Startups pitch high-tech baby bottle warmer, rent payment ideas, and more to investors

The scene at the Roux Institute Demo Day.
Ten startups pitched their services to more than 100 potential investors at the first annual Demo Day, a culmination of the inaugural Roux Institute Techstars Accelerator. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

PORTLAND, Maine—Circa, a startup from Connecticut, offered a system that makes life simpler for renters, offering payment flexibility that reduces evictions.

Eskuad, a company from Chile, built a data platform to help keep workers connected in rural settings despite poor internet access. 

Group B Labs, a wife-and-husband team from Seattle, created a high-tech baby bottle that keeps breastmilk or formula cold and then—with the push of a button—warms it to feeding temperature within two minutes. 

They were among the 10 startups pitching their services to more than 100 potential investors at the first annual Demo Day, a culmination of the inaugural Roux Institute Techstars Accelerator. The intensive entrepreneurship program at the Roux Institute at Northeastern University, based in Portland, Maine, has helped the young companies improve their operations and learn how to tell their stories to investors over the past three months.

“It feels like we’ve grown three years worth in 13 weeks,” says Leslie Hyman, chief executive officer of Circa, which she co-founded in July 2019. “It’s the Roux Institute, it’s Techstars, it’s the 10 companies and their teams—because we all work with each other.”

The 10 high-tech companies, selected from a diverse field of applicants throughout the United States and beyond, have been headquartered since September at the Roux Institute in Portland, where they’ve partnered with Techstars, a leading global platform to grow companies and help entrepreneurs succeed. The companies will maintain relationships with Techstars long after their Demo Day graduation.

“The Roux Institute is a world-class education research institute that acts like a startup,” Lars Perkins, managing director of the Roux Institute Techstars Accelerator, told the Demo Day audience on Thursday.

“The institute is inventing what education can look like when it’s done in partnership with local businesses and with world class entrepreneurship organizations like Techstars,” Perkins added in an interview. “It is reimagining the future of education that can keep up with what’s going on in the world.”

The collaboration with Techstars has quickly advanced the Roux Institute’s mission to grow the tech economy in Maine. Three startups have committed to moving to Maine, including Circa; Eskuad; and Massachusetts-based Attention Exchange, which simplifies market research to make it affordable for small companies. A fourth is already based in Maine, and plans to stay in the state as it grows: Omnic Data, which uses an artificial intelligence platform to improve esports player performance.

ListedB, the first booking app for Black barbershops and salons, plans to launch in Maine in 2022. At least two more companies are working to stay in Maine, drawn in part by the Maine Seed Capital Tax Credit Program, which encourages equity investments in Maine businesses by offering a 40% tax credit.

“That is huge news,” Governor Janet Mills said of the companies laying their roots in Maine. She noted that the emergence of the Roux Institute—which she helped launch in January 2020—complements her 10-year economic plan to add 75,000 workers to the Maine economy.

Maine Governor Janet Mills speaks at Demo Day.

Governor Janet Mills welcomed the 10 startups to Maine as part of her 10-year economic plan to add 75,000 workers to the state economy. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

”I say to those who invest here, who want to invest here, who want to move here and live here, contribute to our economy and our wellbeing, you make us want to be a better state,” Mills told the Demo Day audience. “And we are a better state.”

Over the past three months, the startups connected more than 650 times with mentors drawn from the Roux Institute’s 80 partners as well as businesses and investors in the greater Portland community—resulting in collaborations for the startups with MaineHealth, the Portland Sea Dogs baseball team, and Black Owned Maine, a community of Black entrepreneurs, property owners, and other influencers. 

The startups made use of Northeastern’s resources. Eskuad worked with students at Northeastern’s location in Seattle to develop a market analysis based on buyer personas. Group B Labs enhanced its baby-bottle software by accessing Northeastern research in AI and data visualization. 

More than $200 million has been invested in the 23-month-old Roux Institute, which was launched by the university with a $100 million investment from technology entrepreneur and Maine native David Roux and his wife, Barbara. They joined with Northeastern to ignite their vision of a Portland-based hub to educate generations of talent for the digital and life sciences sectors, and create new ideas through research. In October 2020, the institute received a $100 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation, an investment that provides financial aid for graduate-level students, funding for post-doctoral research, and support for co-ops with Maine employers.

More than 315 graduate students are pursuing certificates or master’s degrees at the Roux Institute in high-demand fields. Additionally, more than 500 Mainers have completed customized educational programs that have been designed and funded by their employers in partnership with the institute. The programs are based on real-time industry needs and are taught by Roux Institute faculty.

The institute has served more than 800 people as it elevates the level of tech industry talent in Maine. The current fall class of graduate students includes more than 100 who are studying computer and data science.

While the 10 startups were maintaining their daily business operations, they were also undertaking a three-step accelerator process that began with a month of intensive feedback from a wide variety of experienced mentors, including Rich Miner, co-founder of Android. Next came a month of working with two or three mentors who helped identify obstacles and areas of potential growth. The final month culminated with the Demo Day presentations, when the startups pitched their stories to investors in the same busy space where the institute had been launched just 23 months prior.

“The launch event was about the future and what we could do,” said Chris Wolfel, the Roux Institute’s director of entrepreneurship, in an interview. “Demo Day is about making good on that promise and showing the impact that the Roux Institute and Northeastern can have in the state of Maine, and it’s only made possible by our partners and everyone working together for it.”

The scene at the Roux Institute Demo Day.
Demo Day was held in in a gorgeous windowed showroom jutting out into Portland Harbor—the same venue where the Roux Institute had been launched 23 months prior. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The institute’s Demo Day was a kinder, gentler version of Shark Tank, held in a gorgeous windowed showroom jutting out into Portland Harbor on a bright blue afternoon. Each startup team was given seven minutes to pitch its vision to the investors, who were watching online or in-person. The program was emceed by Perkins and Miles O’Brien, PBS NewsHour’s science correspondent. After the event, the teams moved to a reception at the institute where they met with investors.

“The goal of the presentations is to pique the interest of investors and make them say, ‘I want to learn more,’” said Perkins. “There aren’t going to be checks written on the basis of a seven-minute presentation. What we hope is to start a lot of conversations.”

The event was a celebration of partnerships that have brought together the Roux family with Northeastern, Techstars, and the scores of institute partners, said Chris Mallett, the Roux Institute’s chief administrative officer. 

“This mission of economic development in Maine is just too challenging, too complex, and too important for any organization to try to go it alone,” Mallett told the crowd.

Turning to the startup founders, Mallett added: “You now have partners in all of us. You’re part of the Techstars network for life. You’re also part of the Roux Institute and Northeastern family for life. And you are honorary Mainers forever.”

Hyman, the CEO of Circa, described a U.S. housing market that desperately needs to be updated and humanized. Of the 44 million households that pay rent, she said that one of every three payments arrives late, leaving property owners to chase $15 billion every month. By creating a simple app that enables residents to meet rental obligations when they’re able, Circa promises to increase revenues for landlords while reducing stress for all parties involved.

“Flexibility, choice, and mutual respect: This is how we build stronger communities through payment innovation,” said Hyman, who then revealed her plan to permanently relocate Circa to Maine.

As she left the stage, she was approached by a grateful spectator. Hyman found herself receiving a hug from the governor.

For media inquiries, please contact