NYU ITP Pitchfest #5: Antidotes to a Technical Culture

5th Annual NYU ITP Pitchfest 2015

Design for self assembly. Connected jewelry for brilliant moments. A replacement for wasteful packaging. Assistive Kitchen tools. Apps for enhancing relationships and serendipitous encounters. Discovery and peer review apps for emerging performing arts. It may be possible for technology innovation to more genuinely connect us to each other.

Red at NYU eLab

Each year at the NYU ITP Pitchfest, a workshop series and Pitch event to leading investors in NYC, we witness an emerging group of digital technologists and artists who explore antidotes to what technical culture has wrought. They have grown with the unintended consequences of perpetual innovation – social media sites that make us more lonely, on demand food services that rely on large volumes of packaging, wearable that distract us and vibrate but create no deeper meaning, knowledge, or connection.

The students skip over the obvious “pain points” and dive deeply into the unmet latent needs that are deeply submerged and underserved by tech quick fixes and distraction apps.

Once they emerge from their first or second year at ITP exploring the imaginative use of communications technologies, Pitchfest encourages students to think of the projects ambitiously. We ask all participants to determine their purpose – why they are driven to do this work and their personal story that motivates them to pursue their vision. We encourage a deep dive customer discovery exercise to test their assumptions and business model hypotheses, and a storytelling exercise to communicate their vision. By telling a story with a vision that is clear enough, compelling enough, and big enough, they have the chance to attract the right people and resources.

Here was this year’s lineup of ideas that need to exist in the world:

Handled! by Zoe Logan

User-informed design approaches for assistive kitchen tools

Empowering differently abled users to access the pleasure of cooking

A graduating ITP student, Zoe developed the first in a series of kitchen tools as part of her thesis project. Zoe has a history in designing, building and prototyping but was motivated to develop assistive technology objects through her experiences at the Ability Lab at NYU. The series includes a stabilizing cutting board and adaptive modular handles for enhancing existing kitchen utensils. From Zoe’s personal statement: “Assistive technology…seems like a field with enormous potential for developing objects that can be interesting and well designed while actually making an impact on a user’s experience and that is important to me.” The designs are available for download-to-3D print on Thingiverse, and Zoe intends to conduct further research before commercializing her series of products.

Learn more about Zoe’s project and view her ITP thesis.

Download Handled at Thingiverse

Download Handled at Thingiverse

Luma Legacy: Alina Balean and Karol Munoz

Smart jewelry for every brilliant moment

Alina and Karol are entrepreneurs exploring the concept of smart jewelry. Their team observed that jewelry always comes embedded with a story. When Karol traveled through Europe with her family, her mother collected charms in each city as a memento. Karol careful curated her photos and comments to a close circle of friends (often far away from Facebook, which reserved for more impersonal updates). Luma Legacy seeks to create smart jewelry that connects digital storytelling the relationships in our lives. For each charm purchased, the owner or gift giver can create a digital story, accessible in a companion app, that is unlocked at a future time, or in a future location determined by GPS. The team have graduated from ITP, and Luma is actively looking for support to launch their first piece.

Get updates about the Luma progress from their website.

Learn about Luma in an early incarnation as a necklace for Alina’s thesis project.

Foodprint: Shaun Axani

Replacing wasteful packaging with a cyclical system for the on demand food economy

Foodprint is a return to the old fashioned milk bottle. Shaun and team have identified a critical fault in the on demand food economy: the huge amount of paper, plastic, and hauling energy required to deliver food direct to the home. If you’ve ever ordered Fresh DIrect, or experimented with new services like Blue Apron, you may have noticed the boxes and plastic containers required. The team aims to make and distribute a deposit-based system of reusable eco-friendly containers, and sell directly to grocery services and restaurants to offer customers an alternative to wasteful packaging.

Shaun is entering his second year at ITP, and will be further exploring the Foodprint concept. Follow Shaun’s work on his personal website.

4 App: Yu Ji

An app for people living in metropolitan areas or who are new to a specific space to explore and start building connections in real life.

Yu Ji created 4 app to experiment in new way of interaction and connection. 4 works as an icebreaker, it helps people to smile, say hi and potentially start building connections/friendships with strangers in real life. For those that have tried other location-proximity-based social networks like Highlight that exposed too many people, too soon, 4 App explores how this interaction could better mirror actual relationship building. After downloading the app, you receive notifications when you pass by another user, but their identities are progressively revealed over time.

After three interactions when you cross each other’s paths, you’ll be given a chance to message the person in real time, and meet in real time, or forever lose the opportunity to say hello in person.

See how 4 App works in this video.

4App – 4 Connecting Strangers from Yu Ji on Vimeo.

4 App is pending iOS app store release sign up here for updates.

ReStage: Stream Gao and Elena S.

Creating a community for events within the performing arts that are underserved

Stream and Elena are dance performing arts students who seek out the sub-genres of dance and the performing arts that are not well covered by the mainstream old guard media publications of New York. They both recognize the time and complexity involved in being an active fan and supporter of certain dance companies and other performing arts. They triangulate multiple websites, ticket sales sites, and are left to leave their own reviews in awkward places like TripAdvisor and Ticketmaster. Stream and Elena envision a supportive app-based community that supports dance performance companies, and creates a place for performing arts enthusiasts to quickly uncover emerging companies, and support a more diverse ecosystem of the arts.

Follow Stream’s work as a digital performance artists on her website.

Feel.me: Oryan Inbar, Chang Liu

Emotional interpretation of your chats and messages – bring back what we’ve lost – from body language, tone of voice, to the rhythm of words.

Oryan and Change speak English as a second language, and felt they had to learn text as a third language when they moved to NY. They spend most of their time communicating to friends and family through chat and messaging apps, and seek to find a better way to express themselves and understand how their messages are received. Feel.me is an app that uses color as the background message buble to express emotions as the new text interface. Over time, you will be able to look back and graphically visualize relationships to see how the pattern and behaviors emerge.

Oryan and Chang are first year students moving into their second year, and they plan to further explore their early prototype.

Keep in touch with Oryan and Chang on their websites.

Self Assembly Architecture Toys: Alejandro Puentes

Complex concepts and systems learned through playful encounters

Alejandro grew up on Tinker Toys, then Legos, and became an architect. At ITP he became interested in design for self-assembly and systems thinking, and he developed multiple prototype design tools to understand how these systems work. See Alejandro’s mesmerizing fractals self assembling in a bowl:

Alejandro will explore creating these design building blocks for the STEM learning market, selling to parents and educators who want children to explore concepts not easily taught within existing disciplines of thought: complexity, anti fragility, systems thinking, and self-organizing systems. As Alejandro would say – the FUTURE of EVERYTHING.

Stay in touch with Alejandro’s progress on his website.

A huge thanks to our supportive investor critics this year: Adaora Udoji, Ryan Jacoby and Frank Rimalovski.

Thanks all who came to our fifth annual ITP Pitchfest, our mentors this year John Bachir and Michael Krasnodebski, and to ITP for promoting and sponsoring, our mentors John and to the NYU eLab for hosting us.


NYU ITP Pitchfest Workshop 1

June 1: 2015

Why we do this

Get an audience outside of the cozy world of ITP Thesis feedback

Respond to genuine interest from investors

Help you understand how to launch ideas that just need to exist in the world

Which means we’ve expanded our aim – we are not just seeking high growth, high scale companies.

We welcome everyone that has a compelling concept

What we need from you


Know why you are driven to do this.


Know what drives you? Are you trying to control your own destiny? Or build the biggest thing that you can build? Or pay off your loans as soon as possible?

Vision. Vision First.

If it is clear enough and compelling enough it will attract the right people and resources.

If it is clear enough and compelling enough AND BIG ENOUGH it will attract the SCALE AND IMPACT-SEEKING people and resources (VCs, angels, future partners and team members)


How we get ready


June 1: First pitch. No visual aids. Concept review.

June 8: Purpose

June 15: Business model fun

June 17: PITCH

Whether or not you are seeking a scalable opportunity – spend the next few days going over investor pitch deck recommendations:


Cooley Co

Polaris (links to the first Foursquare pitch)

New York Angels Criteria

For lots of examples PitchEnvy

All will require you to know who your customer is. Talk to 10 per week for the next 2.5 weeks. (25 total). If you do not know how to do this, read Talking to Humans. It’s free.
Inspirational: Two Dots a Year Later

“What’s particularly great about the increase in revenue, is our team found a way to make money while sticking to our values, ensuring we’re always keeping our players’ interests and overall “fun” of the game front and center. Instead of looking for a quick win, we’re working to build our business and revenue responsibly by adding content and features that players (hopefully) find valuable enough to buy.”

Selling Science: Applying Lean at the NSF I-Corps

Published at the NYU Entrepreneurs Blog Part 1 and Part 2. —

Lessons Learned at the NSF’s I-Corps for Learning program:

“Parents didn’t even know what STEM was, nor STEAM!” exclaimed a conference participant.

Similar concerns could be heard from many of the academic and entrepreneurial educators this April, streaming out of the San Francisco Marriott after their first few days in windowless meeting rooms and actually talking to parents – their potential customers.

These would-be entrepreneurs were all grantees participating in a two month-long funded Lean LaunchPad course, developed by Steve Blank and run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the Innovation Corps for Learning (NSF I-Corps L) program. The goal of the program is to vet their educational ideas for sustainability and/or scale.

Lean methods have been embraced as a near religion in some startup circles, and is perceived to be the ideal method for driving potential unicorn-sized high growth market opportunities. Now the NSF is banking on Lean LaunchPad for social impact ideas to find their greatest impact.

The goal of NSF I-Corps for Learning is to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization, greater scale and impact of STEM education, and learning innovations. The limited adoption and quality of STEM education is considered a crisis by the Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). In response, the NSTC has developed a five-year strategic plan to address the US’s low ranking in STEM education and lack of skilled STEMdino workers.

I attended the NSF’s I-Corps L program as a mentor on an NYU team – Cognitive Toy Box – as I was curious to see how Lean LaunchPad works on social impact challenges.

I’ve participated in the adoption of the Lean LaunchPad method within NYU. NYU’s Entrepreneurship Institute has been a lead proponent of adopting Lean LaunchPad curricula in the Summer LaunchPad accelerator and supporting educators across NYU to prototype the course. I have had the privilege of teaching the first for-credit class at NYU at Tisch’s ITP program in 2014, which continues this year as we support a new batch of student teams to find their market potential.

There are a number of parallels in how the NSF teaches Lean LaunchPad and how we have adopted the curricula at NYU ITP. Because ITP is an engineering school in an art school, students are encourage to explore pre-commercial ideas and often struggle when they start to think of their concepts, projects, and potential businesses.

Most of the teams participating in NSF I-Corps L program faced a similar struggle – did their idea have the potential to be a scalable business, or even deliver a sustainable source of recurring revenue? What organizational structure would best propel their educational innovation? Where should they focus their efforts so that their innovation could achieve maximal social impact? Does the team have what it takes to pursue their innovation? While these questions may seem crazy to a Bay Area creator of the next wearable, dating app, or cloud-based big data analytics solution, they are deeply relevant to educators who are motivated not by profit potential, but by educational impact.

Part 2:

Customer Discovery Divines Sustainable vs. Scale Potential

In the first week indoctrination to Lean LaunchPad, the 24 teams in I-Corps L were encouraged to change their approach for how to scale curricula and teaching method innovations, under the relentlessly direct feedback of fellow Ed-Tech entrepreneurs, VCs, NSF advisors, and the Lean LaunchPad creators, Steve Blank and Jerry Engel. Each team, a triad consisting of an academic principal investigator, an entrepreneurial lead, and a mentor, were charged with taking their initial learning innovation and finding customers – fast. “Get out of the building” to discover potential customers.

The Customer Discovery approach is well suited to answer the question of scalable vs. sustainable. Most academic educators share the same bias as tech founders who fall in love with their solution without ever talking to more than a few potential customers. Customer Discovery forces the team out of the comfort zone of academic hierarchy and challenges the egos of the team, who are deeply humbled when they first try to sell their solution.

Almost every team had defined the STEM crisis as the “hair on fire” problem they were motivated to solve, and were shocked to learn a quick sample of parents at Union Square in SF, or the Exploratorium museum, had never heard of STEM or STEAM. The creators of an after school STEM curricula learned that a highly educated high income parent would pay a premium for these kinds of programs, but then the educators were disappointed that launching with this segment would delay their ability to reach students of all incomes.

Those teams that were successful in repositioning their value proposition to appeal to a potentially larger addressable market were on to a more scalable innovation. For example, a number of after school curricula creators learned that they shouldn’t be headlining their value proposition with the STEM crisis. After deeply listening to families of all incomes and educational advancement status, they learned that there were common themes for how parents described their deepest needs. More important than science, or design thinking, or engineering methods, these parents want the benefits these methods have to offer.

Parents want their children to develop team-building skills, collaboration skills, discovery and joy in learning, and reduce their fear of failure.

There is a huge addressable market in a society that seeks these outcomes. Recasting the value proposition based on these outcomes of learning, rather than the curricula itself, worked to expand the market.

Other teams confirmed potential sustainability rather than scalability. Defining how a certain curriculum or program could replicate within a local school system, or to other school systems. While these project teams were unlikely to see a hockey stick style growth curve in their future, they are well equipped to envision how their innovation can move beyond their initial experiments.

At the end of the program, the NSF has a particularly open stance to what becomes of the project team innovations.

The outcomes of the projects are expected to be:

  • A clear go-no go decision concerning the viability and effectiveness of the learning oriented resources/products, practices and services
  • An implementation “product” and process for potential partners/adopters
  • A transition plan to move the effort forward and bring the innovation to scale.

The prize for participation for academic entrepreneurs is high: The I-Corps programs feed the popular NSF Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Tech Transfer Programs (SBIR and STTR), and successful businesses can earn multiple non-dilutive grants that rival seed or Series A investments.

NSF is very comfortable telling STEM educator / entrepreneurs that it’s ok to fail once you’ve gathered enough evidence that your project isn’t viable. At the start of the program, teams were assured that a decision to not continue a program is completely acceptable. Teams move to no-go when they learn the steep uphill climb it would take to scale their innovation, because they are too early, there is too much competition, or they are not cost effective enough to deliver in the current market environment. Teams also choose no go when the individuals involved decide that entrepreneurship is just not their calling.

What I learned from the experience in the end: parents want for their children what the NSF wants from educator entrepreneurs: learning how to take risks, collaborate, and reduce our fear of failure, and the joy of discovery.