Student entrepreneurs pitch innovations at annual Demo Days
For everyone who has ever worried about how their social media data is tracked and sold, the social media startup Afari is offering a more private alternative.
“On Afari, your data isn’t kept by us, but by you, in storage that you own,” said Avthar Sewrathan, a 2018 Princeton graduate and an Afari co-founder. The system, based on blockchain storage, is designed to give users “peace of mind that your data won’t be abused.”
Sewrathan’s presentation was one of seven delivered this month as the annual capstone of the eLab Summer Accelerator Programorganized by the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. Teams of students and recent graduates pitched their innovations to audiences at the program’s seventh-annual Demo Days, held in the Frick Chemistry Lab at Princeton on August 14 and at the Manhattan headquarters of the technology firm AppNexus on August 15.
Margaret Martonosi, the Hugh Trumbull Adams '35 Professor of Computer Scienceand the Keller Center director, welcomed participants to the event. She said programs such as eLab offer students new opportunities for growth in addition to the pathways that they see intellectually through their major.
Teams selected for the eLab program spend 10 weeks at the University’s Entrepreneurial Hub on Chambers Street in downtown Princeton. They receive intensive training on aspects of entrepreneurship and business development, as well as support and feedback from a network of experienced mentors.
“eLab, for many of our students, truly is transformative,” said Cornelia Huellstrunk, executive director of the Keller Center.
In addition to Afari’s new approach to social media, projects included a prototype for a new kind of energy bar; a laser sensor for detecting chemical differences in food or wine; and a program aimed at expanding opportunities for young women from low-income communities.
Each team presented a short video and described their startup idea and business plan. Some called on investors in the audience to consider backing their ventures financially; others were seeking grants for further research or donations to a nonprofit organization. The teams also listened to feedback and answered questions from expert panels that included Princeton alumni. Panelists[SJL1] at the Princeton event were Kef Kasdin of the Class of 1985, president and executive director of Princeton AlumniCorps; S. Philip Kennard, co-founder and CEO of Futurestay; Eric Lunt of the Class of 1992, CTO emeritus of Signal; and Susan Solinsky of the Class of 1986, co-founder of Vital Score.
This marked the fifth year that the Manhattan Demo Day was hosted at AppNexus, an online advertising firm founded by Brian O’Kelley of the Class of 1999 and recently acquired by AT&T for around $1.6 billion. Panelists at the Manhattan event were Ita Ekpoudom of the Class of 2003, partner at GingerBread Capital; Abby Lyall, senior associate at Quake Capital; Dianna Raedle of the Class of 1984, founder and CEO of Deer Isle Group; and John Rudikoff, CEO and managing director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
Teams presented on the following projects:
Three members of Princeton’s rowing team founded Ketnu, a “superfood energy bar,” in response to their own frustrations with energy bars currently on the market. They sought to create an option with greater nutritional value and higher-quality ingredients.
The team’s market research concluded that a majority of consumers believe most energy bars do not deliver on their promises, and 78 percent of people say that taste is the most important factor in choosing an energy bar, said co-founder Jordi Cabanas, a rising senior majoring in computer science.
Cabanas and co-founders Grace Cordsen and Madelynn Prendergast, also rising seniors, said they had perfected recipes for three energy bar flavors: Jordi’s Berry Pie, Grace’s Peanut Brownie and Madelynn’s Coconut Coffee.
“Three things that differentiate our bar are a healthy and sustainable protein blend, which is pea protein and cricket flour; our brain and heart foods, which are coconut oil and flax meal; and last, but not least, our fiber and iron powerhouses, chia seeds and quinoa puffs,” explained Prendergast, who is majoring in English.
The team said Ketnu plans to market its products to “young millennials who prioritize high-quality food,” and will begin selling energy bars at Princeton University and local establishments before expanding into New York City. Ultimately, the company hopes to contract with national institutional vendors, said Cabanas.
“We’ve lost trust in social media companies to protect our data and our privacy,” said Afari co-founder Avthar Sewrathan, who graduated from Princeton this spring with a degree in computer science. Sewrathan also described issues of platform and government censorship, and inadequate rewards for online content creators. “All of this needs to change,” he said.
Earlier this month the company launched a beta version of its social network, which includes microblogging and photo sharing. Initially, Afari seeks to attract privacy and free-speech advocates and people facing censorship — “a passionate and dedicated user base,” said co-founder Richard Adjei, who also graduated from Princeton this year with a computer science degree.
Afari hopes to recruit creators of digital content such as videos and music. Adjei said advertisers will only have access to information from users who opt in to the system.
Afari won first place in this spring’s TigerLaunch competition sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club and has secured $100,000 in seed funding from the Blockstack Signature Fund. The company’s co-founders, who include Felix Madutsa of the Class of 2018 in addition to Adjei and Sewrathan, said they were seeking further investments and looking forward to focusing full-time on building the company now that they have graduated from Princeton.
Alira Infrared Biosensing
Alira CEO Alexandra Werth opened her pitch with a brief history lesson: “The idea of using light for sensing is nothing new,” she said, noting that spectrometers, which differentiate materials by measuring their interactions with light, date back at least to the 1850s. Now, she added, specialized lasers are used to search for water on Mars, detect gravitational waves and perform precision surgeries.
“At Alira, we’re taking this a step further, by bringing these high-precision spectrometers out of the lab and into your hands,” said Werth, a fifth-year graduate student in electrical engineering.
The company’s technology, called MIRI, uses mid-infrared lasers and machine learning algorithms to quickly and accurately describe the molecular composition of materials such as food, wine or blood. Werth and her team, who created MIRI with technology developed at Princeton University, hope to eventually deploy it for medical use. In the interim, Alira plans to begin offering MIRI in the wine industry, which would benefit from a better sensor to track the chemical content of its products. Wineries can use MIRI to measure the content of raw grape juice, as well as monitor wine during fermentation, aging and bottling.
For example, Werth said, Alira’s technology could help prevent the production of acetic acid, or vinegar, during winemaking. This would save time and money and improve the wines’ quality. “We can completely streamline the entire process from grape to glass,” she said.
After establishing its services in the wine industry, Alira hopes to expand to other liquor and food industries, and eventually to medical testing and diagnostics, a multibillion-dollar market where MIRI could improve processes such as glucose monitoring.
TerraVuze is creating interactive virtual reality (VR) adventures that show customers how products can be used for river rafting, camping trips or other outdoor pursuits.
“For end users, it’s a unique and fun way to shop for gear; and for businesses, it’s an attraction they can add to their stores, at a good cost, that draws in customers,” said co-founder Lucas Manning, a rising junior majoring in computer science.
Customers who enter a retail store can don a VR headset that puts them in an immersive environment where they can see and explore various products. TerraVuze also plans to introduce a version that customers can access in their homes.
During their time in the eLab, the TerraVuze team secured partnerships with one outdoor retailer and one gear-and-apparel brand. Seeking seed funding from investors, they plan to expand their subscription-based model to larger clients in the near future, and are testing a full analytics suite that would allow businesses to track customers’ interactions with products in VR experiences. Eventually, the team envisions applying its technology to athletic apparel, cookware and furniture markets, said TerraVuze co-founder and CEO Joe Ratliffe, a rising junior majoring in economics.
Lumhaa founder and CEO Shriya Sekhsaria started her pitch with a personal story that began when she was writing a book about terminally ill Indian children living in poverty. The children she had lived with while working on the book died before it was published.
Sekhsaria collected small gifts and drawings from the children, along with voice recordings she had made, and placed them in jars to mail to their families. The families deeply appreciated the memory jars, said Sekhsaria, who graduated from Princeton this spring with a degree in psychology.
More than two years later, Sekhsaria and her team have launched Lumhaa (from a Hindi word meaning “moment”), a digital platform for recording and engaging with memories. Sekhsaria was inspired to create the company after her experience with the Indian children, as well as her senior thesis work, which explored the effects of memory collection among more than 200 residents of senior citizen homes.
“Hearing all these stories made me feel like I was living a thousand lives,” she said, “and the senior citizens said that they were feeling heard for the first time in a very long time.”
To scale this experience, Sekhsaria and her team built a mobile app and website that allow users to collect and catalog their own multimedia memories, as well as experience the memories of others. Users can even take a “memory walk” that links their location to memories recorded in that place by others.
Lumhaa’s initial business plan is focused on its Lum World product, which helps companies encourage their employees to record memories. Sekhsaria said the product aims to promote psychological safety in the workplace, which can improve employee retention and support diversity and inclusion efforts.
Tendo is creating highly accurate, compact flow sensors for building heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. The sensors rely on elastic filament velocimetry, a novel technology developed at Princeton. Retrofitting HVAC systems with Tendo’s sensors can increase energy efficiency and extend equipment lifetime, said co-founder Yuyang Fan.
“Tendo’s mission in HVAC is to provide a sensitive, durable and user-friendly hardware solution that would lower sensor installation costs, optimize space use in HVAC retrofitting design, and provide a more regulated control of HVAC systems that can enable greater energy savings,” said Fan, who earned a Ph.D. in 2017 from Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, where he is continuing to work as a postdoctoral researcher with Associate Professor Marcus Hultmark.
Fan said Tendo’s technology would help lower installation costs in HVAC retrofitting and reduce the number of required sensors by half compared to most current systems. The company has secured a licensing agreement with Princeton University, and plans to have a commercial prototype ready for testing and validation by the end of 2018.
Tendo selected the HVAC market as a starting point in part because the industry presents fewer regulatory hurdles than medical injections or the aerospace industry — two other potential applications of the company’s sensor technology.
“Together, we will get the juice flowing,” said Fan in his closing pitch to investors. “I meant, we’ll get the air flowing — or water, or oil or medicine — whichever fluid you prefer — and accurately measure it.”
The HomeWorks team, which joined the eLab accelerator for a second year, rattled off a list of challenges facing public high schools in nearby Trenton, New Jersey: low graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and students falling short of standards in literacy in math.
Natalie Tung, the nonprofit organization’s co-founder and executive director, cited her own experience in boarding school as a model for providing enrichment, support and stability to high-potential students from low-income communities. Tung, who graduated from Princeton this spring with a degree in English, worked with four fellow students to pioneer HomeWorks in 2017. The program provides an after-school boarding program for middle and high school girls in Trenton — a supplement to the city’s public schools that helps build the girls’ confidence and leadership skills.
Last summer, five girls lived in the organization’s group home from Sunday nights through Friday mornings while they attended summer courses at Trenton public schools. This summer, the program expanded to 10 scholars, and emphasized a project-based curriculum in civic engagement and women’s empowerment, said operations director Madelyn Baron, who graduated from Princeton this spring with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
HomeWorks has established partnerships with more than a dozen local organizations to provide food, workshops and more. Beginning in fall 2019 it plans to extend its program into the academic school year, and will eventually take on up to 40 scholars.
Feedback panelist Kennard suggested that, in addition to individual donors, corporate sponsors and private and government grants, HomeWorks should consider seeking contracts with the Department of Education for transportation and other services.
“You may be able to reduce the costs so much that it becomes a more scalable venture,” said Kennard. “If you could do that … you could really change the next generation.”