Thanks to early funding from an eminent entrepreneur, the students of Launchpad are eager to lift off.
[email protected] is a program where students learn to develop business ideas and to practice building a company. Professor Mukund Iyengar founded the program in 2015, and since then, 12 Launchpad projects have become real companies.
“Starting and growing a company is incredibly difficult,” says Iyengar. “It’s the ultimate education. In Launchpad, we work with students who are equipped to think ahead, who are intuitively aware of where the world is heading. They know what is cool, and when they see a problem, they just start to work on it.”
Ahead of the Spring 2021 semester, ten teams received a cash award from the inaugural Thomas H. Scholl Awards for Launchpad.
Scholl, a successful entrepreneur from the Washington D.C. area who served as a Stevens trustee for 9 years — including chairmanship of the Research Enterprise & Technology Commercialization (RETCOM) Committee and participation in Audit, Investment and Executive committees — was selected to serve as a Trustee Emeritus in December 2020. He is also the benefactor of a guest lecture series, the Thomas H. Scholl Lecture by Visiting Entrepreneurs, which takes places during the university's annual Innovation Expo.
“[email protected] is exciting," notes Scholl. "First, you have these brilliant students with great ideas. Second, you have a gifted professor in Mukund. The result is great things are going to happen, and I want to be a part of that.”
“We started with a pool of 65 first-year students and 40 potential directions,” explains Iyengar. “We narrowed that to ten groups who have shown dogged determination and an ability to build compelling solutions. Our modest hope is that at least one or two of these initiatives will become a full-fledged company within the next year.”
The students can use their awards for initial costs, such as registering webpages. In May, a handful of the most developed projects will receive a second award to continue their work.
Projects tackle fitness, drones, edtech, elder care
The first group of funded projects range from innovative technologies and services that improve education and politics to others impacting health, wellness, fitness and emergency planning and response.
Like Amazon’s Alexa, the students developing Clara are aiming to provide a resourceful and trusting voice for skincare. Mechanical engineering major Alyssa Hernandez ’24 and software engineering major Serena Lee ’23 are designing Clara with artificial intelligence to diagnose a user’s skin imperfections and recommend products for purchase.
“There are a lot of popular DIY hacks that are harmful to the skin, so we want to inform the younger generation about good skincare,” says Lee. “As children of Generation Z, we know the power of social media and how much misinformation is floating around the internet. We know how having good skin positively affects us, so we want to spread that feeling to people without them suffering from potentially dangerous repercussions.”
Nylayah Jones ’23 and Riya Shrestha ’23 want to help people prioritize their health. Their app, FitAll180, uses artificial intelligence to guide people in making and keeping better health decisions. The project evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic, with people pent upconfined indoors and losing opportunities for recreation. Working out and healthy eating could be done at home during a pandemic, the team knew, but there was still a larger issue.
“We are trying to solve obesity, and it feels more difficult when we are told to stay in,” notes Shrestha, a computer engineering major. "We decided the problem was a lack of discipline and consistency, so we built a 'virtual friend' to guide those on the journey of losing weight.”
Brendan Probst ’24 and Samuel Schmitt ’23 followed the news during a tumultuous 2020, from a presidential election to protests calling for criminal justice reform. Their project, Quae, helps people connect to form political power.
“We started Quae with the mission to give people the power to vote every day,” says Schmitt, who is majoring in computer engineering. “People are not being adequately represented by their governments. This inspired us to develop a system that amplifies people’s voices and connects them to their local representatives. It has become painfully clear that for things to get better, everyone needs to participate. Quae makes that possible.”
Other projects include DroneHQ, a drone-based detection system with potential uses in disaster relief, agriculture, urban planning and home delivery. Haven is a non-profit virtual pride center for LGBTQ communities. Imagication enhances the educational journey by helping high school students find scholarships and career paths. Maarble provides virtual tours and other services for buying and selling homes online.
SafeHouse promises “smart honeypots for small enterprises” to secure data. SilverHome enables independent senior living by integrating health statuses into smart homes. And Tir diversifies education by recognizing a student's learning style and curating educational content from the web.
A key factor that sets Launchpad apart from other college incubators is its focus beyond wealth creation and shareholder value. The program refuses to take any equity in the student companies. According to Iyengar, Launchpad's culture centers on giving back.
“In a world obsessed with taking, we choose to give, and that makes Launchpad different,” Iyengar says. “Our mission is to serve humanity through technological breakthroughs. We are helping students launch companies focused on creating a better world.”
[email protected] is a 12-month segment of Stevens' iSTEM program, a four-year program created by Stevens in 2018 to cultivate innovation in promising high school students with the generous support of Trustee Emilio Fernandez.