RIT student innovators present to investors
Greyson Watkins was in the kitchen cooking while his girlfriend's baby daughter was somewhere else playing all alone.
The daughter somehow injured herself and cried out for Watkins, who is deaf, but the fourth-year Rochester Institute of Technology student never heard the little girl. He said he felt bad for not being able to comfort her. Later, he wondered how many other deaf and hard of hearing people struggle with knowing when an emergency is happening in their home.
It's a story that Watkins and his fellow classmates told a group of investors and business leaders Wednesday night during a series of start-up presentations on campus. Watkins' incident with his girlfriend's daughter sparked Hz Innovations, a company that sells a device armed with microphones that alerts the hard of hearing to dangers.
"We're expecting to sell about 2,000 units in the first year," Watkins said through a sign language translator, adding that he expects the company to run at a deficit until its third year.
RIT's presentation event was the result of its Saunders Summer Startup program. The school took 50 applications from student innovators, narrowed it down to eight, then gave those eight teams space, money, a mentor and 10 weeks to hone their ideas. Watkins' team was one of eight on display Wednesday night.
Watkins told the audience that his device sends an alert to a person's smartphone, smart watch, tablet or computer when there's a threat. In most homes, a customer would position one of his devices in the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Each device is $450.
Watkins' team felt customers will buy this device because most homes now have separate audio alerts throughout the house — the doorbell, the baby monitor, the smoke detector, etc. Watkins described his team's device as "the complete solution."
"I don't want to buy multiple devices for what's going on in my home," he said.
Watkins' team said Hz Innovations' first customer targets are the 9 million deaf or hard of hearing Americans. After that, they hope the company will sell to the elderly, a group that features people who are slowly losing their hearing.
Watkins' team asked the audience for $600,000 to install 40 devices in homes to get feedback. The money, if granted, would also be spent on filing patents.
While Hz Innovations asked the investors for money, other groups were hunting for advice, contacts or further mentoring, said Richard DeMartino, director of RIT's Simone Center who runs the Summer Startup program.
DeMartino said the eight projects received 100-plus hours of coaching from established entrepreneurs and RIT faculty. There were 6-8 hours of seminars each week, but for the most part, the students worked on their business plans and prototypes, DeMartino said.
"These are very early-stage ideas," DeMartino said, adding that his team picked the projects with the highest potential. "We were looking for how strong the team was, are they coachable and do they have the right skills mix."
Most of the teams Wednesday night had a mix of computer scientists or software developers paired with an engineering student and someone studying business.
Aside from Watkins' team, a group of students presented SpynAlign, a company that sells a vest for helping stroke patients rehab by sending an alert to their smartphone if their posture isn't correct. That group asked for contacts in the medical field, $50,000 for patent filing and another $350,000 to produce more vests. Another group presented UNA, a portable coffee maker.
Nicholas Giordano presented Wyvrn, a website that student government associations across the country can use to let students create petitions for change on campus. Giordano, who doubles as RIT's student body president, said his team's idea started with the frustration of student government leaders having to re-learn what issues matter to students every time there's a new president and vice president.
Giordano said it takes a student government leader up to 3 months to learn his constituents' issues and, up until now, student governments would spend thousands "on buying pizzas to get students to fill out comment cards." He added that there are 4,500 student governments in U.S. colleges and those organizations handle upwards of $2 billion in student activity dollars.
Giordano pitched his website service as $300 a month. He said the service should make $5.3 million between 2016 and 2020. He added that his team is in talks with its first client and will likely land that customer this month.
"I didn't start this to make money, but I believe it will," he said. "But I think every university will be better off with this software."