Four Buffalo Companies to Watch

Here at Tech:NYC, our core mission is to support a successful New York tech ecosystem — and sometimes, that doesn’t mean just the five boroughs.

Almost four hundred miles northwest, Buffalo has a burgeoning tech scene, and groups like 43North are leading the next phase of its growth. 43North is an accelerator program investing $5 million a year in startups based in — or that move to — the city. With a portfolio of 44 companies under their belt, they’ve already achieved a $800 million total portfolio valuation and created more than 400 jobs in Western New York.

The next cohort of companies will be announced later this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing the contributions they’ll make to the growing tech community across the larger metro region. That’s why this month, we’re profiling five Buffalo companies to watch.



What does your company do?
HiOperator founder and CEO Elizabeth Tsai: HiOperator provides email and text-based customer service as a service to consumer companies. Companies hire us as if they’re hiring one, very experienced customer service agent and we can scale from 10 tickets a day to 10,000 tickets a day for them. Internally, we build software that automates backend processes with a combination of integrations, NLP, and machine learning to make our agents super efficient. 

Why did you found your company in Buffalo?
ET: We came to Buffalo specifically because we were looking for a location where it would make sense to have both our operations & software development teams in one place. It’s important for everyone at HiOperator to understand customer service personally and all of our developers start on the CX desk. 

You have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, and you went on to receive a masters degree in media arts and sciences. How did that influence your experience as a founder?
ET: At some point I realized that MIT didn’t seem to track pre-requisites and you could also register for as many credits as you wanted to. As a result, I had a great time in college and grad school taking whatever classes caught my eye. In practice, this meant that I spent a lot of time hanging out with interesting people, building things, exploring different fields, and occasionally getting in way over my head. Having an engineering background has been helpful because it’s just a very structured way of thinking about the world. Having basic data and coding skills and knowing how to physically make things gives you both a bit of confidence and a framework to build on when trying to get a company off the ground. 

You spent the early part of your professional life in Geneva, Singapore, and San Francisco, working across logistics, business development, and customer success. What were your biggest takeaways from such different opportunities?
ET: Logistics, business development, and customer success are arguably the core of any business – technology alone (especially B2B) rarely sells itself! As an engineer, I found a lot of this deeply uncomfortable, but I was very fortunate to spend the first part of my professional career working on these skills.

You’re both a YCombinator and 43North company. How do you see incubators and pitch competitions contributing to the ecosystem? Are they collaborative or competitive?
ET: I think many are collaborative and YC and 43North in particular seem geared towards different stages of a startup. For us, we originally got into YC with just a (half-baked) idea and pivoted into HiOperator two weeks before demo day. 43North companies all tend to be much further along and, by nature of it being both a small and fairly long (a year) program, provides a very different set of tools and resources than a three-month long program.

You’ve scaled incredibly quickly since arriving in Buffalo in early 2019. What has been your biggest challenge, and what has been your biggest success?
ET: We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of 43North and the local community to help us hire rapidly since arriving in Buffalo. What I’ve been proudest of in our scaling effort is seeing the progression and growth from our employees. Many of the folks we hired in the first couple of batches have already been promoted to new roles. One of my primary goals is for our employees to see HiOperator as a career — not a job. As far as my biggest challenge, I’m a Texan — the cold and I are still getting our differences sorted out.

Hiring is one of HiOperator’s most important and crucial functions. What’s your personal philosophy on building the best team?
ET: We really believe in trying to bring the friendliest and most motivated people together. Empathy is at the core of everything we do, and so it's the number one criteria we look for in potential employees. And that goes for everyone — customer service gurus, software engineers, managers, and sales.

What brought you to New York?
ET: We moved out to New York City originally to be part of HearstLab. Being on an East Coast time zone is super helpful for us from both a client and end customer perspective! 

How do you get to your office?
ET: Dog-sledding with our giant malamutes. Just kidding, we live close enough to walk or drive at the moment.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice
ET: I haven’t explored pizza in Buffalo as much as I should, but La Nova Pizza is a solid favorite!

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
ET: Bagel Jay’s on 43North’s Bagel Wednesdays!

What is the best way to spend a summer day in Buffalo?
ET: Summer’s only really been around for a couple of weeks – ask me in a few months! So far, just walking along Canalside or going to one of the many festivals (like Taste of Buffalo) has been really enjoyable.

What’s your favorite Buffalo building?
ET: Hotel Henry! It’s just so completely unexpected.

What’s the best place in Buffalo for a coffee or lunch meeting?
ET: Caffèology.



What does your company do?
Kangarootime founder and CEO Scott Wayman: We automate the childcare business, we automate the classrooms, and we help parents experience their child’s education journey.

What brought you to New York?
SW: The talented people, the opportunity to build a special company, and as a stewardship to our investors to be extremely capital efficient.

Before Kangarootime, you spent a large part of your professional career in the medtech space. What overlaps do you see between innovation in the healthcare and childcare spaces?
SW: At the end of 2014, my brother-in-law Matt had just enrolled his first child into an early education school. At Thanksgiving dinner, my sister-in-law asked me if it would be possible to write an app that would circumvent the three-page questionnaire she was required to fill out — one that asked about sleep, diapers and mood when she arrived at school each day with her infant son.  We were right at the beginning of thinking through how to build a ‘mobile check in’ for patients at my healthcare startup Medstreaming, and the parallels were so substantial. Healthcare and education provide some very similar challenges, and it’s my belief that the solutions we created for healthcare after the HITECH Act of 2009 predated much of the modern web framework that makes SaaS software so wonderful — and inexpensive — plus the practice of ‘user centric design.’

One of the things you’ve said you love most about Buffalo is the workforce, the talent pool. How do you approach hiring as a founder and CEO? Is it different?
SW: I am coming from such a place of gratitude in the middle of my second year as a CEO of a growing company in Buffalo. It is amazing to see our employees buy homes and accomplish the American dream here in a way that seemed impossible in Los Angeles. I think that our employees genuinely come from that same position of gratitude — being able to work for a company that is serving so many educators and helping them to build bodies, minds and souls.  The culture of gratitude is so powerful.

You have two distinct users: parents and childcare centers. How do you approach building and delivering a product that must work differently, but in tandem? What advice do you have to founders working through similar challenges?
SW: We learned an early lesson in this journey. Business software users are forgiving and will tolerate subpar UI/UX, sometimes. Consumer applications, like our parent app, that scale across tens of thousands of new users per month, have to be wonderful experiences. There is no tolerance for anything less than amazing. You have two very different user personas, and the only way to assure that both are in love with your product is to shed the notion of being a ‘software company’ and relentlessly pursue a standard-setter with an obsession in ‘user centered design.’

You’ve spoken about how Kangarootime grew, in part, out of family tragedy. Tech doesn’t often do a good job of acknowledging the personal dynamics that accompany an entrepreneur’s journey. Is there a part of that conversation you wish were had more often? How does that impact where you find inspiration? What do you think of the “do it all” attitude?
SW: My dad dying tragically in 1995, as a young man, was so devastating and hard to reconcile.  Then to lose my mom, who was my best friend and lost to a terrible disease (ALS) a decade later, was crushing. Emotionally I had to really lean into becoming more evolved and face some real grief and seemingly insurmountable loss. I would not wish that on anybody, but actualizing through tragedy does have applications in building a company. Mental health is a daily priority — I try to assure that I am in the best place to serve our customers and our team. I think we need to have more conversations about mental health and overcoming trauma, and less about the senseless glorification of wealth, or the ‘bro-culture of crushing life.’

As a 43North company, how do you view pitch competitions and incubators, what do you think they contribute to the ecosystem?
SW: I think the pitch competitions are just the beginning, and a signature event that people most strongly associate with being a 43North company. I value working in an awesome incubator with world class entrepreneurs and mentors like Bob Willer (Campus Labs and formal Kangarootime Advisor), Liz Tsai (founder of HiOperator), or Dan Magnuszewski (founder and CTO of ACV Auctions). All very different levels of experience but priceless resources to share an ecosystem with. The second value is the support that we have received from 43North and people in Buffalo.

How do you get to your office?
SW: 80% drive, 10% bike, 10% walk/run.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
SW: Bada Bing. The white pizza!  

What is the best way to spend a summer day in Buffalo?
SW: Hanging with my wife Jessica, and spending the day hitting the Elmwood Village Farmers Market and Delaware Park.

What’s your favorite Buffalo building?
SW: The Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House is amazing. Everybody should take the tour.

What’s the best place in Buffalo for a coffee or lunch meeting? 
SW: Ulrich’s Tavern! Great staff and it is really close to the office.



What does your company do?
SomaDetect founder and CEO Bethany Deshpande: SomaDetect is an agricultural technology company that uses a patented sensor system and artificial intelligence to provide farmers with the information they need to make the best possible milk.

Why did you found your company in Buffalo?
BD: SomaDetect was founded in Fredericton, New Brunswick. We moved to Buffalo after winning 43North in 2017.

You have a PhD in environmental biology, where your research focused on subarctic, permafrost environments. What did tough conditions teach you about founding and running a company?
BD: A ton! My research taught me an incredible amount about how to design and carry out multi-year projects, how to work with others, and how to make do under difficult situations. When you are up North, working in the wilderness like I was, there are no backups. If you forget something or break something, it falls completely on you and the research team to find a solution and to make things work even when things are feeling difficult or impossible. 

I worked with a fantastic research supervisor and other students or researchers who were so passionate about what we were doing. I learned so much from others in the group that has given me an enormous appreciation for teamwork, and belonging. I had travelled to places so few people have the privilege of going; spent hours and days and weeks in labs doing repetitive and detailed work; written and re-written and published and eventually defended my work. Together, these things taught me that with the right team, the right mentorship, an open mind for learning and an open heart for feedback, I could build anything I wanted. That is Soma.

You and your dad wrote a patent for some of SomaDetect’s technology. What was that experience like? What advice would you give to founders creating intellectual property?
BD: It has been absolutely fantastic. Working on patents with him has given me the opportunity to see so many other sides of him — to see him as a scientist and inventor. Creating new things and writing patents is hard. It’s one of the things I’ve found myself doing at Soma that I never really planned for or imagined myself doing in advance. I love this about entrepreneurship — the opportunity to learn new things and develop new skills continues to unfold, for me as much as for everyone in the company. My advice to other founders is to embrace this; this is your pathway to IP.

One of your first major installations was with Cornell University. What did a partnership with an academic institution teach you as a founder and CEO? Was your background in academia helpful?
BD: Yes! I think since I had done a PhD myself, I understood so much better the process for working with academia, their timeline and priorities. This makes it so much easier to design and carry out a project. Of course, our installation at Cornell has been instrumental to our company. It continues to be one of our major priorities today. We have learned a lot from these sensors, and are enormously thankful for our collaboration with Cornell.

What’s next for SomaDetect in the world of agtech? What’s a natural jumping off point from dairy?
BD: We have so many awesomely exciting things ahead of us. For now, we are sticking to dairy, and we’ll eventually be expanding what our sensors measure and creating sensors for other points in the dairy supply chain. This means monitoring milk at the individual-cow level, and also in bulk tanks and within production facilities. This will make for a much more traceable dairy food system for consumers and enable better control over how each farm’s milk is used.

As a 43North company, how do you view pitch competitions and incubators, what do you think they contribute to the ecosystem?
BD: Well, as a 43North winner, I would say I’m probably one of the more biased individuals to ask about this...but overall, I love pitch competitions and incubators. I think the drama is exciting, and it gives founders an opportunity to put themselves out there and surpass what even they ever thought possible. I know that was very much the case for us at Soma, and I am enormously grateful to 43North for giving me such a powerful occasion to show up, to put myself out there, to tell our story, and ultimately to prove my mettle to myself and to others.

I also think 43North and several others within the Buffalo ecosystem play a significant role in facilitating interactions between startup founders, supporters, angel investors, and other business people. When 43North companies come to Buffalo, they are met with an open-armed community looking to help and support their development. This makes it possible for every company to move forward at their own pace, to get help solving big problems that emerge, and to ultimately find themselves in a position to thrive and eventually give back to the community. 

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
BD: Hearth & Press.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
BD: Bagel Jays is a favorite of 43North.

What is the best way to spend a summer day in Buffalo?
BD: Walking and hiking — there are so many incredible spots and it’s such a lovely place to explore.

What’s your favorite Buffalo building?
BD: Shea’s!

What’s the best place in Buffalo for a coffee or lunch meeting?
BD: Caffeology.



What does your company do? 
Squire co-founder and president Dave Salvant: Squire is a booking and payment platform that connects people with great barbers nationwide. Squire makes it easy to discover and book the best barbers wherever you are, in just a few taps. It’s is also the premier management platform for barbershops. Using Squire, barbers are able to better engage their customers and process bookings and payments.

You went to school in Albany, met your co-founder in Harlem, and now run Squire in Buffalo. What has New York taught you about innovation and entrepreneurship? What do you most appreciate?
DS: New York teaches you the art of the hustle. Work takes place during the day, but business takes place at night. A lot the connections are solidified in social environment. Regarding innovation, NYC has taught me that if you see inefficacies in the system, you can capitalize on them and create a successful business. 

Last summer, you launched a major partnership with Instagram. What value do integrations add, and what advice do you have for founders looking to nab similar relationships?
DS: Integrations add value to your customers and, by proxy, allow you to extend your reach and gain more customers. The advice I would give founders looking for integration with companies like Instagram and Google is to just reach out to them. If you don’t try to connect with these companies, they don’t know you are there. It took us sixteen months to launch our Instagram partnership.

What’s your favorite haircut? 
DS: Mid-fade. 

As both a 43North company and graduate of YCombinator, how do you view pitch competitions and incubators? What do you think they contribute to the ecosystem?
DS: I think both competitions like that from 43North and incubators like YCombinator provide two important things to young companies — the first is capital. Capital is critical for growth and building out product. The second is mentorship. Mentorship provides guidance to avoid the pitfalls that otherwise would have derailed the company.

What’s next for Squire?
DS: We have a lot of new products and services that we are rolling out over the next few months! Stay tuned! 

How do you get to your office?
DS: 43North hooked it up.

What is the best way to spend a summer day in Buffalo?
DS: Hanging out on Canalside.

What’s the best place in Buffalo for a coffee or lunch meeting?
DS: Perks Cafe.

All illustrations by Elly Rodgers