When John Fitzpatrick got up to give his 60-second pitch at the November 2011 Startup Weekend at The Grove’s former Orange Street location, he had never given a business pitch before. He also didn’t have a clear idea of the product he was pitching.
What he did have was a background in biology and an intimate knowledge of the constant tracking people with Type 1 diabetes must do. He knew that for people with Type 1 diabetes, keeping track of their blood sugar levels is vital, sometimes onerous, and levels that are too high or low can literally be fatal. “My wife has diabetes and we sit down to dinner every night and she would measure her blood sugar,” John told me. The readings determine the correct dose of insulin to administer. The dose is then stored in the insulin pump. “That’s data stored in these devices. The idea is, we needed to get this data off these devices and into the cloud where we can use it to help people manage their diabetes.”
He presented these facts along with his belief that this captured data could be developed into a viable product and waited to see if anyone wanted to form a team with him to develop the idea for a product. His idea attracted seven other people who wanted to work with him to develop the idea. For the rest of the weekend they brainstormed how to use this data.
Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in childhood. When the children are young, parents are in charge of monitoring the glucose readings. As the children get older and pressure to be more independent increases, compliance may be compromised. The team decided to design a product that would encourage compliance among adolescents by making it as easy to use and as seamless as possible while allowing parents to monitor from a distance.
The team decided to form a company called Applivate http://applivate.com and to launch, as its premier product, a software app that allows the blood levels to be uploaded to a secure online database and forwarded as a text message to parents. They decided to call the app ShugaTrak®.
When John’s team presented their idea at the end of the weekend, they were awarded first prize. “It was really a big thrill!” John admitted. The $1,500 cash, free legal services and six month office space at the CTech incubator, run by CT Innovations, and free computer hosting was enough to get Applivate started. A few months later, CT Innovations announced it was forming an 11-week tech startup accelerator program. John and his team, which consisted of four members of the original team from Startup Weekend, applied and were accepted.
This provided them with a $25,000 loan and allowed John to take an unpaid leave of absence from his full time job at Yale. Half way through the accelerator program, Applivate got its first investor who was not one of John’s immediate family members. The investor was a friend from high school, whose colleague’s 7-year old son had just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. By the end of the accelerator program, John was confident enough in Applivate’s future to resign his position at Yale. Not long after resigning from Yale, a former colleague who had heard about Applivate, and who had diabetes, called to say he would also like to invest in the company.
While John was working at Yale, bought a house in a neighborhood that was undergoing revitalization. A few years later there was a murder in his neighborhood. The incident spurred him to become actively involved in his neighborhood and form a community block watch. Through his work in community development, he met Kevin Ewing, who was leading community action efforts in the area. Kevin was one of the first members and an avid promoter of The Grove. In 2013 Kevin started Grove Studios which later became Baobab Tree Studios.
Through Kevin Ewing and his community activities , John got to know Ben Berkowitz, one of the cofounders of See Click Fix. Another cofounder, Jeff Blasius, was married to one of John’s colleagues at Yale. Getting to know Ben and Jeff, people John describes as “super heroes of the startup world,” inspired him and gave him confidence to pursue the possibility of forming his own company. “I thought, ‘They’re real people that I know, that I talk to. They’re making it happen; maybe I can, too’.
John credits his experience with community development for giving him the fundamental skills for starting a business: “There’s no recipe [in community development]. You have to make [it] up as you go. You have to get to know the resources available to you . . . and how to use those resources to reach your goal. It was the first entrepreneurial thing I’d done. Without it, I don’t think I’d have had the mindset to start a business.”
In spite of several grants and loans and robust client interest, the road has not always been easy. In fact, in November John resigned from The Grove because the company had run out of funds. However, by January he was back at The Grove, happily ensconced at a dedicated desk on the fourth floor. “I lost count after the fifth time we ran out of money,” John laughed. Although he was able to laugh, the point is, perseverance is a necessity in the startup world.
John joined The Grove in May, 2012. “I love it,” he said. “ I don’t know what the alternative would be. I tried working at home: By the end of the day, I’m a little insane.”