By Paula J. Owen
Telegram & Gazette Correspondent
As software engineer Novall Y. Kahn of Worcester saved up money last year to pursue a career building a mobile app for dating on her own, she had no idea that her entrepreneurial endeavor would get a major boost from an incubator for new businesses.
StartUp Worcester, an initiative of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Higher Education-Business Partnership, The Venture Forum and Worcester CleanTech Incubator, helped Ms. Kahn get her company off the ground, and it has assisted with marketing.
“I’m excited that they will help me get off the ground and with marketing,” Ms. Kahn said. “Everything they are doing totals $12,000, and I will also have a cohort and will be working with other people starting businesses.”
Now in its third year, StartUp Worcester provides support as well as space for young entrepreneurs in the region.
The initiative aims to incubate new businesses and retain bright, young graduates of the area’s colleges and universities, according to Karen L. Pelletier, director of higher education-business partnerships at the Chamber. StartUp Worcester, she said, encourages them to grow their business in Worcester, where they have “access to everything they need to succeed.”
Each year, StartUp awards 12 full-year memberships to the Chamber, The Venture Forum and the Worcester CleanTech Incubator, or WCTI. It also provides access to resources, a network and publicity, all valued at more than $12,000.
The program is free to participants, who are chosen after submitting applications and presenting to judges.
Each year, a cluster of game developers are chosen for StartUp Worcester. Other businesses are in fields ranging from landscaping and to renewable energy.
StartUp Worcester is operating in a city recently recognized by TechNet as one of the top 20 emerging startup hubs in the country. Research from TechNet, a network of technology executives, and the Progressive Policy Institute suggests that encouraging the creation of dynamic startups can create 1 million new jobs per year.
Chemist Stacy L. Chin, 27, is moving from Boston to Worcester in a few months to set up her startup at WCTI. The 2012 Holy Cross graduate recently completed her PhD at Boston University.
“During my doctoral studies, I developed a self-lubricating condom coating that we have now spun out of BU as a startup called HydroGlyde Coatings LLC,” Ms. Chin said.
Condoms are 98 percent effective against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, she said, but there is inconsistent usage globally because of design drawbacks, including inadequate lubrication.
“We’ve made them more comfortable for a better user experience,” she said. “Condoms are so cheap and the only prophylactic prevention out there to protect against STDs and pregnancy. It is important and valuable to have a new, fresh outlook on condom usage.”
HydroGlyde incorporated in 2015. Backed by agencies like the World Health Organization that want to increase condom use globally, Ms. Chin has raised $240,000 to finish her prototype and go onto the next phase.
Ms. Chin said she searched for prototyping space in Boston, but it was “crazy expensive” and challenging to find because of competition. Her time at Holy Cross, she said, gave her a “soft spot” for Worcester, and StartUp gave her the incentive she needed to return.
“I’m excited to move to Worcester. There is a lot of innovation going on in Worcester,” she said. “It is a great community, and I can expand my network and get my prototype in place. I like the entrepreneurial aspect, the great resources in Worcester and the growing opportunities in STEM fields. Startup is helping spur more females in the STEM fields, and that is something we need to promote more in general.”
Ms. Kahn, 29, is launching her dating app called Arrow next month. It will allow single people to invite their close friends and family to offer suggestions for potential matches and to act as a support network for first dates.
“They are providing the workspace and assign a mentor for the duration of a year,” Ms. Kahn said. “We’re advised on all levels of our business. I was bootstrapping my company as a software engineer, so it helps to have another view on running a business, rather than just building software.”
Working in the co-working space is also beneficial, she said, because she is around others who are also starting businesses, such as the co-founders of The Hum, a digital media company also working out of the WCTI.
“I contributed a piece to The Hum last month,” Ms. Kahn said. “We’re all helping each other out. I think it’s great to have the community aspect, because I feel like I’m not doing this isolated and alone and feel like other people hold me accountable when we check in with each other weekly.”
The Hum co-founder Hum Bonham “Bo” J. Pierce, 22, said StartUp boosted the company’s growth.
The digital media company produces content for millennials “excited by the thought of living outside the 9 to 5,” Mr. Pierce said, as well as entrepreneurs, content creators and “adventurers.”
Mr. Pierce and co-founders David M. Powers, 22, and Timothy P. O’Neil, 25, all from Worcester, craft honest, enthusiastic and comedic stories and interviews about what it is like to start a company, Mr. Pierce said. They distribute the stories in a daily email.
“One of the biggest things for us as a media company about entrepreneurs is meeting people,” Mr. Pierce said. “The Chamber of Commerce and WCTI have increased our breadth of scope. We meet other entrepreneurs, see what they are doing and give readers the most accurate description of what it means to be an entrepreneur today.”
The co-working space, with offices, shared conference rooms and working tables, is perfect for The Hum, he said.
“A lot of entrepreneurs work out of coffee spaces, and it is cool to be that kind of entrepreneur, but having our own work space legitimized the company,” Mr. Pierce said. “We wanted to be surrounded by entrepreneurs and submerse ourselves in that lifestyle. Plus, free wifi and coffee helps.”
Corporate sponsors help pay for the physical working space for the 12 StartUp Worcester companies.
Companies participating in StartUp Worcester are in different phases of development, Ms. Pelletier said. Some have raised money. Some are ready to “pitch” investors for funding. Some are in “friends and family mode,” relying on cash from those they know. Some are earning money from side work.
Most of the businesses chosen in the program’s first and second years are still in business in Worcester, she said, with some products already on the market.
“Research tells us that one in 10 startups are actually successful,and one in 10 investments pay off,” Ms. Pelletier said. “Some drop out or come to the conclusion they really need to have a full-time job or don’t have time. One was acquired by a company in New York (and) is doing really well. The best part, is activating that culture here in the city that was maybe here, but not noticed.”