Augmented reality startup Apprentice bags $2.5M to build on uptick in biopharma interest

Apprentice's Tandem telepresence application. (Image: Apprentice)

Apprentice has raised money to build out its biopharma-focused augmented reality business. The startup provides smart glasses applications that enable hands-free data capture, remote problem solving and other tasks at drug research and manufacturing facilities. 

Jersey City, New Jersey-based Apprentice began life in 2014 to address some of the issues process engineer Alexandra Buttke had seen in a career that has included spells at Sanofi, Merck and Eli Lilly. Buttke told Angelo Stracquatanio of a time when a production line lay dormant for two months until the vendor was free to fly in and fix a problem. And of another time, when a $2 million batch of a biologic was dumped on the floor as someone thought the bioreactor was offline and pulled a plug.

“These stories kept popping up,” Stracquatanio said. “They weren't just from her. We had market research showing these events were not isolated to just the company that she was working for.”

Stracquatanio, an enterprise software engineer, thought Google Glass, prototype versions of which shipped in 2013, could prevent these and other problems. That led Stracquatanio, Buttke and Gary Pignata to found Apprentice.

The first version of Google Glass soon fell by the wayside. But the emergence of other devices gave Apprentice a platform on which to build applications intended to address some of the issues that stop researchers and process engineers from getting on with their jobs. The result is a trio of apps that run on a range of devices, including Microsoft HoloLens and the new version of Google Glass. 

Tandem enables remote collaboration. A vendor or other remote collaborator can see the smart glasses’ video feed and provide advice to the wearer. Manuals is a processing workflow aid that allows the wearer to pull up SOPs and other instructions while keeping both hands free for the task at hand. And, finally, BioCapture, uses the glasses’ camera to capture data, cutting the time staff spend transcribing. 

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As the travails of Google Glass suggest, the world wasn’t quite ready for augmented reality when Apprentice set up shop in 2014. That meant Apprentice needed to educate people about the technology and its value for the first couple of years. But the tide turned in 2017. 

“We saw an industry shift where we had customers come to us with use cases and ideas and problems that need to be solved with the technology,” Stracquatanio said. “Our consumers, in our case the pharma companies, are significantly more educated about this type of technology, the potential benefits of it and where they could impact them right away when a project takes off.”

That has led to Apprentice working with “a majority” of the top 10 pharma companies “in some form or another,” Stracquatanio said, and to a $2.5 million round led by Silverton Partners with an assist from Hemi Ventures that will equip it to build out its customer support operation while continuing to push ahead with development. 

Given the potential benefits of augmented reality in industrial settings, it seems certain that drug developers and manufacturers would explore the idea seriously at some point. But the route that led to 2017 being the year Apprentice saw an uptick in interest wasn’t preordained. 

If Stracquatanio’s reading of the situation is right, the uptick was precipitated by a Japanese video game company’s decision to collaborate with an American software developer on a mobile app. That decision led to the release of the wildly-successful augmented reality game Pokemon Go.

“We saw a huge shift after that moment,” Stracquatanio said. “A lot of managers started to see augmented reality for the first time as their kids were playing the game. Then they started asking themselves, “Well, what can I do with this stuff?”

Apprentice was in the right place at the right time to answer that question.