Special to the Rochester Business Journal
In its first year, NextCorps’ Embark — a business accelerator program that fosters the startup of viable software companies — accomplished what it set out to do: bring 10 new software companies to life in the Finger Lakes Region.
These companies, many of them founded by entrepreneurs who have little to no coding skills, provide software and apps that address real-world problems, such as offering mental health assistance and business development tools.
“The launch of these startups illustrates the power that a supportive ecosystem can offer inspired people who are interested in creating a new business in our region,” says Matt Foley, Managing Director, Startup Incubation & Embark at NextCorps. “By providing instruction, support, and mentorship, Embark has empowered them to develop an idea, validate its market potential, and build a software solution to sell without having to leave their day jobs to do it.”
Embark was created, in part, as a response to regional analysis conducted by the Boston Consulting Group that pointed to the growing potential for software development as an effective way to build resiliency and create new jobs in the region.
NextCorps designed Embark to leverage two important assets. First, no-code software development tools that enable non-technical users to build scalable web and mobile applications. Second, emerging talent from the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. During the accelerator program, 40 students supported the startups by helping founders complete over 130 projects, from market research and customer discovery to business planning. This approach minimized the need for the entrepreneurs to find outside funding in order to create and successfully launch their businesses.
The pilot for the Embark program was funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and with support from the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Excell Partners. Local software, professional services, and investment companies also played a critical role by mentoring founders on a pro-bono basis, providing a rich support ecosystem. These companies included Datto, Live Tiles, ITX Corp, Innovative Solutions, Armory Square Ventures, Bonadio Group, Nixon Peabody, T4 Verge, Rivet CX, OneSpark, VisibleMR, Advise.us, and FocusGroupIt.
Participant interest in the first Embark cohort exceeded NextCorps’ expectations, drawing more than 60 qualified applicants from a diverse mix of backgrounds. Forty-eight individuals, half of them women, were selected for the program in the fall of 2021. Ten finalists were down-selected mid-way through to receive an additional six months of support, culminating in their graduation in September 2022.
Embark finalists bring new business to Rochester
Three of the 10 finalists from Embark’s first cohort include Kannect, focused on mental health prevention strategies for college students; DataCicada, that provides machine learning and consulting for scientists and engineers; and First Class Coach, with an app that provides leadership coaching to executives and companies.
For the pilot, Embark encouraged applicants to apply to the program with or without a business idea, offering a supportive environment and resources needed to create and grow a software startup.
Kannect founders Keli DiRisio, Graphic Design Professor at RIT, and Nicole Trabold, an academic researcher and social worker, had been planning for years to create an app that addresses problems on college campuses. Their lack of software development skills hampered their ability to create a sellable product.
“Like many entrepreneurs who lack technical skills and can’t afford to hire developers, programming was our stumbling block,” says DiRisio. “Embark’s no-code training was the solution we needed to create a viable business. Also invaluable were the mentorship and coaching Embark provided to help us more accurately define our offering, and the collaboration and encouragement we received from others in the cohort.”
A supportive community that fosters accountability was commonly cited by Embark participants as a top benefit of the program.
Allison Yacci, co-founder of DataCicada, says the promise of working among a group of like-minded entrepreneurs in a cohort-based program is largely what compelled her to join the Embark program.
DataCicada is unique from other startups in Embark, however, because it was started during the pandemic and partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Its founders have technical backgrounds and are working on their business full time.
“As bootstrapping entrepreneurs, we took advantage of everything Embark had to offer, including a community of entrepreneurs, and advisors and mentorship that guide our ideas and serve as a sounding board,” says Yacci. “We’ve also received valuable advice from Excell Partners to help us pitch to investors. While we have technical training, the Embark no-code bootcamp has helped us create a more professional interface for our product.”
James Lopata, a long-time coaching consultant and founder of First Class Coach, concurs with the game-changing benefits of the program, including no-code training and a supportive ecosystem.
“Embark has created an awesome ecosystem that not only helps me build my business, but allows me to contribute to something that I’m passionate about — the Greater Rochester community,” says Lopata.
The 10 Embark finalists are now building prototypes for their products and preparing to beta test them with potential customers. Many are working to grow and scale their business through NextCorps’ incubation program that now supports more than 70 area startups. Their goal is to hit at least $10,000/month in recurring revenue so they can commit to their business full time.
If your organization is interested in supporting the Embark program, contact NextCorps. For more information on NextCorps, visit nextcorps.org. For more information on Embark visit nextcorps.org/embark. You can also subscribe to NextCorps’ eNewsletter to receive alerts on open application periods for Embark and NextCorps programs and events.