eLab accelerates student entrepreneurship
Arielle Sandor looked over the crowd filling the Friend Center auditorium on the Princeton campus and told them that somewhere in Nakuru, Kenya, a university student named Esther needed a taxi.
But picking a random driver could be troublesome or even dangerous. What Esther really needed was a friend who knew someone trustworthy. But who could that be? Behind Sandor, a giant projection screen flashed with a photo of Esther and two other people. One was Christine Blauvelt, Sandor's Princeton classmate who had been studying in Kenya. The other was Christine's friend, Moses, a taxi driver.
"Christine," Sandor said. Without missing a beat, Blauvelt stepped forward on the stage to pick up the presentation about Duma, a new business that aims to connect workers and employers in the developing world. The audience laughed and applauded.
If business, particularly a startup business, is all about making connections, then the Keller Center's eLab Demo Day was a perfect example of business in action.
A few months ago, Duma was only an idea. Sandor and Blauvelt put the project together over the past year and worked long hours over the summer to perfect their plan. On Demo Day itself, on Aug. 15, about 150 people, including venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and business people from the Princeton area and beyond, listened attentively as the Duma and three other student teams presented their new ventures. And, perhaps most significantly, nearly 7,500 miles away, Duma's first employees were working with customers on the teeming city streets of Nakuru.
"Our wheels are already turning," Sandor said, concluding the presentation to loud applause.
Just 10 weeks ago, the paint was still fresh on the walls of the eLab center in the von Neumann wing of the Engineering Quadrangle. A new program from the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, eLab used a competitive application to select four teams of students interested in developing businesses. Over the summer, the center provided housing, office space and meals for the teams, as well as a series of classes, seminars and meetings with successful entrepreneurs and business experts.
Sanjeev Kulkarni, the center's director and a professor of electrical engineering, said the goal of the new program is to find ways to channel innovative thinking at the University and to support student entrepreneurs. The program began last fall when Kulkarni and the center's associate director, Cornelia Huellstrunk, decided to launch a program similar to startup incubators and accelerators at other universities.
"At a lot of places, these types of programs sit in the business school," Kulkarni said. While Princeton does not have a business school, Kulkarni said housing the program in the engineering school has particular benefits.
"Because it is not in a business school, the technology is not an afterthought," he said. "The innovation and technology are very much at the forefront of the program."
Javier Garcia-Martinez, a visiting scholar at the Keller Center who was one of the advisers for the eLab program, said a university's assistance can be crucial for a student trying to convert a technological breakthrough into a new business.
"The weakest point is at the beginning when all you have is an idea, or a patent," said Garcia-Martinez, a chemistry professor at the University of Alicante, Spain, who founded Rive Technologies, a business for improving chemical refining, based on his work as a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Princeton is doing world-class research; there is no doubt about it. Entrepreneurship is about implementing these great ideas, taking them from the lab to the marketplace."
With eLab, Garcia-Martinez said, Princeton is taking a critical step to creating what Kulkarni has called "an ecosystem of entrepreneurship."
"The elements are here; the people, the infrastructure, the ideas, the capital," Kulkarni said. "It is a question of igniting it, bringing the elements together and enabling these things to occur."
The Keller Center hopes to add up to three teams to the eLab program next summer, Kulkarni said, as word of its success spreads.
This year's participants uniformly spoke of the important boost that eLab gave to their ventures, whether by providing advice, support or a place to work together and concentrate. Most important, Sandor said, was that the experience provided connections and opportunities on which the teams can build as they go forward.
"If we falter, or if we need a spark to get some momentum, we have so many people that we can rely on," she said.
Duma and three other projects that were developed during the eLab program are described below.
When the Dewey team members got together at the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club's Hackathon app-building competition last year, their first idea was to build a competitor to take on Google.
In explaining such an audacious goal, Minqi Jiang, a team member who graduated this year with a degree in computer science and a certificate in creative writing, pointed out that the search giant is incredibly adept at finding specific information, but not very good at presenting the fascinating tangential facts that can be found in a run through Wikipedia.
"Google is highly searchable but it is not discoverable," said Jiang. "It's great at finding a needle in a haystack, but you need to know what needle you are looking for."
Exploring various ideas, the team realized that what they wanted to do was to flip the search idea on its head: Instead of helping people find intriguing information, they would find a way for the information to come to the user.
"We come across all this great content every day and then it fades into the ether," said Peter Zakin, who graduated this year with a degree in philosophy and a certificate in applications of computing. "We wanted to create a venue for sharing meaningful content."
The team, which also included Arman Suleimenov who earned a master's degree in computer science this year, decided to harness the power of social networking to match users with high-quality content on the Web. In essence, each user would create a library of online writing and commentary to share with friends. It would be a Facebook of the mind, with content driven by intellectual rather than social interests.
The site would match the team's own literary interests. Jiang is a former editor of the Nassau Weekly, Zakin was a columnist for the student newspaper The Daily Princetonian, and Suleimenov is a blogger in his native Kazakhstan.
Zakin said the goal is to create a library for the Web — hence the name Dewey, after Melvil Dewey, who created a system to categorize the library of the predigital age. Working in eLab over the summer, the team members added a feature to the Dewey system called Marginalia, which lets users add comments in the margin of works they find on the Internet.
In an effort to maintain quality, the site will not allow for anonymous posting.
"The norms of a site are set early," Zakin said. "We are dealing with content that is high quality, and we want to develop in a way that can nurture that."
Duma has a simple plan to solve a complex problem.
Like many developing nations, Kenya has a huge population of short-term workers — independent taxi drivers, plumbers, carpenters and mechanics. But there is no easy way to link these workers with potential employers, so time and skills are wasted by a failure of communications.
The idea for addressing this issue emerged after Sandor and Blauvelt returned from doing senior thesis research in Nakuru the summer after junior year. They realized the solution might be found in the country's most widespread communications device — cellphones.
"Cellphone use rates are sky high in Kenya," said Blauvelt, who graduated this year with a degree in anthropology. "About two-thirds of the population use cellphones, and if you go into the urban areas it is higher."
While taking the class "Ventures to Address Global Challenges" through the Keller Center last fall, the pair decided they could combine cellular phones and social networking to create a job referral service for Kenya. The cellphones would provide the communications technology while social networking would solve the problems of reliability — someone would be more likely to hire a driver or a carpenter if their brother-in-law or neighbor could vouch for the worker.
For a small fee, Duma, the Swahili word for cheetah, allows workers and employers to enter lists of references into a database. When someone needs to hire a driver, they send a text message to Duma, and the computer scans the lists to look for social connections to make a recommendation. It then sends a text back to the employer listing possible hires along with common acquaintances. Duma also includes a system to rate workers' performance after the job is finished.
In addition to Sandor, who graduated this year with a degree in history, and Blauvelt, the Duma team includes their classmate Eric Kuto, who graduated with a degree in computer science, and Luke Paulsen, a rising junior in the computer science department.
The team is already rolling out the first phase of the project in Nakuru, with plans to expand to other Kenyan cities. Kuto said they chose the city because of its moderate size and because the taxi drivers' association agreed to try the system. Although Nakuru will be the site of the initial operation, Kuto said the hardware that helps run the system is actually operating in his brother's house in Nairobi and is run remotely.
"It is really exciting because it has the ability to revolutionize the way people hire in the developing world," Sandor said.
Trevor Wilkins, a rising senior majoring in sociology, told the Demo Day audience he found it dismaying that the United States could field an Olympic team that won more than 40 gold medals but have an education system that he described as "abysmal."
"In this country today, every 26 seconds a student drops out of school," he said. "About 7,000 students every day."
Wilkins and his teammates wanted to keep those students in school and encourage good academic performance. One option, they felt, was an incentive program. Wilkins said he remembered as a child receiving GI Joes and other toys as a reward for good grades and wondered if it was possible to use incentives to encourage other children to do well in school.
The teammates tossed ideas around, and the result was MyGZPoints, or My GradeZone Points. Designed to reward students for their performance in school, MyGZPoints connects schools with local businesses that offer discounts on merchandise in exchange for good grades, regular school attendance and community service.
The idea, Wilkins said, was not only to reward students but also to try to use the cachet of consumer products to raise the social status of performing well in school among students' peers.
"We want school to be cool again," he said. "We want students who are doing well to be celebrated and we want students who aren't doing so well to be motivated."
Besides Wilkins, the team currently includes Benjamin Hazel, a rising junior majoring in sociology, Malik Jackson, a rising junior majoring in politics, and David Seijas, who graduated this year with a degree in economics. Max Huc, a rising senior majoring in sociology, is also part of the team, although he did not participate in this summer's eLab.
Before entering eLab, the team had already won several startup business competitions, including the national Intel Innovators 2012 competition. Over the summer, the team worked on establishing contacts with school districts and businesses.
Wilkins said the team has agreements in place with a school and local businesses in Atlantic County, N.J. Local businesses and a shopping mall have agreed to participate as well. The program is free for schools and students, and businesses pay a fee to participate. The team plans to introduce the MyGZPoints program on a limited basis this year.
"We can show these students that the community cares," Wilkins said.
The origin of WantWarrior is simple: Jason Silver was looking for a new car.
"I knew exactly what I wanted, the make, model, year, how much I wanted to pay," he said. "Unfortunately, knowing what I wanted was not the same as finding what I wanted."
Silver, an electrical engineer, knew there had to be a better way. After pausing in his 15-year career as an engineering manager to obtain a graduate degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Silver got his chance.
He won acceptance to the eLab program with his pitch to build WantWarrior, a program that uses a search engine to match wants posted by users to goods advertised on the site and those available in the marketplace. Silver said the program conducts a general search and also has access to inventories provided by businesses. Users can post "wants" for goods they are seeking as well as ads for things they are selling. The search engine continues to match items for as long as a user maintains the posting. The posts are free; WantWarrior charges merchants for successful connections with customers.
The original plan was to offer a wide range of used goods, but Silver and his team decided to concentrate initially on the market for used cars. Silver said that his position as an eLab participant made it easier to meet with local car dealers, and convince them to try the system, something that might not have been possible for an independent business person.
Silver described himself as the project's "architect and ideas guy." Andrej Risteski, a graduate student in computer science, and George Okeowo, a rising senior majoring in computer science, have handled the programming for the project. WantWarrior is seeking to raise initial financing for the project and expand their team. They expect to unveil their public website in the near future.