By now, nearly every business, from the large enterprise to the scrappy startup, engages in some form of digital work. But the conventional formula for gauging productivity—measuring inputs against outputs—doesn’t fully quantify the intangible and ephemeral nature of how we do our jobs today, says Mukund Mohan, director of Microsoft Ventures. That dissonance forces organizations as well as employees to tackle some challenging questions: How do you define productivity now? How do you improve it? What tools do you need to do so?
“This is a conversation we need to have,” said Mohan during a recent scouting sweep of the East Coast. His division identifies top startups that are innovating in areas that align with Microsoft’s expertise—in this case, digital work in the enterprise space—and invites the most promising to join Microsoft Ventures’ Accelerator.
The accelerator represents a new way that the tech giant is engaging with early-stage startups. The program brings 10 companies to its Seattle headquarters where, over four months, Mohan and his team expose them to product experts, mentors, designers, and Fortune 500 executives. The goal is jump-starting these young businesses in a way that only a company of Microsoft’s scale can.
For the accelerator’s second class, which starts in March, Mohan is eager to identify new enterprise software, services, and platforms to enhance productivity in creative ways. Improving digital collaboration and communication. Enabling the Internet of Things in a complex B-to-B environment. Mining big data for new insights and untapped value.
Microsoft Ventures’ first class completed the program in December. Since then, a handful of the companies have succeeding in striking distribution deals (or are about to) that will bring their products to national retailers. Nearly all of them secured investors following graduation (average funding: $725,000). For those startups, the unifying theme was home applications of the Internet of Things, such as the first smart water heater and Wi-Fi-enabled light pads that can be controlled by a smartphone.
For the second class, the emphasis is shifting from consumer to business enterprise —and the search for talent broadened. New York was the fifth stop on an 11-city tour across North America, spearheaded by Sonal Mane, Startup Portfolio manager at Microsoft. “We are thrilled to kick off this ongoing dialogue with the best minds among startups, to help us define what the future of work will be,” Mane said. “We know the bleeding-edge ideas, hacks, and business models come from the outside.”
At Microsoft Ventures’ Open House in New York, some of the area’s best and brightest tech talent filled NYU’s year-old Entrepreneurs Lab, a street-level space just off Washington Square Park, to share how their startups were hacking away at the productivity problem, using data analytics, wearable sensors, even holograms in a variety of industries. Mohan reminded the entrepreneurs of Microsoft Ventures’ unusual no-strings approach: $25,000 and access to Microsoft’s resources, without a required equity stake in the companies. The mission is simple: “How do we help you do something in four months that would otherwise take you 12 months or longer?” asked Mohan, a serial entrepreneur whose own experience—“I have sold two companies and failed at four or five”—created a palpable kinship with the New York startup crowd. (They cheered his resilience.)
Tereza Nemessanyi, an entrepreneur-in-residence for Microsoft in New York and another startup veteran, winnowed her extensive network to nine startups for the evening’s pitch program. Each had five minutes to dazzle the crowd with how they’re redefining and enhancing productivity—or are poised to do so.
And now, the highlights as well as some startups to watch:
Human Condition uses wearable sensors on construction sites to detect everything from improper ergonomics to unsafe conditions and sends real-time alerts to supervisors and workers. Similar to legally required protective eyewear, says president Peter Raymond, “we want to create a digital bubble around the worker.”
Yobe Audio Technology is improving poor sound quality in cell phones and VoIP with patented technology that combines artificial intelligence, new signal processing, and audio enhancement methodologies. Cofounder and president Ken Sutton says Yobe’s technology can also be applied to biometric systems, such as voice-activation security. “We could do away with passwords,” he said.
CreativeWorx is reimagining the time sheet with software that captures someone’s browser, VoIP phone, calendar, and other applications, automating the tracking process to provide more accurate information. (It also allows employees to edit before submitting.) “We’re like Mint for time,” said founder and CEO Mark Hirsch.
Among the other startups that pitched were LeadsChat, an online live chat service that facilitates handing off sales leads; FunnelFire, which supplies sales teams with real-time research on prospective business leads; CANVS+, makers of a touch-based project management application; Outleads, which generates online-quality analytics from off-line customer interactions at non e-commerce businesses; PRSONAS, whose holograms, powered by artificial intelligence and motion sensors, function as a virtual, indefatigable sales person; and MiFace, which uses proprietary 3-D modeling to analyze facial expressions in social media images.
As for the New York event, where the pitches sparked a mix of networking, debate, and how-did-you-do-that exchanges, Nemessanyi said, “this is a jumping-off point to create community around startups.”
As any of Microsoft Ventures’ guests that night could attest, the conversation is well underway.
This article was authored by FastCo Works, Fast Company’s Content Studio.