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The presentation of startups under Lever's auspices draws a large crowd to Mass MoCA's Club B10.
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Nick Toronga, Sean Ninsing and Tafara Makaza of FamKeepa answer questions about their business that allows expatriates to send funds home.
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Jason Koperniak talks about B&B Micromanufacturing's growth since starting up its tiny house business in North County last year.
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Imran Khoja explains his app, Just Appraised, designed to help municipalities determine and track property values.
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Dr. Randy Anselmo, a Bennington, Vt., general practitioners, discusses his telemedicine portal, BeWell, for schools and other student and youth venues.

Entrepreneurs Make Pitches at Lever Demo Day

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Scott Trafton explains his app, PoolShark H2O, which tracks data for commercial pool operators. 
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It was not quite "Shark Tank," but there was at least one shark in the room on Thursday afternoon at Mass MoCA's Club B10.
Scott Trafton, the founder of PoolShark H20, was one of eight entrepreneurs on stage to explain his or her new businesses at the third annual Lever Demo Day, a presentation of the North Adams non-profit Lever Inc.
Trafton, a software engineer and self-described serial entrepreneur from Bennington, Vt., created PoolShark, an app that allows commercial swimming pool operators to collect and track testing data from their pools, store it on the cloud and calculate precise chemical treatments to increase safety.
Trafton told the crowd that he has experience managing a public pool that has been in his family for years and that his "aha" moment came when he received a call from his brother.
"He said the health inspector was just here, and we couldn't find any of our records," Trafton recalled. "Can you find something that will allow my people to keep that information on their iPhones. Everyone carries an iPhone."
Trafton looked around, found there was not a suitable app and created one himself.
"I'm not sure why there weren't, but I'm happy we were here first," he said.
The maintenance of paper-based logs is time-consuming, inefficient and a particular problem for managers who are responsible for multiple pools on multiple properties, he explained. PoolShark H20 keeps all that information at the pool manager's fingerprints and even allows the operator to give local health inspectors a link that will allow them to review the documentation themselves.
To date, he has enrolled 35 customers — most with multiple pools — in 19 states. Currently, there are 300 pools whose data is being tracked on the app, a mere fraction of the 360,000 inspected pools nationwide, Trafton said.
Like everyone at Thursday's event, Trafton was in the early stages of building a brand.
Some, like him, came with a specific target for an investments, no doubt with hopes of attracting potential backers from the dozens who attended the three-hour presentation.
Unlike TV's "Shark Tank," there were no deals signed, no disputes over market valuation and no talk of "royalty deals." There were thoughtful questions from many in attendance and an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to network with potential backers both before they made their pitches and afterward, in the Bright Ideas Brewing craft brewery on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art campus.
Networking is a big part of the mission of Lever, which "supports local economic development by creating and growing enterprises that leverage local assets, including the talents of young people from our region's colleges," according to its website.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the region has untapped potential for economic growth and thanked Lever for helping to foster innovation.
"It is phenomenal to be right here in the best of all worlds," Hinds said. "You look out your window, and you see we have unequaled access to nature. We have world-class cultural institutions. … We have higher ed institutions right here. And we have a lot of the underlying dynamics that you need to spur growth.
"So it's exciting that we have yet another element, which is innovation and entrepreneurship. Because, as Jack [Wadsworth] pointed out, there are a lot of studies that show that's often where you needed that needed injection of job growth. It's the innovators who have improved our lives.
"As a guy who comes from the government, there's a lot that we need to do, but first and foremost it's letting you all succeed and then, a lot of times, getting out of the way."
Trafton was joined by seven other success stories in the making, several with ties to Williams College and at least one the brainchild of three lifelong friends who grew up in Adams.
Jason Koperniak told the gathering about B&B Micromanufacturing, which he started with Mitch Bressett and Chris St. Cyr, and which has grown dramatically in 2017.
A manufacturer of quality, stylish mobile homes that are truly homes, B&B Micromanufacturing has entered the growing, high-profile "tiny house" market with the distinction of being the only Recreational Vehicle Industry Association member northeast of Pittsburgh, Pa.
With that imprimatur, B&B has gone from five employees producing .85 homes per month in February of this year to 35 employees on track to produce 11 homes this month.
"North Adams has been phenomenal," Koperniak said of the business's ability to attract qualified labor. "There are a lot of quality people who want to stay in the area. We have carpenters who were working in Springfield who gladly came to work for us for a little bit less [money] in order to work five minutes down the road."
Koperniak acknowledged that there are bigger producers on the market but explained that the tiny house movement is still growing with more potential markets, including the elderly, millennials, second-home owners and people who want an accessory building for extended family on their property.
"We still think we can grow and employ more people locally," he said. "We can continue to dominate the conversation in the Northeast and become a strong player nationally."
Another one of Thursday's presenters is thinking internationally in a big way.
Nick Toronga explained the problem faced by Zimbabwe natives like himself who are living in places like the United States and trying to send money back to family members in their home country.
The process is both expensive and inconvenient, and he and his partners think their new business, FamKeepa, is the solution. With their service, expats can send money home — in the form of gift cards — with a click of a button and for a fraction of the cost.
How much cost? Toronga said that of $35.2 billion sent each year to sub-Saharan Africa, $3.6 billion goes to the money transfer companies. FamKeepa has piloted its gift card-based system in Zimbabwe by partnering with a popular supermarket chain and plans to expand to neighboring countries before moving into new markets.
As with all of the startups on the dais Thursday, the potential for growth is sizable, with an estimated 247 million immigrants worldwide, Toronga said.
"We hope everyone wins … except Western Union and their friends," he joked.
Other businesses on display Thursday included: Marty's Local, a distributor of local food that serves 45 producers from the Pioneer Valley to Albany, N.Y.,'s Capital District; Just Appraised, which created an app to help municipalities more accurately determine and track property values; Be Well, a telemedicine portal that aims to serve small colleges, boarding schools and overnight camps; Valt, a password storage solution that claims it built a better mousetrap than better known apps like Dashlane; and FoodLove, an online portal that connects local producers with the restaurants, schools and institutions looking to use locally produced food.
FoodLove and Pittsfield-based Marty's Local found each other through Lever to create a better experience for their customers.
Nick Martinelli, who operates Marty's Local with Sandra Thomas, said his distribution company has seen a $500,000 increase in gross sales since May 2016 and has doubled sales month over month from July 2016 to last month.
"We can supply every kind of food," Martinelli said. "With the exception of citrus and avocados, you can get it all right here."

Tags: business development,   business event,   lever,   presentation,   startup,   

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MCLA Considering Temporary Homeless Housing on Campus

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is considering turning the vacant Berkshire Towers dorm into a temporary homeless shelter.
President James Birge said on Friday that the college is considering a partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development that would supply needed housing for 50 homeless families.
"I look at the mission of the institution, and we talk about educating students to be responsible citizens," Birge said. "I think this models that mission."
Birge said residents would be mostly younger families. He assumed 50 families would generate 25 school-aged children in the Berkshire Towers.
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