Running start

Seacoast start-ups work together to build a business community

Five years ago, Todd Kozikowski had a flash of inspiration. His newborn daughter, Ellie, was critically ill. She was having up to 100 seizures a day, and was eventually diagnosed with a rare disorder. The family left each hospital visit with a tote bag full of paperwork. Keeping track of Ellie’s appointments and medications was a job of its own, and making sure doctors and other family members had the information they needed was difficult.

“The best we could do was journal her experience,” Kozikowski says.

But what if all that information was digital, with everything from medical records, notes, and treatment plans all online rather than jammed into binders and tote bags? That idea prompted Kozikowski and business partner Kevin Campanella, whose daughter also spent the first weeks of her life in an intensive care unit, to launch Yabidu, a Portsmouth-based start-up developing an app that helps patients and their families manage medical care. The name means “love without end,” according to Kozikowski.

It’s that love that’s kept him going — he gets letters from families like his who are managing medical difficulties, and those letters, along with his own memories of Ellie’s struggles, act as a sort of “emotional paycheck,” he says.

But it takes more than love to keep any business going, and Yabidu has found a home in the Seacoast’s growing start-up scene. Bolstered by nonprofits like the Alpha Loft, a start-up incubator with offices in Portsmouth and Durham, state agencies, and a collaborative atmosphere, local start-ups are changing the Seacoast’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Incubators and ecosystems

Start-ups are usually technology-focused businesses that begin small but are meant to grow rapidly. It’s difficult to say how many start-ups are operating in the Seacoast. According to Josh Cyr, the director of education for Alpha Loft, keeping track of the numbers is challenging. Some start-ups don’t identify as start-ups, and other businesses might call themselves a start-up, even though that’s not accurate.

(Start-up founders) come to realize that the idea is really 1 percent of the first part of the journey.” 
— Josh Cyr of Alpha Loft

Start-ups are more visible and active in the Seacoast and around the state than ever, though. Alpha Loft hosts events and classes and provides co-working space in Manchester, Portsmouth, and Durham.

Portsmouth is also home to the New England Innovation Center (NEIC), a for-profit company that counsels start-ups. State agencies are also helping grow New Hampshire’s start-up ecosystem. Live Free and Start, is an entrepreneurship initiative started in 2014 that connects start-ups with resources, mentors, and, most importantly, investors and funding. The efforts seem to be paying off — a 2014 study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln ranked New Hampshire as the fifth best state for entrepreneurship.

Tech start-ups that make their home in New Hampshire bring tangible benefits to the state, according to a 2014 report from the New Hampshire Coalition for Job Creation. The average yearly salary for a tech-industry employee in the state is $86,314, while average private industry wages are at $47,091, according to the report.

But the report also found that the number of new businesses started in the state dropped between 2002 and 2012, with an average number of 12.2 new businesses started per 100,00 people (the national average is 22.9, and New Hampshire lags behind Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts). For start-up incubators, that means there’s a lot of outreach to do.

“We want people to be inspired by the amazing people starting and growing businesses here in New Hampshire,” says Liz Gray, the state’s first director of entrepreneurship.

Those businesses are developing products that do everything from helping consumers comparison shop for medical care (My Medical Shopper, co-founded by NEIC director Mark Galvin) to making it easier to book a private plane (an app called Simple Charters).

But good ideas are more common than you’d think. The key to a start-up’s success is not so much getting off the ground as it is staying aloft. According to Cyr, it takes “passion about the problem, the skills to be able to actually produce a product, the skills to get the product to market, and the flexibility to adapt and learn.”

The Alpha Loft's Josh Cyr.

The Alpha Loft’s Josh Cyr.

They also need a support network, and that’s where Alpha Loft and state agencies like Live Free and Start come in. Yabidu uses meeting and co-working space at Alpha Loft. But Cyr says Alpha Loft provides more than desks and conference rooms.

“What we’re about is providing resources to start-up founders and people that are building high-growth and innovation-based businesses,” he says.

Alpha Loft offers programs that walk entrepreneurs through the steps between having a big idea and launching a product. And, since Alpha Loft is a nonprofit, many of its programs are free. According to Cyr, too many would-be Mark Zuckerbergs think they are 90 percent done once they have an idea.

“They come to realize that the idea is really 1 percent of the first part of the journey,” he says.

Journey and destination

Ryan McCann is president of Velle Technology, the company behind HappsNow, a mobile app that helps student groups, Greek organizations, and administrators plan, promote, and keep track of events on and around college campuses. McCann is young — not quite 24 — and so is HappsNow. McCann started work on an early version of the app when he was a sophomore at Trinity College in Connecticut. He was on spring break at the time, visiting his parents in North Hampton. On the crew team, in a fraternity, and part of a number of student groups, McCann told his father about how difficult it was keeping track of and promoting events across a spectrum of social media outlets.

“And even with all of those, there wasn’t any student buy-in,” McCann says. What campuses and student groups needed, he thought, was a one-stop mobile app to promote events since students are “all glued to our cellphones anyway.”

He worked on HappsNow for the next two years, and, when he graduated in 2014, transitioned it into a full-time job.

It wasn’t smooth sailing, though. Initially, colleges and universities weren’t biting. The app wasn’t offering anything new, and that’s when the “pivot,” as McCann calls it, happened. He and his team added new features to the app that send data about events — location, time, ticket sales, who’s attending, when they arrived — to college administrators. “Imagine there’s a frat party down the street, and you can know who went to the ‘Animal House,’” he says.

HappsNow creator Ryan McCann.

HappsNow creator Ryan McCann.

It’s the sort of data that college officials like to have but is usually hard to obtain. Once that was added to HappsNow, “that changed everything,” McCann says. HappsNow has since locked in one college — Trinity, McCann’s alma mater — and are in negot