Deal Flow

Portrait of an entrepreneur as a young startup

Why did a Mass Challenge gold winner choose Providence?

PHOTO BY Scott Kingsley

Erik Wernevi, founder of Nordic Technology Group, in front of the Warren Alpert Medical School. Wernevi seeks to create the world's safest personal emergency response system

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/21/13
What makes Rhode Island such an attractive place today for entrepreneurs is the access to people and expertise, things that are difficult to work out in more mature innovation ecosystems in Cambridge and Boston. Erik Wernevi has been able to cultivate ongoing relationships with the Slater Fund’s Richard Horan, with Lifespan’s Peter Snyder, with Brown’s Richard Besdine. Wernevi’s story, despite having been the 16 finalists in the 2012 MassChallenge, has remained well below the media’s radar screen – perhaps because his innovative device is targeted for an aging population, a growing demographic here in Rhode Island, but not top priority for media and marketing gurus who still live a very narrow place, seeking to tempt the buying power of 17-30 year olds.
Design for the needs of an aging population remain one of those underdeveloped resources here in Rhode Island. Leslie Fontana’s frank description of offering a class in design for aging at RISD, wondering if any students would sign up, offers a focal point for future potential investment. What will it take to spur the development of a Rhode Island-based industry cluster focused on designing products for the needs of an aging population?
The advantages of Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem for a startup entrepreneur are often misunderstood. There is, as Jack Templin described it a while back, a distinction between the drives and needs of a 24-year-old entrepreneur, and slightly older entrepreneurs, who, as parents, look at the amenities that a community offers.
Investing in community infrastructure – good schools, safe, diverse neighborhoods, affordable housing, public transportation, including a walkable commute – are all important factors in attracting the mature entrepreneurs who will be the drivers of a successful innovation ecosystem. The Wernevis – a husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team – offer an insight into the amenities that Providence and Rhode Island should seek to strengthen in order nurture and sustain an innovation ecosystem and knowledge economy.

PROVIDENCE – Erik Wernevi of the Nordic Technology Group believes in hard work, in collaboration, in serendipity – and that Rhode Island’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem is the best place to launch his new startup.

“Our vision is to create the world’s safest personal emergency response system – one that doesn’t require you to wear anything, [one where] you don’t need to press a button,” Wernevi told ConvergenceRI.

Wernevi, whose office is currently a desk at the Founders League, cannot talk about the technology his startup will employ.

What he can share is that Nordic Technology Group will be starting a product trial in November, working in partnership with “one of the largest operators of senior housing on the East Coast” located in Massachusetts.

“We would also love to work in partnership here in Rhode Island,” he continued. “We are very interested in seeing if there is someone else [to create a pilot program with].”

The company is in its “bootstrapping” phase, according to Wernevi. “We are not quite ready for seed fundraising. Once the pilot is completed, he expects to seek seed fundraising.

Both he and his wife, Suzanne, are entrepreneurs – she is the founder and creative director of Luna & Stella, an online jewelry company, creating a distinctive brand that fuses design with meaning.

The impetus for his new company came from a family incident – his step dad had a serious fall. “Lucky for him, he had the world’s best health monitoring system, my mom,” Wernevi said,

Wernevi began to look at the current health monitoring systems and saw that there were, in his opinion, major flaws – wearing something around your neck was cumbersome, and a person who was confused or dazed from a fall might not be able to push a button.

There was also the stigma of having to ask for help – an action might result in having to move to a nursing facility. For some seniors, he said, they fear “getting moved to a nursing home because ‘I pressed the button.’”

So, he began to design a better mousetrap.

By serendipity, last year he read about the MassChallenge in a blog posting a few days before applications were due – and he scrambled to complete the application. The result: Nordic Technology Group emerged as a 2012 MassChallenge “Gold Winner,” one of 16 finalists, receiving a $50,000 award.

The appeal of Rhode Island

When Wernevi and his wife had looked around for a place to live and work, they chose Providence. “We looked around,” he began. “We could pretty much [have chosen to live] anywhere. We liked what we saw in Providence. The innovations in the whole health care ecosystem; the great mix of academic institutions.”

Now, Wernevi continued, “We’re firmly rooted here in Providence. We really like Providence as a city and a place to live, it has a great culture.” And, as parents with a young son, he continued, he and his wife, like all parents, are concerned with the public school system, but impressed with the changes underway.

Nordic Technology Group’s offices is one of the startup companies at The Founders League, which Wernevi described as being “really great in helping promote the entrepreneurial ecosystem” here in Rhode Island.

At the recent health care showcase held at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Wernevi had been sitting behind Richard G. Horan, senior managing director of the Slater Fund, listening to the presentation, “Our Aging Population and Aging Brains: Medical, Home and Social Design Challenges for the 21st Century.”

He and Horan, Wernevi said, and been engaged in an ongoing –and very helpful -- conversation as his business model has evolved.

The panel featured Ara Khachaturian, the executive editor of Alzheimer’ & Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, Dr. Richard Besdine, a professor of Medicine and Health Services Policy and Practice at Brown University, and Leslie Fontana, a professor of Industrial Design at RISD. The panel was moderated Peter J. Snyder, senior vice president and chief research officer at Lifespan.

That morning, before the showcase, Wernevi said he had met privately with Khachaturian and Snyder to discuss a potential collaboration – Khachaturian’s idea – to develop a think tank that help commercialize new technologies in the elderly and aging space. The initiative is in the planning stages, and will look to launch sometime in 2014.

Wernevi also has plans this week to meet in person with Besdine. “He’s really at the cutting edge of gerontology,” Wernevi said. Such relationships, he continued, “are easier to build – and to get help from a distinguished professor [such as Besdine] in a smaller place like Providence. In Boston, to meet with that caliber of people, it is more difficult to make the connections, it takes a much longer route.”

The health care showcase, the incubator space at The Founders League, the creation of MedMates, and the conversations, convergence and collaborations now underway, Wernevi believes, “I think all of this is starting to create momentum in the right direction. My only lament is that I wish there were more events such as [the health care showcase] that can connect everybody in different sectors in Rhode Island.”

Because, he added, “I spend a lot of time going up to Massachusetts, to different kinds of events. Rather than being on the road, I would prefer to be down here.”

Massachusetts, he continued, has been very “enlightened” about how to help entrepreneurs and build the ecosystem, and there are things that Rhode Island could learn from that.

1 comment on this story | Add your comment
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SuzannesMom

I think being a successful entrepreneur means, in part, being good at connecting one thing with another, quickly. Someone is working to start a business, happens to be reading a post at a blog that is not normally about business, http://suzannesmomsblog.com/2012/04/10/entrepreneurs-only/, and takes decisive action to get an application into MassChallenge -- just under the wire. I admire all the entrepreneurs I know.

Monday, October 21, 2013 | Report this
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