How Two Student Inventors Launched a Global Business From College
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
The popular saying of unknown origins most commonly refers to people outside of a child’s immediate family who contribute to the child’s growth and maturation. The village can include, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, clergy, teachers, mentors, and friends.
In the case of two students, Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork, who attended Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture from 2008 to 2011, the support of a small village of professors, mentors, and classmates helped them turn their school project into a product that is changing the lives of people around the world.
“There have been many mentors, many professors. Like David Benjamin, he was on the faculty at the architecture school,” said Sreshta. “But then there were also people that we talked to from the engineering school and a couple professors in the business school. It’s a very multidiscipline place. And everybody was very encouraging and supportive.”
After their product was launched, they moved on to another “village”—at the University of Chicago, and with that college community’s help, these young entrepreneurs appeared on the television show “Shark Tank,” where a group of high-powered investors get pitched by budding entrepreneurs.
The students’ invention, LuminAID, a solar inflatable light, is revolutionizing the lighting industry and providing light to natural disaster victims and people living without electricity in over 50 countries.
“In addition to all the other supplies, we thought that a more innovative way of getting clean lighting used with more intensity after a natural disaster could go a long way,” explained Sreshta.
Now these two former Columbia graduate students are operating their own company full time in Chicago—and Sreshta is attending the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
They also recently won the opportunity to utilize the advice and guidance of Mark Cuban, one of the sharks and the owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
But they haven’t forgotten those who helped to pave the way—their extended university families.
Columbia University Village
The faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture was just one member in the village of supporters Sreshta and Stork turned to for help through the lengthy process of finalizing their prototype, getting a patent, raising funding, and launching their own business.
Part of the school’s mission in training students toward completing their graduate studies is “uncompromising engagement with the world and the urgent questions of our time,” according to the Columbia University website.
So it wasn’t unusual that professor Alice Chun, prompted by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, asked her class to design a product that could be used to help the relief efforts there.
Sreshta said, “The earthquake had just happened. A lot of other architecture firms were trying to find ways to help solve problems through design, so it was very relevant at the time.”
She and Stork conducted a little research, read all the news stories about the earthquake, and talked to another Columbia student who had visited Haiti after the earthquake. Then they focused in on lighting as an unmet need.
After deciding to make a solar lantern, the early inventors quickly decided what material should be used to make it, as they wanted it to be able to pack flat for easier shipping.
“The material used to hold the lights and circuits was the result of a 2-minute conversation,” said Sreshta. In addition, “Stork used her engineering background to design the circuitry.” After researching and looking at several different types of plastics, they chose TPU because it is a high quality eco-friendly material.
David Benjamin, an assistant professor of architecture at the Architecture Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation primarily advised them on some of the technologies and materials they could try. He worked with them for a full semester, meeting with them every week.
Benjamin said he was “struck by their resourcefulness and creativity.” He feels they balanced well their focus on the big idea of the project while also testing out the real materials and technologies.
The final product is a lightweight, waterproof lantern that provides up to 16 hours of LED light and can be recharged in the sun. Although it packs flat, the user just has to blow it up to get maximum illumination.
“There are two LED chips at the back of the circuit … and when the light is going out, it becomes like a diffuser … where you get a better source of ambient light … it is more evenly dispersed throughout the room or a tent,” said Sreshta. “It is also waterproof … all our circuitry is waterproof and it can float.”
The lighting project was just one among many ideas and projects these young inventors worked on for the semester, but they really felt they were on to something and therefore continued to work on it independently even after the semester had ended.
“We had never seen anything like this I guess. And we thought that it could solve a problem,” Sreshta recalled, “We doubled down on our time and then made it work with all the other school work we had to do as well.”
Taking their efforts to another level, Sreshta and Stork filed their first utility patent in 2011 and formed LuminAID in February 2011. They then set out to write their business plan.
Learning About Business
From the start, they envisioned selling LuminAID to NGO’s for disaster relief and also to specialty outdoor retail markets. That would become the cornerstone of their business plan.
Today they have partnered with a number of NGO customers; their largest to date is Shelterbox, which has provided emergency shelter and supplies to communities overwhelmed by disaster in almost 90 countries.
They also partnered with a Canadian nonprofit, Nepali Children’s Education Fund, on a project in Nepal before the recent disaster occurred there. Many areas in Nepal already did not have electricity.
The fund utilizes LuminAID’s Give Light, Get Light program to reward children for their hard work in education by giving them lights.
To pay for the program, LuminAID invites consumers to sponsor lights. So far LuminAID has distributed approximately 10,000 lights to different projects in more than 50 countries.
But in the beginning, Sreshta and Stork had no business experience between them. Faced with the daunting task of writing a business plan, they first thought about copying from some other examples. Eventually they reached out to on-campus sources at the engineering and business schools.
“We worked with a couple of ventures at Columbia, actually the engineering school has funded an entrepreneurship arm,” said Sreshta.
Through the entrepreneurship program, the new company owners were matched with a former Columbia graduate, Alessandro Piol. He is the co-founder of Vedanta Capital, a venture capitalist company that invests in the technology industry, according to the Vedanta Capital website.
Piol guided them through completion of their business plan and helped them prepare for a newly created competition: Columbia Venture Competition.
Faculty at the engineering school and Piol helped prepare them for the competition. There are many elements to this preparation, according to Sreshta. It involved coaching on how to speak for their business and present it effectively. “They would help us with pitch practice, [and] practicing our presentation,” she said.
And the practice paid off, as they were the winners of $15,000 in the competition. Sreshta and Stork entered many other business plan and grant competitions while at Columbia.
Benjamin said this school project and prototype has gone further than any other students’ projects at Columbia. “In terms of a project that was really developed at the school, in the school environment … a project like that, that has then gone on so far, I think Anna and Andrea’s project is unique.”
In May 2011, they graduated from Columbia. A year later, Sreshta was attending the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and they had started selling their product on line. They had also successfully raised five times their funding goal in a crowdfunding campaign.
University of Chicago Village
Stork followed Sreshta to Chicago to operate the business full time. The University of Chicago has similar entrepreneur resources as Columbia did. They entered the Chicago Booth Social New Venture Challenge and won the $25,000 first prize.
“That was another 10 weeks of trying to hone in our business plan for them, with all the mentorship I found at my business school,” said Sreshta.
Also, in April 2012 they competed in the William James Foundation Competition and won $5,000.
Growing more and more comfortable with their business model and the inner workings of the business, in the spring of 2013 these two savvy business owners entered and won $100,000 in yet another competition: Early Stage Prize at the Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago.
Before making their big debut on “Shark Tank,” these enterprising women were named one of Toyota’s Mothers of Invention and received a $50,000 grant at the Women In the World Summit in New York.
By this time, they had won $195,000 in grant and prize money and invested it all back into the business.
Shark Tank Village
As fans of “Shark Tank,” Sreshta and Stork thought it would be fun to give it a try, and see what happens. They filled out the short on-line form and the show’s producers contacted them for season 5 in 2013.
“We didn’t think it would really happen,” said Sreshta.
The producers kept in touch with them, then decided to schedule their pitch for season 6, which put them on the show in early 2015.
They prepared for their big day by watching numerous episodes of “Shark Tank” to see what kinds of questions were asked and refresh themselves with the facts of their business: the numbers, stats, customers.
They also participated in role-playing sessions with friends and co-workers who pretended to be sharks. According to Sreshta, “the practice really helped to take the edge off.”
“We had a lot of knowledge based on the last year of the business … tested across all areas of the business so I think we were really ready for all sorts of questions,” she added.
On the day of the taping of the show in Los Angeles, the inventors’ pitch, presented to five venture capitalists, highlighted their company’s mission and its short-term growth. They asked for $200,000 in exchange for 10 percent of their business. It attracted the interest of all five sharks, something they had not prepared for.
“We didn’t talk about a particular shark before the show. Any of the five would have been good,” Sreshta thought.
The sharks didn’t allow these sought-after inventors to leave the room, so they couldn’t have a private conversation to mull over their decision. As seen in the episode, they could only mouth a few words to each other in a low whisper before making the final decision.
“We both have the same general vision for the business so we both knew the criteria that we wanted going into that decision,” explains Sreshta.
They chose Mark Cuban because they liked his track record.
Since the show, Cuban has provided a team of experts to assist Sreshta and Stork in growing their business. And they’ve been a “huge help.”
They have helped with “business development … chasing down new retail accounts, tech guys to help with website and e-commerce, help to keep our website from crashing, accounting, and a bookkeeping team,” said Sreshta.
She and Stork contact Cuban for advice and guidance. He is very responsive, especially by email, she said.
And they’ve learned a lot so far. They are working on new products, growing their team and their business.
Although they are now in Chicago full-time, these successful business owners continue to keep in touch with their Columbia family. “We go back to Columbia often and are still in contact with the administration of the architecture school and people in the entrepreneurship engineering department,” said Sreshta.