Stanford University, with its array of resources and location in Silicon Valley, is a breeding ground of student creativity and technological innovation. Not surprisingly, it has been home to a number of startups over the past several years. Twenty-four of these have been helped along the way by StartX, or the Stanford Student Startup Accelerator, which provides Stanford student entrepreneurs with advice and resources to get their organizations off the ground. Here, we take a look at a few of the most recent of these StartX-incubated startups.
Marty Hu ’11 spent the summer after his sophomore year in college working at Cisco Systems, a technology company. While many of his friends and classmates at Stanford enjoyed their summer internships in the Silicon Valley, Hu was unimpressed. Unhappy with his lack of control at the company, his experience led to an epiphany.
“I realized that it really sucked,” he said. “I don’t know how other companies are, but I know that my experience working for a company really, really sucked.”
Future COO of Predictive Edge, Steven Wu ’11, whom Hu, the startup’s future CTO, had met the previous quarter in a class on entrepreneurial communications, felt the same way about his sophomore summer gig at Amazon.
After many IM conversations, the two returned to Stanford at the start of their junior year with a goal in mind: launch their own startup. They teamed up with Wu’s high school friend and future CEO Kevin Liu, then an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and also a member of the class of 2011, and Predictive Edge was born.
“So we all got together, and we were like, all right, we’re going to do a startup,” Hu said. “We don’t really know what it is, but we’re going to go sit down and figure it out.”
According to Hu, brainstorming yielded one particularly promising idea: designing a point-of-sale system for the Web.
“The idea was that if we could build some kind of point-of-sale system, we could collect all this information about buying patterns [online] and then save that all and do some cool stuff algorithm-wise with that,” Hu said. “[The question was,] what can we do with all these algorithms? And one thing we came up with was pricing.”
What the team knew was that there was really no competition for Amazon in the field of dynamic pricing. It was, in Hu’s words, “the dinosaur of retail,” one that was “basically killing the competition.”
Their goal? To try to make e-commerce more intelligent, building upon Amazon’s model with different algorithms.
“We’re trying to create a platform to enable small, medium-sized or even large e-commerce businesses to compete with Amazon,” Hu said.
The summer after their junior year, the Predictive Edge team worked at the company full time, a blur fueled by a $40,000 grant from the Lightspeed Summer Fellowship program, an organization aimed at providing funds for developing startups. It’s now been a year since all three graduated, and they’re still hard at work on expanding their fledgling company.
“There’s a future that I’d like to see, and that’s the company continuing to grow, becoming a good place for people to work,” Hu said. “But it’s hard to say. I mean, as long as I’m working on stuff that I really like and I’m doing something that I think is important, I think that’s good enough.”
By 2011, WiFiSLAM co-founders Joseph Huang M.A. ’11 and Dave Millman M.A. ’10 had already nearly founded their startup. During their graduate studies at Stanford, they developed an indoor positioning technology able to pinpoint an individual’s exact location in order to find coupons for various nearby vendors. The only question was how to commercialize their idea.
With the help of co-founders Jessica Tsoong M.A. ’11, whom Huang had met through a class on tech venture formation, and Darin Tay, one of Huang’s classmates from his undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo and a current Google employee, WiFiSLAM was launched.
“We decided to start the company as we were all finishing our master’s programs, and our goal was to commercialize [this] indoor positioning technology,” Tsoong said in an email.
According to WiFiSLAM’s website, it provides users with a variety of functions, including indoor navigation, location-based coupons and gaming, automated check-ins and in-store product search.
“We have made significant progress to date — we have released our indoor positioning API and have begun integrations with a variety of mobile applications,” Tsoong said. “We have essentially built a location platform for any mobile application to use our indoor positioning.”
For 6Dot co-founder Karina Pikhart M.A. ’12, the assignment was this: solve a problem at home. The prompt was that unspecific and open-ended.
Pikhart, at the time taking a design class during her senior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found it eye-opening.
“[In this class,] we came across this experience that many blind individuals have, which is trouble locating or identifying or distinguishing between very common items, like medication or canned foods,” Pikhart said. “A lot of the tools that are available to attempt to solve those problems are pretty dissatisfying to use.”
Her in-class team designed and prototyped a product that would hopefully solve this problem more effectively: a Braille labeler. After moving to Palo Alto to attend graduate school at Stanford, Pikhart teamed up with Silicon Valley-based engineers and fellow 6Dot co-founders Robert Liebert and Raphael Hyde to create a startup that would make the Braille labeler widely available.
“[Our] aim is to provide tools or bring independence to the blind and people with other disabilities, and help people reach their full potential through developing innovative technology,” Pikhart said.
It hasn’t been an easy road, though; 6Dot has faced numerous difficulties, from assembling the right team to creating a sustainable business plan to actually making the jump from prototyping their idea to manufacturing it. After years of work, 6Dot put out its first Braille labelers in 2012. However, Pikhart is still hesitant to say that they’ve reached their goals.
“We’re a long way off from being successful at meeting that goal,” Pikhart said. “The vision of wanting disability to not be seen as a disability, the vision of wanting assisted technology to just look like any other technology is a long ways out.”
We use it as a verb now: “Google” this, “Google” that, “Google” anything and everything.
If Eldar Sadikov, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in computer science, has his way, “Google” may soon be replaced with the name of his company: Jetlore.
Sadikov and his co-founder, Montse Medina, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in mathematical engineering, founded Jetlore in January 2011 in order to create a smarter search engine for consumers. Jetlore, by using a social content aggregator called Qwhisper, personalizes results according to user’s activities on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
“The big vision from the very beginning was that we wanted to help any consumer out there…be able to [use] social content in decision making,” Sadikov said.
While this vision may have remained unwavering since Jetlore’s initial launching, their methodology has changed drastically. At first, Sadikov and Medina created a prototype that would refer you to someone likely to have the desired information. The example Sadikov provides is of someone wanting to purchase tickets to a Giants game but wondering where to find the best seats. The prototype would dig through previous Facebook or Twitter posts to pinpoint the friend most likely to have answers. But then the startup’s staff — originally composed of just Sadikov and Medina but now extended to include six others — had a revelation.
“Rather than having people provide the information, a lot of the information is already out there, already among the Facebook posts and the Twitter posts,” Sadikov said. “And we can show the existing information rather than helping people find the [right] person. We started working on really understanding content.”
Other companies have attempted similar feats before, but it’s not an easy task: much of the content on social networking sites is so colloquial and unstructured that designing an algorithm capable of decoding it requires a herculean effort. But Jetlore has thus far been successful, and it hopes to extend this success in the future.
“I think that’s where our future is, sort of making companies’ consumer services smarter, allowing them to personalize the experience for users and bring in the context they need — that’s really the future of search,” Sadikov said. “And I think that’s why we see ourselves as the next big search company.”