Five to follow: My top picks from Tuesday’s Techstars demo day

Provender CEO Caithrin Rintoul presents at the Techstars Boston "demo day" Tuesday evening.
Provender CEO Caithrin Rintoul presents at the Techstars Boston "demo day" Tuesday evening.

Picking the most promising startups from an accelerator’s latest graduating class is a foolish task: promising teams split up, ideas that seem flimsy turn out to be massive, early momentum with a few enthusiastic customers fades. But with the caveat that we’re handicapping companies at a very early stage, here are my five favorite ideas from yesterday’s showcase of the latest set of Techstars Boston participants.

techstars-lovepop• LovePop wants to disrupt Hallmark. Founder Wombi Rose says that buying greeting cards “has become a chore,” and that his Harvard-spawned startup is “bringing the magic back to an industry that has lost its way.” The cards are dazzling — intricate pop-ups that are made in Vietnam at LovePop’s own production facility. They sell for $8 to $13, and a LovePop table in the lobby was doing brisk business at the conclusion of Tuesday’s proceedings. The company has seven retail kiosks in Massachusetts, Nevada, and California, and Rose says that the company’s current revenue run rate is $1 million. Not bad for a company born in early 2014.

• Provender is out to connect restaurants with farmers, fishermen, and foragers by creating a kind of digital farmer’s market. With fewer intermediaries, prices are lower for restaurants buying fresh mushrooms or scallops from a local producer, and they can pay a single Provender invoice rather than dozens of separate ones. The company began serving Eastern Canada first, and has more recently expanded to New England, Florida, and Colorado. CEO Caithrin Rintoul says that the startup’s average order size is nearly $1,500, and that its operations in New England hit $100,000 in bookings a little more than two months after launching here. Rintoul says the startup aspires to create “the operating system of agriculture.” Barry Maiden, formerly the chef at Hungry Mother in Cambridge, has signed on to be the startup’s “ambassador” for the New England region.

• Shearwater International aims to keep international students from dropping out of college, by building an online platform that connects them with young alumni who have been trained as mentors. CEO Jackson Boyar says that while international students spend $27 billion on tuition, room, and board each year, roughly 40 percent of them haven’t graduated after six years. Shearwater wants to supply a support system that will change that statistic — and eventually ensure that those students give back to their alma mater as donors. Shearwater is already working with two dozen colleges and boarding schools, Boyar says — and 19 of them are paying customers.

• Netra is an idea that normal folks will find creepy, but big retailers may find powerful. It uses video from surveillance cameras that already exist to better understand what is happening inside and outside stores. How many people walk past versus enter — and can you change that with different signage or window displays? How many people peruse the merchandise without buying? How long are lines at the register at different times of day?

Co-founders Richard Lee and Shashi Kant met at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and they created software that can track the same individual as he is spotted by different cameras inside and outside a store — though Lee notes that they are not trying to identify individuals by face. He compares the kind of tracking that Netra wants to do to the way websites today track users using cookies — small data files stored in your browser that can tell online retailers what pages you visit and how frequently you return. Lee says that most brick-and-mortar retailers are not as sophisticated as online retailers, and that to help them compete Netra wants to “create the quantified store.”

techstars-thrivehive• ThriveHive has built a dashboard for small businesses that makes marketing easier — from supplying pre-fab e-mails for various times of the year to helping manage Google advertising campaigns. The company raised a $1.5 million seed round back in 2012. Key to success will be showing that ThriveHive itself has a marketing approach that will attract scads of customers, without sending salespeople out knocking on doors of every dentist’s office, dry cleaner’s, and hair salon around America. (ThriveHive’s demo was introduced by S. Prestley Blake, right, the centenarian co-founder of Friendly’s, who also happens to be the grandfather of ThriveHive co-founder Adam Blake.)

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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