Alumni stand poised to disrupt with innovation-driven businesses
Upstart: Patrick Whaley, ME 10, Founder and CEO of TITIN
TITIN Overview: It’s been a challenging road to success for Whaley and TITIN, one that started with a near-tragedy when Whaley was shot during an armed robbery in 2009 while still a student at Tech. He used a prototype of his weighted training shirt—which distributes eight pounds of gel inserts strategically across the upper body—to gain strength and accelerate his recovery. He entered TITIN into the 2010 InVenture Prize competition, won it, graduated from Tech the same year and then focused on turning his idea into a viable company. Today, TITIN sales average about $1 million a month, and there’s seemingly no shortage of opportunities. “Our shirts and shorts are now widely sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods,” Whaley says. “And we just finalized a deal to be the official training sponsor with the Pittsburgh Steelers.” The training gear, however, is not just for serious athletes, Whaley says. “Weekend warriors don’t have a lot of time to train, and they’re even wearing TITIN under their business suits during the work week.” There are medical applications, as well. “The weighted gel inserts can be heated or frozen, meaning they’re perfect for thermal therapy,” he says. “They can be like a mobile ice bath after a therapy session.” Even chiropractors are interested in TITIN since it promotes postural alignment, Whaley says.
Startup Path: Whaley built TITIN upon an idea he had in his youth, when he used to fill up his backpack with books to build strength. At Tech, TITIN won $20,000 from InVenture Prize, and later another $30,000 of in-kind services from the Georgia Tech Business Plan competition, both of which helped pay for patent and early-stage manufacturing expenses. His weighted shirt system, which retails for $249, was so successful he couldn’t keep up with demand. That’s why he went on ABC’s Shark Tank last year to secure additional funding to optimize his supply chain and manufacturing efficiencies.
Words of Wisdom: “Sometimes you have to do it virtually all on your own,” Whaley says of being an entrepreneur. “Ultimately it’s your drive and determination that will be the keys to success. Follow your gut. Try to drown out the naysayers—treat them as nothing but white noise. At the same time, value your support system: your friends and family. Starting a business is a roller coaster ride with a few ups and lots of downs, and you’ll need their support and optimism to help you overcome your business failures and learn from them.”
Better Walk Overview: As a biomedical engineering student at Tech, Unnava had an entrepreneurial breakthrough shortly after breaking his ankle. He spent six miserable weeks moving around on crutches, and became determined to find a better solution. With the help of some fellow students, co-founders Frankie Swindell and Andrew Varghese, he built a prototype for a new crutch that distributes the body’s resting weight more efficiently. His idea drew a lot of interest, and he built a company called Better Walk to commercialize it. He took a break from classes to focus on refining his new crutch and get it ready for manufacturing. “We’ve redesigned it to make it more cost-efficient to produce,” Unnava says. “It’s just the reality of turning a prototype into a real-world product.” The first Better Walk crutches are scheduled to come off the manufacturing line this summer. Along the way, Unnava has consulted with many movers and shakers, including President Barack Obama when Unnava was invited to attend the White House Maker Faire last year. “That was pretty unbelievable,” he says. He was later named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 List in Manufacturing. “I’ve wanted something like this since I was 16 years old,” he says. That’s not the only list Unnava found himself on recently. Elle Magazine named the 22-year-old as one of its 41 Most Eligible Bachelors. Whoever said running a startup wasn’t sexy?
Startup Path: Unnava built the prototype for his Better Walk crutch at Georgia Tech’s Invention Studio, and he says he used the biomedical engineering machine shop a lot. He also received great business advice from department chair Ravi Bellamkonda who was very supportive of Unnava and his idea. Better Walk was a finalist in Tech’s 2014 InVenture Prize competition, and Unnava then took it to the Zero to 510 accelerator in Memphis, Tenn., where he secured venture capital funding. Better Walk is currently based in Atlanta, and Unnava is back on campus helping to teach Tech’s Startup Semester course.
Words of Wisdom: “My biggest advice to other entrepreneurs is to find some experienced mentors and spend as much time as you can learning from them,” Unnava says. “Ultimately, you’re going to make many mistakes along the way. And while you may feel like you should avoid them, you need to let yourself fail so you can learn from them.”
U.S. Digital Service Overview: Shortly after many of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest leaped to help the U.S. government shore up its problematic Healthcare.gov website, Pham found herself ditching a dream job at Google to go serve her country. She was enlisted to help build a White House startup—the U.S. Digital Service—designed to tackle technology issues across federal agencies and make online services easier for citizens to use. Pham has been concerned about public health issues and the nation’s health care system from an early age and originally thought she would become a doctor. Later, when her mother was diagnosed with leukemia, Pham witnessed firsthand how complex and frustrating the system can be, and she decided she wanted to use her computer science and analytics skills to help fix it. “It never crossed my mind, however, that my public service outlet would involve working for the government,” Pham says. Today, she’s helping to solve problems such as improving health care data interoperability among Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and the private sector, as well as building out the Precision Medicine initiative.
Kathy Pham of U.S. Digital Service, left, and United States Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Megan Smith answer questions from kid reporters prior to the annual White House State of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (SoSTEM) address, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Startup Path: Pham launched her first startup (of sorts) when she was a student at Tech. She established the Atlanta chapter of Unite for Sight, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness about eye health and eradicating preventable blindness in the world. “I was a one-person roadshow, selling the idea and raising funds all over campus and around Atlanta,” she says.
Words of Wisdom: “When I was at Google, I worked with some pretty cool people,” Pham says. “But at the USDS, it’s at a completely different level. Tons of heavy hitters have come from the corporate world to help their government solve the nation’s technology problems. I’m so lucky to be working with all these amazing, passionate people.”
Hux Overview: Hux wants to do for housecleaning—and other local services—what Uber has done for transportation. “The process of booking a local service provider like a housecleaner or handyman is very time consuming and inefficient and frustrating,” says Alix. “We built Hux to fix that.” At the Hux.com website, consumers can see local service providers, read their reviews, check their schedules, book them, pay them and then provide feedback after the service is complete. The company has started in the Atlanta market focusing initially on housecleaning services with ambitions to expand into other areas in the near future. In just one year, Hux is now the No. 1-ranked provider for housecleaning services locally on Yelp, he says. The company is also piloting service providers in the Charlotte, S.C., market and hopes eventually to extend the Hux marketplace throughout the U.S. In addition to offering a painless process for consumers, the Hux model delivers more affordable prices while providing more income for its service providers. “Big cleaning services like Molly Maid charge $40 an hour, but much of that money goes toward corporate overhead while the actual cleaners get paid minimum wage,” Alix says. “Hux removes a lot of these hidden costs, consumers pay $20 to $30 an hour, and the cleaners get to take home more.” Hux has more than 35 cleaners on its roster in Atlanta, serving thousands of customers. “Our housecleaners are making an average of $3,000 a month—much more than they’d do on their own or by working for a big cleaning company,” he says.
Startup Path: Stanley Vergilis got the idea for Hux when he was in high school. He had started his own tutoring service and realized that he spent way too much time trying to manage his quickly growing business on his cellphone. So he built a simple website that touted himself and his business, listed his tutoring availability and fees, and even posted reviews from customers. Parents could even pay for tutoring sessions online using PayPal. Later during a Tech internship, he met co-founder James Loper—who had built up his own Apple computer repair service—and the two struck a deal to grow Vergilis’ business model. They formed Hux in 2014, and Alix quickly joined to help the duo scale the business.
Words of Wisdom: “It’s important not to forget about startup opportunities that aren’t easily apparent,” Alix says. “The personal services industry is ready for disruption—even Amazon is entering the space via Amazon Home Services. We never thought as engineers that we’d be running a housecleaning company, but here we are and we’re excited.”
Monsieur Overview: Monsieur has been described as a robotic bartender, but it’s perhaps more equivalent to a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that can serve a perfect martini. The brainchild of Barry Givens, Monsieur not only expertly mixes alcohol with fresh ingredients inside a high-tech, wirelessly connected cabinet, but also can make your drinks just how you like them. It’s available in both commercial and home models, but it’s in the commercial market that it’s starting to take off. A partnership with Levy Restaurants put it into a trial at Atlanta’s Philips Arena last summer—which proved to be such a success that the foodservice company rolled it out to other locations, include nine machines at Churchill Downs just in time for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby this year. Sports and entertainment venues, hotels and upscale movie theaters seem to be the sweet spot for Monsieur. “We have orders and inquiries from 42 countries, but we’re staying focused on the U.S. market for now,” says COO Mario Taylor. “We’ve grown to nine full-time employees, mostly Tech alumni, and we’re trying to grow even more. Last winter, we closed our seed round and raised $2 million.” Alumni will be able to test Monsieur this fall, as machines will be installed at Tech Terrace during the upcoming Florida State and University of Georgia football games.
Startup Path: Monsieur currently holds a slot in Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) and maintains offices in the Centergy Building at Tech Square. The Institute helped Monsieur’s executive team to connect with serial entrepreneur and investor, Paul Judge, MS CS 01, PhD CS 02, who serves as the company’s chairman and the team’s mentor.
Words of Wisdom: “Being able to attract, motivate and retain talent to build a company is a lot of work,” says President Donald Beamer. “Some people take it for granted, but it’s not easy to find the right people at the right time. Luckily, we have found some great people from Georgia Tech that have joined us on this journey—which is not for the faint of heart. Our education at Tech certainly has helped us prepare for it.”
Yulex Overview: Guayule (why-YOU-lee) is a flowering shrub indigenous to the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It’s also a virtually untapped resource that may be the key to developing a thriving natural rubber industry in the U.S., says Martin. He founded Yulex as a biomaterials company in 2000 to pursue exactly this possibility. The natural rubber market is huge, with 40,000 products made from the material that account for upwards of a half-a-trillion-dollar market globally, Martin says. “Right now, the U.S. is dependent on 95 percent of its natural rubber imports from Southeast Asia,” he says. “We’ve developed tools to take guayule from a wild crop to a commercial crop, and we use processes to extract the natural rubber from the plant and start making products.” In 2014, Yulex scored its first consumer product—an award-winning wetsuit it developed with adventure retailer Patagonia that replaces neoprene with an environment-friendly, non-allergenic, guayule-based fabric. “Guayule truly is a sustainable resource that requires low input costs and can produce quality and high quantities of natural rubber,” Martin says. Yulex has many other other products in the pipeline, including yoga mats, footwear, chewing gum and hopefully soon—the big user of natural rubber—automotive tires.
Startup Path: Martin had worked in materials science for the likes of Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Safeskin (a startup eventually acquired by Kimberly-Clark) for nearly 15 years before venturing out on his own with Yulex. During this time, he worked on a lot of products that used latex and natural rubber, and learned to recognize an opportunity when he saw one. “More and more companies are moving away from petrochemical materials and want more sustainable and ecological alternatives,” Martin says. He found out about the potential of guayule through research being conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA licensed its technology to Yulex, and Martin then began hiring experts from a wide range of fields, including agriculture, genetics and manufacturing to turn his idea into reality. Since Yulex’s inception, it’s raised $80 million in capital. “Agricultural-based businesses take a long time to develop,” he says. “You have to prove a crop is viable and that there’s a market for it once you’ve shown you can grow it. The typical venture capital model is 3 to 5 years for achieve a positive return, so I had to find investors with patience.” That patience is finally starting to pay off.
Words of Wisdom: “What’s served me the most over the years was getting as much experience as possible in different business areas beyond my technical background in engineering,” Martin says. “I think entrepreneurs often have to go out of their comfort zones to succeed.”