In what’s become an annual tradition, Wharton Magazine presents startups—and founders— worthy of serious attention by the Wharton community. This is not to say that these are the only promising Wharton startups. But if you have not heard of these six already, you should have.
By Lee Gomes
It seems as though every third startup these days involves charging an iPhone. There are devices that will power up your phone from a campfire, from solar panels on your backpack and from the spinning of a gym treadmill. On the surface, ChargeItSpot appears to be in the mobile phone charging business too, but look closely, and you’ll see a sophisticated, analytically oriented play aimed at the retailing industry that’s well on its way to success.
ChargeItSpot sets up a sleek kiosk in stores so that shoppers can charge their depleted mobile phones free of charge while they browse. The store pays ChargeItSpot to set up a kiosk. Why? Because, says founder Douglas Baldasare WG12, users inevitably stick around and get some shopping done while waiting for their phones to charge.
“They end up spending 29 percent more in the store, and are 54 percent more likely to buy something,” he says, citing data provided by Gfk, the San Francisco-based market research firm.
That can add up to $80,000 in additional annual revenue per store—one reason that Bergdorf-Goodman, Urban Outfitters and Staples are now among the 120 locations in 13 states using the service.
Besides the convenience the kiosks offer, another key to the acceptance of ChargeItSpot’s units is that they are attractively designed to blend into just about any retailing environment. Sonic Design of Brooklyn was hired to do the styling. It came up with a design that left ample room for the store to post its own logos and marketing material. The design left another option too; a third party can sponsor the kiosk in exchange for using it for its own branding and advertising. Bandar Foods, which is popularizing a line of Indian-inspired food sauces, was one of the first companies to run such a campaign.
Here’s why they’re proving popular with consumers. Each phone is stowed securely in its own acrylic locker during a charge; there are eight in all. The average charge takes about half an hour, and users get a combination to the locker that they use to retrieve their phone afterward. (Forget your locker number, and a video camera and speaker connect you with a live person back at headquarters who can unlock the unit remotely.)
ChargeItSpot was launched in 2012, with an assist from the Wharton Entrepreneurship Venture Initiation Program. Baldasare got the idea while on a trip with buddies in Miami, when he found his phone had given out on him just at the moment he most needed it. It’s a familiar problem, and Baldasare used the skill sets learned at Wharton in solving it, including what he learned from management professor Ethan Mollick about raising money from investors.
“I realized that if I could charge my phone in a store, I’d probably also want to spend the time shopping there,” he says.
The vision proved to be compelling. The company has raised $3 million in venture money from Robin Hood Ventures, other superangels and C-level retail executives. The payroll stands at 30 (nine full time); the kiosks themselves are outsourced to a U.S. supplier.
Baldasare says his goal is to have ChargeItSpot kiosks as ubiquitous as Redbox DVD rental machines.
“No matter where a consumer is, we’d like for there to be a ChargeItSpot nearby. We’d like to one day have 100,000 of them,” he says.
Wearable devices for health and fitness are among the busiest galaxies in the ever-expanding universe of smartphone apps. You can track the number of daily miles you walk or your ongoing pulse rate. Why not your temperature? Or, better yet, why not the temperature of a sick baby suffering through an ear infection?
That’s the idea behind Fever Smart, which soon begins shipping its “Smart Patch Thermometer.” The device is simplicity itself; a small piece of electronics is attached to the patient via an adhesive bandage. Included in the electronics is both a temperature detector, as well as a Bluetooth transmitter that streams the reading to a nearby relay unit, which then broadcasts it to the Internet. The temperature can then be checked from any smartphone, whether it is downstairs or half-way around the world. The app that does the checking is robust enough to display the current temperature and readout charts from recent hours or days, which reveal the patient’s overall progress.
Aaron Goldstein, Fever Smart co-founder and Wharton junior, recounts how the project started out last fall with contributions from the Indiegogo crowdfunding site. The firm raised $40,000 in just four days and has since sold 63,000 units at $129 each. Marketing is currently done online, though developing a brick-and-mortar retail channel is on its to-do list, says Goldstein.
College students usually don’t have to worry about neonatal temperatures. But Collin Hill, another co-founder and Wharton junior, faced a thermometer problem of his own in his freshman year at Penn. He needed chemotherapy to deal with a case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and during the course of the treatment, he was required to continually monitor his temperature. That provided the proverbial “there has to be a better way” insight that led to the creation of the company. (Hill is in full remission.)
Fever Smart must be on to something because the entire field of remote health monitoring is heating up, Goldstein says, author’s pun intended. One competitor just raised $10 million from venture capitalists. Fever Smart has yet to take the venture financing step, but it was the recipient of a $2,500 Snider Seed Award from the Venture Initiation Program at Wharton, as well as a grant of $5,000 from the Wharton Innovation Fund. It expects to begin work on an angel round of financing soon. (It could help that Entrepreneur named Goldstein and Hill 2014 Entrepreneurs of the Year.)
The under-the-arm temperature sensing approach used by Fever Smart has the twin advantages of being accurate and noninvasive. While infant health care is itself an enormous market, the company is looking at other areas too, some of them suggested by unfortunate events in the news—notably, the outbreak of Ebola, with which a sudden temperature rise is a key symptom. Another market involves couples who are tracking ovulation in connection with family-planning efforts.
Along with Goldstein and Hill, the other co-founders include Penn Engineering student William Duckworth and Becca Goldstein C14, Aaron’s sister. Their father, Evan, a physician, is an adviser.
Being a licensee of the world’s largest sporting event, the FIFA World Cup, is something most companies don’t expect until they’re all grown up. But Glass-Ucould make that boast while just a startup. And it can say the same thing about the Rose Bowl, South by Southwest, Lollapalooza and more top-tier events.
Glass-U makes folding sunglasses that are personalized with a logo; the sort of thing that fraternity and sorority members like to wear, especially when on a sun-drenched holiday. Already, the glasses are offered under license at scores of the country’s biggest colleges and universities. An officially licensed version is $12.99, inexpensive enough to be an impulse purchase. No wonder the company has sold tens of thousands, in a rainbow of different colors.
Glass-U is the brainchild of Daniel Fine, a senior who was recruited to Penn as a swimmer but who also turned out to be a one-person startup machine. Besides Glass-U, he’s established five other companies, including a tutoring operation, NexTutors, whose revenues helped provide the funding for Glass-U.
Fine’s entrepreneurial record is such that he’s been interviewed in The New York Times for a story in which he spoke of his desire to finish his degree and not drop out prematurely, as some Silicon Valley types urge entrepreneurs to do. He’s also been named one of Time’s Top 25 International Leaders of Tomorrow, one of the World’s Top Five Young Entrepreneurs by Entrepreneurs Organization, and one of 12 “Most Impressive Young Entrepreneurs” by Forbes. Representing Penn and Wharton, Philadelphia Magazine named him Entrepreneur of the Year for 2014.
Fine started Glass-U in his dorm room following a passion for sunglasses (he had a drawer full) and what he described as “a need for university swag.” The glasses sold by Glass-U are made in China, overseen by a double-digit stateside staff, most of them still in college. Fine, though, is obviously the key to its operations. The company landed its World Cup deal well after the official licensing deadline had passed, for instance, and only because he talked his way into the office of the CEO of another World Cup apparel licensee who hadn’t waited until the last minute. “It’s about perseverance and believing in your vision,” he says. “Too many just talk and talk about ideas. Don’t be afraid. … Try it out. Build!”
For all his passion for Glass-U and despite the company’s early success, Fine has another company to which he wants to eventually turn his attention after Wharton. It’s called Dosed, and it will be in the business of developing products to enable people with diabetes to more easily and accurately manage their condition.
For Fine, the issue is personal; his younger brother Jake has had Type 1 diabetes for more than a