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Steve Case, second from right, co-founder and former chairman and CEO of America Online, meets with executives of Dyn before speaking at Techtoberfest at Dyn in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

AOL founder gives FreshAir a fresh start with $100k investment


MANCHESTER — In a world where smokers are finding more creative ways to circumvent smoking bans in places like hotel rooms, developers of smoker-sensing technology think they’ve struck on the next big thing.

Steve Case, venture capitalist and founder of AOL, agrees. He and a panel of judges awarded $100,000 in venture capital to the founders of a New Hampshire-based high-tech start-up called FreshAir. The “award” is actually an investment in the company that will net Case some equity in the business.

“It’s a company that can really put New Hampshire on the map,” he said at the culmination of a pitch contest that saw seven start-ups promote their value proposition. “If they innovate successfully, they can build a great company, create a lot of jobs and change the world, because they are dealing with something that is really important to us in terms of health — basically making sure we and our kids are in safe environments.”

Case and his Rise of the Rest crew were in town as part of a nationwide roadtrip designed to bring attention to the fact that potential innovative hotspots like Manchester are too often overlooked by investors.

“Rise of the Rest is really an idea and to some extent a movement to try and promote entrepreneurship all across the country,” said Case. “Seventy percent of the venture capital in this country goes to Massachusetts, California and New York. The other 47 states fought over the other 30 percent. Opportunity is limited to a few places and we’re trying to level the playing field.”

Case and his team have been on the road for more than a year and a half, visiting 17 cities before Manchester. “This is the 18th city we have visited and we are encouraged by what we are seeing,” said Case, at the end of a day that included tours of some of the state’s most successful startups and a VIP luncheon in Concord, hosted by Gov. Maggie Hassan.

The high-energy event in the headquarters of the FIRST robotics competition in the Millyard opened with a moderated conversation between Case and FIRST founder Dean Kamen, one of New Hampshire’s best-known entrepreneurs and inventors.

Case advised the entrepreneurs in the audience to expect failure, persevere and believe in themselves.

“It’s worth remembering that while Babe Ruth was the home run king he was also the strikeout king,” he said. “So if you are going to swing for the fences, you are going to strike out a lot.”

“Believe in yourself,” he said. “When I started AOL it took 10 years for us to become a success. My parents kept calling me and saying, ’Steve it’s not working; what’s your Plan B.’ Follow your dream, work hard, never give up and respect your parents, but don’t always listen to your parents.”

In addition to spreading the wealth to other parts of the country, the Rise of the Rest initiative is also trying to stimulate more diversity in the startup world. “Venture capital in this country goes (overwhelmingly) to white guys in San Francisco, New York and Boston,” said Chase.

Fresh Air won the pitch competition among the seven contenders because of the potential for the product to succeed, but the judges were also impressed with the diversity of the eight-member startup team, with old and young, Asian, black and white talent all represented.

“It’s a great idea with incredible potential,” Case said. “It’s also a diverse team, reflective of our world out there, which is a great thing.”

The company, formally known as FreshAir Sensor, has developed technology that enables the operators of places like hotels, apartments or dormitories to install sensors in places where smokers might try to feed their habit. So far sensors have been developed that can pick up tobacco or marijuana smoke, and efforts are under way to develop sensors to detect dangerous chemicals in the air as well.

Jamie Coughlin, director of entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College, served as master of ceremonies for the event, which included a welcome by Gov. Maggie Hassan. Representatives of several presidential campaigns were on hand as well to make a brief statement as to how their candidate will promote innovation.

“The live free and start economy of New Hampshire will be built on the backbone of entrepreneurs, and tonight we have seven who will be presenting their dream,” said Coughlin.

The other six presenters were Adored, a customer loyalty app; VidFall, a social shopping platform; AlignRevenue, a virtual meeting platform; HappsNow, which identifies social opportunities on or around college campuses; Calibrator Health, which gives providers real-time patient feedback; and Fliq, a social media platform that connects across platforms and networks.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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