Good Life

Crowdfunding, Indiegogo gaining popularity with college startups

Penn State junior Yash Date, left, listens as mechanical intern Andy Bruce describes the voz box during the Project Vive launch party Monday at Happy Valley Launchbox.
Penn State junior Yash Date, left, listens as mechanical intern Andy Bruce describes the voz box during the Project Vive launch party Monday at Happy Valley Launchbox.

Some like to click. Others prefer to tap.

Arlyn Edelstein presses, holds for a second, then releases.

The emotion of poetry takes time. For Edelstein, a poet who has nonverbal cerebral palsy, the motion of it does, too.

“We did two different sensors with her in the beginning,” said Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, the scientist who is working with Edelstein to develop a device worthy of Disney magic. “The first one, which was this really cool insert into her shoe that was bluetooth enabled and that she could just tap her toe with, she actually didn’t like at all. She didn’t like having it in her shoe.”

But there are no glass slippers here, just comfortable orthotics. Those and the Voz Box, a personal speech assistant that has allowed Edelstein to perform her poetry for the first time. Controlled by a foot pedal attached to her wheelchair, the Voz Box amplifies Edelstein’s words via a bluetooth speaker. Using her foot to click through menus, she selects phrases as simple as saying her name to the more complex sentences used in her poetry.

Edelstein has a way with words. She’s glad others can now hear them.

“I am here giving a poetry reading,” she said to open her performance in September. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity of having people hear my words.”

The feat was the product of several rounds of testing, and a fluid back-and-forth between poet and scientist. McCulloch, the founder of the device’s developer Project Vive, recalled how each device, like its user, was distinct. It had to be.

“We’re building our toolbox with the ways we customize it,” said McCulloch, who graduated from Penn State in May. “So once someone gets an evaluation, you don’t have to all do it the same way.”

There are other Ariels, or Arlyns, looking for the chance to speak. Project Vive, a startup still in its relative infancy, has plans to expand the Voz Box’s adaptive technology to places like Ecuador and Sri Lanka, McCulloch said, with relationships already being built around Pennsylvania.

But first, it’s starting small. On Monday, the team launched its first crowdfunding campaign: 10 days, 10 potential users, a $10,000 goal. As of Thursday, McCulloch’s crew had raised $7,590 from 58 people — or a little more than three quarters of its objective.

They joined a growing body of entrepreneurs using Indiegogo, the popular crowdfunding platform that recently allowed users to offer equity to investors. The site is the first to take advantage of the new securities rule that lets anyone invest $2,000 a year or more for a stake in the company.

“Now by offering these services, it makes it easier for people to raise money for what matters to them,” an Indiegogo spokesperson said. “Before only accredited investors who met a certain wealth requirement could invest, but now this kind of levels the playing field and opens it up to a whole new group of people.”

Previously, only those making $200,000 or more a year could put money into private companies, the bulk of which remain high-risk, high-reward propositions. According to Gallup, half of new U.S. businesses fail within the first five years.

But for the plucky and precocious — such as a college startup like Project Vive — turning to the internet for help is second nature.

“A lot of people are interested in Indiegogo because they’re not just paying for products,” McCulloch, 24, said. “But they kind of have this mission of letting people participate in your dream and in your passion.”

Alex Patin, 20, agrees. He is the co-founder of Musical Minds, which is developing brainwave-sensing headphones to harmonize one’s mood with music, and the year-old startup has already received evaluations of around $900,000. While most of the team’s funding has so far come from competitions and grants, Patin said they’re seeking to scale up production of their headphones. For that, he added, Indiegogo is a snug fit.

“We’re probably going to take a middle ground because we want to bootstrap a little,” he said. “Across the board, Indiegogo tends to be safer for tech startups like ours.”

Patin, a Penn State junior, said Musical Minds plans on launching its campaign during the spring semester.

Like McCulloch’s team, Patin’s originally planned on using Kickstarter, which remains the largest project crowdfunding site, but found more flexibility with Indiegogo’s model. He said there was less risk: Indiegogo users have the option to keep the funds raised even if the initial goal is not reached.

On both platforms, though, there have been a mix of successes and failures. Yet ultimately, crowdfunding itself is taking off. According to Indiegogo’s 2015 year-end report, more than $800 million has been raised for “creative, entrepreneurial and cause-related projects” on the platform. A spokesperson for the company said that total has since surpassed $1 billion. Kickstarter, meanwhile, reports more than 115,000 projects have been successfully funded through its site with more than $2.7 billion pledged.

Colleges are hopping on board. Penn State, for instance, plans on launching its own crowdfunding site open to students and faculty in January. Geoff Hallett, the school’s assistant director of annual giving, said the university has tested the initiative for a couple of years, conducting 22 campaigns that raised about $175,000 total.

“We’ve seen a little bit of everything,” Hallett said. “It really is the student or faculty member taking ownership of the idea.”

For a startup like Project Vive, letting others have a voice in that idea is part of the team’s success. It just takes a few taps on a screen.

So far, 63 people have reached out to McCulloch’s team about being fitted, or for a family member who needs the Voz Box.

“Crowdfunding has been in the back of my mind for a while,” she said. “Arlyn has really helped us in more ways than sharing her story, but also by offering her feedback on our device and this project as a whole. We just felt like now was the time to do it.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy