It’s difficult to stand out in a one-minute pitch, but not for the entrepreneurs behind SMSmart
and Chess Automated
We were intrigued by these young founders who pitched at last month's Entrepalooza at NC State
. One, a woman who developed a mobile app that gives access to critical apps even when wi-fi signals are poor, and the second, a trio of India natives who built an automated chess board that eliminates geographic boundaries in this traditional competitive game.
We reached out in the weeks since the event to hear more about their projects and plans to turn them into companies.
SMSmart: Bringing information to everyone
For SMSmart founder, Joyce Yu, a Ph.D. candidate in statistics, the journey into entrepreneurship and, ultimately, creating her app began with her parents. They moved to the U.S. in their mid-20s with a dream to build a new life. While they spoke little English, they worked hard, used creativity and grit to make a living. Her father started out as a self-employed handy man before eventually becoming a housing inspector. Yu’s mother is now an electrical engineer who creates blueprints that underlie the electrical systems for houses of various types.
From their experiences, Yu (pictured above) learned to be resilient, adaptable and risky, all important characteristics in the makeup of an entrepreneur.
The creation of SMSmart was fueled by a drive to build a product that actually helps people. By allowing users to access apps like Twitter, Yelp, Wikipedia, Maps, news and stock data without requiring data or wi-fi access, a truck driver can access directions as he drives through low data coverage areas in Las Vegas or a retiree can check his stock portfolio as travels between remote islands with spotty data.
The bigger vision for SMSmart is to provide access to parts of the world that do not have wi-fi. The startup could be another option alongside Google’s Project Loon to provide access to information across the globe.
According to Joyce, the app, available only on Android today, works "by mapping every user query into a structured text message. When received, the application renders the messages into an appropriate user interface." The messages that are sent from the SMSmart servers are esoteric so the app decodes the messages into readable text files for users.
Based on preliminary intellectual property research, the method of rendering data and its customized human-readable schema is novel, Yu says. But she hasn't yet filed for any patents. She'll consider doing so as downloads increase. So far, 7,000 people have used the free app.
Funding so far has come from grants from NC State and Duke University, where cofounders who have since moved on to jobs at Pinterest and Coursera attended. SMSmart also won the most recent Start Up Madness competition. But much of the support the founders have received has been in the form of mentors from both campus communities. Yu hopes those connections will help her raise outside funding—she's started to reach out to make investor connections.
Funds will be used to support the upkeep of servers along with sending texts to users, and potentially for the intellectual property work.
Yu's largest challenge though, has been finding a balance between work and academics. She's working to find other NC State students to join the business.
“It's always been hard,” she says. ”Building a great business is not about coming up with some unicorn idea that will disrupt some field. It's about execution. It's about building products that your consumers love, about providing a service that your clients can always depend on.”
The biggest piece of advice she has for young entrepreneurs still in school is to embrace rejection. She remembers applying for many competitions and grants in which she was denied or reaching out to people for help but having little to no response. With each failure, she chose to learn, to grow and to strongly believe in herself.
In the end she says, “Just do your thing. Stop chasing others.”
Chess Automated: Eliminating boundaries in chess, and sight
Technical lead Allen Mendes, an electrical engineering graduate student at NC State, started working on the project in 2012, during the early stages of his undergrad course in K.J Somaiya College of Engineering-Vidyavihar, Mumbai-INDIA. The research lab at his school was approached by the NAB (National Association of Blind) in India for help developing an easier way for the blind to play chess.
An avid learner inclined to robotics and challenges that force him to think outside the box, the project intrigued him. He, along with two friends, Atur Mehta and Bhavya Gohil, began it as a side project but quickly realized they could make it a viable, marketable company—thus beginning their entrepreneurial journey.
Mendes came to NC State in August and plans to handle the sales, marketing and networking process in the U.S., while the rest of his teammates work in India.
Chess Automated is an automated version of the two-player chess game in which the opponent’s chess pieces move physically on the chess board in response to a move played via Android app by the user.
The board supports Internet connectivity via an Android application. Once the user turns the board on, it instantly connects to Bluetooth. When the user logs onto the subsequent app and searches for the particular board to connect to the game, a match is set to begin. This allows two users, at two different locations, to enjoy a game of chess with each other.
For the blind, the team has developed special Braille-encrypted chess pieces that can be identified by touch due to their unique pattern. They have also added voice feedback for each move played on the board. The board will be programmed to alert users if they play an invalid move.
The hope is to revive the fun and realism of board games, many of which have been replaced by computer and mobile counterparts. The founders believe they’ve found the best way to play the traditional game of chess between two chess lovers across continental boundaries. This product may pave the way for international chess tournaments in which the players don’t have to travel to another country to participate. It might also be the first product to enable blind people to play the game of chess against a computer.
The team hopes to sell boards for around $1,000 to sports facilities, airline lounges and waiting areas, hotels, schools, chess academies and online chess playing organizations. They also expect a big market within the visually impaired community and, of course, chess enthusiasts and learners.
Chess Automated has a working product and the men are looking for a manufacturer. Their ideal scenario is for customers to buy the boards in large quantities so they can generate enough capital to manufacture in bulk.
Sacrifices have been made to bring Chess Automated to life. Team members have missed lectures, labs and college events as they strive to make the technology better. Grades have sometimes suffered too.
“We used to start our work at 9 am in the morning and have had to stay back in various labs till midnight and sometimes even over the night to compensate,” Allen says. He admits that losing out on academic knowledge at the cost of gaining practical knowledge can be harmful in the longer run. Time management is a constant struggle.
But the biggest challenge has been creating a marketable product that doesn’t look like a science project. It must have compact design, powerful integrated electronics, efficient mechanical assemblies and the appropriate aesthetics. These have all been the biggest pain points for the group.
The project was funded by research lab RiiDL until completion in August. The group is looking for funds to take the product to market.
They hope investors will see a product that can transform an industry, along with a hobby of many around the world.