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Twitter-Backer, Spark, Helps Fund Harvard Grads’ Police Software Start-Up

If you’re a fan of Iron Man movies, you will know that it features many new and improved protective suits. The most recent of these, introduced in Iron Man 3, is called Mark 42.

On July 15, a former Hollywood writer and current venture capitalist, Alex Finkelstein, announced that he is among the proud owners of a stake in Mark43, a start-up that plans to deliver law enforcement around the world with even better protection than Mark 42.

Mark43 ties together in one place the functions of at least five antiquated police applications such as a mobile app that police can use to get street-level information and a desktop tool that can analyze reams of data. Mark43 cuts the time it takes to do these police tasks “from five to six hours to 30 to 45 minutes,” according to CEO Scott Crouch in a July 10 interview.

Founded by three members of Harvard College’s class of 2013 — Crouch, Flo Mayr and Matt Polega — Mark43 was the result of a Harvard Engineering 96 class project and was based at Harvard’s Innovation Lab during their senior year.

The three students tagged along with police officers in the Springfield Massachusetts State Police Special Projects Team and watched how they worked on the street, in their squad cars, and back at their desks.

And along with Finkelstein, a partner at Spark Capital that also owns stakes in Twitter and Tumblr, General Catalyst, Lowercase Capital, SV Angel, Launchpad LA, Rough Draft Ventures, HBS Professor Tom Eisenmann, and others ponied up a total of $1.95 million in seed funding for Mark43.

I think the co-founders might have been better off picking Minority Report— the 2002 film in which a Pre-Crime Unit arrests people before they commit their evil deeds — as their Hollywood reference.

That’s because while Finkelstein could not cite how Mark43 had helped Springfield improve its crime statistics, he suggested that Mark43 gave its police Pre-Crime Unit-like powers. Finkelstein pointed out that in a March 2013 Boston Globe article, Springfield State Trooper Stephen Gregorczyk credited Mark43 with giving his colleagues “the ability to stop a shooting before it happens.”

The Globe recounted how Gregorczyk used Mark43 to learn about the locations, law enforcement interactions, and personal connections of a furious local drug dealer bent on revenge after he had been robbed. A quick search of the dealer’s name in Mark 43 gave Gregorczyk “a road map to plot how his team could head off the dealer before something bad happened.”

The Springfield police also cut down how long it took them to process information. By getting a “90% increase in information efficiency,” they can spend the saved time collecting more intelligence and performing more social network analysis.

Crouch, a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, was pleased to choose Harvard for his engineering education. As Crouch explained, “I liked the idea that its engineering department had so many great professors, had a small number of students, and was still being shaped. At Harvard, I would not be a” cog in the machine — like MIT or Stanford engineering undergraduates.

Engineering 96 gave Crouch and his co-founders a chance to work closely with the Springfield police and to see first-hand the appalling information systems they used. As Crouch argued, “They have multiple systems built for desktops with 15 to 20 year-old architectures, and they don’t work with each other. And what’s worse, the vendors don’t get police input for their systems designs and they grossly overcharge the police departments.”

Crouch’s team also saw first-hand what it would take to design a system that could fit with the way police actually work. “We saw that police officers always keep their dominant hand on their weapon. So we had to make a mobile app that a right-handed officer could use with his left hand,” said Crouch.

Mark43 wants to solve a societal problem and tap a big market opportunity by delivering a better product at a lower price. “Our EMTs, firefighters, and police are kind, generous people doing important work without the proper tools. There are 800,000 local and state police, 100,000 federal officers, and millions worldwide. Our competitors are charging between $250,000 to $500,000 up-front for an inferior product while we offer a very affordable per officer per month pricing model.”

Finkelstein — who according to a July 12 interview grew up in Martha’s Vineyard, was a VC at Softbank, sold five TV shows to Hollywood, and is a Spark co-founder — took about three weeks to decide to invest in Mark43.

Why so fast? According to Finkelstein, “The founders are young, aggressive, and fearless. They care deeply about law enforcement. A friend who is a narcotics officer in the Boston Police Department gave Mark43 fantastic feedback.”

Finkelstein noted, “My friend said that Mark 43 slashes officers’ 10 hours a week of paperwork, replaces antiquated systems that don’t talk to each other, and lets officers capture and access data via mobile — instead of forcing them to use the laptops bolted down to their dashboards.”

Finkelstein sounds confident in Mark43’s future. As he explained, “It’s a great team and a great product. They really want to change law enforcement. They truly, truly care.”

And Mark43 is hiring to meet growing demand. According to Crouch, “We have software deployed in Massachusetts, California, and more departments across the country are coming onboard in the next few months. There is a ton of inbound interest right now. We have not reached out to a single department yet.”

While its revenue potential is uncertain, Mark43 offers a useful lesson in how to overcome potential customers’ fear of hitching their wagon to a start-up — find customer pain, develop a cure for the pain, and provide a low-risk way for customers to try the product.

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This article originally appeared in Forbes.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.
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