Techstars Seattle: Meet the latest cohort as founders and accelerator adapt amid the pandemic

The Techstars Seattle class of 2020. (Techstars Seattle Photo)

When the latest Techstars Seattle cohort kicked off a 3-month startup accelerator journey this past February, the COVID-19 outbreak had not yet disrupted work and life around the globe.

It’s been quite a whirlwind since then, to say the least. But accelerator staff and the startups are staying positive while adapting amid the pandemic.

GeekWire caught up with the 10 companies participating in the 11th Techstars Seattle accelerator class to learn more about their business models and what’s changed due to the COVID-19 crisis. Many have seen customer activity dry up and were forced to quickly pivot, while others say they’ve accelerated product development to help meet new demand.

Techstars Seattle Managing Director Isaac Kato. (Techstars Photo)

Despite the global economic and health crisis, Techstars is marching ahead with its various programs across the world. In Seattle, much of the scheduled in-person programming — mentoring, guest speaker events, KPI sessions, pitch practices, 1:1s, social get-togethers, etc. — has moved online without interruption, said Isaac Kato, managing director of Techstars Seattle.

“The Techstars Seattle 2020 cohort has proven to be a resilient and resourceful bunch in the face of the pandemic,” he said.

The founders are fortunate to work in an industry that can continue day-to-day work largely uninterrupted, Kato acknowledged. They also had five weeks of face-to-face time “before we went into our bunkers,” he said.

Techstars Seattle is part of a larger Techstars network that includes 50 programs across the globe and also features a Techstars venture capital fund and a startup studio model.

The Boulder, Colo.-based company set up a COVID-19 information page with advice and various resources to help founders. It has moved all 16 upcoming Demo Day events online; the Seattle cohort will pitch at a virtual Demo Day on May 6.

“Now is the time for you to rise up. To lead,” wrote Techstars founder and managing partner David Cohen in an open letter to founders everywhere. “Now is the time for you to adapt, to show your strength. Use your advantages. Do more faster. Emerge stronger. You can do this. We are all rooting for you to do this. You are the engine of our future, after all. You are the employers of tomorrow.”

Techstars Seattle has graduated 100 companies to date over the past decade. Alumni of the organization — companies such as Remitly, Outreach, Skilljar, Bizible, Leanplum and Zipline — have collectively raised more than $700 million in investment capital. Most have built their startups in the Pacific Northwest, helping expand the entrepreneurial clout in the region.

Kato, who joined Techstars Seattle earlier this year, said there is concern about the ability for participating startups to fundraise in this uncertain climate. Analysts say venture capital funding will likely slow as some investors will be more skittish about plowing millions of dollars into companies.

But Kato is optimistic about the long-term future of the companies.

“After experiencing the dot-bomb and 2008 financial crisis as an entrepreneur and investor, I’m quite convinced that those who make it through this awful knot will go on to build remarkable businesses,” said Kato, who was previously president of Seattle startup MightyAI, which sold to Uber last year.

Read on to learn more about each company and the response to COVID-19. All photos are from Techstars.

Caravel

Maxwell Folley (CEO) and Jonathan Minori (CPO).

Founders: Maxwell Folley (CEO) and Jonathan Minori (CPO)

Headquarters: Portland, Ore.

What does your company do? Caravel makes recommendations to improve adoption and retention by collecting and understanding every conversation between businesses and their customers.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Understanding customers is critical for today’s high-growth companies. However, from first-hand industry knowledge, we found that customer conversations stay in silos and are incredibly difficult to interpret at scale. Our software combines powerful deep learning algorithms with an easy to use interface so that cross-functional teams can align on customer needs.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? COVID-19 has had a big impact on how we’re approaching customer acquisition. We’re anticipating vertically-oriented companies will experience higher churn resulting in more layoffs, so we made adjustments to focus on customers that are less vertically concentrated.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? The community of investors, mentors, and advisors.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Talk to customers early and often. Understand their pain points, then set up small tests to validate your solution before you build.

MD Ally

Kojo DeGraft-Hanson (CPO), Shanel Fields (CEO), Daniel Zacek (CTO).

Founders: Shanel Fields (CEO), Daniel Zacek (CTO), Kojo DeGraft-Hanson (CPO)

Headquarters: Philadelphia, Pa.

What does your company do? MD Ally ensures the appropriate use of emergency resources by navigating non-emergent 911 callers to virtual care.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We are uniquely positioned within the 911 workflow and put virtual care at the fingertips of dispatchers and first responders. This gives our clients a broader scope of tools they can use to ensure each caller gets to the right level of care.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? During the ongoing coronavirus crisis, 911 Systems have grappled with an increased demand for their services, limited protective gear, and heightened risks to first responder safety.

Since MD Ally has developed one of the first-ever 911 telemedicine systems, much of our time has been focused on partnering with forward-thinking Public Safety leaders who are investing in the resiliency and emergency preparedness of their 911 systems. At the top of their list is improving their ability to adapt quickly to unpredictable capacity demands and limit unnecessary risks to essential personnel in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Our team at MD Ally is fully committed to continuing our work to assist Emergency Medical Services. By enabling them to triage non-emergency patients to virtual care, instead of tying up valuable emergency resources, we help protect their most important assets on the front lines — dispatchers and first responders.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? Seattle’s startup community feels like a big extended family — a huge group of incredible folks all just 1-2 degrees away, and eager to help out.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? If you knock out the sucky thing(s) on your to-do list right NOW, the rest of today is really dope.

Neu

Kwame Boler (CEO), Laura Meng (UX Design) and Claudius Mbemba (CTO).

Founders: Kwame Boler (CEO) and Claudius Mbemba (CTO)

Headquarters: Seattle

What does your company do? neu streamlines hotels for Airbnb’s. As a managed marketplace, we leverage tech and 3rd parties to provide a hassle-free experience to our customers — vacation rental hosts and cleaner contractors — by supplying sheets, towels, and toiletries and scheduling high quality cleans between guest stays.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We’ve spent the past couple of years honing our operational model and technology platform, and through this we’ve developed a keen understanding of what our customers need and how to deliver it to them in the most reliable, high quality, and efficient manner possible. Our technology-enabled cleaning service ensures simple, assured delivery of on-demand cleans without the hassle of vetting and contracting cleaners or managing supplies, linens, and towels. Consequently, our hosts and cleaners are consistently delighted by their experiences with neu.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? neu was severely impacted by COVID-19. As the travel industry disappeared overnight, so did the demand for a vacation rental cleaning platform, which forced us to come up with some innovative new solutions. We’re leveraging our learnings and have created a COVID-19 deep clean service for residential and commercial real estate and offices. We’re confident that we’ll rise to the occasion and adapt to thrive in the current climate.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? We’re both incredibly appreciative of how wonderful the Seattle tech startup community is. Prior to joining the Techstars family, organizations like Startup Haven, Venture Out, and the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) provided us with ample resources, connections and sounding boards to help us rapidly ideate and iterate on our product as well as compound learnings.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Outside of being extremely customer-focused and building relationships with your customers, it would be to ask for help and as frequently as possible. You’d be surprised how friendly the entrepreneur community is and how willing people are to help you so long as you respect their time.

Introwise

Denis Anisimov (CTO) and Genia Trofimova (CEO).

Founders: Genia Trofimova (CEO), Denis Anisimov (CTO)

Headquarters: Seattle and Estonia

What does your company do? Introwise makes it easy for everyday experts to offer coaching and advice online.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Today, it’s very difficult for people who teach classes or coach others in real life to expand their offerings beyond their physical location. It can feel as if you need a computer science degree to stitch together all the different tools they need to offer virtual visits: online appointment scheduling, accepting digital payments, hosting sessions, etc. Introwise makes virtual coaching and advice accessible to these real-world experts.

From music lessons to makeup instruction, personal training to parent education, cooking to crafts, there’s an endless list of real-life skills that benefit from an expert’s personal touch. In today’s world the ability to offer coaching and advice remotely is more important than ever.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? We were affected in a positive way twice. First, we pushed ourselves to launch the products seven weeks earlier, to help people who lost their jobs to move their business online and keep earning. Second, we talked to our customers before COVID-19 and during COVID-19, and we have a good understanding of what behavior is more likely to stick. As more investors reach out to us to discuss the trends in behavioral change, this helps build great relationships, and at least the “why now?” question is off the table.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? People are open and friendly, willing to try new things, and happy to help new business ideas get off the ground. That paired with the vibrant investor community, very generous mentors and a long history of successful startups make Seattle an ideal city to start in.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? It’s not easy — find a problem you truly care about. This will help you get up each time you fall.

Olive Technologies

Chris Heard (CEO) and Dan Harrison (CTO).

Founders: Dan Harrison (CTO), Chris Heard (CEO)

Headquarters: Vancouver, B.C.

What does your company do? Olive’s end-to-end decision platform helps IT leaders de-risk large technology decisions by streamlining the evaluation process. This increases project success rate while vastly reducing time and effort spent on the decision process.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Many companies have come at this problem from different angles. Review engines are too high level, RFP tools focus on a small portion of the evaluation cycle. Olive is the first end-to-end platform that puts control of the buying process firmly back in the buyers hands.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? Heading into Techstars, we were gaining incredible momentum with large restaurant chains, setting ourselves up to be the go-to solution for the industry. COVID tore that carefully curated pipeline to pieces. Sales quickly pivoted and gained traction with tech companies, while product pushed some minor tweaks to support existing restaurant pipeline by reducing their IT spend.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? The PacNW is one of the most naturally stunning places in the world. Whenever things get too much, it’s so easy to find a place to zen out and get your thoughts together. This region’s natural stress relieving properties could contribute to the fact that so many companies are able to grow to such enormous scale here.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Take advice from as many people as you possibly can, learn from their mistakes, but don’t be afraid to be yourself. The most successful entrepreneurs are all pretty unique. Be yourself, let people learn who you are and not only will you enjoy the journey more but the people around you will too.

Retrocausal

Andrey Konin (Chief Architect), Quoc-Huy Tran, PhD (CTO), Zeeshan Zia, PhD (CEO).

Founders: Andrey Konin (Chief Architect), Quoc-Huy Tran, PhD (CTO), Zeeshan Zia, PhD (CEO)

Headquarters: Seattle

What does your company do? As manufacturing floors become more agile, it’s becoming harder to train workers, guide them through processes, and provide visibility to production leaders on worker output. Similar problems exist across any vertical with human labor, ranging from healthcare training to construction to retail and beyond. Our RetroActivity platform improves skills training, task guidance, and analytics for front-line workers by parsing their physical activities through cameras, leveraging our patent-pending computer vision technology.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Our technology has been cited by technology leaders from MIT, Stanford, and CMU to Apple, Google, and Baidu. Instead of providing bland low-level machine learning capabilities that customers need to hire computer vision engineers to build on top of, or having human annotators label tons of data in the background, we enable building models directly from recorded demonstrations of complex physical activities.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? Manufacturers have shut down their factories in the U.S. due to lockdowns which has slowed our sales motion. Yet, we are hearing about soaring demand for Industry 4.0 and automation products from China as its plants get back online, and expect similar rise in demand from U.S. manufacturers.

In the meanwhile, we are helping manufacturers create their “Safe Return to Work” playbooks by providing computer vision driven dashboards to safety managers to help enforce/educate social distancing and PPE usage on the shop floor.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? Seattle is the cloud computing capital of the world, and Washington is the Evergreen State. We love the nature, mountains, rainforests, hiking trails, ocean, and shorelines that it has to offer. Two of us have relocated from the SF Bay area to be here, and couldn’t be happier.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Don’t get trapped in building technology for technology’s sake. We worked at HoloLens, and saw several enterprise customers demand AI platform capabilities anchored on hands-on workers. We are still selecting early adopters that we think are serious about putting this into production.

Shotcall

Gordon Li (CTO), Thomas Gentle (CEO), Riley Auten (CAO).

Founders: Gordon Li (CTO), Thomas Gentle (CEO), Riley Auten (CAO)

Headquarters: Atlanta, Ga.

What does your company do? Shotcall allows for content creators and influencers to achieve a higher degree of fan engagement by getting their followers into their existing stream or in a game together.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? The gaming and influencer industry is exploding with fresh ideas. However, these ideas don’t address the biggest concerns for influencer autonomy and community engagement without ripping communities away from existing content. By creating an ecosystem designed for gaming engagement between the influencers, their fans, and sponsors, Shotcall creates new monetization opportunities across the board while giving fans an opportunity to share the spotlight with their favorite influencers. This is an industry we have all been entrenched in since our youth, which drives us to take it to the next level.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? Despite having spent the majority of our lives online or in the world of gaming, the COVID crisis has been difficult for our team as we have had to adapt to working remotely. That said, our industry has always been a home for virtual engagement and interactions and it’s our hope that we can bring fans and influencers together during these trying times to lessen the feeling of isolation. We are now reaching out to professional athletes and anyone else whose public facing careers have been put on hold to play games with their fans. We believe now is the perfect time for fans and influencers alike to break bread through video games on Shotcall.

What do you like about building a startup in Seattle? We love that it’s a blossoming startup city. We’re a tech-focused startup and being around so many tech giants is motivating. A lot of our friends at these tech giants are young enough to jump into their own idea without fear, so we are surrounded by self-starters. We are watching a culture shift take place right in front of our eyes. Also, no income tax. That’s pretty cool.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Prioritize an appreciation for learning. Most early-stage founders have a unique perspective on the industry they work in as well as plenty of energy and passion, but the execution is so crucial. Treat everyone, regardless of their position or industry expertise, like they have something valuable to teach you. Check that ego and drink knowledge from a fire hydrant.

Spyn Pay

Steve Strauch.

Founders: Steve Strauch

Headquarters: Seattle

What does your company do? We want to disrupt consumer credit by creating the first credit card that helps people build wealth, not debt.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? The financial brain behind our card that helps you spend confidently and achieve your goals. A founding team with deep experience in consumer software and credit. Our founder is a 14-year Microsoft consumer product vet who subsequently ran the R&D Labs at Capital One.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has negatively impacted millions of Americans, and for those who were living near their means or don’t have sufficient savings, stress will skyrocket. As a credit card designed to help consumers avoid debt and spend responsibly, Spyn’s mission is more relevant than ever. In response to COVID-19, Spyn is prioritizing functionality that will be most important to our customers — namely getting out of credit card debt as quickly as possible, building up savings, and ensuring people have enough money to pay their bills.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? Incredible talent and a supportive, tight-knit startup community.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Find your passion, immerse yourself in understanding the pain your customers experience and be undaunted in fixing the root causes.

Yave

Scott Tupper (CEO), Nicola Claxton (COO), Dan Carlson (CTO).

Founders: Scott Tupper (CEO), Nicola Claxton (COO), Dan Carlson (CTO)

Headquarters: Seattle

What does your company do? Yave ( “yaw-vay” – Spanish disambig. for: key/ you can see) provides connected commerce for long supply chains, driving business efficiencies while increasing consumer engagement with transparency focused brands. We’ve gone to market in the space of coffee. If you want to experience what Yave is and what “connected commerce” means you can see an example of our work with Seattle coffee roasting company Onda Origins.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Coffee is hard to sell — it’s hard for coffee farmers, it’s hard for coffee roasters. This is true for many artisans who sell and source in long supply chains. With Yave, our difference is that we use technology democratize access to profits in a fragmented value chain. In doing so we are disrupting the status quo of an industry which has been run the same way by unchallenged actors for the past couple of centuries.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? COVID-19 stinks on ice for Main Street coffee businesses — there are no two ways about it. However, this crisis has underlined the importance of Yave.io as a partner for the growth and empowerment of these culturally indispensable SMEs. We’re an ad-hoc COVID task force and are proving our model right here with working capital loans in our Seattle backyard to our sister coffee business, Onda Origins. We have a ton of interest in our innovative working capital solutions — the need has never been higher.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? We love just biking down the Burke Gilman to get to work! Plus, we get to talk to so many interesting and experienced coffee and tech entrepreneurs — it’s the perfect spot for us.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Start now + ask tons of questions. I was pedaling by Brooks flagship store in Fremont this morning and laughed at their window ad which said: “Steps to becoming a runner: left. right. left. right.” Entrepreneurship is the same — don’t wait just go.

Zendoc

Laurent Lathieyre (CEO) and Olivier Colle (CTO).

Founders: Laurent Lathieyre (CEO) and Olivier Colle (CTO)

Headquarters: Seattle

What does your company do? Zendoc makes contract management a breeze. Our AI assistant finds your contracts in Gmail, Office365, Docusign, Box, Dropbox and automatically maintains a contract repository you can query against and get automated alerts and reminders. One minute to sign-up. Five minutes to Wow!

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We turn Zendoc users into office superheroes!

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? COVID-19 only slightly affected our operations as we are pre-revenue and a small, lean and geographically distributed team already. We help our customers find both revenue and cost savings in their contracts that far exceed the cost of our software, so we don’t expect to see any material decline in business.

What’s your favorite part about building a company in Seattle? Nature inspires me #PNWonderland.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Don’t surf. Make the waves.