November 11, 2012

Boston Startup Weekend Recap...and the winner is...

For a period of almost two hours on Friday evening at Microsoft NERD, nervous would-be entrepreneurs pitched ideas that they hoped would lead to victory at this year’s Boston Startup Weekend. This iteration of the event was promoted as a battle between the most innovative ideas and companies coming out of Boston and those based in Cambridge. “The Battle for the Charles” began with over sixty individual pitches Friday and ended Sunday evening with Ashalytics, a company planning to transform how relief work is organized, taking home top honors and over $5000 worth of prizes.  

Once all the pitches were completed late Friday night, the scene in the packed room at NERD morphed into something reminiscent of a tension-filled high school cafeteria. For about fifteen minutes, each hopeful entrepreneur stood by the paperboard sign designating their proposed company.  Some of the ventures were quick to attract the attention of the developers, designers, and marketing folks in the room; while the majority of presenters stood quietly, awkwardly by their ideas that no one seemed to want to buy into.  Among the latter was Minhaj Chowdhury, a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a Fulbright Scholar.

During his Fulbright year, Chowdhury had decided to go to his parents’ native Bangladesh to help the village of his grandparents that was being plagued by arsenic poisoning. While there, he realized that the system in place to try to stop “the largest mass poisoning in human history,” was ineffective and outdated. Since arriving in Boston earlier this year, Chowdhury and his roommate have been trying to figure out the best way to help the people in Bangladesh affected by the dangerous problem. 

Chowdhury thought he may have come up with a solution, and he pitched his idea to the crowd at the Boston Startup Weekend. Like many of the other aspiring founders, Chowdhury stood by the sign for Ashalytics without anyone paying much mind. However, that changed when “data expert” Deb Cooper came to talk to him as he was about to give up his dream.  As Chowdhury described, “There was a moment there on Friday where we thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t going to work, let’s go home.’ And somehow, some other person came over and said ‘I love your idea, you can change the world, let me help you, and let me connect you with someone else,’ and she literally built our team in five minutes.”

By Sunday evening, getting ready to pitch to the panel of judges made up of Mark Sprague of Lexington eBusiness Consulting, Northeastern’s Dan Gregory, Brainshark’s Linda Woods, Bobbie Carlton of Carlton PR and Marketing, Andre Porter from the Mass. Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Michael Cohen, Chowdhury had reason to doubt the viability of his plan. The Ashalytics team had been debating part of the company’s vision. The question,“Are we here to make money, or are we here to change the world?” caused an internal rift at one point.  As Chowdhury puts it, “Because of that debate, one person from the team didn’t show up today. It just shows that, you will have moments where you think things might not work out, but then it all magically works out.”

After a stellar pitch punctuated with the wonderful closing, “Asha means ‘hope’ in Bengali, and Ashalytics means hope for the developing world,” Chowdhury impressed not only many of his peers in the room but also the judges.  Ashalytics was awarded the top prize of the evening and now will bring its plan to implement its product, a GPRS and Cloud-based early warning system for relief efforts like the one in Bangladesh, to the Global Startup Battle competition.

Chowdhury is getting his team together today to begin the next phase of Ashalytics progress and feels that the past weekend has prepared the up-and-coming social venture for anything. As he puts it, “The whole experience of ups and downs, teams forming, storming, and performing, it all happened to us this weekend and we somehow won this whole thing.”

Although Ashalytics was the night’s big winner, other companies that formed over the 54-hour Boston Startup Weekend earned awards and the praise of the judges.

  • As the winners were split between Boston and Cambridge categories, second place from Boston was awarded to HackerSort, an engagement community for developers that added 116 users from Friday to Sunday. 
  • The award for second place from Cambridge was given to Alumni Fund who pitched their website as a “Kickstarter for Academic Institutions”.
  • The third place prizes were given to email organizer SimplifyMe in the Boston category and movie set interactive app On the Set for Cambridge.

Dennis Keohane is a teacher, journalist and contributor to VentureFizz.  You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.

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