Eight teams of entrepreneurs – comprising community members, and students from Cornell University and Lycoming College and Ithaca High School – are spending their summer developing their business ideas into products at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works’ Hardware Accelerator.
Ben Kalb ’07, co-founder of Ithaca company Action XL, joined the accelerator to work on a product that would allow information technology professionals to access their clients’ computers remotely in a way that’s more efficient than currently exists.
“We’ve been connected to Rev for a while since we’re a local startup,” Kalb said. “But when I went to last summer’s Demo Day, I saw that this would be a great way to set aside 11 weeks to focus on one thing.”
Along with wanting to learn about new technology at the accelerator, Kalb said, “I hope to provide my experience and share the knowledge that I have about running businesses.”
Each of the teams came to the program with an idea that’s the potential solution to a problem they’ve identified, said Ken Rother, accelerator director. The first job for Rother and other mentors is to help the teams take a step back, think about the problem from a customer’s perspective, talk to potential customers and come up with a solution, which may or may not be what they initially thought.
The first week included exercises focused on product development and business concepts. Participants used electronic assemblies to come up with testable hypotheses and follow through on iteration; learned how to refine and communicate their ideas through sketching, drawing and creating; talked about integrating business concepts into the design process; refined their ability to give and get positive feedback; and brainstormed ways to find and talk to customers about the customers’ “pain points.”
During one exercise, team members designed a light on paper, then created it from Mylar-coated paper and fasteners.
“It’s a really important part of the making process to make sketches and come up with ideas,” said In Shik Lee ’89, design partner at LeeMer Design & Construction and an adjunct professor of design at Tompkins Cortland Community College, who led the creation exercise. “This process also works different parts of the brain than just getting on the computer and designing something there.”
Cornell student Leul Tesfaye ’20 cut pieces of Mylar as he talked about the idea that he and his roommate, Jean Turban ’20, are pursuing – a keyboard that merges touchscreen technology with traditional mechanical keys.
More than 20 teams applied for the eight spots at the accelerator, Rother said.
As Hardware Accelerator teams work through the process, they are guided by Rother, assistant director Xanthe Matychak and four tech instructors, who are STEM-field graduate and undergraduate students from Cornell, Binghamton University and Ithaca College.
Before the teams arrived, instructors learned how to operate machinery in the shop – a 3-D printer, laser cutter, numerous bench and hand tools, an electronics bench and pieces of computer numerical control (CNC) equipment. They also reorganized and revamped the space, wrote tutorials and planned workshops.
“All of us have different skills,” said Rose Agger, M.S. ’17, an instructor whose degree in is in electrical engineering. “The ability for your team to be able design, from napkin to prototype, a full working prototype of the product you envision, even if it looks unpolished at first, is really important.”
At the end of the program, teams will share their progress at Demo Day, Aug. 10. Teams will exhibit their prototypes, share their process and deliver a pitch to audience members as they seek partners, investors, mentors or other help.
Many of the teams from the accelerator participate in other entrepreneurship programs at Cornell or Ithaca College, such as the eLab student startup accelerator, Life Changing Labs, Blackstone LaunchPad and the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship. This is the third year of the accelerator, whose alums have launched businesses including SpecDrums, Stablesense, Maidbot and WickedDevice.
Kathy Hovis is a writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.