Six startup teams pitched at the Keller Center's eLab Summer Accelerator Program Demo Day, held at the Friend Center at Princeton University on August 15. The next day, they did it all again, this time at the AppNexus offices, in New York City. NJTechWeekly.com attended the Princeton event to see what this year's teams were up to.
The eLab Summer Accelerator Program is open to Princeton students by application only, and gives undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs an opportunity to explore and grow their startup ideas into sustainable and scalable businesses. According to the executive director of the Keller Center, Cornelia Huellstrunk, half of the teams from this six-year-old program are still in business today.
The student teams had 10 weeks to develop their ventures, working alongside Keller Center faculty and a network of other Princeton faculty, team advisors and alumni. The teams were provided with a stipend, workspace at the Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub, and summer housing.
During the Demo Day at Princeton, the six teams were allowed a two-minute introduction video, eight-minute presentation/pitch, and a five-minute Q&A session with panelists. After the scheduled demo time, the teams met and discussed their companies with other interested parties at a networking reception. In addition to showcasing their ventures, Demo Day gave the teams the opportunity to pitch their ideas to potential investors. Each team had to make a financial ask in order to continue to propel its venture forward.
The teams presented ventures with a strong focus on community, education, health and sustainability; and they included a unique array of presenters, including teachers, marketers, engineers and self-described hackers. Each project this year made it a priority not only to be economically sustainable, but also to contribute something positive to their communities, and to society as a whole.
The following are the six ventures presented at the 2017 eLab Accelerator Program Demo Day at Princeton:
Flux Marine - "Sustainable marine technology"
Based on the premise of creating a sustainable, efficient and reliable product, the Flux Marine team presented its electric outboard motors as simply "a better boating experience." While Tesla and others have been hard at work revolutionizing the electric car industry, much less work has been done in boating, even though boats can present a very real problem for the environment. As the team pointed out, one hour of using a standard-sized gas outboard motor causes about the same amount of pollution as driving a family automobile for 800 miles. The team sees itself as the "Tesla of the waters," and was open to the possibility of working with Tesla in the future.
The team said that it was addressing a $3 billion boating market. In fact, the product shows promise in markets such as New Jersey, where many waterways allowing boats actually ban gas engines. Flux Marine would like to eventually partner with boat manufacturers to work on both retrofits and new builds. It hopes to sell 5,000 units by 2021.
Scratchwork - "Draw your ideas"
Scratchwork, formerly known as "Scribble," is a collaborative whiteboard tool that aims to bring drawings, diagrams and notes into the digital age. Right now, there is no great way to quickly and naturally express visual ideas on a computer or smart device in a collaborative manner. This is especially difficult when it comes to expressing equations and diagrams. Typically, people find themselves using video apps such as Skype and holding up notes on camera; but, depending on the camera quality and internet connection, this can prove messy.
Scratchwork is an application that can be used on a computer or smart device, bringing together a white board, video calling and document uploading to provide users with an easy all-in-one collaboration experience. One feature the team is working on is a "spell check for math," making the app even more functional. While the application for individuals (most notably students) is expected to be free, the team is working on a model for course packages, which will cost professors about $50 per month. These packages will have extra tools that will enable professors to monitor and track student work. Scratchwork hopes to sell 50 course packages over the next three semesters.
HomeWorks - "Ensuring that home works"
HomeWorks is a company focused on serving the Trenton community, especially children and their families. As the presenters pointed out, many children in underserved communities don't have access to the social and educational tools they need to succeed. Extracurricular activities can be unaffordable for families, and children are often forced to stay inside after school because the streets are unsafe. HomeWorks is Trenton's first after-school boarding program, providing middle and high school girls with educational help, a safe space outside of their home and social/emotional support.
HomeWorks piloted a four-week summer program this year, inviting five Trenton girls to participate. There was immense interest in the program, so they had to turn away many children. The summer program ran all day, seven days a week, providing the girls with a safe and enriched environment. During the school year, the program would operate as a supplement to the school system's existing after-school program. The team conducted before and after surveys of the five girls, and found a positive psychological impact from their pilot program.
The team estimates that the program will cost about $324,000/year for up to 40 students. In the team's request for funding, the main point was that they weren't only helping the girls on a day-to-day basis, but also on a long-term basis, as children participating in programs like this one are more likely to continue to attend school and to graduate from high school. Moreover, the impact of this program is expected to extend to the children's friends and family and to the entire community.
Thrive+ - "Reducing alcohol's negative effects"
Thrive+ was described by founder and CEO Brooks Powell as being somewhere between a biotech firm and a consumer packaged-goods company. Its exclusive focus is on providing products that reduce the negative effects of alcohol. The team has brought two products to market. The first is an after-alcohol aid in capsule form, meant to be taken right after drinking and before going to bed; the product claims to reduce short-term alcohol withdrawal. The second product is an "oral rehydration solution," a powder taken with water after drinking; it works by "optimizing the Sodium Glucose Co-Transport System" to improve hydration.
Their products were developed after the team had looked at studies of rats showing that dihydromyricetin, also known as "ampelopsin," reduces short-term alcohol withdrawal by binding to the same brain receptors that alcohol binds to. While the next step is to do scientific trials with humans, they have already received very positive feedback from user surveys. Thrive+ is averaging $2,000/day in sales, and Powell hopes to increase that to $6,000/day by the end of this year.
Epigrammar - "Automated annotation assessment"
Inspired by the word "epigrafia," meaning "to write upon," Epigrammer aims to fix the knowledge gap between notes and tests. In the average secondary school in the U.S., there are about 27 students to every teacher, making it extremely difficult for teachers to have one-on-one experiences with their students. Tutoring is a great way to achieve this, but it often requires too many resources. Epigrammer wants to take tutoring and scale it from a one-on-one experience to a one-on-many experience.
The team presented Epigrammar as the "world's first tool for turning student annotations into assessments." Teachers can upload any file type, and then students are able to take notes by dropping pins throughout the pages. This means that students can easily take trackable notes not only in word documents, but on images as well. From here, teachers can assess the student notes, rank them, and view data and heatmaps relating to these assessments across the class. The team said that feedback has been positive so far, but Epigrammar needs about 1,000 teachers to sign on to become successful. However, with its software budget increasing, and about 30-50 percent of the required number of teachers having already made soft commitments, the team is hopeful. CEO Uday Singh was particularly positive about the whole experience, describing it as "downright magical."
BoxPower - "Innovative energy solutions to off-grid and underserved markets worldwide" or "We sell boxes"
BoxPower is "designing, manufacturing, and selling custom and containerized energy solutions." In other words, they are taking renewable energy options and packaging them in such a way that they are affordable and can easily fit inside 20-foot shipping containers. The company's first-generation boxes include a solar array, a wind turbine and a tower; and takes a little less than two hours to set up. Each box can be expected to power one small off-grid home. The second-generation boxes include a 16-kilowatt (kW) solar array, 80-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery bank, 15 kW backup biodiesel generator, an inverter and charge controller. These boxes also include BoxPower's patent-pending quick-mount racking system. They take about six hours to set up, and can be expected to power about 3-5 full-sized homes.
Founder and CEO Angelo Campus has set the company up to be a "social impact company," and plans to incorporate as a B-corp. About 80 percent of sales receipts are attributed to commercial applications, while the other 20 percent go towards social impact priorities. The boxes were built with the following in mind: rural electrification, disaster relief and off-grid agriculture. Customers can expect the boxes to pay for themselves in as little as three years and they can take advantage of a 30 percent federal investment tax credit.
BoxPower is now working on testing, UL certifications, the deployment of their second generation of boxes, and ramping up their customer-acquisition campaign. According to Campus, "the only thing we aren't good at is destroying the planet."