After all, while we are beginning to see green shoots of normal life emerge, the turmoil of the past year has likely changed the workplace forever. Companies’ massive shift to remote and hybrid work amid the pandemic has changed employees’ relationships with the office and each other. And the nationwide reckoning around racial justice has inspired companies big and small to take a political stance and do some self-reflection, leaving many of them “stuck holding the accountability bag,” as Kitty puts it. So offerings like DEI training and leadership development are essential.
“There’s a whole slew of folks who are coming back to the workforce with different expectations than they had 18 months ago,” Kitty told Built In. “This year has taught us that there are different needs that have come into the workplace that companies need to be ready for.”
Smart Startup HR launched back in November, and already has about a dozen clients and four full-time consultants. Kitty says that, if things continue at the pace they’re going, she’ll need to hire even more in the coming year.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Gustavo Castillo was used to the smog that often blankets the city — “we call it overcast,” he told Built In. But he longed to do something to change it, and imagined a world where electric vehicles were the norm instead of gas-powered cars. Then, as a student at MIT, he shared this vision in an entrepreneurship class, and got three fellow students to join the cause. Thus, Taxie was born.
In a nutshell, Taxie buys premium electric vehicles and rents them out to local Uber and Lyft drivers for $400 a week, covering insurance and maintenance. The goal, says Castillo, is to put more electric vehicles on the road here in Boston.
At first, Taxie was going to be an electric vehicle taxi service (hence the name), but Castillo says he and his co-founders saw a more immediate need to reduce the barrier to entry for people to get these cars in the first place. They viewed rideshare drivers as an easy and scalable way to make that happen.
“Rideshare drivers are not very wealthy individuals, and electric cars are incredibly expensive,” Castillo said. “There was a gap between what their needs were and what the market was providing.” Plus, he added, rideshare drivers travel up to four times more miles a year than the average driver, so replacing their cars with electric vehicles could go a long way environmentally as well.
Even a group of four students at MIT can make a difference with less than a year’s worth of work.”
Taxie was launched last September and has two electric vehicles on the road right now. The plan is to have 10 to 20 by the end of the year. The company is also looking to build charging stations around Boston for the public to use. Castillo says, if all goes according to plan, Taxie will double the city’s public DC fast-charging capabilities over the next few years. Eventually, the company would like to replicate its model in other cities too, but Castillo says Boston has served as “an interesting case study.”
“It’s a dense city, but it’s actually not that large in terms of footprint. So it makes implementing something like this a lot easier,” Castillo said. “There’s low-hanging fruit in this space. Even a group of four students at MIT can make a difference with less than a year’s worth of work.”
Zip Run (Cannatech)
In a state like Massachusetts, it may be hard to remember a time when recreational cannabis wasn’t legal — after all, it’s a $1 billion industry here. But look below the surface and you’ll find that many of the inequalities that existed during its prohibition are still around. Even today, Black and Latino people are more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses, and the industry has largely benefited white, male operators.
Zip Run, a new social equity startup providing cannabis delivery and pick-up services here in Boston, aims to bring some equality to this booming industry. The e-commerce platform is a “one-stop shop,” providing an easy way for consumers to purchase cannabis products. The site is also meant to be a place where like-minded dispensaries and other social equity companies can connect.
Now we have the opportunity to bring restoration to these same communities.”
The company raised a $2.3 million seed last month and is finalizing its platform. Once the process is complete, Zip Run will hold both courier and delivery operator licenses in Massachusetts, which means it will be able to pick up and deliver through dispensary partners, as well as buy wholesale products from cultivators through its Boston warehouse, which is set to open this summer. Eventually, the company would like to expand into other states too.
In the meantime, Zip Run plans to grow its team of five, with the goal of having at least 50 percent of its hires be from historically disenfranchised communities in the Greater Boston area. Co-founder and CEO Gabe Vieira also told Built In that the company plans to license its technology at a reduced rate to other social equity delivery couriers to “form a social equity alliance and push that message forward.”
“The war on drugs affected a lot of Black and brown communities across the United States of America — putting people in prison, destroying families. Now we have the opportunity to bring restoration to these same communities,” co-founder and chief growth officer Elis Omoroghomwan told Built In in a recent interview. “Cannabis is one of the few industries that can actually enact immediate change to disenfranchised communities, so it’s very exciting to get within this space and be one of the change makers in this industry.”