Startup Summer School: Houston’s Zodist, Luminostics, & RaptorBird
This edition of Startup Summer School brings us to RedLabs, the University of Houston’s student accelerator.
I dropped into RedLabs Tuesday to speak to a few of the student entrepreneurs about their innovations in robotics, rapid medical diagnostic testing, and e-cigarettes. These entrepreneurs will join those from 13 other startups at both Houston and Rice University for a first-ever joint pitch day next month.
These three startups, in particular, have either have a unique team, a unique market, or both, says Hesam Panahi, founder of RedLabs and an Xconomist.
“RaptorBird and Luminostics consist of only technical founders and … watching them overcome business challenges has been inspiring,” he says. “Zodist and RaptorBird are early entrants in new markets that could potentially become heavily regulated. I believe have the tenacity to make it through.”
Here’s a look at a trio of RedLabs startups:
What they do: Weekly subscription box of so-called e-juices for use in vaporizers to replace cigarettes. Founders Tri Nguyen, Tom Huynh, and Joshua Wathen started the company six months ago following Huynh’s use of vaping to help him stop smoking. The company already has nearly 200 customers who receive monthly boxes of juices based on a flavor profile that records a user’s favorites—say, banana split—and dislikes, such as coffee. Zodist buys the juices at wholesale prices from retailers nationwide. Founders say they don’t try to haggle the juice-makers too much for price reductions as Zodist’s customer base are those who are willing to pay a bit more for the personalized selection the startup can offer. Current sales hit about $10,000 a month, Nguyen says.
Zodist sells two subscription packages, for two or four bottles, at $23.99 or $39.99 a month. Users specify a nicotine level in the juices.
Lessons learned and challenges ahead: The company originally only shipped out boxes once a month, meaning that customers who placed orders, say, on the 10th of the month would have to wait until the first of the next month to receive their order. In order to keep people from dropping out or canceling orders, Zodist began shipping out orders once a week.
The entrepreneurs are working on software that will that will use algorithms to “curate” customers’ selections with data from both their profiles and feedback. Eventually, they hope to have a system where an employee—using their software—would work specifically on a group of customer orders in order to maintain a personal touch.
Another wrinkle could be regulatory. While the FDA does not currently regulate e-cigarettes like vaping, there is a chance that the agency could begin reviewing the juices, and end up placing restrictions on how they could market or supply them. This could hinder Zodist’s supply, affecting how well it could come up with customized packages of juice.
What they do: The startup has licensed U of H research on light-emitting nanoparticles to develop rapid medical diagnostic tests that can be analyzed through a smartphone. Essentially, a swab of blood, saliva, or urine is placed in a disposable cartridge that slides into a specially made case on the smartphone. The phone takes a picture and the light activates the nanoparticles, which can be programmed to light up in the presence of certain disease-causing bacteria or viruses.
The tests will be designed for people to use at home, i.e., the baby is sick, is it the flu—something that would require a doctor’s visit—or just a cold? Also, it could be used by healthcare providers or epidemiologists in emerging markets to track disease incidence rates and other data.
Founders Gavin Garvey, Bala Raja, Andrew Paterson, and Gabe Hodges are now seeking grants from the National Science Foundation’s I-corps program and other sources to raise $50,000 to built a prototype this fall. Luminostics is starting with tests that can detect the presence of chlamydia because the high prevalence of the disease—it’s one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases—creates a viable market for the company.
Lessons learned and challenges ahead: The founders are using a 3-D printer to create a case for the smartphone as well as the disposable cartridge. The biggest challenge for Luminostics, however, will be the regulatory hurdles to getting FDA approval of the device.
What they do: Founded by Rakshak Talwar and Micah Thomas, RaptorBird is developing RAVN, a hardware and software system for customizing a civilian drone, depending on the use. Current drones available on the market are “one-trick ponies,” Talwar says. RaptorBird’s system could be used in a variety of applications in education or industry, such as exploring and quantifying data in hard-to-reach places like mines or other industrial sites.
The duo is finalizing its prototype of what Talwar calls its “value-added drone,” with the RAVN system pre-installed, in preparation for a Kickstarter campaign by the end of the year. The device would sell for under $1,000. Also, he says RaptorBird will be selling a development tool for developers to use the RAVN system on existing drones.
Lessons learned and challenges ahead: The project has gone through several iterations since I was first introduced to Talwar earlier this year at the start of RedLabs’ pre-accelerator course. As they are fine-tuning their market plans, uncertainty still exists over what sort of regulation federal authorities may impose on drones.