Stanford Startup Spotlight: Alma, Akshay Ramaswamy

akshay.jpg

Akshay Ramaswamy, a senior, is a co-founder of Alma, “a social-academic college network geared towards helping students meet other students on their college campus and plan their academic paths.” The startup has recently garnered attention for receiving $1 million seed funding from investors such as Marissa Mayer.


1. How did you come up with the idea for Alma?

Akshay Ramaswamy: I was the first kid from my school to ever get into Stanford, and I had no one to ask questions to when coming here. It was super hard to navigate through thousands of classes and hundreds of clubs while trying to also make new friends. As an RA last year, I wanted to build a platform that would help alleviate this problem - thus we created Alma, a super powerful directory that would show profiles of people on your campus with information specific to college.

2. How has your startup changed since its establishment?

Akshay Ramaswamy: We were initially a schedule sharing platform, but since then we’ve added more features to make it more of a network, with a newsfeed and group messaging.

3. What was it like to have to go through the process of receiving funding?

Akshay Ramaswamy: We pitched 3-4 days a week all of spring quarter, driving to SF or Sand Hill Road. We learned a lot from out first few pitches, and after about a month we were very polished - I could recite our pitchdeck and metrics in my sleep. We learned to focus on the vision and the future in our pitches rather than the small details and that made all the difference.

4. Would you say Stanford’s startup-friendly environment helped you along the way of creating your startup?

Akshay Ramaswamy: For sure - we went through the Pear Startup Garage and Cardinal Ventures, both of which gave us a crash course on building a company - from legal things and hiring to accounting and finding product market fit.

5. Given that the startup has taken up a sizeable amount of your time, what motivated you to keep dedicating your time when you were busy with school and other extracurricular activities?

Akshay Ramaswamy: I think the biggest shift for me was cutting out other extracurriculars and making sure to schedule in my company like it was a 10-unit class. This way, no matter what’s happening in my classes, I stay disciplined to work on Alma consistently.

6. How do you define roles for employees and yourself in your company?

Akshay Ramaswamy: Since we’re a startup of 4 people and two contractors, we’re small enough such that everyone pretty much works on everything. We play to people’s strengths, however - some people are better at frontend design, others specialize in backend infrastructure. If there’s a skill we don’t think we have on the team, we go out and hire them. That’s how we went out and found our UI/UI designer, who’s was a crucial addition to the team given our lack of knowledge on UI/UX principles.

7. What are your future plans?

Akshay Ramaswamy: We’re currently expanding to other schools and hiring! The goal is to be at around 10 schools by this time next year, and we’re currently at Stanford, USC, and Cal. If anyone is interested in working with an up and coming Stanford startup with venture funding and a stellar set of investors (Marissa Mayer, LinkedIn execs) we’d love to talk to them!

Stanford Startup Spotlight: Seer Tracking, Amber Yang

Stanford Startup Spotlights is a new initiative by BASES to interview founders currently at Stanford and highlight their accomplishments, challenges, and ongoing experiences of building a company.

bases_img_amber_yang.jpg

Amber Yang is a sophomore at Stanford studying Physics and Computer Science who founded and currently operates Seer Tracking. Seer Tracking’s mission is to track and map space debris in Low Earth Orbit for the purposes of reducing space debris collision risk with space missions. Seer Tracking uses Artificial Neural Network software in order recognize and predict space debris paths and potential collisions.

1. Where did your company Seer Tracking come from?

Amber Yang: This actually started as a project that I did in high school, actually for a science fair. I got the inspiration for the project because I grew up in Orlando, really near the Kennedy Space Center, so I really loved space from a really young age and then, later on, when astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year in space I would watch his Facebook livestreams and a lot of times he would say that he would have duck out from the International Space Station and into another capsule because there was danger of the Space Station being hit by debris.

That really got me thinking — I saw a lot of articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times talking about the space debris problem so I started reading some papers and realized that the current methods of tracking debris often times have a lot of error so people can’t really predict where the debris will go simply because there is so much drag and various atmospheric effects that are impacting the debris. These papers were also using a mathematical model that made it really hard to model drag and these other atmospheric and weather effects and so I had this idea to use artificial intelligence to recognize the patterns in how the debris’ orbits change over time to predict future orbits.

I had this idea when I was sophomore in high school and then I worked on it for about two years in high school, competed in some science fairs for it, and then after high school, I realized that with a lot of these science fairs, a lot of times the projects don’t really end up going anywhere and people end up abandoning these projects when they go to college and I thought that would be a big shame because these are some really big problems that need to be solved. I really wanted to see my idea come to use so that’s what gave me the motivation to create a startup.

2. What were the kinds of technical resources that you were looking at when you started your project?

Amber Yang: I actually programmed everything in MATLAB, which I know might make a lot of people at Stanford cringe, but MATLAB has an AI library that's actually really easy to use if you’ve never worked with AI before and I had never worked with AI before – actually, I barely even knew how to code when I started the project. So, MATLAB was a really easy language to pick up and then the AI library was very easy to implement from there which made my experience using AI a lot easier.

In terms of the data I used, at first, I actually simulated all of my data using a normal standard deviation to create random samples of debris but then I later realized that there are space debris databases publicly available online that anyone can access – websites like spacetrack.org. That’s when I started to do more testing with my idea.

I feel like when you have an idea, it can be really daunting to try implement it and a lot of times you might lack the technical skills, but even now, after I’ve finished developing a lot of my project, I still don’t think I’m fully versed in artificial intelligence, and I’ve only really tested my project on my personal computer — I haven’t looked into things like GPU’s.

When you are first starting out with your idea, I would try to make it as easy as possible as you can and then maybe once you’ve developed some type of prototype and you have the idea to create a company, that’s when you can really delegate harder, advanced technical tasks to people who are really well-versed in those things. So just really taking advantage of all your opportunities and resources and also asking for help — always being willing to learn and admit that you don’t know something.

3. What is the state of the company right now?

Amber Yang: The company is actually being incorporated next week! I also actually just got accepted into an accelerator based in Toronto, called Creative Destruction Lab, and their focus is actually in space startups so I’m actually going to be traveling to Canada once every two months to work on the company there and have mentorship from them.

Right now, I have not raised any funding for the company. I’ve bootstrapped everything because it's really been only me developing the software and I don’t need to pay myself a salary or anything and I’m trying to delay as much, as possible, the time when I give away equity of the company. I’m also actually currently talking with three potential customers, one of which I’m actually getting data from so I’m trying to test the robustness of the software and then also to trying to customize our first software packaging based on their experiences. Research and development and then creating a start up are very different — in order to operate all of the software right now, you really need to know how to code so I’m in the process of creating a user interface for it. We’re still a little bit in the development of the software stage but hopefully customizing it for the customer.

By the end of the year, I’m hoping to close the deals with these two customers and then potentially raise a seed funding round simply because I’m hoping to expand the team — right now it's just me, I have an advisor in the Aero / Astro department here and then a potential CTO — but its really hard being a student while also developing software while also trying to develop the business of the company. I’m definitely looking to expand the team and hire some technical people.

4. What has the development process been like for commercializing your software and making it commercially available?

Amber Yang: As I mentioned, everything’s written in MATLAB so my first plan of action has been to finish converting it to Python and C++ so that’s been a bit of a struggle to manage with classes. After that, in terms of software licensing, I have a lot to learn in that aspect so i’m really looking to bring on another person to the team who is experienced with software licensing, software development, and things like that.

 A visualization of Seer Tracking’s space debris tracking software.

A visualization of Seer Tracking’s space debris tracking software.

5. How are you balancing your schoolwork and schedule alongside your company work?

Amber Yang: It’s a lot! One thing that I’m hesitant to do is bring on new people especially because this idea started only with me, so it can feel weird to bring on other people, but it's a very necessary step. In terms of my day, I go to classes from 8:30 to 4 or 5 everyday and then work on psets at night but typically I try to work on code on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and then Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m working with someone in the accelerator in order to come up with a business plan and scaling plan of how to scale the company. With a lot of these operations, I think it's dumb for me to hold all of it on to myself so right now I’m definitely looking to expand the team.

6. How has the process of learning how to start a company been for you?

Amber Yang: When I incorporated the company, I actually signed on with a lawyer firm here in Palo Alto and they’ve actually taken care of all the incorporation details for me and I think especially when you are a young founder, take advantage of the opportunity that you're young and that a lot of people are more willing to help you just because they know you have a lot in your future.

Honestly, when you are trying to learn the basics of starting a company, making connections is probably the single most important thing you can do, not only with lawyers or VC’s, but actually with other young founders. For example, I got to meet a lot of people from the Thiel Fellowship group and I think talking to them and asking them questions about the founding process has been really helpful for me.

At this point, when I have a question or a concern, either asking someone or looking it up online and learning as you go through it has been my process. I think that's why, when you look at a lot of arguments about why founders should drop out, you realize that even if I were to go to business school and get an MBA degree, I wouldn’t be in the nitty-gritty works of actually starting a company and getting it off the ground because I think that's where you can actually learn a lot of stuff from.


7. One might think that tracking space debris should be the government’s job or responsibility — why should a private company be handling this?

Amber Yang: This has been a problem that the government has been dealing with essentially since the space race and I would say that increasingly, we are seeing space getting farther away from the government in a way and I think that a lot of times government technology development can be very slow and I think that the reason that we are seeing a lot of progress in space recently is because a lot of these technologies are being handled by private companies — SpaceX, for instance, has developed so much in the past couple of years and I really think its because the energy of startups is so much different from the government. People are very excited to do new things and I think that because of that you can see real tangible things and technologies come to fruition a lot quicker. I would say, for example, the government knows about what I’m doing but I don’t think they’ve been exploring the idea of using AI to track debris, I think they are sticking with their method. The importance for having a startup to handle these technologies is to keep coming up with these new ideas and then hopefully dealing with other private space industries just so we have our own type of ecosystem that keeps pushing out its own new developments.

8. How are you thinking about your company future for the next 6 months?

Amber Yang: My biggest goal is to finish development of the software so that I can demo it as a finalized product — that is my first and foremost priority. I think that a lot of times especially in Silicon Valley, you can get caught up between trying to raise money and getting customers before the project is completely finished and a lot of times people end up releasing bad beta versions but I think that for me, I really want to focus on getting the software and the technology to the best state possible just because I’m dealing in a very risky business –– predicting where things go into space is quite a big deal so I really want to finish development, make the software very professional and then probably within the next 6 months, hopefully get some customers to agree to buy a license after the development is completely finished. Between that time and now, I also plan bring on some people onto the team and potentially raise a small seed round.



Aurora Solar: Pioneering Renewable Energy Software

Picture1.png

by Matthew Lu

Two weeks ago, BASES was pleased to host Samuel Adeyemo, COO of renewable energy startup Aurora Solar, for our third annual startup lunch. We were eager to learn more about how Aurora has evolved from a solar installation company to a software startup pioneering the design and implementation of solar power projects.

According to their profile posted on the Stanford TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, Aurora is a Palo Alto-based startup that is building the operating system of the solar industry. Their product is a cloud-based application that algorithmically generates 3D models of buildings, performs sophisticated solar engineering design, and generates beautiful proposals and visualizations for customers.

By allowing solar installers to do all this without ever leaving their office, Aurora aims to slash the cost of solar installations and make solar power widely available to anyone. Their software is used to design over 50,000 solar projects a month.

The lunch involved a relatively smaller crowd of around nine students. However, the lower headcount turned out to be a blessing as each attendee showed tremendous curiosity and interest in both renewable energy and Aurora’s mission. I could sense Samuel was invigorated by the energy of the group, and he shared a range of engaging anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom. He began by laying out his company’s aspiration to become the software most synonymous with the solar industry. I was instantly captivated by his vision and scope.  He proceed to trace, in colorful detail, his own journey founding the company, beginning with their non-profit solar installation project in East Africa to their current decision to focus on integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence into a software solution.

One attendee asked why, at the outset, Aurora did not choose to focus more on the technology and manufacturing aspects of the solar industry. Samuel responded that advancing solar hardware, while complex and exciting, would never be a profitable business model due to the dominance of China in the hardware space. He broke down the reasons why such a pursuit would not help Aurora achieve maximum impact in the renewables space. This is one example of the insight Samuel gave us over the course of our hour-long startup lunch.

On the whole, we all learned a lot about the budding solar industry. We came away with a strong sense of the determined resilience it takes to mold a passion project into a thriving startup. If renewable energy is a space that interests you, I highly recommend you look into interning for Aurora Solar, either through their internship program or through the TomKat Center.

BASES member Lukas Haas Designs New "Roommating" App

lukas haas.jpg

Lukas is a freshman from Zurich, Switzerland, and currently studying Management Science & Engineering. He has been a part of Frosh Battalion since last October and is planning to join the Business Development Team in the spring. Excited about the sharing-economy, Lukas is currently working on a project called Roommating, and he took some time to reflect on his experience for the BASES blog.

When I arrived on campus during International Student Orientation in September, I could have never believed how quickly I would get exposed to entrepreneurship. While everyone was still trying to makes sense of all the weird abbreviations and trying not to get lost between the many Arrillaga buildings, I met Ion Esfandiari — a fellow student from Paris. We discovered we had many things in common and connected quickly, in particular, because we were both (and are still) in long-distance relationships and therefore shared some sympathy. One day later — our second day at Stanford — we were walking back to his dorm when Ion received a text message from his roommate saying he would need the room for a couple of hours for obvious reasons. Similar incidents continued to occur over the next couple of days. Disillusioned by the miscommunication with his roommate and his girlfriend planning to visit him soon, Ion jokingly said; there should be an app for this!

 

roommating.png

Less than a month later, we had come up with a prototype for our app and showed it to a couple of students. Feedback ranged from an informal “Lol, this is great“ (Andrew Tam, my roommate) to a more professional “great product-market fit“ (Udai Baisiwala, BASES co-president). This motivated us to continue to work on our app. Until the end of fall quarter we redesigned and added many features; while Ion focused on designing the user interface and implementing most of the front-end development, I decided to do the back end, analytics, and some animations. Within another two months, we had a fully viable product. After building up some social media presence and fixing last bugs, we are now in the midst of launching Roommating which just became available at 10pm on last Friday, February 16th. The concept is pretty simple; you can click on a lock button and choose one of four different time frames to occupy room virtual room for.  Your roommates then receive a push notification letting them now when they can come back. So why this is better than texting? Well, first, texts are mostly left unread and awkward in the first place. But the main reasons is this; if you run into an uncomfortable situation, you can call all your roommates for help with a single force touch from your home screen — without even opening the app. In addition, Roommating lets you react to being locked out using different emojis — an easy way to let your roommate know how you feel. Right now, Roommating is more of a fun side project rather than a startup for me, but Ion and I are planning to add a lot of exciting features; we will start at the level of roommates and then use new features to build ever larger communities, first at the dorm level, then at the university, and finally across universities. In the end, my goal is to connect college students wherever they go in the world by letting them engage in activities and experiences offered by students for students — not on smart phone screens like social media, but in real life. If you’re interested in following where all of this is going, check us out!

roommating 1.jpg

Behind the Scenes of the BASES $100K Startup Challenge

sabina blog.jpg

Sabina Beleuz Neagu is a sophomore studying Symbolic Systems from Toronto, ON. She currently does research on access-to-justice through legal technology, and is excited to share her passion for impact through community entrepreneurship as this year's VP of BASES Challenge. Below, Sabina provides an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of designing, organizing, and executing the Challenge competition each year.

When I joined BASES Challenge as an officer at the beginning of Fall Quarter, freshman year, I had no idea would be in this for the long haul. When I joined, I knew little about BASES, and even less about Challenge -- I knew, basically, that it was a pitch competition for Stanford-affiliated startups that awarded $100K in prize money.

Little did I know, however, that this massive endeavor was run entirely by students. Or that it has been running like this since 1999, with over 1300 entrants to date. And soon, I would realize that something like this could make an impact far beyond the monetary value it had up for grabs.

From the very beginning, the VP leading our team asked us to hit the ground running. We were tasked with emailing industry experts, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs from around Silicon Valley to be judges and mentors for the competition. I was intimidated at first to be reaching out to innovators I never would have been brave enough to speak to in-person myself, but frantic typing and flooded inboxes were fairly common come January. At this point it might have looked like we were in our own little reality TV show, Extreme Networking, each playing to see who we could connect with by merely sending an email. However, rather than being a vain test in schmoozing, the everyday outreach aspects of Challenge taught me some lessons in humanity -- that people, on the most part, are more than willing to talk to you and help you out when asked. Challenge, in turn, helped me refine my “ask” so that I became clearer, more professional, and less intimidated by that dreaded SEND button.

Despite the coziness of my comfort zone, at the end of the year, my VP at the time offered me a chance to step into the spotlight and encouraged me to take the lead on organizing and facilitating a fireside chat, interviewing our keynote speaker. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, had it not been Joe Lonsdale -- co-founder of Palantir and Midas-List investor -- and had it not been me, the frightened, feeble-voiced freshman of the flock. However, soon after hearing Lonsdale’s answer to my question about why he decided to pursue founding his own company, I knew that being a part of the Challenge journey was the right decision. In his own words, “Building companies is not a good goal, in and of itself ... if you find something you’re really interested in, and if you think, this is how the world is now, and this is how the world should work, if we can fix it...it’s about fixing something about the world.” And, later, standing next to Kartik Sawhney, the presenter pitching for the grand-prize-winning NextBillion.org team, which aimed to empower people with disabilities by connecting them with mentors in the tech sphere, I realized how much this undoubtedly rang true.

challenge.jpg


I take the perspective I gleaned and mistakes I made as an officer with me as I run Challenge this year. Right now, we are organizing Challenge Kickoff, which takes place on Thursday, January 11th, and I have the feeling that Season 2 of Extreme Marketing might be on its way. Nevertheless, I am trying to offer the entrepreneurial experience to others by bootstrapping with the Challenge team, taking risks, and trying to help the rest of the community find and fix the issues that they care about. If that’s not entrepreneurship at its very heart, then I’m not sure what is.