The Future 5 of NYC Tech, Q4 2021
Sure, the latest initiatives from the Teslas, Apples and Googles of the industry tend to dominate the tech news space — and with good reason. Still, the big guns aren’t the only ones bringing innovation to the sector.
In an effort to highlight up-and-coming startups, Built In has launched The Future 5 across eight major U.S. tech hubs. Each quarter, we will feature five tech startups, nonprofits or entrepreneurs in each of these hubs who just might be working on the next big thing. You can check out last quarter’s round-up here.
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All great companies start with innovative founders — people who take their personal experiences, quirky fascinations and sharp insights and spin them into something truly disruptive. New York is full of them, with titans like Michael Bloomberg and Arianna Huffington calling this city home. Even Mark Zuckerberg hails from just up the Hudson River in Ardsley.
Today, there are still countless entrepreneurs here looking to build the next big thing, innovating buzzy industries like education, health and travel. Built In spoke with just a handful of them and, while they may not be household names (yet), they are certainly doing NYC proud.
Brij (Data Technology)
If you’ve left your house within the last two years, you’ve almost certainly used a QR code — those little scannable black-and-white patterned squares. Restaurants have replaced their paper menus with them, you can use them to send money over PayPal or Venmo, you can even scan one to check out at CVS. And Brij, a new startup out of NYC that launched over the summer, is seizing the moment.
Brij is a B2B2C company, meaning it is solving problems for both brands and consumers. For brands, a direct relationship with a customer is often lost when they sell through third parties like Amazon or Walmart. Brij is mending that relationship by providing brands with the data they need to understand who is buying their products. For consumers, Brij is providing a better experience when they interact with a given brand’s products, like access to exclusive content or rewards programs, with a simple QR code scan.
In other words, it bridges the relationship between consumers and brands, as well as the digital and physical worlds. Looking ahead, CEO and co-founder Kait Stephens envisions a not-too-distant future in which QR codes are a conduit for all kinds of everyday consumer activities — re-ordering products, viewing product instructions, activating warranties.
“Our vision for Brij is that products should be smarter,” Stephens told Built In. “What we are helping brands do is ultimately use the physical product as a communication channel for their customers. The QR code allows us to create this very beautiful experience for the consumer. And then the technology that we’re building — no app required — creates that frictionless engagement for the consumer.”
Now that the consumer adoption band-aid has really been ripped off, we feel strongly that the adoption is here to stay.”
Stephens, a former retail investor, first became interested in this space as a student at the Harvard Business School, where she met her co-founder Zack Morrison. The two bonded over their shared passion of connecting the digital and physical world, and grew fascinated by the simplicity and promise of QR codes. Since then, QR codes and their touchless nature have really taken off amid the pandemic, and Stephens says they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, citing an internal study Brij did that found that a whopping 90 percent of consumers have scanned a QR code in just the last month.
“In the future, there could be another technology. But right now, QR codes are such a simple way to connect digital and physical,” she said “The tracking that they allow, whether it’s for restaurants or brands, allows them to collect data that they weren’t able to get before in a really seamless way. Now that the consumer adoption band-aid has really been ripped off, we really feel strongly that that adoption is here to stay.”
In the meantime, Stephens says Brij is focused on expanding its team to support its growth ahead, as well as more partnerships with e-commerce brands. It is also looking to test out different go-to-market strategies using the data it has already collected with its first round of users.
When NYC entrepreneurs Anada Lakra and Ilya Usorov moved to the United States, they faced a hurdle all too familiar among non-native English speakers — their accents. Although they both spoke and understood English well, they found their accents were holding them back both personally and professionally. Usorov’s Russian parents, for instance, struggled to advocate for themselves, which limited their work opportunities. And while Lakra was a student at Yale, she found she was constantly asked to repeat herself, which affected her confidence.
So, they decided to create BoldVoice, an app that helps users refine their English pronunciations with the help of bonafide Hollywood accent coaches. The app provides MasterClass-style short-form videos in which the coaches guide users through things like phonology, prosody and tongue-and-mouth muscle exercises. At the same time, a built-in AI provides feedback to the users as they actively practice.
“This could really be super life-changing for people in terms of their confidence levels, but also the ability for them to advance their careers,” Lakra told Built In. “What we’re building is something that gives more people access and makes, hopefully, the world a place where people from all types of linguistic backgrounds and all types of financial backgrounds can have more equal access to opportunities.”
Having a professional level of English is really going to be a key skill set for the global worker.”
Of course, the language space in the larger edtech market is a booming one. Companies like Duolingo and Babbel have skyrocketed in popularity for their approaches to teaching foreign languages. But Lakra says the accent market specifically has been widely “overlooked,” and has remained a problem that’s been “hiding in plain sight.” She thinks that is going to change though as the world becomes increasingly globalized amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As it gets easier to hire people from all over the world, teams are more and more becoming globalized and multicultural and diverse,” Lakra said. “English has been a lingua franca in this development and will continue being so. Having a professional level of English is really going to be a key skill set for the global worker. And that’s how we hope to keep evolving in this growing market.”
BoldVoice just completed Y Combinator’s summer 2021 program, and recently raised a $605,000 pre-seed round from the accelerator and XFund. While it is based in NYC, Lakra says the company’s user base is global, so it is actively exploring channels to make its product more well-known. She and her team are also working to make the app more “sticky” and gamified, adding more fun and entertaining features to keep users coming back.
Health in Her HUE (Healthtech)
Despite the epic strides healthcare has made over the last several decades, the industry continues to be a strikingly racist one, especially against Black women. According to the CDC, Black women are about three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. They also are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women, even though they aren’t more likely to contract the illness.
Anecdotally, Black women and women of color in general tend to get treated differently in the healthcare space. In fact, NYC-based entrepreneur Ashlee Wisdom says that, if you’re a woman of color who’s never had a negative healthcare experience, you’re “probably an anomaly.”
“There are systemic issues within our healthcare system that have resulted in a lot of distrust among Black women and women of color because of how we’ve been historically treated,” she told Built In, adding that, to this day, there are long-standing false narratives among healthcare professionals about women of color. “There’s this dismissal of our pain, people make assumptions about us when we do seek care. So there’s a lot of systemic issues within the system that has made this issue not just a one-off thing for a few women. It’s actually pretty standard.”
Wisdom grew up in the Bronx, where she says she sees these inequities on the daily basis. So, she decided to create Health in Her HUE, a company rooted in New York that tackles the problems she had seen all her life.
There are systemic issues within our healthcare system that have resulted in a log of distrust among Black women and women of color because of how we’ve been historically treated.”
Health in Her HUE began primarily as a content platform, providing information that is specific to the experiences of Black women and other women of color. Now, it also serves as a resource for finding culturally competent clinicians and healthcare providers, and it has a community forum where users can ask questions and connect with other women of color.
Technically, Health in Her HUE was launched back in 2018, but Wisdom says it has really taken off over the last 18 months. The Covid-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing racial reckoning has inspired a surge of people to use the platform as a trusted source for healthcare information, as well as a way to connect with other women of color. Looking ahead, the startup will soon be adding an extension to its community forum that focuses on mental health specifically, and will be launching its product officially early next year thanks, in part, to a recent pre-seed funding round.
“We’re building a company that’s providing value, that is solving an actual problem. And I just can’t wait to scale it and bring it to as many women as possible,” Wisdom said.
Like so many other facets of women’s health, fertility is not as technologically advanced as other areas of healthcare. At-home pregnancy tests are notoriously inaccurate and hard to read, and the entire process is designed for women who have perfectly regular cycles, which is hardly ever the case. At best, many women are at the mercy of a doctor telling them what to do, at worst they’re sifting through Google searches by themselves.
Data scientist Dr. Amy Divaraniya came face-to-face with these hurdles when she was having fertility difficulties of her own, and decided to do something about it. Thus, Oova was born.
“I feel like fertility is in a black box for women. We’re all taught how to not get pregnant, but when you want to flip the script you’re kind of left at a loss,” Divaraniya told Built In. “What I set out to do was really figure out a way to create an accurate at-home test that gets to the root of the problem in the privacy of your own home.”
Fertility is in a black box for women. We’re all taught how to not get pregnant, but when you want to flip the script you’re kind of left at a loss.”
With Oova, there’s no sending samples to labs, no trying to decipher whether the pregnancy test is showing one line or two. All of the interpretations are made for the user in a simple way, explained Divaraniya. The app does this by measuring two key fertility hormones, as well as providing a comprehensive walkthrough of fertility, reproductive history and general wellness. On testing days, the user provides a urine sample on a test strip and scans it using the camera on her phone (similar to how one would scan a QR code). Oova then does a series of analyses to provide fertility results and other information in a matter of seconds, according to Divaraniya.
These capabilities were especially important amid the worst of the pandemic, when fertility procedures like in vitro fertilization were considered elective procedures and thus restricted from in-person visits. In fact, this prompted Oova to slightly pivot from a D2C product to one that is offered by clinics — a move that is really “moving the needle” in fertility, as Divaraniya puts it, since it means women don’t have to come into a clinic every day for months to get blood drawn.
Looking ahead, Divaraniya says she would like to have Oova innovate other areas of women’s health like menopause, post-partum, mental wellness and chronic diseases.
TravSolo (Travel Tech)
These days, there are tons of apps out there to help you plan your next trip, offering tips and recommendations and discounts galore for you and your travel buddies. But what about if you’re flying solo?
That’s where TravSolo, an app specifically designed for people traveling alone, comes into play. With TravSolo, you can find fun activities in your area, upload your own content like photos, videos and notes, and even meet other solo travelers nearby. There’s also an added safety feature that allows family and friends to know where you are in real time.
Eventually, founder Chizoba Anyaoha says he envisions TravSolo becoming the “hub for the everyday solo traveler,” connecting users to everything from hotels and Airbnb listings to podcasts and cheap flight tickets. “Every time they think about solo travel, I want people to think about Travsolo,” he told Built In.
Unsurprisingly, Anyaoha himself loves to travel, and has had what he calls “the travel bug” for years. He had his first solo travel experience a few years ago when he took a trip to Australia for his birthday. He was supposed to go with a friend, but the friend’s passport expired so they could no longer go. Anyaoha decided to go by himself anyway, and wound up staying for a month and a half, having the most “amazing time of [his] life.” That trip inspired him to create TravSolo.
Especially in the pandemic, people have realized that life is too short. If tomorrow isn’t promised, what would you do different today?”
The app first launched back in late 2019, and quickly gained traction among its early adopters. But then, of course, the pandemic came along and brought the entire travel and hospitality sector to a grinding halt. In the 18 months since, travel — especially solo travel — has really “evolved,” says Anyaoha, and has become more than just a months-long backpacking trip through Europe. Solo traveling means weekend camping trips, it means a day exploring an unfamiliar city. It’s an easy, more socially distant way to get out of the house.
“There’s been this new big boom when it comes to the southern travel market. Things are ticking up,” Anyaoha said. “Especially in the pandemic, people have realized that life is too short. So, if tomorrow isn’t promised, what would you do different today?”
Looking ahead, Anyaoha says TravSolo will be rolling out more features. The company has also been accepted into two different accelerator programs, although it is still deciding on which direction to go in.