Chicago startup Proxfinity’s badges recommend who to network with during events

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Meeting people is an ordeal, mainly because it takes nuance and time. Whether it’s romantic or business (assuming relationships aren’t akin to business negotiations anyway), finding a match takes time and depends largely on nuance. People fill out surveys and list their strongest skills or character attributes, but finding a way to hone in on the best matches in real time hasn’t happened yet.

Way back in 2009, Lisa Carrel and Christine Hutchison had an idea to do just that. Now, their startup Proxfinity is organizing a new kind of networking experience for corporate clients using a badge that attaches to your name tag. The badges match you to other event-goers as you walk by each other based simply on your interests and industry.

“We came up with the idea in 2009 before wearables, around the beginning of the big boom for apps,” Carrel tells Geektime from the ultra-swanky tech hub 1871 in downtown Chicago. “There had to be a better way to interact in these kinds of situations.”

She and Hutchison patented their idea before engineer Mike Howells could build a similar product. After meeting, the three decided to combine concept and application into one company. Howells is now CTO. Attendees simply fill out a digital survey before they enter and let the badge – dubbed the Bullseye – do the rest. Your initials will appear on someone else’s badge, and theirs on yours.

Even before their prototype hit beta, they managed to patent the idea to make everything from business expos to dating a technological endeavor. But since getting off the ground, the company has shifted slightly from large-scale conferences and expos to HR and corporate outings, realizing there was a massive industry that was struggling to analyze its events.

“I can tell you if I spent 20 minutes speaking to someone who had been within eight feet of me, what we had in common, how well the conversation went.”

Proxfinity operates within 15 feet of other eventgoers, alerting wearers when it matches people according to whatever professional interests people are looking for. Image courtesy
Proxfinity operates within 15 feet of other event-goers, alerting wearers when it matches people according to whatever professional interests people are looking for. Image: Courtesy

That’s a big deal for corporations. Corporate event-planning constitutes a $300 billion industry according to Carrel, adding that $44 billion of that is focused on engagement between attendees alone. That’s a massive amount for there not being an effective networking tool.

“Corporations are playing paper bingo. They spend millions to put these events on and then they pull people out of work for a week. There’s the conversation cost.”

Capitalizing on untapped demand

Carrel and Hutchison are participating in 1871’s WISTEM (Women in STEM) program. They are an active part of the mega-incubator and one of their leading up-and-coming companies. They’re already bringing in real revenue with little venture capital yet committed to their accounts.

The badges work for between one and three days, depending on the package the corporate client buys from Proxfinity. Carrel and co then manage the badges and its accompanying wearable throughout the event.

Proxfinity's dashboard
Proxfinity’s dashboard

“The statistical probability calculator will be able to weigh the chances attendees had to interact with each other against their interaction had they not been using the badges.”

Companies get a report on interaction time, what kind of pairings produced the most talk and other metrics. Individuals linked into the app also have the chance to get their own analytics for their personal experience at the event, plus the chance to hook up with contacts who have synced their LinkedIn profiles with Proxfinity.

Carrel says they are working with several clients, mainly in the Chicago area but have also had the chance to test it out at events in Boston and Tokyo. The Japanese experience was thanks to a contact they made at one event with the HR department of a Tokyo-based pharma company. They had been tasked with analyzing their company’s intra-company networking.

“I don’t know how they would have done it otherwise.”

The company was bootstrapped for the first batch of some 200 badges, but now Carrel says they’ve got half the money committed for a near-million-dollar seed round it’s raising.

Despite the distance LinkedIn has covered in bringing networking into the digital age, Carrel says they haven’t covered the ground that in-person meetings necessitate when building business relationships.

“There was a problem to solve in that space. Human interaction is a big deal. What drives us as humans, getting together and being face-to-face. There’s a big need, and it is easy to go to B2B and have [a] fast entrance [to the market.]”

“Corporations know that, but how do you inspire those conversations? Those conversations where people in different parts of the world can share these ideas sharing these same struggles and insights?”

Co-founders Lisa Carrel and Christine Hutchison came up with the idea in 2009. They merged with engineer Mike Howells in 2014 who was working on a similar concept to form Proxfinity
Co-founders Lisa Carrel (R) and Christine Hutchison (L) came up with the idea in 2009. They merged with engineer Mike Howells in 2014 who was working on a similar concept to form Proxfinity

They are still perfecting their full platform, but if attendees are synced in with the app, future real-time analytics will be able to show what kind of interests are pairing up best during meetups, which departments are mixing best and of course how many conversations are happening at once.

“We haven’t seen anyone doing this without a cell service, beacon or within an app.” Carrel also pushes back at the suggestion an app would be better suited for the task, since they haven’t proven themselves at improving the conference or networking experience.

“I think there’s app fatigue. A lot of events have their own apps, but not even 50% of the people will even download the app. We’re giving participants reasons to wear this.” And a lot apps don’t perform uniformly across phones. “You don’t know how people are connected.”

Carrel says they plan to cut the cord and let event managers learn the ropes for the badges themselves. Ultimately, she hopes to see them as a staple of the events industry.

“That’s where I’d love to go … where the venue space has these, you get a generic badge, sync it and go.”

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