Meet the IEEE Members Behind Five of Today’s Hottest Startups

Their companies are at the cutting edge of robotics, connected cars, and mind-controlled technology

11 September 2015

This article is part of our September 2015 special report on startups, which highlights IEEE’s efforts to attract more entrepreneurial types to the organization.

IEEE members are at the forefront of many emerging areas of new technology, including robotics, the Internet of Things, and devices for neurological research. Some members have already turned their ideas into successful companies.

  • MIND CONTROL

    If you attended the Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas and stopped at the IEEE booth, you may have noticed people moving race cars just by thinking about it. Wearing electroencephalography (EEG) headsets like the one above and concentrating on the task, two people at a time would propel toy race cars down parallel tracks, drag race–style.

    The brain behind the headsets is IEEE Member Tan Le. She is cofounder of Emotiv, the company that developed Epoc, the EEG headset. It has five sensors that detect brain waves and transmit data wirelessly to a PC. The headset can be used not just to move objects but also to track the wearer’s brain activity. It can measure levels of attention, focus, excitement, stress, and relaxation. Over time, patterns in the data could help doctors detect the onset of dementia and similar disorders. The headset has been sold for US $399 in more than 90 countries.

    Le told National Geographic magazine she wants to keep the price down so the headset is accessible to researchers everywhere: “I want to leverage the creativity of researchers in mathematics, statistics, data mining, computer science, biology, and medicine, as well as the general public,” she says, adding, “The brain is the cornerstone of virtually every facet of our lives. I wish we knew more.”

  • NURTURING NEW IDEAS

    It takes much more than a good idea to create a successful startup. You need the right people: not just business partners but mentors and investors willing to take a risk on your product. And, of course, you need a physical space to start your business.

    IEEE Member Jessica Colaço is well aware of entrepreneurs’ needs. She’s the director of partnerships at iHub, a workspace in Nairobi, Kenya, that technologists, investors, young entrepreneurs, designers, market researchers, and programmers can use to develop what they have in mind. The company provides budding entrepreneurs with Internet access and matches them with local businesses and mentors. It can also help connect them with venture capitalists.

    Colaço courts investors to fund iHub members’ tech ideas and companies at the concept stage, before a product even materializes. She says iHub is well placed: “Nairobi is becoming a major technological hub in East Africa. Young Africans are getting trained there to acquire the skills they need to compete globally.”

  • GO FETCH

    Ordering items online and getting them delivered to your door the next day is a luxury that many of us enjoy. But those items often have been sitting in huge warehouses—some, like Amazon’s, take up more than 90,000 square meters. There, logistics workers, or “pickers,” have the exhausting job of running around the building to retrieve items that have been ordered. It can be difficult to keep up.

    Enter Fetch Robotics, cofounded by IEEE Member Melonee Wise. Its pair of robots, Fetch and Freight, work in tandem to navigate warehouses and fulfill orders. Fetch, a one-armed, wheeled, autonomous robot, finds items on the shelf and loads them onto Freight, an autonomous delivery cart. With an extendable spine, Fetch can reach shelves up to 2 meters high. Freight moves the picked items to another part of the warehouse, where human workers pack them for shipment. The company has also developed Follow Pick, a mobile app for workers to track orders and locate or control any robot or even a fleet of robots, if the company has several.

    Fetch Robotics launched in February and began shipping its products in June. It started with a dozen employees, but Wise told IEEE Spectrum she expects the staff to double by this month. “If there are developers and roboticists out there looking for ‘funemployment’ with robots, I welcome them to apply,” she says.

  • CONNECTED VEHICLES

    You’ve heard of the Internet of Things—a network of items, each embedded with sensors, that is connected to the Internet. But what about the Internet of Moving Things?

    IEEE Senior Member João Barros is behind the idea, in which vehicles connected wirelessly to the Internet act as a network of moving sensors. His company, Veniam, developed NetRider, a device installed in a vehicle that transmits its location, traffic information, and other data about its surroundings to the cloud. It also offers passengers a Wi-Fi connection while they travel—in essence, a mobile hotspot.

    In Porto, Portugal, Veniam has equipped more than 600 vehicles, including a fleet of some 400 passenger buses, with NetRider, providing Internet access to more than 90,000 commuters each month. The company is installing vehicular networks in Barcelona and Singapore and hopes to deploy NetRider in the United States this year, Barros says.

    He urges entrepreneurs to use their time wisely. “Every single decision about how you spend your time can determine whether your venture succeeds or fails,” he says.

  • TIME TO UNWINE

    You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur to enjoy a glass at the end of the day. That’s the idea behind unWine, a mobile app that educates users about wines and encourages them to post reviews of ones they’ve tasted. The app was developed by IEEE members Devon Ryan and Fabio Gomez. In 2013 they cofounded the software development company Lion Mobile.

    Ryan says the app is geared toward young people who want to learn more about wine or simply have fun without being intimidated by experts or sophisticated lingo. Gomez and Ryan met in a programming class at the University of Texas, San Antonio, where they graduated with bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

    Ryan represents the IEEE Young Professionals group on the IEEE-USA Board of Directors. He says the struggles associated with being his own boss have brought out his creativity. “It’s such a huge challenge starting something from nothing that it will force you to reach deep inside and bring out your best ideas,” he tells The Institute. “Even if your company doesn’t turn a profit right away, you benefit from the challenge alone.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Ready to Launch.”

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