The startup is iShuu Tech. We develop wearable display technologies. This entails combining electronic display physics, microelectronics, wearable form factors, and the software that makes it all work in sync together.
At whom is your startup aimed?
The startup is aimed at both consumers and businesses. Our initial product is the Volvorii Timeless smart shoe. This smart shoe fuses together E Ink technology, custom electronics and software to make shoes whose colors and design patterns can be controlled using a smartphone app. The shoes can be men’s or women’s shoes, high heels or flats. So consumers can access them and businesses can also license our technologies to apply in their own products.
How does your startup stand out against its competitors?
This is an interesting question. I think by virtue of being comprised of different people most startups become unique in their own way. Having said that I think with regards to our startup, we stand out because we swing for the fences. While the shoe end product looks, feels, weighs, is as comfortable and even smells like a conventional shoe, it is the custom display material science and engineering, shoe mechanics, and the merging of these far flung disciplines that makes it so daunting. This explains precisely why you haven’t seen anything quite like this before. Adding LEDs on a shoe or fabric is orders of magnitude simpler. Which explains why most current smart clothing comprises of fabric with LEDs attached to them. On the other hand the ones that have tried to go with other non-emissive displays they have opted for much simpler rigid form factors.
Where did the idea for the startup come from?
The idea took form while I was still in grad school. Pulling it off then would have been a much more serious undertaking as most ingredients were still not as readily accessible or available. I would have had to build a few things from scratch. So my adviser at the time was not impressed by the idea, so I had to shelve it for a while. The sources of inspiration were diverse. For example sci-fi e.g. James Bond’s invisible car and star trek’s cloaking devices. Nature e.g. the chameleon and leaves changing color in fall season. As I was studying display technologies I just couldn’t wait to build some really cool display technologies that would upend what we think of as what displays can do. I guess most grad students feel the same about their field. The hubris of youth and all that. One time I stumbled on some interesting papers when I was just perusing through research papers coming out of MIT Media Labs. That’s the kind of stuff I tend to do when I am bored, I don’t know why. But at that time I had just gotten acquainted with MIT Prof Michael Bove Jr and picked his brain while I was working on a glasses-free 3D cinema display technology. So the excuse was just to see how his research group’s 3D hologram display tech was coming along. But the paper I stumbled upon was not about 3D, it was about mass personalization. What they were talking about made a lot of sense but the technologies and approaches they were mentioning seemed to fall a bit short of the mark. Nike ID, MI Adidas, etc were the examples. But with a solid graduate mastery of display tech I knew it could be better. To do it right it would be challenging of course but it was not impossible, so the pieces were set.
Did you have any concerns when starting your business, if so what were they?
I definitely did, I am sure many do too. I was mostly concerned about building the right team. This is because I had tried to build something before and I had had a hard time of it. It’s a lot harder than it seems, at least that was my experience. These people have to be buy into your dream of a fairy tale chameleon shoes that everyone thinks is impossible. If it’s possible why isn’t Google or Apple doing it already ? That was the sort of skepticism that was harder to address. So you would meet the right talent but they are not buying into it. Or you would meet someone interested but their expertise is seriously lacking in the capacity you need them for. When you are trying to build something so far afield that nobody has seen before, having a solid platform becomes an indispensable tool. So you end up feeling like you always have to drop prior accolades and accomplishments in discussions. That is until you have made enough progress that people begin to see things are taking shape exactly the way you said they would. Eventually I got lucky. I met a couple of guys who had expertise that totally complemented mine and could imagine how we could accomplish it.
What is your business background, and what got you interested in startups?
I interned at a startup while in college one summer. It was exhilarating. I then worked for a startup right out of college. While in both these capacities I was not anywhere near the helm I had a good vantage point. That got me interested in building my own startup or startups some day.
How did you initially raise funding for your company?
We actually haven’t taken any outside funding yet. But we are now looking to do so. We have been approached by three VC firms since our crowdfunding launched 12 days ago.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
It’s really a small one, literally. A few years back I developed this new kind of display pixel called the DMH. The pixel is the first of its kind in the sense that it can display any color without the need for sub pixels. Conventional LCD pixels need 3 sub pixels that get combined to give the full color spectrum. The DMH doesn’t, one sub pixel covers the whole visible spectrum all by itself. Fast forward a few years and Qualcomm is now working on a pixel that can also do the same. These kinds of pixels are very efficient. I know it’s probably far from what you were expecting and also too small to be considered greatest. But the future of displays is headed in the direction of these sort of high efficient low power pixels that are like e-paper but in vivid full color and capable of video refresh rates. So their impact can’t be felt quite yet. However to stay competitive in the wearable display field we are in we will need to stay ahead of the curve.
How have you kept your business relevant and engaged with your audience over the last three years?
Thus far the best way we have found to work for us has been to make sure we first stay aware of the trends but simultaneously avoid the echo chamber effect. Avoiding the echo chamber was critical in staying relevant and fresh for our audience. This has allowed us to zero in on a wearable tech that’s distinctly a degree apart from most. While activity tracking capabilities are backed in our hardware, they are not the high lights at all. And this was deliberate. Kind of like the way Apple just decided to remove the keyboard from the first iPhone. It didn’t mean that you couldn’t use the keyboard, you just didn’t need it to take that much fixed real estate on your smartphone all the time.
How long has your business been in making, and who is the team behind the business?
The business has been in full operational mode since 2014. The core team consists of me, Dan Tian [Bluetooth guy], Mark Willner [COO], George Melnik [CTO], Jusheng Ren [Hardware guy], Jane Yang [Marketing & Shoe Critic]
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Um I would go for the biggest one lately because they are always big when you are a startup. Anything left unattended or one wrong step could spell disaster. So for lately it has been letting go, and finally launch our Crowdfunding campaign. I knew it was going to be a lot of sleepless nights and all the chaos that comes with not being unable to predict human behavior in different time zones. So I had this plan that I would make sure I am totally mentally undistracted first then launch. But no such luck, as soon as I thought I was about to hit zen state something would always come up that needed immediate attention. So I just had to let go and push the red button and work with the situations as they come.
In the coming year, what would you like to achieve with your business?
In our coming year we would like to have all our pre-orders shipped. Then by the end of the year have at least a few retailers carrying our smart shoes, either our brand or our partners’.
What has been your most valuable lesson so far since starting your business?
Sometimes it’s the smallest of decisions that make the biggest impact. Case in point, I decided to take over the menial role of answering all our crowdfunding campaign contribution emails and thank our backers individually. It could have been done in one mass email of course but I was grateful they supported us so I wanted to know who these kind people were. Then one morning a name that I quickly recognized showed up on my screen. It was the president of E Ink Corp. himself he had just placed a pre-order of our smart shoe. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I doubt if I had not taken the time to read each message I would have noticed. I quickly penned a very personal thank you message giving him all the due respect a great leader in the displays industry deserves. He quickly wrote back, congratulating us on an innovative product like no other on the market and offered E Ink’s full support to make sure our product became a fantastic reality. One thing led to another and now we already signing cooperation papers. Now the question is, if we do not meet our crowdfunding goal, would it still be as bad ? Or did we already reach higher than the crowdfunding goal could ever have given us? You be the judge. All from one very small decision.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking about starting a business, what would it be?
Insist on relentlessly pursuing quality output of every stage of your product development. It’s very painful and it messes up with your carefully planned time frames to reach milestones, especially in hardware. But getting it right the first time pays off in spades down the road.