Cofounder and Design Director, Canary
Perhaps you’ve heard of a little device called Canary. In July 2013, when Canary cofounder and design director Jon Troutman and his team decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, they hoped to raise $100,000 to help bring their unique home-monitoring device to market. Instead, to their everlasting delight and surprise, Canary raised nearly $2 million, becoming the most successfully funded hardware project in Indiegogo’s history to that point. Within just one month, Canary had presold 10,000 devices to people in 78 countries. Seemingly overnight, the company had joined the Big Leagues.
Prior to Canary, Troutman was new to the startup scene. He formerly led product design at General Assembly, creating educational experiences that bridged in-person and online interfaces. Before that, he served as an art director at DISTINC, an advertising and branding firm in Los Angeles. He is also cofounder of an event series called Designers Debate Club in which design professionals debate topics at the intersection of business and design.
At the intersection of business and design is where Troutman shines. “It’s easy to gravitate towards projects that already have buzz built around them,” Troutman says, “It’s a lot harder to take on the challenge of designing something that doesn’t seem exciting and recreate it in a way that actually generates buzz.”
As a designer, Troutman has accomplished something special with Canary. He helped redefine what home security is in a way that has made people want to be a part of it. In this way, Troutman, his team, and their overwhelmingly successful Canary device are helping to reinvent the home-security space, making it cool, accessible, and even more user friendly.
Troutman firmly believes innovation is non-negotiable for companies that want to stage a similar coup in their own industries. “The connected world relies on innovation,” he says. “If a company fails to innovate, they fail.” At the end of the day, Troutman also believes companies must not forget the end goal—to add value to consumers’ lives. He urges other innovators looking to recreate his success to “create a product that solves a real problem.”
Canary ticks both of Troutman’s boxes: it is innovative and it adds tangible value to a user’s life. The original idea for Canary came from the realization that there was no easy way to connect with and protect what Troutman calls the most valuable place on Earth—the home. “The existing model for home security isn’t just flawed, it’s completely broken,” he says. “The people that need security most can’t afford it, and the people that have it rarely use it.”
Into this broken system came Canary with its modest $100,000 fundraising goal. Like true entrepreneurs, doing something no one else had been able to do didn’t scare Troutman and his team. Rather, it motivated them.
Prior to Canary, Troutman says there simply was no smart home security market. “We set out to change this,” he says. “We designed a product that reimagines what home security is and how people can protect the place that matters most.”
Troutman says his current focus is to get Canary’s first product right by developing a simple, seamless user experience that integrates the company’s large backer community’s feedback. As the company grows and looks to expand internationally, Troutman sees more projects ahead.
When the time is right, he says the company plans to release complementary products that speak to its vision of equipping people with the data they want and need to keep their homes safer and more secure.
CEO and Lead Designer, DreamQii Robotics
Where aerospace meets robotics and artificial intelligence is Klever Freire’s happy place. After beginning his professional life at a large, multinational aerospace company, Freire admits the corporate environment didn’t give him the right creative outlet. So, he transitioned into entrepreneur mode. He founded two successful companies, a 3D modeling business and a home staging company, both of which acted as proving grounds for developing a business model, creating a marketing plan, and following through. Meanwhile, he was still searching for that perfect idea. He found it in the emerging drone space.
“What I realized is that everyone had this preconceived notion that there was a ready-to-fly, off-the-shelf product that just did everything you could see in science-fiction movies ... that was just not the case at all,” Freire says. “These things were very raw; you had to order a kit, you had to put them together, you had to solder all of the sensors (and) wires, upload your own code, modify it, and it was all really finicky to get them working properly.”
Freire also recognized there was a quite a following for drones, including a strong DIY (do-it-yourself) community that was pushing the industry forward. He says, “I saw an opportunity to create a completed package for industries that wanted this technology, primarily filmmakers and photographers who don’t have the expertise or even the desire to sit there and tinker. They just want something they can purchase and then get the value proposition from it without having to make one on their own,” he says.
Through his latest startup, DreamQii Robotics, Freire and his team have created PlexiDrone, a connected drone designed with filmmakers and photographers in mind. The device can be easily transported in a hard-shell backpack and reassembled anywhere by simply snapping the pieces together. PlexiHub, the company’s proprietary bridge, makes it so the drone (or multiple drones in “swarm” mode) can be controlled by a user’s smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth connection. Another smart feature called GPS Follow Me allows the user to press a button on a smartphone or tablet to command the connected drone to follow the device.
During development, Freire and the DreamQii Robotics team took challenges head on to make their product stand out. One hurdle was getting PlexiDrone to work well with just one operator. He says, “We created a custom software application that allows you to track GPS position so that the camera angle is automatically calculated. It keeps the GPS target in the center of the frame as much as it can as you command the drone. That way you can have one operator controlling the camera and the drone simultaneously while getting the shot you want.”
Another obstacle was creating a device that would provide an unobstructed field of view. “If you look at the ready-to-fly units that are currently available from retailers, you’ll see you have a lot of landing gear in the shots, propellers in the shots, which need to be cropped out later.” To address this pain point, the team engineered features such as retractable landing gear and perfect camera placement to eliminate the need to crop out small pieces of equipment.
To help raise the capital needed to jumpstart PlexiDrone’s manufacturing, the DreamQii Robotics team turned to Indiegogo, surpassing their $100,000 funding goal in the first week. “For us, crowdfunding was strategic in that we wanted to gain the public’s attention and get media attention without having to spend a million dollars that we don’t have right now,” Freire says. He advises other innovators to remember that crowdfunding is not easy. “A successful crowdfunding campaign doesn’t happen by accident,” Freire jokes. “It’s a marketing game—you have to pay for PR, you have to travel, and you have to get those interviews; you have to invest a lot of upfront capital in doing these things in order to be successful.”
CEO, ISI Technology
Sometimes, a great idea starts with a single grain of profound truth. For Jerry Callahan, it was this: Everybody wants hot water. Callahan grew up in Cape Cod, Mass., studied naval architecture at MIT and Stevens Institute of Technology, and then began his career as a civil engineer at the second largest dredging and marine construction company in the world. Within seven years, he’d risen to general superintendent and COO.
His entrepreneur days began around this time, when Callahan started up a few companies, including Blue Rhino Propane Cylinder Exchange and National Packaging Solutions Group. His professional life continued to diversify as he served as a principal in a private equity group, provided management consulting advisory services that ranged from strategy development to M&As (mergers and acquisitions), and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. Callahan’s latest gig is as CEO of ISI Technology. His latest project is patenting, developing, and commercializing a connected water heater.
Callahan is a problem solver, so when he couldn’t buy what he wanted, he decided to make one instead. The result is Heatworks MODEL 1, a tankless electric water heater that is unique in its ability to energize and heat water molecules directly—no old-school heating elements required. What Callahan and ISI Technology came up with is an advanced device that produces instant and endless hot water while also saving a significant amount of energy. “Current water heater technology is inefficient, unreliable, and inflexible in use and operation,” Callahan says. “We are redefining how the world heats and uses water.”
With a Wi-Fi module and a companion app for smartphones, the device could revolutionize the water-heater market by opening the door to data collection about usage as well as the ability to remotely control functions, such as the Heatworks MODEL 1’s temperature, duration, and power levels. Callahan and his team’s decision to run a crowdfunding campaign for the device was primarily for R&D (research and development) purposes. Callahan says the information collected from their Kickstarter campaign was invaluable and helped steer the product-development process. Of course, the extra funds helped, too.
The crowdfunding community has latched onto the device and seems to have plenty of ideas to use it in ways Callahan didn’t see coming. “One of the most amazing outcomes from the creation of this new technology is the variety of applications that I hadn’t even thought of that are coming to light,” he says. “At least a few times a month I am approached with a new use for this technology (such as) pasteurization of milk, high temp dishwasher use, and even using it as a hub for the Internet of Things.”
When creating a technology that has never existed before, or when adapting current components to new uses, Callahan says innovators need to have a great deal of resourcefulness. “Each setback must be countered with creativity, ingenuity, and a little bit of stubbornness,” Callahan says. “One of our more practical ideas was to use a GUM Soft-Pick (a dental hygiene product) to hold down a tiny wire that wouldn’t stay in place during the production process.” Similarly, Callahan believes innovators must have both confidence and humility. “You must have the confidence to make high risk/reward decisions,” he says. “You must also have the humility to know that the success of your decisions depends on the creative reworking by the team … (and) most importantly, you must have a realistic but unshakeable belief in what you are doing.”
Margaux Guerard and Leslie Pierson, Cofounders, MEMI
In a sea of Kickstarter campaigns for devices promising to make your life more connected, Margaux Guerard and Leslie Pierson have done something different—they’ve developed a way to help their customers unplug from the connected world while still being reachable. With their crowdfunded solution MEMI, Guerard and Pierson have discovered an unfulfilled niche in the wearables market—one that is primarily made up of women.
MEMI’s flagship device, the MEMI Classic bracelet, is a sleek metal bracelet that communicates wirelessly with the wearer’s iPhone. Using the MEMI app, users can select which contacts can “break through” to the bracelet, causing it to vibrate in one of three ways to alert the wearer to a call, a text, or a calendar notification. The idea for MEMI came out of Pierson’s frustration from feeling tethered to her phone. She didn’t want to miss important phone calls and texts, but she also didn’t want to be bothered by every notification that came her way. Surely, the MEMI CEO thought, there must be a way to both live in the moment and leverage the benefits of living in a connected world.
Pierson is a former strategy consultant at Bain & Company who has also held strategic positions at companies like Staples and Teach for America. Her cofounder and business partner, Guerard, president of MEMI, formerly worked in luxury marketing for brands such as Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and Diane von Furstenberg. Though neither founder had experience in technology before MEMI, both have a strong business background and a good sense of how to develop for their target audience. In fact, according to Guerard, not having a background in technology has been a good thing. “It has helped (us) to be less constrained by the ‘rules’ and to push the envelope to develop a truly unique product,” she says.
Guerard and Pierson believe fashion and function are equally important, but they differ from the makers of other smart notification devices—even smartwatches that offer a sleek, sophisticated look—because the whole point of their device is that it doesn’t look like technology at all. The duo realized many women don’t wear devices, even if they look really nice. What they do wear is jewelry. “Wearables force us to consider what people will want to wear and how they will accessorize (and) incorporate them into their day-to-day lives,” Guerard says. “Form and function have always been important, but never more than right now. We need to be innovative in captivating consumers beyond the early adopting tech community. It’s the only way wearables will reach their full potential.”
MEMI prioritized creating a beautiful bracelet and then worked to integrate technology into the design, instead of the other way around. To raise capital for their idea, Guerard and Pierson turned to crowdfunding.
“We chose to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise working capital and provide proof of concept to potential investors,” Guerard says. “Its core value was to enlist support and excitement for our product.”
Guerard says MEMI faces new obstacles nearly every week. “Early on, our biggest challenge was creating a mostly metal, jewelry-like enclosure that fashionable women would actually wear,” she says. “Lately, our biggest challenge is securing the funding we need to move forward with manufacturing. A product like ours requires a great deal of technical precision and expertise. We’re not willing to cut corners, so that requires us to find the right partners and push for what we believe is best for MEMI. It’s a long game.”
After earning more than $100,000 on Kickstarter and meeting their funding goal, Guerard and Pierson advise other innovators to learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Guerard says, “If you can learn to push through the difficulties and frustrations, even when they seem insurmountable, you stand a better chance at getting to where you want to be.”
CEO, Misfit Wearables
When Sonny Vu got the chance to cofound a company with John Sculley, a seasoned businessman and former CEO of Apple, he took it. The partnership would ultimately push the boundaries of the wearables market. Together, Vu and Sculley started Misfit Wearables and designed Misfit Shine, a wearable fitness monitor that broke the mold by offering an unprecedented sleek and desirable design.
To get Misfit off the ground and running, Vu stepped down from his startup company AgaMatrix, makers of an iPhone-connected medical device and more than a dozen other FDA-cleared products. Prior to starting AgaMatrix, Vu had also founded FireSpout, a startup company offering machine-learning assisted natural language processing technology, which he later sold to a search engine. Vu’s ticket to success with Misfit has been his approach to making a wearable activity tracker that transcends what’s gone before. “We’re going to finally make wearables … actually do things for you rather than just sense things and give you charts and graphs,” Vu says. In fact, Vu believes wearables have been anything but wearable for most of their existence as a category.
“We aimed to create something that people would want to wear all the time, for a long time,” he says. “We focused on design and wearability initially. We think we nailed it.”
Vu and his team nailed it indeed. Shine has won several major product design awards thanks to its beautiful all-metal construction and tiny formfactor. Beyond its looks and measurements, Misfit Shine, well, shines in terms of functionality and feature set. The device goes beyond traditional fitness monitors that count steps and distance run. Shine also tracks cycling, swimming, and sleep patterns. Perhaps the most innovative quality to the device is its Bluetooth syncing method—just lay the device on top of your smartphone.
Crowdfunding provided Vu with a ready and willing audience for his idea. “We went from zero to distributing in 35 countries in less than six months after our experience crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Now we’re in over 50 countries,” he says. “Indiegogo allowed us to explore people’s interest in Shine and to harness their enthusiasm and ideas.” For instance, Indiegogo backers were the inspiration for the company’s Bloom Necklace, a handcrafted piece of jewelry that is one of several ways to wear the Shine fitness and sleep tracker. Bringing Shine to market required Vu and the Misfit team to think on their feet. Vu says the primary engineering challenges included getting six months of battery life, being waterproof to 50 meters, not having a button, and communicating out of an all-metal shell. Another major obstacle has been creating awareness.
“We’re a brand new company, so very few people have heard of our brand,” says Vu. “We’ve relied mostly on the press to help us raise awareness since as a small startup we don’t have much of a budget for marketing.”
Vu’s next goal is to continue to push the wearables space forward. He says his team plans to do this by looking beyond sensing (eclipsing other activity monitors and heart rate trackers) as well as notifications (outsmarting smartwatches). “The goal (is) to finally make technology serve us rather than the other way around,” Vu says. “And hopefully someday we’ll be staring at glow rectangles less and enjoying the company of each other more.”
Julie Uhrman is a gaming visionary. After being in the industry for most of her career, working for a time as vice president and general manager of IGN Entertainment, Uhrman had a front-row seat as console and PC game development dwindled.
“Publishing consolidated and development/marketing costs increased, limiting consumer choice and development creativity,” Uhrman says. “This was where OUYA began.”
Rather than sitting back and accepting the industry’s fate, Uhrman wanted to create something that would enable any developer—new or old, well financed or bootstrapped—to bring the most creative, unique, and engaging content to what Uhrman calls “the best device in our lives”: the television.
Historically, Uhrman says it has been nearly impossible to enter the gaming industry and build a game for the TV without an enormous studio and an even bigger budget. With OUYA, any developer can make games for the TV.
Uhrman uses phrases like “the people’s console,” saying OUYA’s mission is to “democratize gaming.” It’s not just catchy, it’s game changing—pun intended.
“OUYA injects previously unheard-of affordability and accessibility into this industry,” Uhrman says, “which in turn makes it possible for bright, underfunded creators to make their development dreams a reality.”
Thousands of other people agree. OUYA owned the Kickstarter scene, blasting its initial $950,000 fundraising goal out of the water and ultimately raising nearly $8.6 million with the help of more than 63,000 backers. Uhrman’s dream to democratize gaming soon became Kickstarter’s third-highest grossing project of all time.
“OUYA is all about community,” she says. “What better way to build such a grassroots platform than to harness the power of our fantastic and proactive community?” The OUYA team has focused on providing an amazing user experience. Uhrman gives high praises to cofounder and award-winning designer, Yves Béhar, designer of Jawbone’s JAMBOX Bluetooth speakers, who helped in the development of OUYA’s controller.
The platform is also open to “hackers” who can open up the Android-based device and create peripherals that connect via Bluetooth or USB. The device can even stream media from the cloud to a TV via Wi-Fi.
One lesson Uhrman has learned throughout her OUYA journey is the importance of flexibility.
To help get the project where it is today, the company has had to make some pretty important adjustments. “We initially launched under the flag of ‘free to try,’” Uhrman says. “We knew that this would appeal to gamers, but ultimately found that it was limiting developer freedom, and our developers are incredibly important to us. We’ve switched over to make ‘free to try’ an optional feature, to put the power in the hands of our devs and (provide) options for monetizing their games.”
Through the OUYA Everywhere initiative, Uhrman and team are expanding OUYA beyond its own box, embedding the platform on other devices. Ultimately, they’re trying to create a platform that “uplifts and empowers” both developer and gamer, along with content creator and content consumer. This makes OUYA unique to the gaming industry. “As CEO of OUYA, I have had a hand in crafting the future of the gaming industry; I have opened up the TV to a brand new group of aspiring developers,” Uhrman reflects. “This kind of accessibility means gamemaking is no longer a walled garden for an exclusive group; instead it is an art form accessible to anyone with the will to create something beautiful. I am immensely proud and immensely humbled to be a part of this revolution.”
Christian Smith and Chris Herbert, Cofounders, Phone Halo
When you exceed a fundraising goal by 6,526%, you know you’re on to something special. This actually happened to Chris Herbert and Christian Smith, cofounders of Phone Halo, the company behind TrackR bravo. The duo set out to raise $20,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo and instead walked away with more than $1.3 million to develop their Bluetooth and GPS-enabled tracking device.
Besides having engineering degrees, Herbert says he and his business partner have a couple of other things in common—surfing and the ability to misplace anything and everything they own. In case you’re skeptical, Herbert admits he nearly lost his car to the ocean after parking on the beach below the high tide line, and then losing his car keys. Some good Samaritans with a metal detector saved the day. Smith is no better, Herbert says, considering he had no fewer than four bikes stolen during his college years alone.
“We wanted to do something that mattered and wanted to solve the problem of losing things,” Herbert says. “We envisioned a system that would take the database in our heads of where all our items are located and put that onto our phones.”
The founders had a vision that went beyond just helping people find lost items. Rather, with TrackR bravo, they wanted to eliminate the problem by making sure people’s items are never really lost in the first place.
To do this, they created an ultra-thin device that can attach to all kinds of items and continually send its location to the TrackR app, creating an automatically updated record of where items are located.
Herbert and Smith succeeded in turning an ambitious idea into a reality through impeccable design and innovative features such as Crowd GPS, which leverages the TrackR community to alert owners of missing belongings when another user is within close range of their lost items. Crowdfunders responded to the project with gusto.
“We chose crowdfunding as there is still not much early stage capital available from professional investors. They still all believe that hardware is somehow riskier than software-related businesses,” Herbert says. “Crowdfunding enables companies such as ours to reach out to people who would purchase the product to fund us to production. This completely changes the financing equation for hardware startups and we’re seeing a huge amount of innovation happen because of it.”
To date, Herbert says they have shipped more than 300,000 devices to customers. He says their most difficult hurdle was getting a handle on the level of operations support and customer support needed to ship these tens of thousands of devices to customers. “We had to completely redo our entire business operations and learn how to act like a real business extremely quickly,” Herbert jokes.
To other entrepreneurs, Herbert urges a customer-centric approach to innovation: “Focus on your customer. Not what’s cool, what investors think, (or) what is hip in the tech blogs this week. Focus on your customer and how to make them stoked.” To everyone else, Herbert says, “I encourage everyone to visit Indiegogo or Kickstarter and help bring a new idea to life.”
Cofounder and CSO, QuantuMDx Group
Jonathan O’Halloran is lucky in that he uses the words “job” and “hobby” interchangeably. Like many other entrepreneurs, he gets to wake up each day and do something he loves. O’Halloran is also lucky in that, unlike many other entrepreneurs, successfully delivering his “hobby” could save millions of lives.
O’Halloran’s journey as an innovator and entrepreneur began in his teens when he was close friends with the son of Sir Freddie Laker, a well-known British entrepreneur. Laker served as a role model for O’Halloran, imparting critical business lessons that have stood the test of time. Though O’Halloran’s first startup, a genetics services company called Opaldia, hit insurmountable roadblocks, the experience served as a valuable test track for O’Halloran’s next venture: QuantuMDx Group.
QuantuMDx is built on the idea that quality molecular diagnostics is an innate human right. The company is developing Q-POC, a connected device that provides an inexpensive, accurate way to take a blood sample and provide a DNA diagnostic test result in 15-20 minutes. Using this “handheld laboratory,” patients in poorer nations will have access to a way to diagnose drug resistance and diseases such as cancer, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), malaria, and tuberculosis.
Last year, the team faced what all startup companies face at some point or another: dwindling funds. “QuantuMDx is based in the northeast of the U.K., and gaining access to investors is a real art here,” O’Halloran says. “Towards the end of 2013, we were growing rapidly as our technology was developing and we needed an injection of funds to maintain this momentum.” Priding themselves on thinking outside the box, the QuantuMDx team decided to take their DNA diagnostics device to the crowdfunding community via Indiegogo, but not for the obvious reason.
“For us it was an atypical need; we needed to raise our profile and we didn’t have the cash to run an extensive international PR campaign,” O’Halloran says. “Yes, we needed money, but that was not directly the reason we launched our crowdfunding campaign. The press (coverage) that brought our company to the attention of investors was the core value add to us.”
While O’Halloran admits he and his team secretly hoped the crowdfunding world would rally behind their humanitarian focus and invest with “philanthropic zest,” he says they also realized that without a cool gadget to offer backers as a ‘thanks’ for their support, the team was unlikely to become the next Canary-esque success story on Indiegogo.
In the end, the campaign succeeded even though it missed its funding goal, bringing in $18,000 and a significant amount of buzz.
The attention QuantuMDx gained off the back of its crowdfunding campaign led to several million dollars in traditional investments that helped launch the company’s device into the development and prototype phases. A much larger series C round is currently pending, which would help get the device into clinical trials.
As a proponent of the so-called “Internet of Life,” O’Halloran believes society is just beginning to understand how a connected world could benefit the human race. For instance, by collecting geostamped, anonymised genetic sequence data from pathogens such as Ebola and sending it to the cloud for big-data analytics, realtime epidemiology becomes both possible and plausible. Imagine the potential consequences of using data from Q-POC devices to monitor the world as a sort of early warning system for the emergence of novel pathogens or drug-resistant mutations.
O’Halloran ascribes QuantuMDx’s success so far to his cofounder and business partner of 10 years, Elaine Warburton, as well as valuable team members such as company COO Sam Whitehouse. “This (technology) is an incredible achievement,” he says, “and is the culmination of 10 years work and the realization of a vision that I had whilst ‘playing’ with technology in a lab I built in my garage.”
Cofounder and CEO, Sentri
At startup company Sentri, the leadership team believes great technology doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. They set out to prove it with their elegant, DIY home monitoring and automation solution. Cofounder and CEO Yen Tung says he and his Sentri cofounders wanted to bring the same user-focused design philosophy that has driven software in the last decade to the hardware space. What’s more, Tung had a vision of changing the way consumers relate to their homes. To accomplish this, he and his team created a solution that will make peace of mind an affordable option for all, rather than a luxury for a few.
Sentri goes beyond typical home-security systems in terms of functionality, aesthetics, and usability. The device not only has an HD (high-definition) video camera and a motion detector, it also has sensors that monitor a home’s physical state, such as temperature, humidity, and air quality. Sentri’s tablet-like touchscreen and interface both look great and create an intuitive user experience that extends to users’ mobile devices via the Sentri app. “With Sentri, we wanted to create something that would immediately add value—whether this was your first ‘smart device’ or if you owned several,” Tung says.
Tung has always enjoyed building and creating, which led to his undergraduate and graduate studies in electrical engineering. After graduation, Tung served his two years in the Taiwanese military before getting a job working for HTC.
“For the first two years, I regularly worked 80+ hour weeks not only because of the sheer amount of work, but I was also eager to learn,” Tung says. “I wanted to learn everything from the bottom up and all the components that went to building great mobile experiences, including development and user experience.” Tung’s time at HTC was well spent.
From the design and user-experience team, he learned to be critical of the tiniest details in order to create an optimal user experience. From the engineering team, he learned how to optimize performance by building agile software frameworks. However, at the end of the day, working in a large corporate environment also meant it was cumbersome to create change. He decided to leave and start Sentri—something he could call his own.
Tung and his team launched a Kickstarter campaign to help get their product where they wanted it to be. “As an engineer, my philosophy has always been that while engineering is a challenge, it can always be overcome with time and hard work,” Tung says. “The real business challenge was creating a product with optimal product and market fit and so the most critical need is to prove market demand.” For hardware startups like Sentri, he says crowdfunding platforms allow these companies to not only test the market, but also to start building active communities that will ultimately help deliver end products.
After bringing in nearly $400,000 in crowdfunding and doubling Sentri’s original goal, Tung says he’s learned the importance of being quick, flexible, and motivated. “As a startup, you’re always faced with both time and resource constraints, so I would say the biggest challenge that always remains is prioritizing what needs to be done and remaining nimble enough to shift course as needed.”
Tung and his team are entering a smart-home market that is diversifying quickly, but the team is ready for the challenge ahead.
Tung says, “We really see all of the challenges in bringing Sentri to market as opportunities—opportunities to learn more about our customers, to learn more about the needs of the modern home, and being part of it.”
Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz, Cofounders, Sproutel
Sproutel founders Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz aren’t afraid to make bold statements about their goals. For example, the company’s manifesto begins this way: “Our thumbs aren’t built to endlessly flick; up and down, left and right. Our bodies aren’t designed to sit in desk chairs and our eyes aren’t suited for staring at backlit screens. Yet this is how our interfaces are designed … At Sproutel, we want to change this. We are creating radically new ways to interface with technology to enhance the human experience.”
Chung and Horowitz’s first “experiment” in enhancing the human experience is Jerry the Bear, a personal robot that focuses on delivering patient education in an unintimidating way. Specifically, Jerry the Bear helps children with type 1 diabetes and their families understand and manage this life-long disease.
“For children with type 1 diabetes, their lives are transformed overnight by a diagnosis,” Horowitz says. “These children, often between the ages of three and seven, face finger pricks throughout the day, insulin injections along with every meal, and the added responsibility of counting every single carbohydrate that enters their mouths. This is an immense responsibility for a family, leaving parents overwhelmed and kids feeling isolated.”
To address this reality, Chung and Horowitz took their cue from Design for America, a nonprofit organization cofounded by Chung that aims to solve social problems using design thinking. Jerry the Bear is, in essence, a tinkerer’s answer to a heart-wrenching social problem. It is more than just a connected teddy bear; it is a best friend for young children faced with a lifetime of chronic illness.
The two founders’ backgrounds have prepared them for this challenge. Chung holds a degree in mechanical engineering and is also a talented animator. Horowitz holds a degree in mechatronics and user interaction design and even more, has a background in sculpture.
Leveraging technologies such as BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), the sensor-filled device and its accessories, such as “food cards” and Jerry’s insulin pen, provide children with an opportunity to gain the skills they need to master their own medical condition simply by playing.
After meeting through Design for America, Chung and Horowitz have spent the past three years working together to bring Jerry the Bear—a concept that began as a drawing on a napkin—to reality.
In its first production run, Sproutel took preorders through its Website and was able to reach 2% of kids newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
Chung and Horowitz ran a crowdfunding campaign to help meet the goal of expanding their reach to 15% of kids newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2015. By the end of one month on Indiegogo, Sproutel had doubled its original goal, raising nearly $50,000 for Jerry the Bear. Even more importantly, they brought needed attention to their work and provided an essential outlet for their supporters. A focus on integrating user feedback has been integral to Chung and Horowitz’s success so far.
“Before ever shipping a bear, we tested 29 prototypes with over 350 families,” Horowitz says. “While this might seem excessive, it’s a large part of our user-centered design process—ensuring that the product we develop will solve a real problem for families and fit seamlessly into their lives.”
By knowing when to transition between high-level strategic thinking and heads-down execution, by focusing on solving a real problem with the help of real users, and by approaching relationships with people as meaningful connections and not transactional experiences, the innovators behind Sproutel are using technology to harness empathy, to drive engagement, and to give diabetic children a chance to thrive.