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Making the connection: Apps turn to integration

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Ed Heflin of Retail Shopping Systems with a shopping cart featuring one of his products.
Ed Heflin of Retail Shopping Systems with a shopping cart featuring one of his products. - ()

If you ask tech experts, simple smartphone apps are old news.

That's why Retail Shopping Systems created a new touch-screen tablet that mounts to the handle of a shopping cart and connects with the company's mobile app, List Magic, allowing shoppers to upload their lists to the tablet display.

“It's a completely customizable shopping experience,” said Ed Heflin, co-founder, chief technology officer and chief financial officer of the Clifton-based startup. “It's almost like having a personalized shopping assistant with them.”

Retail Shopping Systems, whose product is now in five North Jersey supermarkets, is not alone in its approach. Experts say more tech companies are developing software that integrates smartphones with multiple platforms — rather than simple apps that are limited to one device — allowing them to enhance the program's functionality for the user.

And several New Jersey tech firms are following that path.

“More and more devices are being built to support connectivity,” Ryan Shearman, whose New Jersey-based company Fusar has linked smartphones to a “smart helmet” for motorcycle riders. “With access to the Internet via your data plan, you can connect to almost anything today.”

Retail Shopping Systems and Fusar were among the seven companies at this year's LaunchPad, a pitch session hosted by the technology accelerator TechLaunch. As part of being selected for the event, each company has been selected to get up to $25,000 in seed capital and training from the organization.

Four of those startups have been developing integrated technology.

Mario Casabona, founder and CEO of TechLaunch, first noticed the trend when putting together last year's event. It seemed more developers were submitting applications for this type of technology, he said, while investors seemed willing to consider the ideas.

“It happened organically, but at the same time we're finding, even from last year, that some of the investors have more of an interest,” Casabona said.

Such products are gaining traction in consumer markets. This summer, GE began to offer a Wi-Fi-enabled air conditioning unit that can be controlled by a smartphone. And carmakers are increasingly focused on ways to integrate the vehicles with the devices used by their drivers.

For Fusar, the idea came from an epiphany about just how much more useful a helmet would be if they could connect it to the Internet via the user's smartphone.

“As we kept going down that path, more and more utility just kept revealing itself to us,” said Shearman, the company's founder. “And that was all based off our ability to maintain connectivity to the outside world.”

These features include a hands-free GPS that provides directions and information on the nearest gas station, plus its Guardian Angel service, which Shearman describes as “OnStar for motorcycles.”

All of this connectivity goes toward the company's end goal: To make motorcycle riding safer by combining technologies already available to many recent-model cars.

For Ken Sillbert, a TechLaunch mentor and angel investor who supports startups, this integration only seems natural.

“To be able to integrate all of these other components safely into a helmet to help a motorcycle rider if they're lost or in trouble, injured or fall down is phenomenal,” Sillbert said. “Integrating all that into your helmet, it just seems like a natural advancement for a vehicle that seems light years behind what cars are getting.”

And this new integrated technology has the potential to benefit more than just the consumer. Heflin said his product, Cart Magic, could soon be used to better inform advertisers on how to reach their target demographic.

“We're collecting all of this data about — not just the cart usage — but potentially about what the customer has looked at, not looked at, focused on,” Heflin said. “In the near future, we will be able to take that data and, through algorithms, determine what particular thing is going to appeal to what particular shopper.”

By creating this level of interaction with the consumer, Sillbert thinks they may have cracked an elusive code.

“There's an industry with tens of billions of dollars that (has) been working the same way for the last 50 years with circulars and coupons,” Sillbert said. “And if you can crack the code for getting into that market, where you're going to get paid differently from the brands and make it a win for the consumer, then it's an enormous value for the economy, investors and the company.”

E-mail to: andrews@njbiz.com

Garden (State) is blooming

Another emerging trend at this year’s LaunchPad was that the event included only businesses from New Jersey. It was a happy accident for Mario Casabona, who said it represents the growth of the state’s tech community. “That’s a whole (other) story,” Casabona said. “Three years ago, there was the New Jersey Tech Meetup that was primarily the main meet-up in New Jersey, and now, over the past three years, you’ve got Princeton Meetup, Madison, Morris … “The whole tech meetup community is just bubbling. It’s just a wonderful thing.”

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