Pittsburgh’s startup scene is flourishing. Local entrepreneurs, founders, developers, designers, investors, mentors, accelerators and incubators are working together to help dream and create new promising ideas.
One of the most promising startups making a buzz in Pittsburgh is SolePower, an energy-generating shoe insert that charges portable electronics, like your cell phone, as you walk. We sat down with Hahna Alexander, co-founder and CTO of SolePower, who received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon, at their workspace in TechShop to learn more about their product, where the idea came from, and their Kickstarter (which ends July 18 so donate now!).
We’re creating power-generating shoe insoles so you can charge your phone, or any other portable electronic that can be charged off a computer, while you walk. The idea right now is to start with outdoor enthusiasts, like hikers, campers, backpackers, anyone that’s off the grid for a while, and the goal is to get a full iPhone charge after 2.5-3 miles of hiking. In the average walking distance in a day, the idea is you can have a full phone charge at the end of the day, when your phone usually runs out of battery power.
Obviously, there’s applications in lots of other areas. Anywhere that someone doesn’t have access to reliable power and walks a lot, this can be really useful. A really good application is in developing nations where people will walk 5-6 miles just to charge a phone, so there’s a huge need there for power. Hopefully, we can fulfill that need.
We have 6 people working here over the summer. Myself and Matt Stanton [CEO and co-founder] graduated with Mechanical Engineering degrees from Carnegie Mellon. We’re focusing on the mechanisms and power generation side of development. Elliot Kahn is our first full-time hire. He’s a UC Berkeley Electrical Engineer who has experience developing these types of circuits. He’s working with Adam Pinson, who is our EE intern this summer, to design the battery pack for charging portable electronics. Overall we have a very strong development team and have been able to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.
5 out of 6 went to school here in Pittsburgh, and our mentors are all from Pittsburgh too. We have the best mentors ever because we went into AlphaLab.
How they came up with the idea
Matt, my cofounder, and I started it at Carnegie Mellon as our senior design project. We basically decided to turn down job offers after the summer and founded a company. The design prompt in class was to figure out a way to develop a product that solves a problem that students face. We thought of a lot of really crappy ideas at first and our professor was like “those are terrible, come up with something else,” in a day, basically.
Matt had this power-generating shoe idea in the back of his head. He said “guys, let’s do this” and we said “sounds good, we have no other options.” The original idea was to put lights on your shoes so cars don’t hit students walking home at night and you can see where you’re going.
But then we said, “what powers the light?” You don’t want to have to constantly worry about switching out batteries because it’s supposed to be a convenience and safety thing, not an obnoxious thing. We made this functional prototype for a way to actually generate power to charge the light. We then realized that idea was more universal and more applicable to many things than the light in the shoe.
Working at TechShop, a do-it-yourself manufacturing co-working space
At TechShop, we just make everything. Usually, if you have to prototype something and you’re not really sure it’s going to work, you come up with a couple of designs, then you export it to a professional prototyper. It will cost you about $5000. On a startup budget, that’s not feasible, plus it will take maybe a month or two to make these parts. If you’re trying to work really fast and iterate, then that’s not a good thing.
TechShop is really great because we can come in and figure out what works and doesn’t work in the beginning by making it ourselves. When you actually make things, you intrinsically understand what is going to work and what is not. When you’re designing it and have an idea in your head, if you can’t actually make it then it doesn’t matter how good the idea is. Having the ability to come here and figure out how a professional person would make it helps you reduce costs and make better decisions. It’s really, really important.
Our prototype was made in the metal shop on an automated machine. Basically you design it in software, then the machine codes it to know how to move the drill bit. It will do it for you so you don’t have to worry about tolerances and human error and things like that. We’ve also did parts on lasers, we did a part on the electronics bench, and we’ve casted some gears on the ovens in the back.
Why Kickstarter rocks (and why they need people to donate!)
It’s a crowdfunding site. People can log into the site, pre-order your products, or decide to get rewards for certain levels of monetary support. You can say “hey look, I have 100 people who want to buy my product,” which is great for investment. Basically, you set a goal. Ours is $50,000. You try to push it to the media, try to get people interested and to sign up and support you. If you make over $50k, you get everything; if you get less, you get nothing. So it’s a gamble. There’s a lot of strategy which goes into it, which is fun.
Kickstarter is cool because you can basically gather capital and pre-orders. Essentially that counts as revenue, which is something that’s really good if you’re trying to raise more money in the future.
The actual production of SolePower’s insole
We have a lot of pre-orders, so it’s very unlikely we’ll make the final product ourselves. Instead we’ll have tooling for our components made. This includes dies, cutters, and other equipment necessary to make the insole and the embedded device on a larger scale.
It’s not necessarily unfeasible to produce everything in the US, but we’re not to the development stage where we need to make final manufacturing decisions.
We started in last May. We founded in September and we were doing our Master’s at the same time, so we were doing full-time Master’s and full-time on this, and not sleeping and it was awful. In January, we entered AlphaLab.
In terms of getting the product done, our pre-orders say December 2014; ideally we’ll get it out the year before that. I definitely think we can get the smaller units, like the testing ones, out before that. But in terms of how long it takes to do tooling, it’s a couple months and we can’t control that.
Similar things other companies are doing
There’s other energy-harvesting footwear companies but we have a couple unique things about us. A company in Boston is doing a micro-fluid system, which is basically really small chambers with ionized fluid that I think they’re running through sets of magnets. Reverse-electrowetting uses a microfludic system to move liquid through very thin dielectric films to generate the energy. The system is being built into the sole of a shoe, not an insole. It also has greater manufacturing barriers.
The difference between ours and everybody else’s idea is that we’re building it into an insole, the idea being that you don’t have to buy a particular pair of shoes to use it. You can just buy one insole and then swap it. The actual mechanism itself is OEM-friendly [basically once it’s developed, it’s easy for another company to buy it and implement into their own product] so we can sell it to a boot manufacturer if we wanted to and they could build it into their sole. That gives us more versatility on the business front. We also only use mechanical components, while they’re using lab-intensive fabrication processes. Their scale-up is going to be much more intense than ours, so hopefully we’ll require a lot less capital.
Another is piezoelectrics, a material that when you compress it, causes stress which induces a current. The material itself is the energy generation component. You’ll be able to embed it in floors and when you walk, it will power lights. It’s really expensive and still in the research stage, but that will be the next greatest thing in terms of road technology.