Undergrad startup charges cellphones with solar power

ECE News

Kristin Tennant, ISE
9/5/2017 2:57:07 PM

Story Highlights

Rohit Kalyanpur, ECE Class of 2020. Photo by Emma Fleener.
Rohit Kalyanpur, ECE Class of 2020. Photo by Emma Fleener.
ECE ILLINOIS undergraduate Rohit Kalyanpur has been developing a solar innovation since his senior year of high school.

“I used my phone a lot, and when I updated the software it drained my battery really fast,” says Kalyanpur. “I became interested in figuring out whether I could actually charge a phone using solar.”

Kalyanpur came up with the basic technology and design, did some customer discovery around his neighborhood, then started cold-calling manufacturers in China to make a prototype for a solar-powered cell phone case.

By the time Kalyanpur arrived on campus in the fall of 2016, he had a working prototype in hand and was on the lookout for a business partner. He met Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering (ISE) undergraduate Paul Coustin, then a freshman in general studies, in a startup law course. When Kalyanpur first showed Couston his innovation, Couston offered constructive criticism and asked important questions, which was just the sort of push-back Kalyanpur needed in a business partner.

“I wanted us to think through the market and how to make it better—I didn’t just fall in love with what he had,” says Couston.

Coustin already had experience with designing products. In a TEC class his freshman year, his team scored among the top-12 finalists out of 120 proposals at the 2016 Cozad New Venture Competition. This experience earned him admission to ISE, where he has learned how to improve upon Kalyanpur’s product and take it to the shelves.

Couston returned to the Cozad Competition with Kayanpur in 2017, where they were a finalist and in-house prize winner—precisely the push they needed to launch their company.

Couston talks to Kalyanpur while he is working on the phone case. Photo by Emma Fleener.
Couston talks to Kalyanpur while he is working on the phone case. Photo by Emma Fleener.
Particle, Optivolt Labs’ trailblazing product for the iPhone, is unique from competitors in key ways. The compact system includes two cases—one to protect the phone and an outer case with the battery and solar panel, which utilizes both indoor and outdoor light to triple the life of the phone battery. Students, remote workers, business professionals, travelers, and outdoor enthusiasts are all key to Optivolt’s customer base.

“This system lets you have your phone in your pocket and the solar panel out where it’s exposed to light. You can even hang the solar panel on your backpack,” Couston says.

The startup’s most recent move was into the University of Illinois iVenture Accelerator, a year-long incubator program that gives top student startup teams the time and support they need to get their product to market. Optivolt Labs earned a $10,000 grant and space to set up shop at the start of summer 2017. Customer discovery, identifying the right manufacturer, and fundraising are next-step priorities. In addition to launching a Kickstarter campaign, Optivolt is taking pre-orders on its website and pursuing its seed round of investors. Harlee Sorkin, who is serving as the startup’s iVenture mentor, says their prospects look promising.

“They are focused on finding the right technical solution to an existing customer problem, as opposed to trying to start with the technology and pushing that on the market,” Sorkin says. He is also the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at EnterpriseWorks in the Research Park.

Couston sees a market that’s more than ready for Particle to solve its phone-charging problems.

“We’re going to advertise that you’ll never have to worry again about whether your charge will last the entire day,” he says. “With this product we’re offering freedom from the wall outlet, and there’s no bulk. Right now there’s nothing that does this out there.”

Optivolt is a succesful combination of the specific technical skills Kalyanpur learned in ECE and the wide-range of business and design skills Couston holds as an ISE major.

Of his ISE training, and the holistic skills it has taught him, Couston says, "Rohit and I are a really good team because he focuses on the circuitry and electronics, and I focus on the design: a case that can incorporate those electronics and still be manufactured at a price that allows us to operate as a business.”

“You have to find a balance between creativity, and realistic limitations of technology and manufacturing,” reflects Coustin. “And if you can find that point in the middle where you’re still creative and innovative but… you’re still realistic in the design of it, that’s where you find the product market fit, and that’s where you start selling, and that’s where people will buy it.”

Couston says that this is how ISE differs from more specialized majors. “I think that is what ISE teaches you, how to become a well-versed and reasonable engineer.”

The Optivolt team typically works from 7 am until 7 pm. In order for the team to relax and bond together, Couston says “we go back to one of our apartments and we just watch [HBO's comedy series] Silicon Valley. Even on our break, we’re still doing startup stuff.”

For more, read the full story on the ISE site.

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