Success Story: Dumbstruck Strengthens Pitch after VentureB, Scores Investment
In November 2016, the Schenectady startup Dumbstruck was preparing to embark on a venture round to further its transition from a social media messaging app firm to a market research analytics firm. By then Dumbstruck CEO and Co-founder Peter Allegretti had already gained valuable experience pitching his technology to investors from Silicon Valley to New York City. However, his presentation that month to a VentureB Series panel, organized by the Center for Economic Growth (CEG), would help him refine that pitch and get a jump start on the venture round.
Four years earlier Allegretti and Mike Tanski had launched a mobile app idea lab called Doctored Apps after graduating from Siena College and entering the University at Albany’s information science doctorate program. In 2013 they introduced an app called Dumbstruck, which began as a messaging app that used a smartphone’s camera to capture users’ emotional responses to photo and video messages. Within a few months it had already racked up more than 100,000 downloads and national attention, including celebrity endorsements. Then in 2014 Allegretti and Tanski started taking Dumbstruck in a new direction: one that incorporated artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to go beyond recording emotional responses on users’ faces and analyze them as well.
The app’s ability to leverage facial recognition technology to collect objective data that is more reliable and less costly than focus groups made it appealing to advertising agencies and video production companies and TV stations. When Allegretti made his pitch to the VentureB panel, 10 such companies had already signed up for the AI platform, and he was seeking up to $1 million to scale up the product.
“It was good timing. We were gearing up to do an investment round,” said Allegretti.
VentureB is a collaboration of CEG and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Emerging Ventures Ecosystem (RPI EVE). At each quarterly meeting, two to three Capital Region startups present at RPI’s Heffner Alumni House before three to four panelists, who are local mentors, investors and seasoned entrepreneurs. The panellists who heard Allegretti’s pitch were Clayton Besch, the director of the New York State Innovation Venture Capital Fund (NYSIVCF); Joseph Visalli, a retired R&D director at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA); Chet Opalka, a co-founder of Albany Molecular Research Inc. (AMRI); and Richard Frederick, the founder and co-manging director of Eastern New York Angels.
While Allegretti has investors and board members off whom he can bounce ideas, they are already familiar in Dumbstruck and its technology. Given how an explanation of the AI platform “gets complex pretty quick,” he valued the opportunity to pitch the startup to people with a fresher perspective.
“It was good to have a sounding board….It’s hard to come by people who don’t already know what you do,” he said.
One piece of feedback from a panellist that Allegretti found to be especially helpful regarded a slide in his presentation hat explained how Dumbstruck works. The panellist suggested another way of presenting that information, and Allegretti incorporated that idea into the pitches he later made for that venture round.
Dumbstruck, however, ended up getting much more out of that VentureB meeting, which was attended by approximately 30 business professionals, mentors, investors, university faculty and students. One person in attendance was an investor who had earlier expressed an interest in the company, and who’d go forward with an investment after the presentation at RPI.
“It was not expected before the event that that was an investment that was going to happen,” said Allegretti.
Dumbstruck is based in the NYBizLab, where it employs 10 workers and is part of the START-UP NY through an affiliation with Schenectady County Community College. The firm last June also received the Technology Innovation Award at CEG’s 21st annual Technology Awards.
For more information about the VentureB Series, contact CEG Entrepreneurship Program Coordinator Ellyn Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 518-465-8975, ext. 243.