Building Communities Free Enterprise Staff  | December 1, 2016

The Women Behind Boston’s Tech Startup Surge

There’s a lot you can say about Boston’s technology scene.

In the latest Innovation That Matters study, the city’s startup ecosystem topped the national rankings. Boston ranked third in startup growth and number one in overall competitiveness in that same study due to exceptional network connectivity among the city’s entrepreneurs, institutions, and top-notch universities. In terms of quality of life, Boston ranked fifth amongst the 25 U.S. cities analyzed in the report.

One thing you can’t say about Beantown’s buzzy tech scene: It’s a boys-only club.

A growing number of trailblazing female founders are carving out their own tech-driven paths in Massachusetts’ capital city. Indeed, Boston’s women entrepreneurs are spearheading STEM-related companies of all types and sizes, further narrowing the gender gap in the historic New England metropolis through pioneering ventures, many of them driven by both passion and purpose.

Highlighted below are three female-founded Boston-area startups that are solving unique challenges through innovative technologies.

1. Jibo, Inc.

Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of arts and sciences at MIT Media Lab, fell for robots when she first laid eyes on R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars. “I fell in love with those robots,” she told the New York Times when discussing the roots of her passion for bots. “I’d like to push robotics to the point where we are creating machines that cooperate with people as partners.”

In 2012, alongside co-founder and Harvard grad Jerilyn Asher, Breazeal took her first step toward doing just that. They launched Jibo, Inc., a Boston-based tech startup that created an artificially intelligent family robot. The small swivel-headed automaton, also called Jibo, is equipped with a screen that displays the machine’s “emotions.” Realizing the social robotics pioneer’s lifelong mission, it indeed does cooperate with—and even learn from—the humans around it.

The surprisingly charming 11-inch, 6-pound countertop personal robot assistant snaps pics, sends messages, hosts video chats, and coordinates family schedules. Most importantly, it also gets to know its users over time to better anticipate their needs in ways that “appear empathetic and emotional.”

To date, Jibo, Inc. has garnered an impressive $67.7 million in venture capital, including Series A, Series B, and in two crowdfunding rounds. On Indiegogo, the machine learning startup quickly earned the bragging rights to one of the top five most-funded campaigns, raising some $3.7 million in proceeds from 7,419 backers.

For now, Jibo remains in beta testing mode while adjustments to its WiFi configurations are completed. Per a recent announcement by the company’s CEO, Steve Chambers, the $749 robot is “getting closer” to its market release.

In case you’re wondering, the adorable automaton is meant to be a friendly companion to humans, not a replacement for them, Breazeal says.

“People say [Jibo’s] trying to replace people or pets, and we’re not trying to replace anything, of course, but it’s this new thing!” she recently told TechRepublic. “It’s this new kind of relationship that can provide real value, not replace or compete. That robot can work to help strengthen and facilitate other relationships.”

2. Allergy Amulet

Every time Abigail Barnes eats at a restaurant she lists these three very important words to the waitstaff: “Peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish.” The former U.S. District Court law clerk and Allergy Amulet co-founder says it’s been a life-saving “mantra” of hers ever since she was a kid. “I do this because ingesting any one of these foods could send me straight to the ER,” she says.

One time she did end up in the emergency room. It was after she accidentally ate half of a walnut cookie, which triggered a near-fatal bout of anaphylactic shock. Over time, Barnes grew weary of taking people’s word that foods didn’t contain ingredients she’s allergic to, essentially gambling on her health at functions and restaurants. She began thinking about how to make a portable food allergen detection device that could quickly—and scientifically and empirically—tip allergy sufferers off to foods that aren’t safe for them.

Enter Allergy Amulet, a biotech startup that Barnes founded in 2012. The company, with locations in Boston and Wisconsin, is developing a handy point-of-consumption detection device that uses molecularly imprinted polymers to identify allergens undetectable to the naked eye. The high-tech sensor-laden device delivers readings via a disposable chemical test strip within seconds of contact with food.

The USB stick-sized wearable will conveniently be worn as a necklace or bracelet or toted in a pocket or purse. Barnes hopes it can also eventually be integrated into common medical products for allergy sufferers, such as Epi-Pen, the emergency anaphylaxis combatting injection.

Allergy Amulet, which now has seven employees total (with Barnes as CEO), operates a research lab in nearby Lowell, Mass. The startup was recently chosen as a finalist with a leading Boston startup accelerator called MassChallenge. As a result of participating in the three-month program, the company was able to secure lab space, expand its advisory board, and forge a networking connection that attracted investors.

“For the first few years of the company, I was a part-time student and focused mostly on the intellectual property of the company,” Barnes told Free Enterprise. “The company really got off the ground in earnest in 2015, when we were accepted to MassChallenge. From that point, we grew our team, secured funding and lab space, and are now off to the races.”

Last October, Allergy Amulet raised $1.1 million in seed funding, with Colle Capital leading the round. Others that participated in the promising raise included Bulldog Innovation Group, Foley Ventures, Gopher Angels, and Mendota Venture Capital. The funds, Barnes says, will be used to kick off beta testing of the prototype, boost product development, and add additional staff.

Barnes expects pre-orders of the wearable to start next year and she projects a complete market launch in 2018, with the projected price per device ranges between $100 and $250. Test strips will cost between $1 and $2 each.

3. Podium

In 2013, Danielle Feerst founded AutismSees, later rebranded as Podium in 2015, a tech startup dedicated to improving communications skills for people with autism and other social differences.

At the time, she was only 19 years old and juggling a full course load at Tufts University. The STEM advocate’s small, Cambridge, Mass.-based startup team had just been selected to attend an entrepreneurial Autism Investment Conference and boot camp at Google headquarters.

Podium Founder and Student

The young social impact CEO had more than enough on her plate, but her passion for improving the lives of individuals with autism propelled her forward.

“I was fascinated by lack of social connection, lack of eye contact, for example, and I wondered, “How can we fix that?” she told the Lowcountry Autism Consortium. “…and I wondered, ‘What if I could create an app to help higher-functioning teens with autism interact and learn some speaking skills?’”

Soon, Feerst turned her “what ifs” into more than inquiries. She soon launched AutismSees and, quickly after, its flagship app, iPresentWell. The patented mobile app, inspired in part by her cousin, enabled users with social skills disorders—such as Asperger’s and other Autism Spectrum disorders, as well as social anxiety—to prepare for stressful social and occupational interactions using mobile devices before a virtual audience using tablet devices. iPresentWell is now called Podium and syncs with a teacher portal to allow for feedback.

The app’s simulated social interactions coach users on how to improve their eye contact and conversation skills, and how to monitor their tone of voice through mock job interviews and simulated public speeches. Feerst’s ultimate goal is to help high-functioning millennials with social skills differences gain employment, and to help them practice many other types of social interaction scenarios.

A wealth of financial and mentorship support from several respected Boston healthcare and academic institutions—Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Medical Center, MIT Media Lab, and Tufts University’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach among them—helped Feerst turn her entrepreneurial dreams into reality.

“The brainpower here—MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Boston College, Boston University, the colleges and universities—they bring the smartest minds to the area from all over the world,” Feerst tells Free Enterprise. “When you put people with different backgrounds together, you get innovation.”

Building off of her early success, the inspiring student entrepreneur is currently pursuing her master’s degree in occupational therapy, further dedicating herself to assisting people in understanding differently abled individuals’ unique social and emotional journeys.