Yesterday, at a press conference at The Grove, John Fitzpatrick, co-founder and CEO of Applivate, announced the launch of his company’s first product, Shugatrak. A smartphone application currently designed for Android, Shugatrak allows the parents and loved ones of people with diabetes to track their glucose levels in real time.
In his remarks to the crowd of about 50 people, including Mayor John DeStefano and members of The Grid New Haven team, John told the story of Karmel Allison, a diabetic who nearly fainted during a recent speech by President Obama at the White House. Such occurrences are frighteningly common, he said.
“It can happen in a cafeteria, at a friend’s house, anywhere. And it’s not just fainting: it can be a seizure, a coma, or even death.”
He noted the potential longterm effects of diabetes, as well, including blindness and liver failure, and described the struggles of the parents of children with diabetes to ensure their children’s health.
“It’s for the peace of mind of these parents that we produced Shugatrak.”
A Landmark Moment
The launch was monumental for our community for several reasons. As Mayor DeStefano noted in his opening remarks, innovative tech startups such as John’s are helping to reestablish New Haven’s role as a center of innovation, while solidifying its standing as an “idea capital” in the region.
At the same time, as John himself emphasized at the end of his talk, his story illustrates the role that an ecosystem such as ours can play in helping entrepreneurs pursue their ideas and build companies. Indeed, there was a palpable sense of pride and communal accomplishment among the attendees yesterday.
But the accomplishment was, ultimately, John’s, and the launch yesterday marked a milestone for an entrepreneur who sacrificed stability for the sake of his vision.
As John recounted yesterday, and at more length in conversation with The Whiteboard last Friday, the idea for Shugatrak was inspired by his wife, Sandra, who has type 1 diabetes. About three years ago, while John had a full-time job an an Assistant Director for Prospect Research at Yale University, he began imagining a product that could improve the lives of diabetics and those who love them.
But he was unsure whether and how to develop this idea. He and Sandra had just had their first child. Was the idea worth the risk, and could he justify taking it?
“Someone told me that people should only start companies when they’re right out of college or when they’re retired,” John told The Whiteboard. “I was too late for one and too early for the other. But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.”
He says his experience as a father and husband reinforced his desire to pursue his idea.
“I’ve spoken with many parents of kids with diabetes. They live hour-to-hour with the fear that something could happen and they could lose their kid. That happens. My son is two years old now, and over the course of these two years, the love I have for my child has just grown and grown, and the thought of that possibility – it’s unthinkable.”
Before taking the plunge into full-time entrepreneurism, John needed validation for his idea – and he got it at Startup Weekend New Haven in 2011.
“Before Startup Weekend, all I had was a desire to start a business and a vague idea,” he says.
At Startup Weekend, he pitched his idea and a team formed around him.
“Just getting a team together was a key moment,” he says. “We talked until midnight on Friday, then till noon on Saturday, to the point where I was worried that we had to stop talking and start doing. But all that talk was vital for taking my vague idea and reducing it to something you could explain clearly and specifically in three minutes on Sunday.”
When Sunday came around, John and his team pitched their company, Applivate, and their first product, Shugatrak – and they won first place. The prize was $1500 in cash, $2,500 toward legal services, six months of office space at CTech, and 6 months of free hosting for a website.
Taking the Plunge
With the boost of his Startup Weekend win, John knew he was onto something. He and his team continued to work on Applivate and Shugatrak, but didn’t have the funding or resources necessary to commit to the startup full-time.
The situation quickly changed, however, when Applivate was accepted into Connecticut Innovations’ TechStart Accelerator. The program awarded the company $25,000 of funding, among other resources.
John says his company’s acceptance was key, not only for the funding and consulting it provided, but because it emboldened him to begin thinking of a more radical life-change. He went to his job and requested ten weeks of unpaid leave during which he could pursue Shugatrak’s development and get a sense of whether a full-time commitment would be feasible and worthwhile.
His positive experience in the accelerator (beginning in March 2012) convinced him that it was. Even with a baby at home, he chose to leave his stable job permanently and commit himself wholeheartedly to his startup.
Support from the Ecosystem
After graduating from TechStart, John and Applivate received a series of other important grants, including an Innovation Voucher from CTNEXT, a Small Business Incubator grant from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, and a Small Business Express Program grant from the DECD. The company was named the Most Promising New Internet/New Media Company at the 2012 Connecticut Innovation Summit, as well as a 2012 Technology Company to Watch by the Connecticut Technology Council.
“The state programs were crucial for getting us off the ground,” John said yesterday at the press conference.
He elaborated to The Whiteboard on their importance.
“Those four grants and vouchers added up to a significant sum for a startup. When you’re very young like us, with no revenue yet, founders who don’t have five startups under their belts, and no iron-clad intellectual property protection, it’s simply too risky for angel investors and early stage funds. But we were able to turn to these state programs that were put in place to encourage early stage startups at risky times.”
John also received funding from friends and family, including one friend who invested at a very early stage. He says these investors could get past the the founders’ lack of track record because they knew their capabilities intimately, and their experiences having diabetes in their families allowed them to see the value in the company’s idea.
Along with support from state programs, The Grove (which John uses as his office space), and The Grid New Haven, John received support from the diabetes community. He has demonstrated the Shugatrak app at numerous events, particularly at summer camps for diabetic children, and has tested a closed beta version of Shugatrak for the last year and a half. As he and his company developed the product, he spoke to hundreds of parents about their needs and concerns, and saw enthusiastic demand for Shugatrak.
He sees the tight-knit nature of the local, national, and even international diabetes communities as helpful for spreading the word.
“Parents of kids with diabetes communicate a lot through support groups and Facebook groups. If they find something that helps them, they’ll tell each other. We’ve already seen mentions of Shugatrak bubbling up on Facebook from Australia and Germany. So we see strong potential for word-of-mouth marketing.”
Finally, one member of the diabetes community has been the biggest support of all. John’s wife, Sandra, whose experience inspired the idea, started using the app right away. She also just gave birth to the couple’s second child.
With 26 million people with diabetes in the U.S. alone and countless others who need to ensure their wellbeing, there is immense potential for Shugatrak. For the moment, however, Applivate has a strict focus.
“We’ve produced a very specific product for a very specific customer,” John says. “Adult diabetics can use the app, of course, but we’re really targeting parents of children with type 1 diabetes. The idea is to get off the ground with that focus, and then expand to the larger market.”
In the near future, he says the company will work primarily on customer support; new features and products will come later.
“We do have big ideas about the direction we could take this product and our company, but with such a small team, time is very valuable, and we have to be rigorous and disciplined about doing what we have to do to get to market. It’s all about ruthless prioritizing.”
Amid the excitement of the launch and press conference, the last-second tweaks and verifications, and the demands of having a newborn child, John told us he was surprisingly calm.
“What I feel most is a sense of accomplishment. We’ve only gotten to the point where we can prove ourselves as a business, but I’m proud to have gotten this far, and thankful for all the help we got along the way.”
Thanks to Tigi Thomas of Renderbar for the photograph of John at yesterday’s press conference.