Byproducts of innovation: Meet 3 startups with ASU ties

Technology | 18 Aug, 2017 |

Last year was the second consecutive year Arizona State University was selected as the nation’s most innovative school, beating out schools like Stanford and MIT, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings.

ASU has been working on creating an innovative campus, focused on computing, informatics, and decision system engineering for many years, and has not only been churning out innovative research, but entrepreneurial endeavors.

Kinvite, AirGarage and EventKey are three startups founded by former and current ASU students to fit a need for people and make a change in the community. As these startups test and improve their concepts in Arizona, all three startups have eyes set on national expansion.

AirGarage

Currently just a website geared towards ASU Tempe campus, AirGarage aims to connect homeowners and businesses that have available parking with drivers looking for affordable and convenient parking spaces.

After a year and a half of working on the idea, AirGarage’s Founder and CEO Jonathon Barkl, hopes to eventually expand his concept around the country.

The AirGarage team is working on testing its product around the ASU Tempe campus to work out the kinks before an expansion.

One of the keys to this process is speaking with users and evaluating adoption of the tool.

In the near term, AirGarage hopes to begin expanding in the next few months to areas such as the University of Arizona, ASU’s Downtown Phoenix Campus and Grand Canyon University, Barkl says.

One of AirGarage’s early challenges was seeing if people even wanted to use the tool. They were able to find about 10 to 15 people interested in offering their extra parking spaces before the AirGarage website was created for testing and feedback.

They focused on creating a website before a mobile application, because the development team can make changes often and throughout the day compared to an app, Barkl says.

“You can constantly take feedback and make rapid changes,” says Barkl about having a site.

The biggest challenge was initially getting homeowners to trust the concept and also the legalities.

AirGarage also faces difficulty in finding the right number of people on both sides, it has been a constant balance, Barkl says.

The eSeed Accelerator program at ASU awarded $5,000 to AirGarage to develop its idea and bring the concept to market. In the future, AirGarage will take a small percentage out of each transaction between those with parking spots and the users for further funding.

AirGarage was also featured as one of the top 64 startups competing in the 2017 Venture Madness competition.

Barkl’s advice for new entrepreneurs is to get investors interested and begin to raise funding.

But, “Talk to users before building the app. Find users first, then build the app for what the users want,” he adds.

Barkl hopes to start work on a mobile application by early 2018.

EventKey

After finding that networking at events was inefficient when there were hopes to meet someone of value, Rafael Testa created EventKey. To create a more collaborative experience, EventKey allows attendees of professional events to RSVP to events using LinkedIn.

EventKey’s app has been running since October 2016. Testai, who was awarded “The Best Hispanic Entrepreneur of the Year 2016″​ by DAS Foundation, says it took approximately three months to get the idea running.

With now more than 1,300 users at more than 100 events, EventKey is seeking to grow and is looking for more event organizers to host its platform at its events.

Though he hopes to one day expand, the app currently operates only in Arizona and Texas.

Testai began by creating a prototype to gather user feedback and make changes. He says you don’t need technical skills to create your own prototype. Anyone can use services like invision to create a prototype for an app, for free. Testai then gathered feedback from more than 500 professionals through the use of the prototype.

All of EventKey’s support came from outside of ASU and it was funded out of pocket, which wasn’t much, Testai says. EventKey’s biggest mentors who helped them along the way are Dan Tyre, the sales director of HubSpot, and Zach Ferres, CEO of Coplex, Testai says.

In the future, Testai says if an event is free, the cost will be free, but if the event charges per ticket they will likely take a percentage. He says they haven’t finalized the credit processing yet, but he has a list of customers ready and hopes to start charging for the app within a few months.

Testai, who has a genetics background, says it was a challenge to learn to manage a software team. He read a lot of books to teach himself, though.

His advice for others: “Have confidence in yourself and the app, believe in yourself.”

Kinvite

For the last two years, the Kinvite development and core team has been through trial and error, long hours and sleepless nights.

Recent ASU graduate and Co-founder Montel Hawkins says he got the idea to create this app from Serendipity while reading a magazine article about a similar idea that had failed. He says he put a twist on the original idea of the other app that failed.

“Instead of competing with promoters, why don’t I help them out?” Hawkins questions.

Hawkins says if you don’t have the community behind your ideas or app, it doesn’t work.

“Jump on a trend and have a following. Don’t build a product off your mindset, you’re not going to be the one using it,” Hawkins says.

Kinvite aims to help promoters and event planners better their business for only $1.99 a month by allowing users keep track of their favorite promoter, new events, with a map of event locations integrated into the application.

It also helps promoters keep track of their own promotional business where they will have their own credible portfolio with analytics, and alerts.

Managers who are hiring promoters can use the app to find new employees too.

In the first year, Hawkins, who has a business background, says they were not aware of project management needs and that was a struggle for them. He says project management for a CEO is like being a coach, “You have to build a team, focus on everything. Build up the team, check on it, manage it.”

The Kinvite team is all about learning to keep improving on its product. Each member has been reading many books, listening to podcasts and staying engaged on social media throughout development to continue the learning process.

One of the changes they learned through this process was being more frugal with money. They implemented requirements for progress checks, outsourced some of the development to India, skyped the team daily and rewarded them with bonuses.

The hardest thing in the whole process was learning patience and persistence, Hawkins says, because it can’t be taught. He says you can’t rush building an app because it is expensive and there will be bugs and errors.

Hawkins advises new entrepreneurs to “be patient. Build a relationship with the team and developers, and meet as many people as you can.”

On Aug. 25, Kinvite will host its launch party at the Downtown Tempe Residence Inn Marriot.

Once they have a loyal base, the Kinvite team hopes to move on to other cities. Hawkins says they will likely stick to college campuses for now where a large percentage of students work.

Fostering innovation

ASU also has programs that encourage its software engineering students to pursue a business plan for their applications.

Students in the software engineering program focus on an enterprise curriculum of developing web and mobile applications. There are many clubs, associations, and events that give leadership opportunities and hand-on experience to students. Some of these include: Computer science club and the Women’s Computer Science Club, Desert Hacks and Hackathon, Code Devils for online and on-campus students, Phoenix Startup Week and the Software Developers Association.

Students typically work on team projects early in college, they approach faculty for support, do an independent study, and for their senior capstone work on an app or an entrepreneurial idea, says Kevin Gary, the program chair of software engineering on the Polytechnic campus of ASU.

The school focuses on mentorship and support more than giving money, but there are opportunities for funding through eSeed, SkySong or the Fulton engineering school.

Something students often don’t realize by creating an app is that they will, “Spend a lot of time doing non-technical things,” Gary says.

Upon graduation students go on to work at large companies like Boeing, or they’ll move on to small startups, Gary says.

“The hardest thing for a lot of (these entrepreneurs), is to try their own thing when it’s a good field now, starting at $60 to $80,000 job offer salaries,” Gary says.

Waiting to take that job offer may not be so bad, “The real currency in this age is time,” he says.

Though a lot of entrepreneurial efforts fail, the real benefit is that it gives entrepreneurs a better interview for their careers down the road.

Gary advises anyone who is interested in an entrepreneurial endeavor, that if they have a passion for it, there’s no better time than now.

“Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know because there are resources and mentorship available in the Phoenix area,” he says. “Spend time on your passion, it is beneficial to being able to own your idea, mature it, and take it to the market.”

The most important thing Gary explains is, the passion for money won’t carry you through the challenges and obstacles and that getting rich is not an intrinsic motivation.

Gary says entrepreneurs, “Should have a passion around social change, not just a quick mindset to get rich. Apps should challenge and change the world, and impact real people.”

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