Local startup boosts entrepreneurship

Just two weeks after New Haven-based biotech startup Applivate launched its debut smartphone application to help diabetic patients, a second local tech startup, Track180, gave the Elm City’s entrepreneurial scene another boost.

Last April, Track180 launched its debut social impact iPad application, which allows users to more effectively navigate current issues in the news. Track180 CEO and Founder Drue Hontz said he hopes the app can increase the lifespan of digital news by organizing it around particular issues.

After the web-based beta version of the product attracted 45,000 users over the past six months, the application’s model — which allows users to track the development of a story over time — received a U.S. patent this past week.

“I started studying various outlets to try to make sense of all the data and realized that, if it was easier for the average person to understand issues, they would be more inclined to make an informed decision or do something about it,” Hontz said.

The debut app takes the high volume of content available from various news outlets and uses a thematic approach to make connections between discrete news articles, creating a new way to navigate the news, Hontz said. He added that the app shows users the range of opinions on the issue and propels them to consider the impact of the issue across other topics, through what Hontz calls the “ripple effect.”

Hontz conceived of the idea three years ago and recruited a four-member team to help him develop the app’s design.

As their work progressed, Hontz decided to include an orange “helping hand” feature on the app for stories, so that, once users feel they better understand a particular issue, if they are inclined to take action, they can click on links that will direct them to social groups or agencies involved with the issue.

“That connection to the issue is a very exciting connection for someone — to feel they are directly impacting an issue,” Hontz said. “It’s very empowering to hear multiple sides to a story and then make a decision about what to do with that information.”

The Track 180 team developed the application’s methodology in the startup’s New Haven office — which they call “the cave” — at 900 Chapel St. Hontz said he is committed to staying in the city.

However, the CEO did hire computer software programmers in Barcelona and Spain to perform the coding necessary to develop the app. When the project started, the product was originally a video, but Hontz and his team chose to develop an iPad app because the tablet screen offered an appealing way to visualize information.

At a press conference last Thursday to announce the patent, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said Hontz’s choice to outsource the programming underscores the need for local universities to improve their computer programming offerings and teach more students to code. With more programmers, DeStefano said, Hontz and other local entrepreneurs could create more jobs for Elm City residents and foster a more hospitable environment for entrepreneurs.

He added many companies driven by technology are sprouting up in New Haven, finding smart ways of delivering information to people. He described these companies as New Haven’s future.

“Communities that are going to grow are going to be knowledge-based,” DeStefano said, contrasting startup companies with the city’s waning manufacturing sector.

Hontz agreed with the Mayor, adding New Haven falls especially short in this area compared to New York and Cambridge. Hontz searched locally and in cities nationwide to find programmers to construct the sophisticated app design, but only Barcelona offered suitable candidates for the job.

“A big part of the search process was ensuring that the people working on the app believed in what I was doing and saw the social impact opportunities,” Hontz said.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy, whose department helped jumpstart a local business incubator called the Grove, said the City government plans to continue helping build community outlets to encourage interactions between entrepreneurs. The City worked with Hontz and Track180 to help them find a space and procure financing during the past few years.

“Any time a New Haven business does well, it reflects well on the city,” she said. “Our role is to promote that business, bring resources to the table, and make an environment appealing to potential businesses.”

Before founding Track180 in 2009, Hontz served as the CEO of Hontz Elevator Company from 1997-2005.

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