Glasses that can monitor vital signs. A smart resistance band. An app that helps autistic children learn vocabulary. These are ideas from startups brought to Fort Worth for three months as part of the Techstars Physical Health Accelerator.
The program recruits startups from around the country and world that could disrupt the physical health technology sector. The city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and Goff Capital provided nearly $10 million to the University of North Texas Health Science Center to fund the program for three years, to help attract innovators to the city. The goal by organizers and officials is to make Fort Worth the physical health capital of the world.
The Fort Worth Report spoke with each participant about what they learned, major updates to their companies and whether they will stay or do business in Fort Worth.
Dallas’ Articulate Labs has developed a wearable device that helps rehabilitate knees. Cofounder Josh Rabinowitz said he learned about the importance of engaging with customers and building relationships.
Rabinowitz said he plans to double the team by the end of the year and are in talks with hospital systems about possible collaborations. He said his company is “highly interested” in Fort Worth.
“We like the environment, we like the people around us, we like the energy,” he said. “The question that we have to work through now … is this a place where a company can thrive?”
The question of where the company can best thrive will be discussed in coming weeks, he said.
Anna Shuford, CEO of BoomRoom, a business management software for fitness and wellness entrepreneurs, said the time in the incubator resulted in adding another line of revenue: personalized business coaching.
“We came in basically with just our technology,” Shuford said. “And one thing we learned that was going to make our end customer successful.”
The company, based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, is now raising money for its first seed round. She said being in Fort Worth for three months made being an entrepreneur less lonely. Shufford came up with the business idea during the pandemic, in August 2020.
“Being in a space where everyone’s so passionate about what they’re building,” Shuford said. “You know, it’s just like a different kind of energy and mindset just approaching the whole startup thing.”
Shufford is planning on moving to Los Angeles in the spring, with frequent trips to New York, where they have established partners.
“But I’d love to come out and visit,” she said. “We’ve made great relationships here.”
Celest Austin is making an app that empowers children with autism to learn social skills and vocabulary. The sense of community in the program was great and learned about how important relationships are in business, she said.
Austin has started onboarding schools with the app in districts in Arizona and Texas, along with trials in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. She considers Fort Worth an option as the company grows in the future.
“There’s so many school districts here that need our help,” Austin said. “And so, yeah, definitely, I think I’ve made some connections here that could help us really gain more roots here.”
As a startup based in Austin, she said, creating a strong community of people who support and encourage innovation is important to attract entrepreneurs and innovation to the area. The city of Austin is saturated, she said, which presents an opportunity for other Texas cities to step in.
Jonathan Truong, CEO and cofounder of the health startup that aims to gamify physical therapy for children, said the company made a huge shift in technology. It started with using virtual reality, but now is shifting to the front-facing camera of a computer because it’s easier to use for physical therapists. He compares the new technology to a Microsoft Kinect for physical therapy.
“When we were doing (in) VR, it took a lot of time and setup for therapists to use it with their kiddos,” Truong said.
Cofounder Tad Svendry said the accelerator helped them create early discussions with potential investors, and collaborate with universities to do research around gamification of physical therapy.
Truong, who grew up in Plano, said in the future the company might focus on the DFW market. He said Techstars plays a role in attracting new companies to the area. But access to capital is another factor, along with targeting specific companies that might do well in the area.
“Fort Worth as the city would need to to figure out what type of companies they want to bring in,” he said. “And how investable are they? And is the appetite of the investor community here ready for that?”
Brendan Sullivan, CEO of Sullivan at Zama Health, a startup that is building a mental health platform for athletes, said he learned about the importance of having a science behind their product. They also pivoted to a business-to-business revenue model.
Alexander Theodorou, founder and CEO of Neurofit, wants to create virtual therapy simulation to assess, monitor and create personalized care for people with neurological conditions.
He said the past three months in Fort Worth has been a test of resilience – the experience challenged him as a leader and the company. He said it was challenging figuring out how to meet the requirements of the program and leverage the opportunities in a short period of time.
Theodorou, a Canadian, said 75% of his customers are in the U.S. – mostly coastal states such as Florida or California. He’s thinking about how Fort Worth may fit into the company’s future, but he said it’s too soon to say, but there has been an outpour of interest from leaders, executives and decision makers.
“I think I’ve seen enough to know that there is a strong alignment,” he said. “I just think that getting things executed and off the ground within a three month timeline alongside everything else, coming into the holidays is really difficult to nail down.”
A major development for PulseWave, a company that is creating a device that can monitor vital signs with glasses is a sustained EKG signal and two other permanent signals from behind the ear, as part of a product development research from the Bern University of Applied Sciences.
“Before we didn’t have that,” Adriele Alva Rocha, chief data scientist for PulseWave said. “That was (in) development, and it still is, but now we know that that’s possible and is ongoing.”
At the beginning of the accelerator program, founder Peter Weisz wanted Fort Worth to be the national distribution point for his product, glasses that can check someone’s vital signs and health.
Weisz understands the advantages of establishing a subsidiary in Fort Worth.
“We’d really love to set up a subsidiary in Fort Worth and there are advantages that clearly see but … the city of Fort Worth has not engaged in direct communication with us regarding that,” he said.
Cofounders Hamza Shaikh and Abhinav Chawla want to use artificial intelligence to facilitate a patient’s post operative recovery.
Shaikh said he learned healthcare sales are tough and relationship-based, and Techstars helped him get into the right rooms to meet people. The program played a large part in making connections, he said. At the Techstars demo night, Shaikh announced that the company oversubscribed in pre-seed fundraising, and recently was recently awarded money at a healthcare conference in Las Vegas.
He said he intends to move from Chicago to the DFW area in January to continue building relationships.
“Some of the biggest executives of some of the health systems have been very open to connecting with us and helping us and these are people that we wouldn’t never actually met outside of it,” Shaikh said. “I think it shows that they really want to help out by contributing and working on that side of things.”
Stefan Weiss, a former competitive athlete and CEO from Germany, said Techstars allowed him to research the U.S. market to sell his smart resistance band.
The product already has 4,000 customers in Germany and sells the product in stores across Europe, with $300,000 in sales since launching last year.
The company is in conversation with universities to bring more science-based validation on how the band can work in a physical therapy context, Weiss said.
As they expand, Weiss imagines Fort Worth will be the first place to set up a U.S. team because of the network Weiss has built up.
“It’s also important to have infrastructure, that living is affordable and everything so that the set up for us is like, you know, like you could imagine building a team here and hanging out here,” he said.
Dave Sekowski’s business, which aims to create an artificial intelligence healthy living coaching app, said his calendar has been booked for weeks with meetings with potential clients. His team reached out to 500 doctors, and about 17% have asked for meetings.
The company also set up pilots, one of which will be carried out at the UNT Health Science Center, he said. Sekowski said they will be back in the area as they continue to develop clients. His team will go back to living in their respective cities, but they are keeping their options open.
“So we’ll just see how those things develop,” Sekowski said. “But we have a lot of relationships here and we intend to try and cultivate more as well.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.