Isenberg Alum and Entrepreneur Brings Collaborative Art to Kids
December 18, 2018
“Medical facilities can be isolating and sterile,” notes Isenberg graduate and entrepreneur Chris Bent ’12, founder and guiding light of Piccles, a collaborative online coloring app targeted to children in hospitals and other medical facilities. Creating and sharing online artwork via Piccles’ spectrum of colors and digital tools, he says, stimulates the artist in those kids. And its online medium connects them and builds community with family, friends, and online peers.
“You don’t need permission; you just need to do it,” says the former marketing and sport management major, whose 2 ½-year-old start-up, which offers both web and iOS apps, secured its first paying customer in October: MassMutual featured Piccles in a booth at the HUBWeek art, science and technology festival in Boston.
“We constantly work to improve our platforms via co-creation with community partners,” Chris remarks. That includes input from the children and their families who’ve tested the app at workshops he puts on for YMCA branches and museums.
Maximizing Isenberg Resources
In April of 2018, Chris visited Isenberg lecturer Matt Glennon’s marketing classes to share entrepreneurial insights and a case study devoted to Piccles. The study’s objective: investigate the startup’s potential target markets. Glennon’s students generated 1,700 pages and recommended three markets, including children’s hospitals, which helped Chris’s effort to pursue a beachhead strategy of focusing on one initial audience. Eight months later, he was back in Amherst for more advice and networking. He again visited Glennon’s class, expanded his UMass network, and spoke at the UMass Entrepreneurship Club’s weekly meeting. He also connected with the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship’s new director, Gregory Thomas, and with Isenberg’s acting dean, Tom Moliterno.
Chris is no stranger to the Berthiaume Center. As an undergraduate, he and two teammates won $10,000 and second runner-up honors in the center’s annual Innovation Challenge competition. Their venture, Crowd Solar, deployed crowd funding to help communities and nonprofits purchase renewable energy sources through an online investment platform from 2012 through 2014. As an undergraduate, Chris viewed Isenberg lecturer and entrepreneur Bob Lowery as his mentor. “Bob’s entrepreneurship course was very hands-on. It asked student teams to create proposals for startups,” Chris recalls. The course, he adds, is a pipeline for student participation in the Innovation Challenge and other competitions. “It was so valuable that I took it twice, bringing different business ideas to the class.”
Turning to Piccles
After graduating from Isenberg, Chris pursued marketing and development roles with Zootility Tools, a small batch manufacturer of laser-cut pocket tools started by 2004 UMass Mechanical Engineering alum Nate Barr. At a second firm, he was briefly a sales rep, which he describes as “soul crushing.” By the time he launched Piccles, the collaborative coloring book concept had been in his head for two years. Working with several developers, Chris debuted Piccles Alpha on the iPhone app store in October 2017. A month later, he hired UMass Informatics major Sagor Arora ’19 as an intern to help redesign the app’s look and feel. (Piccles currently employs two interns—one focusing on product design and the other on social media.)
With a stronger app and strategic advice from Professor Glennon and his class, Chris and Piccles earned kudos from two entrepreneurial catalysts: Last May, he won the Audience Choice Award in MIT’s Creative Arts Competition, gaining status as an MIT-funded venture, and in November, after relocating Piccles to Montreal, the start-up scored again, earning a $5,000 grant from the Montreal-based incubator Hacking Health. “For the time being, I’m mostly bootstrapping from family and friends,” Chris remarks. “More formal financing will likely come later on.”
Entrepreneurial Insights and Origins
“Successful entrepreneurs have to stay curious,” he emphasizes. “They need to be risk tolerant. I can persist at things—figure out ways to problem-solve and succeed. You don’t fail until you give up.” Chris traces his entrepreneurial roots to a successful lawn-mowing business he started as a teenager. He also defines himself as an artist and advocate for the arts. That includes his creation on wooden canvas of a life- size human figure that radiates his own positive vibes. The figure and its sun-drenched, variegated background are assembled entirely from business cards Chris collected and digitized, but couldn’t bring himself to throw out. “That,” he observes, “captured my own sea change from a passive consumer to an active producer of media. Piccles has similar ambitions—it aims to bring out the artist in every child.”