Startups strut their stuff to Lever audience in North Adams

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NORTH ADAMS — Every year, migrants in the United State send more than $400 billion back to developing countries.

Part of that money goes not to relatives but to companies like Western Union as remittance fees.

A company with Berkshires connections has a new approach — and joined with others this week to celebrate the region's ingenuity.

FamKeepa, launched by a Zimbabwe native, hopes to send money home to loved ones at a lower cost — via text message with a gift card for a Zimbabwe-based retailer.

"We are connected to the people we want to solve the problem for," said Nick Toronga, founder of the company, which has a team that includes two Williams College students.

FamKeepa was one of eight up-and-coming companies to pitch their services at the third annual Demo Day hosted by Lever, a North Adams nonprofit that facilitates startups from its headquarters on Main Street in an effort to expand the Northern Berkshire economy.

"Our mission is regional economic development, and our strategy is very simply to launch new companies — companies, in particular, that are going to draw revenues from other places here," said Jeffrey Thomas, executive director of Lever. "That's going to create wealth and that's going to create jobs."

What is happening in North Adams is "just what we had hoped," said Jack Wadsworth, former chairman of Morgan Stanley, owner of the Porches Inn in North Adams, and philanthropist.

"We're into the next phase of really creating jobs and economic prosperity in North Adams," Wadsworth said.

The event was held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and drew a mixture of investors, local officials and entrepreneurs. Every member of the audience received surveys to provide feedback for the companies that presented, and each presenter fielded questions from the crowd.

The pitches ranged from a company that wanted to make property appraisals more accurate to a startup that wanted to simplify and digitize the chemical treatment and testing of swimming pools.

Nick Martinelli wants to make the process of transporting goods from farmers and producers to customers more efficient.

"The system as it is now is inefficient and fragmented," Martinelli said.

So the Williams College alum created Marty's Local, a distributor that links local food producers with local buyers and has doubled its sales since launching last year.

The buyers include schools, hospitals and bakeries.

"The premise of the business is that we have hundreds of high-quality farmers and food producers in our region, and it ought to be as easy, or easier, for the buyers that I just listed to purchase food from these producers as it is for them to get food from elsewhere in the country," Martinelli explained.

Because Marty's trucks drive shorter distances, its food is fresher, tastes better and can stay on store shelves longer.

Officials hope that companies like Marty's Local can continue to grow.

"That's often where you see that immediate injection of job growth, and it's the innovators that have improved our lives — and as a guy that's coming from government, there's a lot that we need to do, but first and foremost it's letting you all succeed," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter


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