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Students vs. Startups Episode 7: Two startup concepts: ideas for generating electricity and understanding PTSD

Students vs. Startups Episode 7: Two startup concepts: ideas for generating electricity and understanding PTSD


Featuring Energy Intelligence and Qntfy

Welcome to episode seven of Students vs. Startups. Moderator John Gilroy facilitates a discussion with local technology students and entrepreneurs, this week we talk with two companies who both won Eastern Foundry's Foundry Cup competition.

First, we chat with Melinda Sims, CTO of Energy Intelligence, which has created a road mounted generator that creates energy from cars passing over it.

Next we talk with Glen Coppersmith, CEO of Qntfy, a company dedicated to understanding and treating mental heath issues.

[audio src="https://easternfoundry.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/students_vs_startups_podcast_episode_7-final.mp3"][/audio]

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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I'll be your moderator today. The structure for this podcast is quite simple. We put a leader of a tech startup in the hot seat; students ask questions; we find another innovator; and then we do it again. The founding sponsor for Students vs. Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving problems and like to work with bright people, The Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al Di Leonardo or Abe Usher at theradiantgroup.com.

Well, here we are, Round 1. Our students today both have Master's of Professional Studies in Technology Management degrees from the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. A previous student is Maura Imparato. How are you, Maura?

Maura Imparato: Wonderful. How are you, John?

John Gilroy: You've done a whole lot besides a master's degree. What are you doing right now, Maura?

Maura Imparato: Well, I'm director of IT operations for a public health organization, and I'm studying neurotechnology at the doctoral level, and also came back to my wonderful Georgetown program as a faculty member.

img_7761 Maura Imparato, Tyler Gray 

John Gilroy: Well, a whole lot of experience there. Tyler, your background, please?

Tyler Gray: Yeah, Tyler Gray, also a graduate of the technology management program. I founded my own digital agency in 2013 and I also enjoy teaching part-time at the technology management program as well.

John Gilroy: Well, good. That's a good background to ask questions. Our startup today is a company called Energy Intelligence and we have the director of technology, Melinda Sims. How are you, Melinda?energyintel

Melinda Sims: I'm doing well. How are you?

John Gilroy: Well, you've got an interesting background. Tell us just a little bit about your background. There's so much going on.

Melinda Sims: Sure. I'm a mechanical engineer. I did my undergrad degree at Oklahoma State University and then I did a master's and PhD at MIT up in the Boston area. My specialty is product design and control systems. I did my degree in the Lab for Manufacturing. I founded a company out of grad school. My husband's in the military, and they moved us here to DC, and I've now joined Energy Intelligence.

John Gilroy: Interesting background. It's going to be great. What exactly does your company do, again?

Melinda Sims: Energy Intelligence, we build road-mounted generators. These are rubber mats that go on the road, and when you drive on them, they create electricity.

John Gilroy: That's interesting. Basically, what business problem does your company solve?

Melinda Sims: We sell electricity at discounted rates to places with a lot of traffic.

Maura Imparato: I wonder why you came to DC when you're thinking about traffic. Welcome.

Melinda Sims: Thank you.

Maura Imparato: How do you encourage people to drive? Just kidding. How do you sell your product?

Melinda Sims: Well, our target market for these is places with a lot of traffic and places with heavy vehicles, so toll booths, parking garages, ports, airports, places like that. Those tend to be places, particularly the parking garages, that actually spend a lot of money on electricity.

A typical parking garage might spend $150,000 a year just on electricity, and a major port terminal spends ... One that I interviewed spends 3 million a year on electricity.- Melinda Sims, CTO Energy Intelligence

So, they're already pretty desperate for ways to reduce their electric bill, and this happens to be a way they can do that.

img_7740 Melinda Sims, CTO Energy Intelligence 

John Gilroy: Tell us about this Foundry Cup that you've won.

Melinda Sims: Sure. We're very pleased to have been part of the Foundry Cup this year sponsored by Eastern Foundry. Earlier this year they brought together a cohort of companies specifically focused on energy and did both workshops, as part of an educational component for the program, and then a pitch competition at the end, where members of the community were invited to see the different companies.

John Gilroy: Was it an empty cup, or what was in the cup? I hope it was a couple dollars.

Melinda Sims: The cup was empty when we got it. It may or may not have some more interesting contents now.

Tyler Gray: It sounds like a remarkable, but deceptively simple, idea. What's been the biggest challenge that you've had to overcome or explain to customers or investors? It sounds so straightforward, so why hasn't someone done it, and what's special about doing it now?

Melinda Sims: No, that's an excellent question. The difficulty is being able to do this in a way that makes economic sense. If the amount it costs you to make the mat is more than you'll ever produce in electricity, then it just doesn't make economic sense. Folks have tried this before with, for instance, piezoelectrics, but those are just so expensive it doesn't work. Also, people have tried it with methods that require you to tear up the road. Understandably, a lot of our customers are pretty against tearing up the road.

What we've been able to do is package a technology which goes on top of the road with a cheap enough technology that it makes it worth it. It's hydraulic, so there's fluid in little tubes in there. When you drive over the mat, it pinches the tube shut and pushes the fluid forward to spin a generator. So, using the hydraulic technology has made the difference.

Tyler Gray: Have there been any technology advances that have helped enable that, like battery storage? I think a lot of people would be interested in how that ends up working for whoever owns the structure or facility, right?

img_7834 Tyler Gray 

Melinda Sims: Sure. The idea would be ... Each mat is eight feet wide and four feet long in the direction that you travel, and you could stack up a bunch of them, depending on how big the facility is. Then all of those mats combine together into a central battery storage, which really functions as a buffer, and then the site uses it to power whatever they want: the lights, the heat, the little gate arms at the parking garage, the ticket machines.

The enabling technology here really has been: one, the cost of batteries coming down; two, the cost of data and sensors coming down. These have sensors baked into them, and you collect the data and look at it remotely. That's come a long way in the last five or 10 years as well; but, we were lucky. We do have three issued US patents on this, and so we've been fortunate to be able to get that.

Maura Imparato: Wow. I'm just so super-impressed. I couldn't hold it in anymore. When you get in front of a customer, do they just instantly start shelling out money? Have you had a lot of good response?

Melinda Sims: That would be a good problem to have, for sure. People are very interested at the beginning. Our customers tend to be people who work at industrial facilities, people who own these sites. They're very much of, "Show me it works. Let me see a demo," so we've been focusing on doing pilot demonstrations to actually verify that it works in the field, because things that work in the lab don't always translate like you think they will to in-the-field.

One of the things we wanted to see is how people react when they drive over the mat. I had

energy-intelligence-psfk Courtesy Energyintel.us

built this little LED panel with lights that would light up and show you that you were producing electricity, and I was all excited to see how people were going to respond. Then they drive over, and it doesn't even register sometimes. They're too busy wanting to pay their toll or take their ticket, which is a good thing, which means it's not disrupting the driving experience. But maybe I need to make my LEDs brighter.


Maura Imparato: I think maybe people are used to a lot of lights and flashing.

Melinda Sims: They might be.

Tyler Gray: What challenges do you see? I mean, obviously you're piloting it and getting good feedback now, but what do you think your main challenges will be to growing and scaling this out in terms of competitors, maybe unscrupulous folks overseas who don't care about patents, things of that nature?

Melinda Sims: Sure. In order to scale, one of the things we're focusing very hard on is sort of how to enter the market, because there's a lot of places with high traffic, and so you kind of have to choose your battles when you're beginning. We're focusing to start with on parking garages, partly because it's a consolidated market. The top four companies in parking own 40% of the parking garage market; so, if we do well with our initial pilots, then there's many other sites that we can scale to within the same customer.

Challenges that we've been working on: One of the important things is going to be the longevity of the system. How long does it last in the field under real circumstances? We spent a lot of time on fatigue testing, and lifetime testing, and thermal cycling, and things like this, trying to make sure that the maintenance you have to do on these is as little as possible.

Tyler Gray: That was going to be my follow-up question, was how you incorporate product feedback and how you prioritize that, but it sounds like you've got a pretty good handle on that.

Melinda Sims: Incorporating feedback is always important, because no matter how well the engineer thinks they know what the customer wants, the customer always has a slightly different idea. So, we've tried, particularly with the pilot sites, to have a good relationship with them so that they can feel open to giving direct and honest feedback, has been the best way to close the loop there.

img_7764 Melinda Sims 

Maura Imparato: I'm super-interested in your marketing tactics. I use parking garages constantly, and it's sometimes very hard to communicate with the front office people.

Melinda Sims: Sure.

Maura Imparato: They come from all over the world, and they have different backgrounds, and they deal with a lot of logistics. How do you approach them? How do you find out who they are? How do they respond to you?

Melinda Sims: As far as how we've found them, it turns out that we're solving a problem that a lot of them have. A lot of them have very expensive electric budgets and not a lot of margin in their operating budget; so, when this technology is presented, the interest is not hard to gain from the beginning.

Maura Imparato: How's it been going?

Melinda Sims: It's been going well. I like to build things. My favorite thing in the world is to build things. I'm a very hands-on person. I like the field work, and so my favorite part is actually working in the machine shop. I have a pretty decent machine shop here in the DC area. We have our bigger machine shop up in New York where we build things at volume. My favorite part is the field test, because we get to go out and install these; we get to not be in the office, and so I've really been enjoying it.

Maura Imparato: I wonder if there are any kind of gender issues, gender surprises, when you are relating to your customers and installing things.

Melinda Sims: Sure. Well, I think, if anything, it makes me memorable. They don't get too many women coming forward with industrial hardware ideas. The rest of our team is awesome as well. We actually have at the moment half and half on the gender ratio for the Energy Intelligence team, so we've been fortunate in that regard.

Maura Imparato: One more question: Who's your competition? Is this a busy field that I don't know about?

Melinda Sims: It depends how you define competition. Nobody is doing exactly this for now, as Tyler pointed out; but, one aspect of competition might be things like solar cells for energy generation, and that would be wonderful. There'd be no reason why you couldn't do mats plus solar cells. They would work in tandem. Other competition either takes too much money to install to be prohibitive, or the technology is too expensive to justify the amount of power that's being produced. So, we feel pretty good about where we sit in that matrix.

Tyler Gray: In terms of how you're acquiring customers, you're obviously starting in the private sector, but do you feel there's more that governments or municipalities could be doing to help support something like this? There's certainly no shortage of indoor and underground parking garages that I would imagine this could be applicable to, right?

img_7758 Tyler Gray, Claude Jennings Jr., Melida Sims

Melinda Sims: Absolutely. There's a lot of opportunity in the public sector as well, both on the city, sort of municipal level, and also even in the broader government category, even if you think military or defense, or think Homeland Security, with customs and border crossings, things like that. The nice thing about what we have is that there's a lot of sensors that are built into the mat, and we can add sensors for different markets that might want it.

For cities, a lot of them are moving toward the smart city, sort of Internet-of-Things trend, where they want more data about what's happening in their city. They want to know where the traffic is, where are people having problems, and having the information that comes from these mats can be really helpful so that they can allocate their resources. That's kind of where we see the value being to the cities.

Tyler Gray: So, instead of those wires you see on the road sometime, they could not only be getting the traffic data, but they could also be powering the stop light or keeping the bus station light on.

Melinda Sims: Exactly.

Maura Imparato: What's the biggest objection when you bring these up to the parking lot? Then when you ask them for money, when it's time for that?

Melinda Sims: Sure. The biggest objection? So far they have been most interested in how it's going to affect their day-to-day operations, because they have established routines; they have established personnel, and any sort of change in that needs to be carefully thought through. In that way, we've found that the portability of the system has been an advantage.

John Gilroy: Well, great job, students, and great job, Melinda. Now, Melinda, if someone wanted to learn more about your company, where would they find that information?

Melinda Sims: Absolutely. Well, you're welcome to check out energyintel.us. There's a contact email there, and we'd be happy to continue the discussion.

John Gilroy: Thank you, Melinda. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information go to eastern-foundry.com. Our monthly sponsor is F5 Networks. They're the global leader in application delivery networking. Contact F5 to learn how they can help your agency strengthen performance and security.

Welcome back to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac, Round 2. Well, you're right here with students Maura Imparato and Tyler Gray from earlier in the show. Our next startup in the hot seat is a company called Qntfy, Q-N-T-F-Y, represented by Glen Coppersmith. Glen, how are you?qntfy_logo_with_shadow

Glen C.: I'm doing just fine.

John Gilroy: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you wound up with this company, please.

Glen C.: Sure. My background's a mix of computer science, math, and psychology. We've done a bunch of research in this space, sort of looking at what sort of data and data science can we bring to mental health care and to the mental health industry in general, and so bringing together my expertise and people from similar disciplines. We started this company to address some of those really tremendous epidemic problems that we're facing.

John Gilroy: You're hitting the nail right on the head exactly as far as problems go. What business problem does your company solve?

Glen C.: Mental health ... I don't know if you have had any experience with the system ... it’s lacking a lot of hard, quantitative information about outcomes. At its absolute core, what we're trying to do is analyze people's lives and give them some of this quantified information so that we can better understand, better treat, and better intervene with mental health problems.

John Gilroy: Wow. Maura, this is your alley, huh?

Maura Imparato: You're absolutely correct. I'm studying neuroscience and neurotechnology and certainly have been looking around my friends' and family's experiences to see what they've been through with their health. I'd be very interested to know how this affects the individual patient.

Glen C.: That's a million- or billion-dollar question. I think there's a lot of people asking that. It's been said that there's no health without mental health, and this seems to be something that we have so very little information about. Primarily what we're looking at is, how do you look at all this data that's generated as you are a digital citizen walking through your life with your phone, with your laptop, interacting with all of your friends and all of your people in some digitally mediated way? What information does that give us about your mental health, and how can we use that to better empower you, or your clinicians, or your loved ones to understand and to care for your mental health?

img_7783 Glen Coppersmith, CEO of Qntfy

Tyler Gray: Obviously there's a lot of data out there. How do you sort the wheat from the chaff and figure out what's important versus what's not? For instance, Spotify is doing a funny ad campaign where they're sort of making fun of people's play lists; so, is that a leading indicator? Are there other things that are more important that you guys weight differently?

Glen C.: That's a fantastic question. The truth of the matter is that it's different for every person. Mental health, especially, is very personalized, and so the real question is not "For the entire population, what is the wheat and what is the chaff?" but "For you, in particular, what is the wheat and what is the chaff?" That's the sort of thing that we can only really look at by comparing you of today to you of a while ago and to track your mental health journey as you go through and as you're experiencing care and as you're experiencing interventions.

Tyler Gray: Is there more that other software developers, you think, could do to help enable you guys? For instance, if they were to open up their API, or other folks, to make more data available to you? I know in our own case we pay for a data monitoring service, and it's very, very expensive; so, is there more that industry could do to support you?

Glen C.: Yeah. That's exactly right. A lot of companies ... FitBit is one of them. It has done a great job of opening up their API so that if the person wants to share their data, they can. FitBit in particular has been pretty good about exposing these things; Facebook and Twitter as well. There are plenty of companies that could do more there, certainly, but the bigger question is actually not looking at the individual level. There's plenty that the companies could do looking at the aggregate and looking at the population level.

We don't really understand as a country how our mental health has been affected by, say, recent events, whatever it might be, and we don't have any great ways of measuring that. There are things that companies could do to say, "Here are the trends that we are seeing. Here are how people are changing with respect to something that's happened at this moment in time."

Melinda Sims: I'm incredibly curious. What are you measuring? Are you measuring individual things? If you could measure every time somebody has some kind of emotional issue, or when somebody's walking around with their phone and they get mugged, or they have a fight with their family ... Are you measuring that? Can I get it for my own life?

Glen C.: We're in a private alpha at the moment, so at some point you could. We should talk after this. There is plenty to be done there. Those sorts of things are the things that we're capturing. The more interesting thing is how this moment is changing from your moment a couple of weeks ago, and so comparing you longitudinally. We're not actually tracking all of your conversations, but we are tracking the sort of things like where is your geo-location? Are you at home? Are you frequently leaving the house? Are you not leaving the house?

We get some of the best signals from language. Language is a very natural expression of what's going on in our minds and how we're interacting with the rest of the world. A lot of this research was founded on analyzing language, and we've sort of built out from there to look at some of this other data: the metadata, the timing data, the GPS data.

John Gilroy: Glen, you have a relationship with Eastern Foundry and you've won an award there. Is that correct?

Glen C.: Yeah, that's correct. We were part of the 2015 Foundry Cup. They brought together a whole bunch of people that were interested in innovative approaches to PTSD, so we were one of 13 companies that were there. We happened to walk away with a prize, and actually our first money came from Eastern Foundry. Now we are in residence in Rosslyn, and they've been supporting us quite well throughout this time.


John Gilroy: Oh, great.

Tyler Gray: How do you overcome typical privacy or other concerns that either your customers or folks might have relying on the data? Then, as a quick follow-up to that, I'm sure you've heard how Facebook did an experiment whereas they would intentionally share more negative stories to more positive stories to folks and change their outcome. How do you feel about stuff like that?

Glen C.: The first question, in particular ... Everyone that we're looking at has asked us to do so, so it's all opt-in. You're absolutely right to point in a very huge question. There's a public discussion to be had, looking at what is the most appropriate thing to do with this data? If we had the ability to save lives, should we reach out and intervene with these people? They've not asked us to. This is a very concrete place in which there is a cost for privacy. There is no straight answer there. There is a public debate that should happen, and the public should come to some kind of consensus about this so that we don't get the reaction like Facebook got to their experiments. But, specifically, the stuff that we're doing is all opt-in so that we've been asked to analyze this data.

John Gilroy: You know, Glen, we're just a few miles from the Pentagon. How has your work been received by the DoD?

Glen C.: We're well-supported by DARPA, looking at some of their big data programs. They have not directly supported any of the mental health work. They are interested in seeing how we might be able to help active duty and veterans, but they have not been directly funding the mental health aspects of it, just our data processing.

Tyler Gray: Obviously, as an expert in the industry, I think there's a lot of things that folks may not realize about how, for instance, credit card and insurance companies are already mining this type of data without the disclosures and opt-ins that you guys have. Is there something that you've noticed that's particularly surprising or shocking that folks might not realize about how they're communicating and where their data is already going anyways?

Glen C.: That is a fascinating and loaded question. Actually, I'm going to give you the opposite of this. I've been talking to a bunch of undergrads recently, and they totally know that this is happening, that all of their data, especially if it's for a service that they're not paying for ... The company is making money somewhere else. So, actually, what's been fascinating to me is that the younger generation, this is not strange to them at all and they're totally game for allowing people to look at their data, especially if they're going to get some benefit out of it in the long run.

Maura Imparato: I think that's a great point about the generational gap or the millennials who expect this to happen. They've been journaling online since they were 12. They haven't been through the kind of things that a lot of middle-aged people have been through with the major financial, legal, business issues that they have. So, I would be interested in the privacy issues; but, actually, I'm going to attack from another angle. Who are you marketing this to, and how are you planning to get your money?

img_7815 Maura Imparato

Glen C.: That's a fascinating question. One thing I suspect you might know about the mental health care industry is that it's very convoluted, and the people that are actually paying for care are a couple of steps removed from the people that are receiving it. This makes it a far less than ideal industry to go and attempt to get money out of. So, actually, what we're looking to do is much more direct-to-consumer and direct-to-business: "Here's information that we can provide you about your particular mental health" or "Here's the pulse of your company and how your company is doing."

Maura Imparato: So, people who are susceptible individuals or susceptible to mental health issues? Is that what you're saying? Or a larger group? A company? Can you explain?

Glen C.: Sure. From the individual side, someone who is interested in understanding their mental health, and actually there's a number of things connected to that: "What is my stress level," not necessarily just clinical conditions, but your well-being, your day-to-day functioning. These are things that your mental health has a huge impact on and they're things that we can put some numbers behind and help you better understand.

Separately, there's plenty of information that companies want to know if their employees as a group, not picking out individuals here, but as a group, if the company is entering doldrums, is having the pit of despair, as some of the startups will run into. If the morale of the company is going in a direction, it is often useful to know that, and it can drastically affect the business, and so providing at a group level, at an aggregate level, some of that information to the decision makes within the company is the second market.

Tyler Gray: I have another loaded question for you. Why did you choose Eastern Foundry as an incubator? Did you do an analysis of the mood of the various startups? Between Eastern Foundry and the competition, did they wind up ahead? Or, if you haven't, when will you?

Glen C.: That's a very loaded question. It was all actually qualitative analysis during the Foundry Cup and the quality people that they had brought around. The Eastern Foundry is full of interesting and vibrant companies that are interested in doing something sort of directly with the government. Actually, the thing that sold us here is working with Geoff and his connections with the veterans. We care a lot about helping the military and the veterans, so that was the selling point for us, is working with a former vet and working towards this common mission.

Maura Imparato: When you bring up PTSD, I always want to bring up the inter-gender issues. There's not only veterans' issues with PTSD, but also family issues. I wonder if maybe you've approached HHS as a client or looked at their data ... any kind of family organizations. There are a lot of them.

Glen C.: Yeah. That's fascinating. We have not looked at HHS yet. We have looked at some of the private side, the mental health advocacy and lived experience organizations. We have looked at some of those. I think you point out a very interesting point that some people tend to miss, that..

...some of the best cures that we're seeing and some of the best empowerment that we can give to anybody is to empower their family and to empower their caregivers to be able to give them the care that they need and to be able to help them through this tough time.- Glen Coppersmith, CEO Qntfy

So, this looking at a family unit or a group of caregivers in conjunction with the patient or with the user is super-powerful. That's one of the few scalable solutions in mental health.

Tyler Gray: In terms of starting your company, just at an overall conceptual level, what has been your biggest lesson learned, either operationally or culturally, as you've grown and evolved?

Glen C.: We made a decision early on that I would never go back on, which was to invest in the people that we're working with and to primarily go after that. Products and payments will come and go, but actually building the core competency and building our core team was by far the best thing that we've done. That is a lesson well-learned, and I think it is very contrary to what some of the startups that we've interacted with have done.

img_7792 Glen Coppersmith

John Gilroy: Just curious about the name of your company. How did you stumble on that? Is this intentional? I mean, do you not like vowels?

Glen C.: Well, if the Eastern Foundry prize money had been a bit larger, maybe we could have afforded the vowels; but, such as it was, these are the only ones we could afford. Qntfy is a very deliberate choice. What we're trying to do is to quantify something that has up until this point been very unquantifiable. That part was deliberate, and the only way that we could feel like a startup at that point in time was to mess with our name a little bit and make it a little bit shorter.

John Gilroy: Great job, students. Great job, Glen. Glen, if people want more information about your company, where should they go?

Glen C.: qntfy.com. That's Q-N-T-F-Y.com.

John Gilroy: Great. Thank you very much. We're running out of time here. I'd like to thank our founding sponsor, the Radiant Group; our host, Eastern Foundry; and our monthly sponsor, F5 Networks. If you would like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at eastern-foundry.com. Signing off from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, I am John Gilroy, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.