The tenth Techstars Seattle cohort gathers after Demo Day on Tuesday at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. (GeekWire Photos / Taylor Soper)
From Seattle to Miami, from blockchain to augmented reality — it was another round of polished pitches at the annual Techstars Demo Day in the Emerald City.
Techstars Seattle held its 10th annual Demo Day Tuesday night as founders walked on stage and pitched to an audience of fellow entrepreneurs, investors, family, friends, and community members at the Museum of History and Industry.
This cohort marked a milestone as the 10th class for Techstars Seattle, which has now graduated 110 companies to date. Alumni of the accelerator — 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.
Techstars Seattle Managing Directors Aviel Ginzburg and Chris DeVore give opening remarks on Tuesday.
Techstars provides $120,000 in funding in exchange for 6 percent common stock as part of the three-month accelerator, which is part of a larger Techstars network that spans across the globe and also features a Techstars venture capital fund and a new startup studio model. Techstars Seattle is based at Startup Hall at the University of Washington and shares space with the Alexa Accelerator, a separate program co-led by Techstars and Amazon focused around voice technologies.
Amy Nelson, CEO of Seattle-based startup The Riveter — which just won Startup of the Year at the GeekWire Awards — gave the keynote address before Tuesday’s pitches. She recounted her own startup journey, one that started when Nelson was a corporate lawyer and became pregnant. That’s when she learned how 43 percent of women with college degrees “offramp” after having kids.
“To me, that meant the system was broken,” Nelson said. “We all knew it and yet we weren’t doing anything about it.”
The Riveter CEO Amy Nelson.
Nelson, now pregnant with her fourth child, decided to do something and helped launch The Riveter two years ago. The women-focused co-working space operator raised a $15 million investment round last year and recently opened its sixth location in Austin, with plans to reach 100 locations by 2022.
“Starting a company is, as many of you know, incredibly hard and nearly impossible,” Nelson told the crowd on Tuesday. “There will be many days when it is easier to quit than to keep going. There will be many days when you feel like you can’t keep going. But the thing is, you have to believe in the biggest ideas and believe that you can pull it off — and you likely can, if you truly believe that and dig into it.”
Read on to learn more about the companies and see our favorite pitches of the evening. And be sure to read our Q&A with Techstars Seattle Managing Director Chris Devore, who reflected on the longevity of Techstars Seattle and on how the Seattle tech scene has changed over the past decade.
AdaptiLab Tagline: “Growing machine learning teams from hiring to productivity” AdaptiLab co-founder James Wu.
Why we liked the pitch: Hiring engineers is hard, and AdaptiLab wants to help. James Wu, co-founder, didn’t miss a beat with his pitch on Tuesday, showing how his startup helps reduce the amount of time and money hiring managers spend interviewing candidates for machine learning-related roles.
Wu said companies can spend as much as $180,000 hiring a single machine learning engineer. AdaptiLab has built a technical screening platform that customers use to screen and interview potential new employees. The company applies its own machine learning technology to rank candidates and provide technical report cards. It has already racked up customers such as Pinterest, Zillow, and Remitly.
AdaptiLab is similar to fellow Seattle startup Karat, which also conducts technical interviews, though AdaptiLab is focused on one specific type of role with machine learning jobs. That specialization could limit how quickly the company can grow, but Wu teased its vision for scale.
“Our plan is to use our screening product to build a wedge into the machine learning talent market by solving for the biggest pain points and building industry trust and customer relationships along the way,” he said. ”
“As machine learning demand continues to skyrocket, we will leverage relationships to expand to a technical diagnostic marketplace, where we will source, evaluate, and place candidates,” he said. “…We will use this flow of candidate and company data to begin to own the machine learning hiring pipeline and to expand into the even larger talent development market for machine learning with strategic partnerships and SaaS products.”
Kristalic Tagline: “Building your personal electronic memory bank” Kristalic co-founder Jos van der Westhuizen.
Why we liked the pitch: Kristalic has a big vision. The San Francisco-based startup is building an AI-powered assistant designed to record your work-related conversations throughout a day and capture all the data in an easy-to-digest searchable format. The idea is to help workers remember important information they might have otherwise forgotten — for example, who agreed to what in last week’s meeting, or what changes did the customer request?
Kristalic does not require additional software, using already available hardware such as AirPods or your smartphone to record voice conversations.
“We’re giving our customers memory superpowers not available to ordinary humans,” said Kristalic co-founder Jos van der Westhuizen. Both he and his co-founder Filip Kozera earned a master’s degree and PhD in machine learning at Cambridge University — a validation for their expertise that van der Westhuizen called out at this beginning of his pitch.
The entrepreneurs aim to ride a surge in voice-related technology and usage. One investor recently predicted that voice tech will replace keyboards in five years. Tech giants such as Google are also working on related voice-transcription products.
Kristalic has a huge idea that could very well fall flat. There are also some privacy implications that the company will need to address. But it was refreshing to hear such an ambitious pitch — these “big swings” are something the Seattle startup scene could probably use more of, albeit from a Bay Area-based startup.
Nodesmith Tagline: “Web3 made easy” Nodesmith CEO Brendan Lee.
Why we liked the pitch: Even though big companies such as Microsoft are building blockchain-related services along with a flurry of other startups, the jury’s still out on how important the technology will actually become. “Some of the skepticism is valid,” said Nodesmith CEO Brendan Lee. “Adoption hasn’t exactly been explosive. One of the core reasons for this is the lack of mature infrastructure and tooling that’s available for developers.”
That’s where Nodesmith comes in. The Seattle startup provides access to blockchain networks and a suite of services that allow developers to easily build user-friendly applications. It provides the “picks and shovels” for blockchain developers, bringing a “much-needed professional polish to the wild west world of blockchain,” as Lee described.
In his convincing pitch, Lee said building a blockchain app today is like building a traditional web app without the support of tools such as AWS, Auth0, or New Relic.
It’s unclear how many customers Nodesmith has, and there’s the larger question of blockchain adoption. But investors oftentimes bet on people, and Lee and his co-founder Samm Desmond certainly have the necessary chops to fulfill their vision as they previously spent four years at Tableau building developer platforms. They’ve also been building on blockchain networks since 2016.