The 2015 Imagine Cup World Finals are next week! While 33 teams lose sleep to finalize their projects, we caught up with four Imagine Cup alumni teams. All of these teams have transformed their idea into a startup company.
Team Eyenaemia (2014), Team Lens (2014), Team Chemicalium (2014) and Team Wormhole (2007) shed light on the wild ride that has been their post-Imagine Cup path to entrepreneurship.
Spoiler Alert: It’s hard, but they love it.
2014 Imagine Cup World Champions
Members: Jennifer Tang and Jarrel Seah
Description: A medical mobile app that uses a selfie to determine a subject’s iron levels.
Jennifer Tang and Jarrel Seah stood on the Imagine Cup stage last year as students with a winning idea. Now, they are committed and extremely busy entrepreneurs.
For many, the time from idea to startup is focused on the product lifecycle. For others, the time is consumed by searching for funding. As a medical app, Eyenaemia must focus on both strategies. Without trials to collect medical data and patient studies, there can be no product improvement. But without funding, there can be no trials.
Eyenaemia is pursuing both simultaneously as well as working and studying at various emergency departments in Melbourne, Australia.
There is immense value in the Imagine Cup outside of winning first place, but Team Eyenaemia firmly believes that the prize money and industry exposure they received as a result of winning the Imagine Cup in the World Citizenship category accelerated the timeline and growth of Eyenaemia. The medical and business contacts they made as a result of Imagine Cup helped find more initial funding instead of forcing the team to postpone their product timeline while seeking funding.
Patience is a key lesson to learn as a new business owner. The maturity it takes for young entrepreneurs to pace themselves and create versions of their product is something that Jennifer says she learned at the Imagine Cup. She shares, “Too many startups try to make their app do too many things too soon.” Instead, it’s wise to plan for different versions of product releases that can eventually equip the app with all the features and functions originally hoped for.
Waiting for funding, waiting for grant approvals, waiting to develop and release newer, better versions of their app – it all takes such patience and commitment.
So what’s next? Jennifer and Jarrel dream of Eyenaemia growing into a vital app for use in developing countries. Their next steps include forming a partnership with overseas doctors in hopes of getting them onboard to hold clinical trials. Eyenaemia needs that data to inform the data they currently have. The Imagine Cup exposure helps here too. Medical professionals have heard of Eyenaemia, and with the backing of Microsoft, trust that they know what they’re doing.
In the next versions of the Eyenaemia app, they hope to include the power to not only screen for anemia, but to help determine when and what treatment should be applied.
Team Eyenaemia has the following advice for the Imagine Cup contestants, “Remember that the Imagine Cup is only the beginning of the journey. Always ask yourself, ‘What else can I do to improve?’ Take in the experience and soak up all that advice, even if it is contradictory.”
2015 Imagine Cup Thailand National Finals: World Citizenship 2nd place
Members: Maneerat Wongjaroenporn (Jeaw), Pariwat Tongnussook (Tae), Arnon Boonyapravase (Non), Dhanachai Pinitsava (Bright), Sarunyu Rungtrakoolchai (Fluke)
Description: LenNam is a smartphone app that uses sensor data to determine water quality in shrimp farms.
Four years ago, a 17-year old Maneerat Wongjaroenporn (Jeaw) saw video footage of an Imagine Cup team showcasing a device to help disabled people. The video sparked something inside her, and ever since then, she’s wanted to create technology to help improve her world.
Fast forward to 2015, and Jeaw joined up with three programmers, Sarunyu Rungtrakoolchai (Fluke), Arnon Boonyapravase (Non), and Pariwat Tongnussock (Tae) to form Team Lens and enter Thailand’s Imagine Cup. (The year before, these three programmers competed with an app called LenDin, which uses sensor data that a farmer puts in soil to help analyze its health. They won third place for the app.)
Team Lens created another agricultural app, called LenNam. LenNam is an app that uses sensor data (same sensor as LinDin) from shrimp ponds to help farmers determine the health of their water. Since one of Thailand’s major exports is shrimp, the potential impact on the country could be big.
Jeaw, Tae, and Non recently formed a company they call TechFarm (headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand.) Technology and farming have a long relationship, and TechFarm seeks to extend that relationship into the Internet of Things. TechFarm aims to use LenNam as their first market release, sometime in the next year.
Jeaw loves participating in tech competitions, but not all competitions are alike. She explains how the Imagine Cup stands out. “The Imagine Cup is the only competition that makes you think about the business aspect of your idea – especially funding.”
“After all,” Jeaw laughs, “what good is an awesome app if you can’t sustain it with money?”
TechFarm will use BizSpark to get their business up and running. BizSpark gives startups three years of free stuff – software, service, tech support and Azure cloud services. Startups qualify if they are less than five years old, privately held and earn less than $1 million annually.
Imagine Cup 2007: Software Design Category
Members: Sally Buberman, Ignacio Lopez, Maximiliano Menasches
Description: Virtual Classroom Technology
It’s been eight years since Team Wormhole competed at the Imagine Cup. Now a thriving business located in Argentina, Sally Buberman (CEO) and Ignacio López (CTO) spoke with us about the long road to a viable company.
After the Imagine Cup, the team was worn out. They spent a few weeks resting and digesting the experience, but the period of inactivity didn’t last long. They knew they wanted to launch Wormhole as a business and decided to go for it!
Sally shared, “Beginning a startup in countries like ours, with no venture capital industry and with the economic conditions changing every two days, is always tough.” The team explains to us that they also had to fight some ingrained societal prejudices about startups. Until a business is making money, European culture sometimes sees entrepreneurs as kind of “hippie.”
Like most startups, Wormhole began their journey attempting to raise capital. They went forth and asked for money, relying on much of the pitching and presentation skills they learned at Imagine Cup. But the team simply couldn’t secure funding.
During this frustrating time, the team took another blow. One of their closest friends and cofounding members, Juan Ignacio Frecha, passed away. Heartsick and fatigued, they were nearly defeated and close to quitting.
“We started the company and everything, just the four of us. We were so devastated. We even considered starting a different company. But we decided in the end that the best way to respect his [Juan’s] memory would be to make this thing happen,” said Sally.
And that’s when they shifted gears and stopped focusing so much on raising capital.
Ignacio explains, “You think you need money, that’s completely wrong. You need to be creative and make your product happen.” Although they had no capital to start with, they knew that the best way to generate revenue and win investors was to create the best product possible.
So Sally and Maximilliano kept their day jobs and pooled their money while Ignacio turned the Imagine Cup prototype into a product. Once they were finally satisfied with their software, they had to face another challenge. Selling it.
Finding the right product market fit was tough. Team Wormhole didn’t know who was going to be the customer and what that customer would pay for the software. Pinpointing their customer and price point came only through trial and error.
Their tenacity paid off. Ignacio laughs, “When the same investors that rejected you over and over come up and offer you support, it’s just amazing.”
Sally agrees. “Our company is growing steadily. We are 45 people on the team, based in Argentina and we have just opened our business offices in Medellín, Colombia. We will also be launching in Brazil in the following months. This means creating another 20 jobs in the region by the end of the year. If things go as expected, we will probably open a Series A round in order to accelerate growth and impact in Latin America.”
Imagine Cup World Finals 2014 People’s Choice Award
Members: Amra Buljubasic, Samir Supcic, Ema Begulic, and Hamza Sabljakovic, Mohamed El-Zayat
Description: An edutainment app designed to help students enjoy learning traditionally difficult subjects. This app focuses on Chemistry.
Team Chemicalium is a kind of mothership of startups, birthing three different companies so far.
At the 2014 Imagine Cup, Team Chemicalium won the People’s Choice award with their edutainment app, Chemicalium. The application helps make typically boring subjects fun to learn, in this case, Chemistry. For Chemicalium, the users learn how to interact between chemical elements and how to make bonds through play.
The team returned home from the Imagine Cup to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Amra Buljubašić and Samir Šupčić formed one company (COX 4), and Mohamed Mohamed El-Zayat and Hamza Sabljaković formed another (Four Games Studios).
Samir explains the original idea of COX 4. “We were going to start working on an innovative project involving Kinect, and to be able to finance that, we would outsource half of the time. The outsourcing was not a problem since with the Imagine Cup experience, the clients found us.”
So the company started working on the concept of their Kinect project while also outsourcing their skills. But it wasn’t long before COX 4 was 100 percent about their IT outsourcing. Samir continues, “We grew fast, just after four months we had eight people in the company, and a lot of publicity as a successful young company.”
There was only one problem; they didn’t love it.
Though business was booming, co-founders Amra and Samir were burning out. They simply didn’t find the work rewarding enough to sustain the pace. They worked impossible hours and dealt with clients 100 percent of the time. Programmers need to program! They kept longing for the days of Chemicalium. A few months ago, Samir and Amra decided to leave COX 4 in the capable hands of a third partner to get back to their passion: edutainment apps.
And thus another Team Chemicalium startup was born. Amra and Samir formed giikly to expand on Chemicalium, and build edutainment apps for more subjects. They intend to make these apps connect with each other, so the user has a single sign-on experience and all the course material in one spot. They hope to have a set of apps on the market in a year.
Amra comes to life when she talks about giikly’s dream. “We can’t wait to make apps for math, geography, even computer science. We really want to inspire the younger generation to look at learning as something that is fun. Children find the traditional education in Mostar boring. We want to change this! We see this as a global problem.”
Imagine having fun AND learning theoretical physics!
Last June, just before competing in the Imagine Cup World Finals as part of Team Chemicalium, Mohamed El-Zayat and Hamza Sabljaković formed their own gaming company, Four Game Studios, with another friend Amir Denjo. They decided to join a business incubation program in order to focus on creating awesome games.
After publishing two games that were less successful than they hoped, Mohamed sounds unflappable and determined. “It’s all in how you define success. Sure, everyone wants to be financially viable, but that’s hard. Success for me is not just making money from what you love to do, but more in watching the faces of people as they have fun playing our games. You cannot buy this feeling.”
It turns out starting a gaming company has its own unique challenges. “If you want to get a game to market,” Mohamed explains, “you have really only three choices. You can go find a publisher, you can go find an investor or you can create your own company.”
If you choose the third option, though – you have to kind of hole up for a year to develop something to bring to market. The two programmers agree that this is the hardest part, to somehow survive as a company during the development year.
Microsoft has played a significant role in enabling the company. BizSpark is a perfect fit for startups like Four Games Studios. Mohamed, an academic, admits to knowing absolutely nothing about business. In fact, the first time he heard the term business plan was at the Imagine Cup. BizSpark has removed the burden of that gap in knowledge, and the need for financing bought Four Game Studios more time to “live to code awesome games,” their company mantra.
Fun fact: Last month, Mohamed and Amra became engaged. Samir jokes, “So Imagine Cup can bring people closer than anyone thought!”
We don’t know about you, but reading these stories makes us even more pumped to see what comes out of this year’s Imagine Cup World Finals. Be sure to root for the 11 teams from Asia by tuning into the live webcast of the Imagine Cup World Championship at 12PM PT on July 31 (3AM SGT on 1 Aug)!
This post is originally published on the Microsoft Student Developer Blog on July 22, 2015.