I always say that every NVP Labs cohort is unique in its own way, but surely, our 8th Cohort takes the cake. Our program was set to begin just as COVID-19 was surging in the tri-state area. New Jersey and New York City issued stay-at-home orders, keeping our founders and their teams from our coworking space in Newark. We quickly pivoted the class to be virtual – making Zoom our favorite new tool to connect founders with our in-house execution team, our corporate LP network, and our investor community. Luckily, this cohort consisted of incredibly mature startups and founders with the experience and professionalism to adjust quickly and hit the ground running in our new reality.
For the eight companies in this cohort, we reviewed over 2,500 early-stage companies. As the program started, we knew that each of these companies were extraordinary finds. As the work progressed, their potential was crystallized in growing pipelines, funding raised, and major deals signed.
Since our friends and colleagues across the investment and business world won’t get a chance to see this group in a live Demo Day in the very near future, we’ve gone ahead and summarized our investment thesis on each company. If these companies speak to your own investment interests or your business needs, please reach out to us, and we are happy to connect you. Likewise, if you are interested in participating in one of our vertically focused summits (like the Supply Chain event we did in June with Agilis, FleetOps, Optimal Dynamics) email Jennifer@Newark.VC and we’ll make sure you’re informed when we have the right event for you.
Vikar Technologies: You may be surprised to learn that Credit Unions and Community Banks represents over 70% of bank AUM and 99% of banks. Unfortunately, these banks are suffering from the weight of manually-driven operations, making potentially revenue-generating tasks unprofitable and scale a costly endeavor. While up-and-coming FinTechs are able to use technology to process faster and leverage data to market and upsell effectively, Credit Unions and Banks are hamstrung by current technology core infrastructure that is inflexible to their needs. Vikar Technologies plugs into a Bank’s existing infrastructure, automating manual tasks, plugging in newer FinTech products and extracting data. These three benefits turn a traditional bank into an automated banking experience with the flexibility and data needed to increase margins, scale profitably, and effectively compete with up-and-coming FinTechs.
What we liked: For the NVP team, there were numerous elements that attracted us to Vikar. To start, Vikar, with zero investment from outsiders, built a team and product that attracted three major banks to be their clients: Valley Bank, Investors Bank and Dime. That got us interested off the bat. While the pain point and solution made sense to the NVP team, it was really during client reference calls where we learned how critical the Vikar Technologies application is to the survival of this massive market as it struggles with high operating costs and the growing fear of up and coming FinTechs. With the handcuffs of outdated and rigid core back-end infrastructure, Vikar is a welcomed investment to create the flexibility that is desperately needed. In addition to all of this, we had huge confidence in the team. These four co-founders worked together at Appway, a successful venture-backed company also with the mission to modernize financial services. Founder Glenn Bolstad built out US operations, honing the startup muscles of building a team and market share from the ground up.
Agilis Chemicals: The $400 Billion in annual chemical sales has historically been powered by distributors who approach buyers with personal selling and manual paper processes. However, buyers are now demanding a modern digital e-commerce buying experience. You might ask, “Why hasn’t Amazon taken on chemicals?” A few reasons: the complexity of disintermediating distributors, complex logistics, and risks associated with transporting regulated and hazardous chemical products. Agilis is the first digital e-commerce platform that is purpose-built for the chemical industry. Producers contract with Agilis to build a white label digital e-commerce portal for their product catalog. This digital experience is then leveraged by distribution partners and heavily valued by the buyer.
What we liked: It is not every day that we hear about a tech business disrupting the chemicals industry -- which is one of the things that we really liked about Agilis. The chemicals industry is one that gets ignored by technology but this industry is absolutely massive and powers our daily lives. We learned from Jay Bhatia, founder, the complexities of the chemicals sales marketplace, and it is because of these complexities that power players such as Amazon have stayed away. However, our bet is that if anyone can create technology efficiencies in this complex but massive market, it is Jay. Jay spent his career at BASF Chemicals, with a storied career in both sales and marketing. Jay has lived the complexities between buyers, sellers and distributors and has built a product that doesn’t fight today’s players but allows all of them to work together in harmony, more effectively. In addition, Jay had shown great creativity in how to grow his business quickly. For example, he's already forged partnerships with BASF, Vinmar and Palmer-Holland, all major distributors for chemicals and plastics, and has another big announcement on the way. It is creative partnerships such as this which again shows Jay’s ability to understand the pain points of different players and provide solutions to grow the pie. We’re excited for what the future holds.
FleetOps: Despite increasing cargo volumes and high-demand for truck drivers, trucks are still empty 20% of the time, leading to $250B in lost productivity every year. Siloed data between brokers and carriers is the main reason why there is so much inefficiency in this market. While new entrants such as Uber Freight and Convoy have attempted to disrupt this market, they have simply become brokers themselves. Via exclusive driver access through mandated telematics companies, FleetOps works with fleet brokers to give direct access to geographically available and vetted drivers. FleetOps is able to bring insight into supply in order to match with demand. Via broker aggregation, FleetOps gains the power of market liquidity. With liquidity, they can fill partially-full trucks, identify backhaul opportunities and win more business.
What we liked: The $250B of lost productivity due to empty trucks on the road is a problem that has intrigued NVP for quite some time. However, the solutions from “tech-first brokers” that have scored hundreds of millions in VC funding never felt appealing or the true solution to this problem. When we came across Chris Atkinson and FleetOps, we appreciated that they turned the solution on its head. FleetOps provides real tangible value to both telematic providers and to brokers to create true access and liquidity to this marketplace. In addition, Chris really blew us away with his understanding of the market. Chris has been in the logistics space since 2016 with a prior company called Rover. Talking through the pivot with Chris, it quickly became clear how thoughtful he is with each business decision. The components of FleetOps are very carefully woven together, and the uniqueness combined with the ability to execute are a recipe for success, leading to fantastic MoM revenue growth and excess demand on all slides. It was clear that the FleetOps was on to something very special.
FleetOps recently raised a $6M Seed Round, which we were proud to be a part of. Read more on that and the details of their solution in FreightWaves, DC Velocity, Supply & Demand Chain Executive, and the American Journal of Transportation
Optimal Dynamics: Optimal Dynamics helps the logistics industry change from real-time human decision making to automated decision making at every level. CORE.ai enables logistics companies to automate everything from high-level strategic questions around how many drivers they need or what equipment they should buy, to daily dispatching and load acceptance issues. The platform also allows companies to plan significantly further into the future from its ability to learn and plan for uncertainty, unlike previous systems that have to assume a perfect future.
What we liked: Optimal Dynamics was co-founded by Warren Powell, who has held a 39-year professorship at Princeton University while managing CASTLE Labs, a provider of algorithms for optimizing transportation and logistics. Powell’s work changed the industry’s “less-than-truckload” segment (consisting of parcels and smaller freight) by mapping more efficient ways to plan routes and using terminals that break down shipments. His models have been used by Yellow and Ryder and his software was behind the launch of Roadway Package Systems, which became FedEx Ground. Daniel Powell, Warren’s son, is CEO of the firm and immediately impressed us with impressive traction with large enterprise accounts. The computational complexity of this problem is one that we were not expecting to see a solution to; so we were thrilled to learn about Optimal Dynamics, especially one that is based in our home state in Princeton, NJ.
Optimal Dynamics recently raised a $4M Seed Round, which we were proud to be a part of. Read more on that and the details of their solution in FreightWaves, DC Velocity, TruckingInfo, The WSJ AI Newsletter, and the Journal of Commerce
VendX: With the rise of e-commerce and the fall of brick-and-mortar, how do retailers get high-converting sample products out into the market? VendX’s fully-branded software-enabled vending machine combines interactive, touch screen experience with the reward of a physical product sample. The goal is to delight consumers while building customer loyalty and capturing customer data for the seller. The agile and customizable VendX experience can be placed in unique places from grocery stores to airports, accessing high traffic areas.
What we liked: We did not have to look far to find founder Jessica Gonzalez as her other company, InCharged (branded portable charging stations), is right down the street from us in the Ironbound District of Newark. Jessica has a great track record as a successful and scrappy entrepreneur, generating millions in revenue for InCharged by building the company from the ground up with no outside capital. That company now operates out of a warehouse floor with over ten employees. With the revenue from InCharged, Jessica built the impressive software behind VendX which not only gamifies the vending machine experience but also captures critical buyer information. Demand was proven with pilot tests in 2019 where the company achieved $750k in revenue from brands including Estee Lauder, Google and Hask Beauty.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Jessica and her product especially hard. Not only were events and retail centers shutdown, but public touch-screens suddenly went from edgy and cool, to a breeding ground for unwanted germs. Jessica quickly pivoted and is now perfecting mobile-enabled, touch-less vending machines - the ideal solution for the more germ-conscious consumers and brands in a post-COVID-19 world. She’ll be tagging along for the next NVP Labs cohort, as this new line starts to take off - and we know it will! Read more on that here.
Clearstep: It’s no secret that hospitals miss revenue opportunities to deliver the right care, and patients/health insurers spend unnecessarily on the wrong care. For additional perspective, hospital acquisitions of physician practices have risen 128% since 2012. As hospital-driven consolidation continues to rise, health systems are dealing with a new challenge of routing inbound patient interest to the right provider as well as the need to spin-up outbound education of their new provider channels. Clearstep’s AI-driven chat tool, white-labeled and custom configured for their customers, connects with the consumer in a simple dialogue to understand needs and then delivers a prioritized list of care channels with complete transparency around out-of-pocket costs and reviews. This newfound ability to connect with and convert patients has allowed hospitals to more aggressively digitally market services to, for example, capitalize on hospital-driven consolidation. Clearstep is also a solution for healthcare insurance payers who are looking to guide members to the right covered care.
What we liked: “Consumerization of Healthcare” is an area of focus, guided by our LPs, RWJ Barnabas Health and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. We have been in search of a routing platform that would help patients understand their needs and route to the best provider. While we have passed on others, when we came across Clearstep it was clear they had the right combination for success: fantastic UX/UI, symptom-first funnel, AI-driven directives, and the right partnership integration. In addition, it had a four-person co-founding team with each member bringing in the right experience. Clearstep entered the program with strong enterprise clients from BayCare Health System in Florida to Hartford HealthCare in Connecticut, and have taken on numerous impressive clients since then.
Clearstep just announced their $1.3M Pre-Seed round, (which we participated in,) covered by HealthTech HotSpot, American Entrepreneurship, and MobiHealth. Just as they began the program, they were featured in TechCrunch for the way Clearstep was being used to help hospitals manage COVID-19. They also wrote an opinion piece for Worth Magazine on the acceleration of digital health adoption.
ABF Creative: The Podcast industry is expected to bring in $670M in advertising revenue in 2020, up 4x from 2016. Despite this growth, advertisers still struggle to reach multi-cultural listeners due to lack of content and organized access to content that speaks to this audience. The ABF Creative platform is an advocacy platform for minority podcast producers who have a voice and want their voice heard. ABF Creative is a one-stop platform for these creators to create, distribute and monetize content across all of the major streaming platforms. ABF Creative is a trusted source for multicultural listeners to discover new content that speaks to them. Brand advertisers are able to contract with ABF Creative to get sizable reach to this unique and valuable audience.
What we liked: Anthony Fraiser has been an Entrepreneur in Residence since our founding, so we have seen Anthony shape and create what would become ABF over a few years. It made perfect sense that Anthony would create a podcast network because we do not know anyone who has as strong as a network as Anthony. Anthony is a force that simply attracts people to him, so it is no surprise that he has attracted wildly talented podcast creators who represent and speak to the multicultural audience. Anthony has also attracted sponsorship dollars from brands and corporations who, now more than ever, want to support this community. Brand sponsors today include Audible and Prudential and during the past three months, ABF has grown its listening audience from a few hundred thousand to 15M, globally.
Since joining NVP Labs, ABF Creative has launched the African Folktales podcast, and has partnered with Ubongo, a Pan-African social enterprise that creates edutainment for kids in Africa, and around the world, to bring the Akili and Me podcast to life for U.S. audiences, covered by InsideRadio, Podnews, and She’s Single Magazine
Sounder.fm: Podcasting has democratized audio broadcasting and there are now over one million podcasts globally. Despite this, tools and resources needed for creators to market, distribute, and monetize their content successfully are still very fragmented across the audio landscape. Sounder.fm is an end-to-end audio platform built in collaboration with creators, for creators. They aim to help unlock every creator’s voice so they can be heard and reach their full potential. Sounder is a one-stop-shop that lets creators host their podcasts, distribute them, make them discoverable, and get paid for their craft—no matter how large or small their audience.
What we liked: To start off, Sounder has an incredible team, perfectly aligned for this business. CEO Kal Amin previously served in executive roles at Spotify, AOL, and Google. Kal was most recently President and COO of venture-backed Flipboard. COO Dan Daugherty is a serial entrepreneur who previously co-founded two companies and established Google’s Denver office. In coordination with Audible, we have been deeply exploring how to enter the podcasting space which is growing rapidly (223M episode by 2024) but under-monetized (75% of podcasts are under-monetized or not monetized at all). Sounder brings a variety of proprietary tech to the table: in-stream audio search, soundbite audio share, audio SEO, data + analytics, automatic transcription, and a search-first audio player. Sounder is opening up completely new and unique discovery channels which we believe creators will flock to. In fact, in just three months, Sounder attracted over 9,000 creators on the Sounder platform, hosting thousands of unique shows which are generating millions of monthly streams.
Just before the start of NVP Labs Sounder announced a $1.8 Seed Round, which we were proud to partake in. Since then, they’ve also launched their new Discovery Suite, covered by Inside Radio and Podnews