(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - Four startup companies with Boston connections are now $100,000 closer to success, thanks to winning top prizes from the Mass Challenge, a new entrepreneurship competition.
Among them: Locately, a four-man startup (plus some part-timers), a technology company that makes an interesting offer: Give us some of your privacy, and we'll give you stuff -- free iTunes gift cards, or free merchandise, free text messages, even free cash.
With Locately's system, consumers signing up through their website agree to let companies track their travels by monitoring the GPS location chips in their smartphones or GPS-enabled cellphones. CEO Thaddeus Fulford-Jones said Locately's customers -- who so far include a fast-casual restaurant chain and a cable television property -- get very useful data: "What people do and where they go.''
By correlating their cellphone movements to the locations of places these customers pass by, a company can find out "who's a nightlifer, or who's sports-interested, if they sometimes go to the White Mountains over the weekends, or if they go to the gym regularly. Getting a better picture of who the consumer is can help businesses connect better,'' Fulford-Jones said. Other examples: Helping chain stores see where, based on their customers' travels, they might need to open a new store, or where their most popular competition is getting business. He said he could also envision transit agencies using data from his company's system to better identify where commuters and travelers are coming from and heading to, to optimize bus, subway, or train service and transit expansions.
Fulford-Jones stresses it is all opt-in and no one gets involuntarily monitored, Big Brother-style. "One hundred percent of the data we get, people have given us permission to see that data,'' Fulford-Jones said.
Locately was one of four $100,000 winners announced by the MassChallenge on Thursday night, chosen from among 446 applications from 26 countries and 24 U.S. states. Another 12 companies won $50,000 each. The funding comes from Massachusetts quasi-public agencies, Microsoft Corp., and foundations including one set up by onetime-billionaire Desh Deshpande, co-founder of Sycamore Networks.
Others winning $100,000 Thursday night: Ksplice, a software company that helps customers update Linux-based software without rebooting computers; Samanta Shoes, an online women's shoe vendor that specializes in products like stylish, sexy boots and shoes for women with large feet, up to size 14; and OsmoPure, a super-cheap water-purification filter that screws into a standard-sized two-liter plastic bottle and can make raw Third World water safe to drink. What OsmoPure offers is cheap technology that could save potentially millions of lives around the world every year.
"Entrepreneurship is the answer" is how Mass Challenge founder and CEO John Harthorne describes the vision of the competition. Besides cash prizes, the Mass Challenge offers entrepreneurs free office space from developer Joe Fallon at Fallon's One Marina Park Drive office tower on the South Boston Waterfront. On the 14th floor of the mostly-empty building, Fallon's provided space for 111 startups to have a no-frills cubicle maze with unfinished ceilings -- and absolutely stunning views of Boston Harbor and the city skyline, from the Prudential Tower across the Financial District to the Tobin Bridge and Logan International Airport.
Harthorne -- a former winner of the MIT $100K business plan competition and Bain consultant -- said studies show in recent decades, it's small companies creating new jobs -- offsetting all the jobs that have been lost at big, established employers -- that have accounted for all the net new job creation in America.
"The only way to get out of this recession is to create more startups, more innovation, and more entrepreneurship,'' Harthorne said. "We help to identify, strengthen, and enable funding for the world's highest-impact, highest-potential startups to launch and succeed.''
In words that could be echoed by colleagues all over the 14th floor, Fulford-Jones said: "We're a young company, we've still got a lot of growing to do, and we have big ambitions for the future.''
Those are ambitions that for Locately -- and several other promising startups -- are all now $50,000 to $100,000 closer to coming true.
With videographer Bob Ricci