NORTH ADAMS — Brent Heeringa is an academic with entrepreneurial experience, a tenured professor of computer science at Williams College who has helped start two Boston-based companies. Three years ago, he took a school research project and turned it into a business, a software as service company that is involved with password management.
Heeringa and Kaylee Prior co-founded Valt, a Williamstown-based venture, that is one of several small enterprises that have received funding and guidance from Lever, a North Adams-based small business incubator, that has provided funding, networking and other assistance to technology-based startups since its founding in 2014.
Lever's efforts with startups, combined with the pending opening of the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield this fall, the region's rich history of innovation, and cutting edge products that are already being made here, are factors that lead local and state officials to believe Berkshire County has the potential to become an innovation hub.
Heeringa knew Lever's Executive Director Jeffrey Thomas before founding Valt, said the business incubator's efforts were essential in developing his idea.
"In the early days they were incredibly helpful," Heeringa said. "There's financial support right away because it can be difficult to raise money. And the networking. Early on I had the Williams network, but it's nice to be plugged into a community where people are interested in ideas. When you're just starting the process you're incredibly lucky to have the support of that network here."
Heeringa knows what's involved in trying to get a startup off the ground.
"It's been a long continuous process," he said, "which is often what you see in startups."
Heeringa said the idea behind Valt developed because he liked using images instead of digits to code personal information, like Social Security numbers. He developed a prototype, but "we found there were some user experience issues."
"It worked and it was really cool, but it just took too long," he said.
So, Heeringa and his team built a different app that takes encrypted information and passwords and locked it behind an image. After creating that prototype with the help of two Williams students, and getting his venture off the ground, Heeringa went back to Williams to teach for another year. He decided he would refine and build Valt during an upcoming year-long sabbatical. But as the time off approached, Heeringa realized he would need more than a year to really get the company up and running. So he decided "to get after it a little bit" and asked the college for an additional year off, which Williams granted.
"They were very generous," he said. "We built the product, put the team together, raised money and built a real startup.
"We did a bunch of internet research and we knew this category of password security was wide open," Heeringa said. "Even though there were a lot of players they weren't penetrating the market."
Valt has raised $1.8 million and is in the process of raising an additional $2.5 million, Heeringa said. The company has six employees and one intern, and more than 50,000 users including 10,000 who use the service monthly. There have been 75,000 downloads of Valt's software, Heeringa said. The company has also changed its initial focus.
"What we're focused on right now is the sharing of credentials," Heeringa said. "This is where we think there's a large opportunity. There's no software on the market that allows you to group, track and manage shared credentials."
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-496-6224.