Oct 28, 2009
While studying as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, Vincent Sethiwan would dream of ideas for technology-based inventions. He often exchanged these ideas with his friend Kevin Chia, an exchange student from Singapore Management University, which offers a fast-track masters program in partnership with Heinz College's School of Information Systems and Management. One idea was to put RFID tags in clothes found in retail clothing stores so customers could match clothes, such as shirts and pants, ties and shirts, and skirts and blouses.
RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are a technology similar to bar coding, but instead of visual scanning, a tag reader can detect a tag within a given proximity. The range of proximity with RFID is much greater, and the information associated with the RFID tag is much richer than that of bar codes. The students imagined that a tag reader would detect the clothes they had on in the fitting room, and suggest other wardrobe combinations. This concept would provide valuable to both the buyer and clothing store.
“The scope was way too big for our junior year project,” explained Sethiwan. “But last year I spoke to my (Heinz College) entrepreneurship professor, Babs Carryer, and she introduced us to the Keith Block Entrepreneurship Fund.”
The fund supports proposals for entrepreneurial information systems projects developed by Heinz College graduate students. The winners of the competition receive $3,000 plus mentorship and support from faculty, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. The project is designed to help students get from idea to reality.
After learning about the funding available through the competition, the team reworked their idea into a practical business application. “We had to show people that this idea will increase retail sales and generate profits,” explains Jonathan Ma, the third member to join the team.
The team's business concept, “Smart.Mirror,” envisions placing RFID sensors next to mirrors at clothing retailers. The sensors recognize clothing items that the shoppers are trying on in front of the mirror and suggest accessories and related clothing options using a touch screen adjacent to the mirror.
“It’s similar to amazon.com suggestions. It’s a real-time personal shopper. We’re bringing that type of feature to a brick and mortar store,” says Sethiwan.
Sethiwan, Chia, and Ma wrote up a business proposal and presented their idea to the fund organizers. The competition was fierce, but the team’s creative idea was rewarded and the trio has been working on the project ever since.
The group eventually recruited Carolyn Fu and Philip Croul, two classmates from the Master of Information Systems Management program at Heinz College. After the summer break, the fully-formed team received a second round of funding from the Block award and began developing their prototype and refining their business plan.
“One of our advisors told us that our project would look much more viable if we had a beta test partner for our proposal,” said Sethiwan. So the team walked door-to-door in local commercial districts in search of actual merchants with whom to test their product. Eventually, the group found Charles Spiegel, a men’s clothing store based in Pittsburgh. “They’ve been very supportive of us,” says Sethiwan.
The team has also been lucky to have access to the research network of their professors and advisors. They also met with an RFID specialist from Wright State University.
“He connected us with an RFID vendor and we bought a reader, antennae, and tags to build our prototype,” says Sethiwan. The team has been hard at work testing the RFID and touch screen technology.
In addition to the Keith Block Entrepreneurship Fund, Smart.Mirror is receiving help from Project Olympus, a campus-wide initiative housed in the School of Computer Science that provides start-up advice, micro-grants, incubator space and business connections for students and faculty members with commercially promising ideas.
The team is excited to turn their project into an actual business, and the timing might be perfect for Smart.Mirror.
“The prices of RFID tags and scanning equipment has gone way down, so our concept is more and more commercially viable,” said Ma.
The team turned Smart.Mirror into their Information Systems capstone project for the fall, 2009 and they are continuing to develop the ideas as students until they graduate in December. Afterwards, the team hopes to take advantage of AlphaLab, a state-funded business incubator created by Innovation Works.
“They give financial support to entrepreneurial startups in the technology sector,” said Croul. “They provide temporarily office space and internet access, so we see this as the next stepping stone in turning this into an actual product.”
The Smart.Mirror project is proof positive that the Keith Block Entrepreneurship Fund is sparking innovation and entrepreneurship at Heinz College.
For more information about Heinz College's Master of Information Systems Management program, or the Keith Block Entrepreneurship Fund, visit these pages:
Interested in supporting Heinz College students and initiatives like those featured in this story? Click here for more information.