Pitches for new ventures often build on verbal pyrotechnics and enthusiastic speechmaking, but Princeton University senior Colin Lualdi kept the crowd hanging on his eight-minute presentation without speaking a word.
Quick as the eye could follow, his hands flashed through signs, and an interpreter’s voice responded from the audience.
“I am sure you are wondering what I just said,” Lualdi signed. “That’s perfect because this presentation is about American Sign Language [(ASL)] and a revolutionary way to learn ASL online.”
Sign School, an online ASL video-learning system designed for individuals and schools, was the first of eight projects presented at the fifth-annual Demo Day organized by Princeton University’s Keller Center. The teams described their new ventures before capacity crowds inthe Friend Center at Princeton Aug. 9, and at the Manhattan headquarters of the technology firm AppNexus Aug. 10.
This year’s events featured short videos followed by team presentations, which included a robot-chef designed to prepare food and clean up after itself; a new system that improves resolution and accuracy of medical ultrasound imaging; and video-advertising screens that can be mounted on top of rideshare vehicles.
Demo Day is a final showcase for the student groups participating in the Keller Center’s startup “launch pad,” the eLab Summer Accelerator Program. Cornelia Huellstrunk, the Keller Center’s executive director, told the audience that the eLab program’s goal is educational as well as entrepreneurial.
“I ask them,” Huellstrunk said. “Why are you here, and what is it that you really care about?”
Student teams compete for entry into the eLab program toward the end of the academic year. Those selected receive office space and technical support at the University’s Entrepreneurial Hub on Chambers Street in downtown Princeton.
Team members are matched with startup veterans who serve as mentors, and the students attend coaching sessions and receive instruction on different aspects of starting a new venture. The program also provides stipends to the students without taking any equity in the new efforts. Huellstrunk said the program is a joint effort from the start, and reflects the work of the participants, the staff and the Keller Center’s student associates.
At Demo Day, eLab team members spoke of gaining knowledge and insight, as well as business skills, over the often-hectic 10 weeks of meetings, phone calls and business planning.
“eLab provided a very nurturing environment for our startup,” said Mei Chai Zheng, a graduate student in electrical engineering and a member of the Robolution team that is building the robot-chef. “It is exactly the environment we needed because we are a very early-stage hardware startup,” she said.
In addition to support from the Keller Center, team members received feedback and fielded questions from expert panelists – including several Princeton alumni – at the Princeton and Manhattan events. Panelists this year included Saahill Desai ’06 from DS Maris Advisors; Rachel Kohler ’85 from NowPow; Daphne Earp ’10 from Yext; Bruce Lincoln ’79 of Silicon Harlem; Kef Kasdin ’85 from the Keller Center; Ryan Silva and Matthew Barbieri from Wiss & Company; and Dina Brewer ’88 of Princeton Law Partners.
Descriptions of the projects featured in the 2016 Demo Day event follow. More information on the 2016 eLab teams can be found on the Keller Center’s website.
Ads on Top
This team has developed a system for companies to advertise on digital screens placed in spots known in the industry as out-of-home advertising – for instance, on billboards, taxis and bus shelters. The system includes rideshare vehicles as well as standard taxis, and allows advertisers to fine-tune their ad buys by location, time and even weather conditions.
Co-founder David Pal, who received his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from Princeton this year, said the team’s approach offers unprecedented reach and flexibility to advertisers. Ads on Top’s online system allows customers to easily tailor their ads to reflect a variety of locations and conditions.
“If you are Ben & Jerry’s and you want to advertise when it is 80 degrees, we can do that,” Pal said. “If you are Totes or London Fog and want to advertise when it’s raining, we can do that too.”
Pal said eLab provided support to help bring his team together. “The best thing about the eLab program is the resources – mentors, advisors, other teams, space, lectures and free food,” Pal said. “Without their support it would be nearly impossible to collaborate with people that transform your idea into a business.”
Cartful is an online fashion site that works to combine the convenience and selection of a big-box retailer with the serendipitous discoveries found in small shops and boutiques. The site works by surveying users’ fashion preferences and using those to suggest products from independent fashion lines. The site is designed to retain the feel of individual designers and to allow customers to shop directly from clothing lines.
Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Lee, a rising senior majoring in molecular biology, said Cartful allows users to “discover small, unique brands based on your preferences.”
Andreas Dias, the company’s chief technology officer, said the team achieved a real breakthrough over the summer after an article on the fashion website Racked brought a steady stream of users to Cartful. Dias, a senior majoring in computer science, said the users’ enthusiasm for the site confirmed the team’s vision and taught them “to not worry about the external factors and focus on your data in order to really validate that you’re doing the right thing.”
The HackerPack team plans to encourage diversity in the tech industry by helping a wide range of people gain technological experience and enthusiasm through the network of competitive programming events called “hackathons.”
“Hackathons can inspire people,” said co-founder Linhchi Nguyen, a junior majoring in computer science.
Many people are interested in technology but lack the confidence to cast themselves into the frenetic world of hackathons, Nguyen said. She said HackerPack is developing a set of online tools to help people attend events even though they have no previous experience. The tools present project guides, technologies and tips. The team’s newest product, Hackmates, is an online platform that matches individuals with teams based on skill, experience and interest.
Co-founder Justin Chavez, a senior at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said the best part of the eLab experience has been the mentors. “Our mentors were very communicative and dedicated to giving the best advice,” he said. “We had mentors from venture capital, consulting firms and even one who is working on their own startup.”
Hubble is a social app that connects friends on college campuses using their locations.
“We at Hubble are on a mission to make getting together simple,” said co-founder Vivek Dinodia, a Princeton senior majoring in economics.
Hubble is tailored to college campuses with a high level of accuracy, so it can alert users to their friends’ locations in specific buildings, Dinodia said. Unlike some other programs, Dinodia said, Hubble does not share locations with strangers. “You choose whether you want to share your location with Hubble,” he said.
Dinodia, a member of the varsity squash team, credited faculty advisor Lorraine Marchand with encouraging the team to test its fledgling program with students on other campuses. “We decided to take the train to Rutgers University and New York University to ask students how they felt about our app and what we could be doing better,” he said. “The response that we got in each of these places was simply overwhelming. People loved the idea and the design of the app and wanted to join our team either as full-time app developers or as campus ambassadors.”
The Robolution team mixes the competitive-cooking program “Chopped” with the sci-fi classic “Star Trek” – their goal is to create a completely automated chef that takes basic ingredients, cuts them, seasons and cooks a meal, and even cleans up after itself.
The team announced: “Our product will provide people with a better answer to the age-old question: What’s for dinner?”
Composed of graduate students in mechanical and aerospace engineering and electrical engineering, the Robolution team is working on the components of their device with an eye to producing prototypes to serve both the commercial food industry and the home user. The team has filed for a provisional patent through the University’s Office of Technology Licensing.
“Because we are a highly technical team, none of our members had experience in business, marketing, accounting and other legal issues that a startup should take into consideration,” said Zheng, the team’s marketing and operations officer. “eLab helped us on this front by providing lectures and inviting speakers that specialize in these areas to give us an overview of the things that we should watch out for.”
SignSchool grew out of an initial meeting between three Princeton roommates: Colin Lualdi, a senior majoring in physics; Jack Hudson, who graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science; and Evan Corden, who also graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Lualdi is deaf, and his roommates’ difficulty in finding a method to learn ASL led to the development of an online learning tool that uses video and interactive games to teach ASL.
This summer marked the second year that the SignSchool team has participated in eLab. Lualdisaid that eLab offered the “opportunity to learn valuable entrepreneurship skills from incredible mentors.”
The team originally thought they would primarily serve individuals seeking to learn ASL, but received so many inquiries from schools that they quickly shifted their plans to develop systems for educational institutions, Lualdi said. SignSchool still offers a large number of options for individuals, but now has a range of products for schools as well.
Brooks Powell started Thrive+ in his dorm room during his sophomore year. His goal was to develop a way to mitigate the negative effects of alcohol. Powell researched the body’s physiological responses to alcohol and then researched substances that could counteract symptoms such as dehydration and other maladies. The result was Thrive+, a formula designed to be taken before bed to minimize discomfort the following morning.
Powell, a senior majoring in religion, told the Demo Day audience that the company has already sold $100,000 of its product, and many of the buyers are return customers. He said the team’s market research indicated that the most likely buyers of Thrive+ were affluent professionals concerned about losing a day of work or performing at a lower level. Most customers polled indicated they were interested in “mitigating negative effects in a cost-effective manner,” he said.
“It all comes down to opportunity cost,” he said.
Powell said he valued the resources and technical support the eLab program provided to his team, but said the real benefit was “the people and the mentoring.”
“It’s not even quite coaching. It’s rather like being brought into someone’s family as they show you the ropes – especially the ropes of business,” he said. “The mentors stick their necks out for you in ways that you could never expect in a normal business relationship.”
Ultrasound imaging is a backbone of modern medicine, allowing physicians to diagnose and treat an array of illnesses. But the technology still faces many challenges: the machinery requires a skilled operator; the image resolution is often poor or unclear; reading the images and correctly interpreting them requires a very high level of training and medical knowledge.
Ultrasonyx is an effort to combine new and innovative imaging techniques with advances in machine learning to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of ultrasound imaging. The team was co-founded by Jen-Tang Lu, a graduate student in electrical engineering, and Jason Fleischer, an associate professor of electrical engineering who specializes in the physics of optics and imaging. In addition to applying their research to directly improve ultrasound images, the team has developed algorithms that use an expanding database of ultrasound images to increase the accuracy of readings.
Lu said the goal is to develop a system that makes creating an ultrasound image as easy as taking a selfie. He said the most valuable part of the summer program involved interviews that the team members conducted with physicians who regularly work with ultrasound.
“Getting feedback from physicians helped us to understand unmet needs and potential markets,” Lu said. Citing specific insights from the interviews, he said doctors encouraged the team to develop the technology for early-detection of liver cancer because the Ultrasonyx technology sharpens details that are hidden amid homogeneous backgrounds, and the liver is a particularly homogeneous organ. Other physicians pointed out that current ultrasound imaging for ovarian cancer is highly operator-dependent and hard to replicate.
“They found our technology could potentially solve the problem and have a good chance to diagnose epithelial ovarian cancer,” Lu said. “The technology is very good at improving the contrast at the boundary of internal organs.”