LinkedIn Buys Refresh

Today LinkedIn announced that it is buying Refresh, the mobile app that helps you discover common ground and build stronger relationships by serving up dossiers on the people you meet, just as you need them.  We’re proud to have backed founders Bhavin Shah and Paul Tyma from the company’s early stages and we’re excited to see Refresh join forces with LinkedIn.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it takes to be a successful founding CEO over the years. Some founders spend years speculating on the next hot trend with sizable market potential, then convince themselves they’re in love with the idea. Occasionally, it works. But most great founders are driven by something else — an experience or insight they’ve gleaned from the real world that they believe can lead to something much bigger. This was the case with Refresh.

Twelve years ago, Refresh founder and CEO Bhavin Shah was head of business development at LeapFrog when he received a call from the US Department of Health and Human Services. The Federal Government was in the middle of in rebuilding of war-torn Afghanistan and seeking ways to improve the nation’s infant and maternal mortality rates. Many of the population were illiterate and lacked basic education on health fundamentals like immunizations and sanitation. The answer, they hoped, was the LeapPad: a book that could read itself aloud.

Two years later, Shah found himself en route to Afghanistan to help distribute the devices when he received a copy of a briefing book addressed to Tommy Thompson, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. The thick binder was full of reports related to the trip: weather forecasts, itineraries, and personnel dossiers. The first meeting on the docket after landing was with Dr. Sohaila Seddiq, Afghanistan’s Minister of Public Health and head of the women’s health initiative. Shah noticed that Secretary Thompson was studying his Briefing Book; Shah could follow along too, since he had a copy. This was Thompson’s fourth meeting with Dr. Seddiq, it told him. It knew where they’d first met, the promises he’d made, and a smattering of other details that had been meticulously recorded by Thompson’s aides.

The meeting proceeded seamlessly, Secretary Thompson conversing with Dr. Seddiq as if she were an old friend. As Shah watched on, he began to see that the binder wasn’t merely for streamlining logistics and keeping up appearancesit changed the dynamic entirely.

It quickly became a trend. In the minutes before pulling up to the Royal Palace to unveil the LeapPad project alongside Afghan President Harmid Karzai, Shah watched as Secretary Thompson once again pored over the binder, periodically checking key points with aides. An hour later, Thompson was congratulating President Karzai on his recent election success, referencing long-ago conversations that quickly rekindled their rapport. The tablet’s debut was a marked success.

After arriving home, Shah found himself wishing for a binder personalized for his own life. The idea faded, but it never disappeared. Six years later, as Shah looked at the growing amount of information people were sharing publically, as themselves, he found himself thinking back to the binder, to how powerful the right information at the right time can be — and Refresh was born.

We’re happy for Refresh to team up with LinkedIn on this next phase of its journey.  We remain intrigued by the next wave of applications coming out of advances in ambient intelligence.  And although they may not all contain stories with Afghan presidents, we’ll continue to look closely at founders with those aha moments.