43N: Empowering Buffalo's Startup Scene

Digital Transformation for an Impactful Accelerator


43North is a startup accelerator sponsored by Empire State Development, investing $5M annually into multiple seed-stage startups. Each year, thousands of startups apply to the program, and roughly a dozen are selected to pitch at an event in Buffalo, before the final selection of 6 companies to be funded. Founded in 2014, 43North has been instrumental in growing Buffalo’s startup and technology culture.


Around 2016, 43North found their off-the-shelf tool for managing the application process inadequate, as it was too limiting for their operations and the monthly cost to use this tool was cost prohibitive. In search of a custom solution capable of managing and reporting on applicants based on their specific criteria, they chose Helm as their partner. This decision was influenced by Helm's notable background working with startups and growing Buffalo’s tech community.

Process & Approach

Business Discovery

Sitting down to work with 43North in 2016 we learned that they were using a tool to manage the application process that was not built for this exact purpose. This was causing a lot of extra rework that was taxing their small team. They needed a more efficient way to capture the exact information that was important to their judging process for startups that could be accepted into the program.

Mapping their process became important so we could document the steps that were taken from applying to a group of judges awarding an investment. The steps for this amounted to:

  • Startup wants to apply to the competition
  • Startup collects information about their company
  • Startup submits relevant information about their company
  • 43North reviews applications for relevancy to their investment thesis
  • 43North submits a smaller group of companies to a judging process

Documenting this process informed us of the what features would be needed to be successful

  • A fast and update-able process for a startup to submit their information
  • Tools for automatically sorting companies baed on 43North’s criteria for acceptance into the program.
  • A judging platform that would make it easier for judges to review the startup and score key sections.

Generally speaking our background building and working alongside startups paired with 43North’s operational requirements allowed us to move forward quickly.

User Research

We walked around the incubator interviewing startups in the 43North’s 2015 cohort. Through these meetings we were able to quickly learn about the troubles that applicants had with the old application process. Also we were able to understand what content applicants wanted to share and when they’d have it.

Startups had a few main concerns; they needed to be able to present up to date metrics about their company and they needed to be able to upload multiple different types of reports. Additionally if the process was too difficult to get through then we found that companies would abandon the application, so it had to be easy to inform the user of what was left to complete.

Product Design

We explored how to solve the problems listed above through a combination of whiteboard sketching and other low-fidelity tactics. Our team worked to create layouts that would be informative to users while not overwhelming them with too much work to do.

UX UI Design

It became time to start bringing all of these ideas to life. Our designers worked with 43North’s brand system to create application designs that would seamlessly transition from the 43North website creating a cohesive experience for the applicant.

Many of the challenges highlighted in the research and discovery phase were solved through a coordinated focus on UX design. Our team made sure that the interface informed the user of progress, auto-saved their information, and sent out many reminders to get applicants over the finish line.

This created an easy to use and fun experience for startup founders to share what is often very dry and analytical information about a fledgling company.

Full-Stack Development

As the design process took shape our developers began to work on building the infrastructure for the application process. We knew as we started this work that the application would need to be build so that it was easy to update the content, also we knew from their past 2 years that the server solution had to be scalable as most of the applications come through towards the end of the application period. Our developers also understood about the many custom reporting needs that 43North desired so we made sure to format the data so that it was easily portable to many different outputs.

Deployment and Constant Improvement

Our team brought the new custom 43North application online in 2016 and it was fully utilized by applicants during the 2017 application phase.

Helm has maintained an ongoing relationship with 43North managing and adding functionality to the application process every year since 2016.


The impact 43North has on our local community has made our work on this application some of our most rewarding.

  • Backend tools that have streamlined 43North's operations
  • Over 10,000 startup applications processed
  • Over $35 million in investment facilitated through the application
  • A 7+ year partnership iterating on new solutions for this transformational organization
  • Thousands of dollars saved on SAAS subscription fees through the creation of a custom application.

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