Students in the lab of NanoES faculty member and ME professor Igor Novosselov’s formed the startup AeroSpec to provide real-time air quality analysis. They recently participated in the Jones + Foster Accelerator Program, which supports students looking to grow their ideas into a new company.
By Chelsea Yates
“Just three years ago we were students dreaming up an app and now we’re living that dream and using it to help people in our community.” – Amin Shaykho, Kadama
A startup’s first six months can determine whether or not it will survive. Conducting market research, producing a manufacture-ready prototype, licensing intellectual property, developing a solid business plan, engaging investors and building a customer base are just some of the steps involved in the beginning. It’s a process that can be as messy and unpredictable as it is exciting and inspiring, and for those not fluent in business it can seem like an entirely new language.
For students who are serious about growing their ideas into companies, the Jones + Foster Accelerator Program has been an invaluable campus resource. Offered through the Arthur W. Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship in the Foster School of Business, the program provides mentorship and workshops to early-stage startups during those decisive first six months. Upon successful completion, each startup is eligible to receive up to $25,000 in seed funding.
For engineering students, this immersion into entrepreneurship can help propel their startups toward a sustainable future.
“Students come to the UW prepared to innovate and eager to solve society’s grand challenges, yet helping them develop professionally as entrepreneurs is not a part of engineering curriculum,” says College of Engineering Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Brian Fabien. “Therefore, programs like this one are essential for helping our students develop their entrepreneurial mindset, achieve their career objectives, get hands-on experience and mentorship, and make an impact on the community.”
UW Engineering’s Chelsea Yates recently sat down with members of two 2019-20 Accelerator teams, AeroSpec and Kadama, to learn how the program has helped move their technologies toward business.
AeroSpec: Providing real-time air quality analysis
A childhood friend with asthma inspired mechanical engineering (ME) doctoral student Jiayang (Joe) He to study air quality. Working in ME professor Igor Novosselov’s lab, He developed a small wearable sensor to detect the composition and density of chemicals in the air — two factors that determine if air is clean or polluted.
Shortly after, He met Sep Makhsous, an electrical and computer engineering (ECE) graduate student who had ideas for ways to make the sensor provide real-time feedback. That way, anyone wearing the device — which they named AeroSpec — could get immediate analysis of the air they were breathing.
Makhsous, who’d studied business as well as engineering, saw AeroSpec’s market potential. They entered the device in the Buerk Center’s innovation competitions, receiving an honorable mention in the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) and placing fourth in the Dempsey Startup Competition.
AeroSpec was one of 12 student teams invited to pitch their product to the Accelerator for a coveted slot in the program. The team was selected for the 2019-20 cohort.
“With competitions like Dempsey or EIC, the goal is to demonstrate potential,” Makhsous explains. “With the Accelerator, it’s to create a sustainable company. You’re not competing against other teams; you’re competing against yourself.”
For He, this meant a new way of thinking. “The business side of innovation was something new entirely,” he says.
He and Makhsous created undergraduate research positions to support device development, and they began rethinking their customer base. “Our original plan focused on individuals with specific health concerns, but once in the Accelerator we started considering who else might benefit,” He says.
That exploration led them to manufacturing companies, where their device could be used to help monitor the air quality in factories.
The AeroSpec team, from left to right: ME doctoral candidate Jiayang (Joe) He, ME master’s student Cheng-Ying (Eric) Wu, ECE master’s student Brenden Singh, ECE undergraduate Zoe Gregory, environmental and occupational health sciences doctoral student Shirley Huang, and ECE doctoral candidate Sep Makhsous. Photo by Mark Stone / University of Washington
Kadama: On-demand tutoring service
Before transferring from Bellevue College to the UW in 2016 to complete his computer science degree, Amin Shaykho and his friend Marwan El-Rukby began working on an app to allow users to request and provide on-demand services like housework, yardwork and tutoring.
“It started as an idea for how college students could make extra money,” Shaykho (BS CS ’18) explains. “But we realized it could be much more — like Craigslist for service but faster and with background checks.”
While at the UW, Shaykho formed a team to develop and market the app, which he and El-Rukby named Kadama (“service” in Arabic). They participated in the Dempsey Startup Competition and, though they didn’t place in the finals, showed promise. Like AeroSpec, they were accepted into the 2019-20 Accelerator cohort.
“It can be tempting to focus on the fun stuff and push back the challenges of a startup, but our dream to impact the community made us feel accountable,” Shaykho says. “Our team is young — some are working our first full-time jobs, others are finishing bachelor’s degrees — so there are lots of competing commitments. The program helped us prioritize projects, create team strategy and manage stress.”
Once in the Accelerator, each team receives $1,000 for early-stage expenses from the McAleer Early Start Fund and is matched with five to six experienced coaches — local entrepreneurs and investors who help students set measureable business milestones. Over the next six months, students meet regularly with their mentors, attend business development workshops and networking events.
“Setting milestones with our mentors was a game-changer,” Shaykho reflects. “We were ready to go all-out, but our coaches helped us see the value in narrowing on one market: tutoring. Current tutoring options can be expensive and difficult to schedule at times that work for students and parents, so we decided to focus on this service and get it right. This allowed us to create manageable milestones.”
From idea to business
At the program’s end, the Accelerator’s committee determines if milestones have been successfully met and the teams’ coaches recommend if seed funding should be awarded.
Last month, AeroSpec and Kadama completed the Accelerator and each received $25,000 — the maximum award to grow their businesses.
AeroSpec plans to further test and refine their data analysis platform. They’ve recently begun working with The Boeing Company through UW CoMotion to pilot their device.
“The Accelerator shows you that it’s possible to take something you develop in a lab and build a company around it,” Makhsous says. “It was rigorous — in many ways it was like going through an MBA program all over again — but worth it.”
He is thankful for the management skills he gained through the program. “I learned how to communicate timelines and objectives to our growing research team,” He says. “It’s been great to see first-hand how excited undergraduates are to work on a solution to a real-world problem.”
Kadama plans to implement backend changes so they can accommodate more users. Eventually they want to expand to Android (currently the app is available for iPhones).
“Just three years ago we were students dreaming up an app and now we’re living that dream and using it to help people in our community,” Shaykho says. “This whole experience has been incredible!”
The Jones + Foster Accelerator is supported by generous sponsors and donors, such as the Herbert P. Jones Foundation and Bill and Colleen McAleer. Learn more about the program.
This story was originally featured on the UW College of Engineering website.