Recent grads bring nerve and verve to their startup ventures.
By Anna Fiorentino
Young alumni are founding companies that offer innovative solutions to a range of challenges, from shrinking utility bills to providing emergency lighting, from recycling carbon dioxide to storing wind and solar energy. They are delivering high-performance electric motorcycles, exposing counterfeit pills, and changing the way we purchase art.
“Too many good ideas that have real potential for helping people end up on a piece of paper in a library,” says Ashifi Gogo Th’10, Thayer’s first Ph.D. Innovation Program graduate and founder of the drug-authentication company Sproxil.
In the following, Gogo and other alumni tell how they turned their good ideas into great companies.
Cofounders: Marc Fenigstein ’01 Th’04, David Drennan Th’09
Marc Fenigstein ’01 Th’04 compares the moment he first rode the BRD motorcycle prototype to the first time he rode shaped skis instead of straight skis, or used an Apple iPod instead of an MP3 player. “I knew on paper that it was extremely capable. What completely surprised me was just how easy it was,” he says.
One taste of the bike’s combination of performance and design erased his initial concern that riders weren’t ready for a high-performance—and quiet—electric motorcycle.
“All great motorsports brands, from Honda to Porsche, were built on high-performance racing first, and eventually they reach beginners,” says Fenigstein, BRD’s chief executive officer. “There is a $50 billion market of existing riders just waiting to transition to electric motors.”
In August 2011, BRD Motorcycles released the RedShift, a second-generation fully functioning prototype, now in field testing. The RedShift’s instant throttle response and flat, endless torque curve makes the bike easy to ride and fast—an expected 90 miles per hour, which matches the most powerful of gas equivalents. And at about 250 pounds, this 40-horsepower bike weighs about 150 pounds less than most street legal bikes. “It will have the power and the battery capacity to outperform most of its gas-powered equivalents,” says Fenigstein.
Based in San Francisco, BRD Motorcycles has already received more than 700 pre-order inquiries, and plans to be in production by late 2012 with a 2013 model. Several motorcycle dealerships are already lined up to sell the bikes. With a price tag of approximately $15,000, the RedShift MX and SM models cost more upfront than most gas bikes, but less once additional expenses for oil changes, maintenance, and gas are factored into the equation. According to Fenigstein, the bike has piqued the interest of top-tier investors, including Mike Donoughe, formerly of Tesla Motors and now chief operating officer at electric vehicle startup Bright Automotive, and advisors from Ducati motorcycles and Google.
BRD Motorcycles was the brainchild of Jeff Sand and Derek Dorresteyn, who approached Fenigstein in 2009 while he was at frog design in San Francisco. Fenigstein was an established product design consultant, with mechanical engineering and startup experience. “Derek and Jeff were looking for someone to evaluate their design and create a viable business, someone who knew outdoor and action sports as well as design and engineering,” says Fenigstein.
By the time Sand, now chief design officer, got the ball rolling with BRD Motorcycles, he’d already invented Switch step-in snowboard bindings, created the Sutro Vision line of eyewear, and designed furniture featured in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Dorresteyn, chief technology officer and a former professional motorcycle racer, owned and operated a high-end machine shop manufacturing everything from fine architectural pieces to industrial mining equipment. Mechanical engineer David Drennan Th’09, who built hybrid race cars for Dartmouth Formula Racing during his Thayer Master of Engineering Management studies, became the fourth cofounder.
“We expected a backlash because it wasn’t a loud, gas bike, but there has been an overwhelming positive response not just to the bike’s aesthetic but to the bike itself,” says Fenigstein.
With the goal of producing bikes that are faster and more powerful than anything else on the market, Fenigstein eyes a global road. “We’re looking to build the next great motorcycle company, to become the Honda of the 21st century,” he says.
Cofounder: Anna Stork ’08
A student strains to see her schoolwork inside a dim Guatemalan classroom. A hiker runs out of flashlight batteries on the Appalachian Trail. Both scenarios could benefit from an inexpensive, compact, solar solution: a hand-held inflatable, rechargeable LED lamp called LuminAID.
Anna Stork ’08 and Andrea Sreshta developed the LuminAID solar light prototype while classmates at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. Designed in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, LuminAID is the world’s first inflatable solar light. Waterproof and easy to ship, it lasts longer than a battery-powered flashlight, is safer than a kerosene lamp, and doesn’t require expensive rechargeable batteries.
“At the time there was a lot of clean water, shelter, and food being shipped to Haiti, but most people in informal settlements were without a light source,” says Stork. “There were many cases of rape and kidnapping because it was so densely populated. We saw a need for a portable light source to improve safety of people living in tents.”
Stork and Sreshta’s LuminAID Lab has since received more than 2,000 pledges to donate the solar lights to community partners in Haiti and also Nigeria, Peru, Ghana, India, and Bolivia, and pre-sold about 1,000 additional lights. The simple solar technology earned LuminAID awards and startup cash from business competitions, including the WalMart/Net Impact Better Living Business Plan Challenge and the Global Social Venture Competition.
“It’s just a solar panel with a thin rechargeable battery connected to LED lights, with the circuit integrated into the plastic. The innovation is the combination of the solar with the inflatable,” says Stork, who filed for a full patent under the offices of Columbia Technology Ventures.
LuminAID produces four to six hours of light and can be recharged in five to six hours. The device can be recharged up to 800 times and has a total shelf life of two to three years, says Stork, who first began thinking about merging sustainability and design while at Thayer.
“I took away a lot from my course in materials science at Thayer. I also learned about solar and renewable energy,” says Stork, who incorporated LuminAID Lab in 2011 with the intent of providing an immediate lighting solution for individuals in regions affected by natural disasters and wars. Her goal has since expanded as more and more hikers and campers want the solar lights for outdoor recreational use.
The LuminAID Lab “Give Light, Get Light” campaign on the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo, which was launched in late 2011, combines the two uses. For $25, customers pre-buy one light and send a gift of another light to a partner foundation in a developing country. Another LuminAID Lab partner, Solar Sister, equips budding female entrepreneurs with the marketing and sales skills to sell LuminAID solar lights in Uganda. Elephant Energy follows a similar model in Namibia, and Pencils of Promise is outfitting schools with LuminAID lights in Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
According to Stork, the two-for-one approach makes sense. “We’re combining smart design with simple solar technology to provide solutions for developing countries as well as for other markets,” she says.
Cofounder: Kyle Teamey ’98
As entrepreneur-in-residence at Redpoint Ventures, Kyle Teamey ’98 wanted to find a way to make fuels from renewable energy without relying on biological feedstocks. In 2009 he cofounded Liquid Light, an early-stage startup based on discoveries in the fields of catalysis and artificial photosynthesis stemming from research by Emily Cole in the lab of Professor Andrew Bocarsly at Princeton University. Liquid Light licensed the technology and began research and development in Central New Jersey with Bocarsly, Cole, and nine other scientists from around the world.
Liquid Light uses energy from light or any electric power source to convert waste carbon dioxide into industrial chemicals and transportation fuels, in a process similar to artificial photosynthesis or reverse combustion. While the company won’t be doing large-scale production for several years, it has made a handful of key breakthroughs in catalysis that can eventually lead to improving energy security and reducing oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions.
Liquid Light has successfully made 20 household chemicals from carbon dioxide, including butanol, which contains four carbon atoms. According to Teamey, other companies pursuing artificial photosynthetic routes have generally only been able to make single carbon atom products.
“Our catalysts allow us to lower the activation energy for carbon dioxide reduction and initiate it very near the thermodynamically reversible potential. This gives us a huge advantage in energy consumption,” says Teamey, who is president of the company. “We’ve been able to make a lot of basic building blocks for doing industrial chemistry.”
As an undergraduate, Teamey broke into lab work at Thayer under Professor Lee Lynd, whose research on cellulosic ethanol launched the renewable fuels company Mascoma Corporation. “Even though I was researching a biological process, I was able to do chemistry and biochemistry that gave me a feel for how labs operate,” says Teamey, who also holds a master’s in finance and energy policy from Johns Hopkins University. “The hands-on experience I received at Dartmouth was hugely important to my career.”
That career includes six years as an active duty officer for the army, with a year in Iraq. He served as director of renewable energy at Dunia Frontier Consultants, cofounded the Switch Renewable Energy company, and became a consultant for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “My experience with DARPA taught me there are a lot of interesting technologies that have not yet found commercial application for one reason or another,” says Teamey.
The DARPA approach helped Teamey create Liquid Light. “Instead of waiting for a startup to come to us like most venture capitalist firms, like DARPA we went looking for scientists to solve a technical challenge,” says Teamey. “A great team is often one of the key missing pieces for solving very hard problems in science.”
Founder: Ashifi Gogo Th’10
In the United States you might end up with a knock-off bag or a non-organic piece of fruit, but in developing nations, the implications of purchasing a counterfeit product are often much more grave.
“The growing trade in fake pharmaceuticals is of great concern in the developing world because of the large impact it has on human life,” says Ashifi Gogo Th’10, the first graduate of Thayer’s Ph.D. Innovation Program. More than 700,000 deaths a year result from fake and substandard tuberculosis and malaria drugs alone.
While at Thayer, Gogo says, he was shocked to find out that the most populous city in Africa—Lagos, Nigeria—reported that 80 percent of prescription drugs available in 2003 were fake. He set up Sproxil to combat counterfeiting through a cell phone-based product verification service. Thousands of people are already using this technology to verify the authenticity of their drugs.
“Sproxil empowers consumers to make smart decisions so they don’t buy fake pills unknowingly,” he says. “Our goal is to reestablish trust between patients and their pharmacists and make counterfeiting more challenging for rogue retailers.”
In 2010 Sproxil became the first large-scale, crowd-sourced, anti-counterfeiting text message system deployed in Africa. When people buy medications, they can scratch off a label on the blister pack containing the drug to reveal a unique PIN, which they text to Sproxil’s secure short code free of charge. The consumer then receives an instant response from Sproxil’s Mobile Product Authentication™ technology confirming or denying a product’s genuineness. Sproxil’s cloud-based computing service automatically checks the code and provides the right response to the end user. Pharmaceutical companies paying for the medication verification service can then send relevant targeted offers to the consumer, and benefit from brand protection, real-time market insight, and increased sales.
Sproxil currently operates in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and India, and is already working with pharmaceutical giants such as Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck’s distributor in Nigeria. Merck’s Glucophage global sales, which had fallen 75 percent since 2008 due to loss of profits from counterfeit drugs, increased by more than 10 percent in just 100 days of working with Sproxil. “We helped rescue Merck’s Glucophage brand in Nigeria, and today four additional Merck products have been added to our service,” says Gogo.
The Ghanaian native says that the Ph.D. Innovation Program prepared him for running Sproxil. “Thayer gave me the entrepreneurial training I needed,” says Gogo, who in the past started a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) company in Ghana. “The program fosters a new pedigree of engineers who are capable of solving global problems through tangible solutions.”
By the time Gogo graduated, his enterprise had received global accolades. In 2009 Sproxil won an Outstanding Commitment Award in Global Health—and a $10,000 grant—from the Clinton Global Initiative University, and a year later Gogo shared the stage with Bill Clinton in front of world leaders to highlight the progress Sproxil had made since receiving the grant. In 2010 Sproxil won IBM’s SmartCamp competition in Boston and received honorable mention at the IBM Global SmartCamp in Dublin. The company has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe.
Gogo oversees employees across three continents from Sproxil’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. To date, consumers have sent more than a million messages to Sproxil to verify that they are not buying fake products. With the global pharmaceutical industry losing $200 billion annually to the counterfeiting epidemic, Sproxil has established itself as a healthy antidote.
Cofounders: Luke Fishback ’02 Th’03, John Cunningham ’02
Luke Fishback ’02 Th’03 was looking for a viable business plan after building monitoring systems for missiles and satellites at Lockheed Martin. He had just purchased his first house. “I wanted to save money on my monthly electric bill and coming out of a great lab and engineering environment, I was used to building whatever tools I needed,” he says.
So he created a monitoring system that photographed his own electricity meter every 30 seconds over the course of a day, and then converted the pictures into a spreadsheet. By auditing his own electricity use through a real-time lens, he tweaked his appliances and systems to save money.
He knew he was onto something. “Who wouldn’t want to reduce their utility bills by as much as 50 percent—especially if it was as simple as turning off the auxiliary heat on your thermostat or cleaning dirty refrigerator coils,” he says.
Fishback sent the data from his webcam to his friend and former classmate John Cunningham ’02, who was finishing his Ph.D. at Stanford. “I told John there was cool stuff to be gleaned from this crude initial data set,” Fishback says.
In 2008 he and Cunningham launched PlotWatt, a company that helps reduce utility bills by analyzing costs for running individual appliances.
“Many companies offer energy monitoring and feedback, but we’re the only company out there that figures out appliance usage without having a homeowner put a monitor on every appliance,” says Fishback, PlotWatt’s chief executive officer. “Instead of just telling you usage in unhelpful units like kilowatts and kilowatt hours, we can tell you exactly how much you can save tomorrow if you turn your thermostat down one degree, for example.”
Cunningham, PlotWatt’s chief scientist, helped create the algorithms the company uses today. When a customer signs up for PlotWatt online, the company’s cloud-based software analyzes data from their energy meter to trace appliance-level energy cost without monitoring individual appliances. The PlotWatt Energy Dashboard has already given feedback and personalized, money-saving recommendations to thousands of customers.
“Once we started to get word out, we had a community of early adopters who gave us a warm reception,” says Fishback. The current beta version of PlotWatt is free for residential users who have an enabled smart meter.
With $1 million in seed funding led by Felicis Ventures and $100,000 from General Electric’s GE Ecomagination Challenge, PlotWatt is scaling up to serve a larger residential customer base and expand into commercial markets.
“We are solving real problems that don’t just apply to geeks like us,” says Fishback, who likes to joke that PlotWatt has even saved a life. “Our system once diagnosed a faulty heater on fish tank. A customer was slowly cooking his fish and didn’t even know it.”
Cofounders: Dax Kepshire Th’06, ’09, Ben Bollinger ’04 Th’04, ’08, Troy McBride Th’01, Professor Charles Hutchinson
Renewable energy struggles to compete with fossil fuels in part because the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine on demand; storing energy for use on demand can improve the economics of renewable energy.
A group of Thayer alumni has created an isothermal compressed air energy storage (ICAES™) system that can do just that.
SustainX is the first to develop a fuel-free compressed air system to efficiently capture and store inexpensive power generated during off-peak hours to use on the electrical grid during peak hours—capable of acting as a sort of renewable energy reserve.
“If we can store excess wind and solar energy, we can allow these resources to become more reliable and predictable,” says Dax Kepshire Th’06, ’09, who cofounded SustainX in 2007 with fellow engineering Ph.D. graduates Ben Bollinger ’04 Th’04, ’08, and Troy McBride Th’01, and Thayer Professor Charles Hutchinson.
SustainX is positioned to make a significant market impact over the next decade, according to Cleantech Group, a company that evaluates new approaches to sustainability. By 2013 SustainX, which recently relocated 24 employees from Lebanon, N.H., to a 42,000 square-foot building in Seabrook, N.H., plans to roll out a commercial prototype system for large power producer AES Energy Storage, using $5.4 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Energy. So far SustainX has eight patents protecting its technology.
According to Kepshire, what sets SustainX apart from the few existing traditional compressed air energy storage (CAES) facilities is the company’s ability to eliminate inefficiency that had been caused from gas heating up when compressed and cooling down when expanded. SustainX controls the temperature in its compression and expansion cylinders through heat transfer by injecting a constant mist of water, which captures and then returns the heat.
SustainX’s patented isothermal megawatt-scale storage system has several advantages over other approaches. It doesn’t require additional fuel input and is cheaper than large-scale classic systems that require natural gas. It isn’t restrictive geographically, whereas traditional air storage options rely on limestone or salt caverns. SustainX’s ICAES is also lower maintenance and has a longer lifetime than energy-storing sodium sulfur batteries. “Most people working on this problem are focused on batteries, which don’t last long and use toxic substances,” says Kepshire. “We’re the first company in the world to go after this approach with a system using almost exclusively steel, water, and air.”
This technological distinction has helped SustainX gain funding from the National Science Foundation and General Electric’s GE Ecomagination Challenge, as well as $24 million in private financing from several investors, including Polaris Venture Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Cadent Energy Partners, General Catalyst Partners, GE Energy Financial Services, and Angeli Parvi.
“Dax is the one who suggested we actually start a company instead of taking an academic research path. He brought on Ben, an extremely talented engineer, and Charles Hutchinson, a highly successful entrepreneur and invaluable mentor,” says cofounder McBride. “Our goal is to develop the best energy storage system out there—and in the process make a difference in the world of renewable energy for generations to come.”
Founder: Jason Gracilieri Th’00
Jason Gracilieri Th’00 was 28 when he purchased his first home and felt he had matured past most of the art he owned. “I was done with framed posters, but like many people my age, I didn’t have the money, time, or knowledge to buy original artwork,” says Gracilieri, now 34.
He responded by founding TurningArt, an art rental service with the option to buy—a business he now refers to as a Netflix for art. In August 2010, Gracilieri became his own first customer.
On turningart.com, Gracilieri rents limited edition quality prints for as little as $10 a month to individuals for their homes and offices. Each dollar spent on this monthly fee earns his customers a dollar in credit toward the purchase of an original work of art.
Today, Boston-area-based TurningArt is experiencing strong growth after raising $750,000 in funding, led by NextView Ventures. Gracilieri’s eight-person “dynamic coalition of art-loving geeks and technology-loving artists,” as he calls his colleagues, includes chief technology officer Matt Hodgson Th’06 and director of marketing Jason Pavel ’04. Gracilieri’s wife, Julie, a painter and former gallery owner, helped recruit some 300 artists whose work now constitutes the company’s growing collection.
After earning his Master of Engineering Management degree from Thayer, Gracilieri worked for an aerospace startup called SpaceDev, a social network for high school students called Sconex, and a consumer deposit search engine called BankFox before founding TurningArt.
“The ultimate driving mission of TurningArt is to connect people with artwork they love and do it in an innovative way,” says Gracilieri. “Like engineering, art is about individuals creating things. I’d rather have the work of today’s artists on my wall than mass-produced reproductions.”
—Anna Fiorentino is a contributing editor at Dartmouth Engineer.