Startup Roundup: Seniorly, Crayon Crunch, and Realiteer
August 31, 2015
This is part of an occasional series of articles spotlighting students and recent graduates who are working with Berkeley-Haas to start a new business or social enterprise.
Co-founders: Arthur Bretschneider and Sushanth Ramakrishna, EWMBA 16
When Berkeley-Haas Evening & Weekend MBA students Arthur Bretschneider and Sushanth Ramakrishna got to talking during their carpool from San Francisco two years ago, they were already applying the Haas defining principle Question the Status Quo.
Bretschneider, MBA 16, whose family had worked in the senior housing business, saw firsthand how hard it can be to find and evaluate senior facilities for aging loved ones. He and Ramakrishna, MBA 16 and a former lead engineer at Salesforce, took advantage of their commute to put their heads together and come up with a solution.
In January, the two formally launched Seniorly, a website that streamlines the search for senior communities.
“Senior housing is a highly fragmented industry with a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses that are not yet online,” Bretschneider said, adding that 70 percent of the businesses lack websites. “Families spend hours and hours searching for the right community—it’s a painful process.”
Using Seniorly’s search filters, family members quickly narrow down options based on preferences. The website includes photos and videos of facilities—visited in person by a Seniorly staff member—as well as a Resource Center that provides an overview of options, links to the Department of Social Services Community Licensing Division, and connection to a staff gerontologist.
The website is free to users but charges a referral fee to housing providers.
Bretschneider reports that more than 10 percent of Bay Area non-medical senior housing facilities are now on the Seniorly website. The startup, now with seven staff members, has expanded its services to Sacramento, secured a round of angel financing, and is actively involved in its seed round.
Bretschneider and Ramakrishna found much at Haas to help them launch their company. Lecturer Clark Kellogg’s Problem Finding Problem Solving (PFPS) class was especially influential with refining the company's messaging and positioning, according to Ramakrishna.
But the co-founders’ peers at Haas were perhaps their most valuable resource. “Berkeley-Haas is filled with smart people who are generous with their time and thoughts,” Ramakrishna says. “Our peers in the EWMBA program have helped us many times.”
Co-founder Shuo Zhang, EWMBA 16
Product testing: Realiteer Co-founder Fangwei Lee's son tries out the company's first game, GermBuster.
Virtual reality promises consumers mind-blowing visual experiences. Trouble is, it’s really expensive to invest in a headset and all the different controllers needed to create hyper-realistic experiences.
Shuo Zhang, EWMBA 16, and Fangwei Lee, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who formerly led a visual effects team at DreamWorks, wanted to change that—and bring virtual reality to the masses by building an inexpensive system. They’ve managed to do it with two humble materials: cardboard and recycled plastic.
The idea for Realiteer started when Lee’s little boy grew fascinated with bubble guns and Lee became fed up with cleaning them and replacing broken ones. So he set out to create a virtual reality bubble-blowing toy. His raw materials? A recycled diaper box and a mobile phone—running a virtual reality software he coded from the ground up.
When Lee shared his prototype with Zhang in early May, Zhang immediately realized its potential. The friends teamed up to develop and launch the company’s first product: RealTrigger.
RealTrigger is a hand-tracking device made from renewable plastic or cardboard that—when used with a mobile phone and the company’s RealViewer software—is transformed into a virtual reality system. Real Trigger, available on the company’s website, costs just $5. Customers can also buy both the RealTrigger and RealViewer Starter Kit for $10.
Here’s how it works: Users can mount a mobile device into the cardboard RealViewer and secure it to their face to play Realiteer’s first downloadable game, GermBuster VR. The goal is to shoot and kill germs with the virtual bubble gun. (Germbuster VR is free on both Android and iOS.)
Although it's designed for kids, the game is fun for adults too, says Zhang.
Zhang, who leads funding efforts and builds the company’s partnerships while also helping with product design, said Haas provided him with the skills, confidence, and courage to quit his full-time job at Genentech to grow the start-up.
The risk has already started to pay off. Realiteer is now a portfolio company of the early-stage seed fund and accelerator program 500 Startups, founded by PayPal and Google alumni. The company won the “Best in Class” award at the 2015 Bay Area Maker Faire.
But Zhang says what's been most gratifying is the positive reaction to their product. “When I see smiles from everyone who tries it, I know that we have something truly special," he says.
Co-founder and head of print operations: Kai Schmittat, BS 15
Co-founder and CEO: Tim Osterbuhr, BS 15
(Pictured with Co-founder Friederike Geiken, lead engineer and creative director)
When Kai Schmittat and Tim Osterburhr, BS 15, co-founded Crayon Crunch at Haas last year, both were intrigued by the idea of creating the most technologically advanced children’s books ever printed—but with a twist.
They imagined books that portrayed kids of all ethnicities, shapes, and sizes; kisa who used wheelchairs or wore prosthetics or thick eye glasses.
“We realized that the children who would benefit the most from our books are really these children who don’t have the opportunity to see themselves in a book, or see themselves as normal because the media focuses on the majority,” says Schmittat, the company’s head of print operations and the father of 2-year-old Levi, who was born during Schmittat’s first semester at Haas.
On the Crayon Crunch website, customers use drop-down menus to create a lead character, customizing hair color and style, eye color, skin tone, facial features, clothing, and special needs.
In Crayon Crunch’s first book, My Magical Adventure, the main character takes a journey to find a key to open a magical box in an imaginary world—and learns along the way about the value of giving to other people and believing in oneself. The child can read a special letter written by a parent or loved one at the end of the book.
Schmittat, Osterbuhr, who is CEO, and San Francisco State University graduate Friederike Geiken, lead engineer and creative director, have all left their full-time jobs to focus their energy full-time on Crayon Crunch. Since graduating, the founders have launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $12,000—surpassing their $10,000 goal.
Schmittat says the company’s social mission evolved at Haas, and particularly in a course on corporate responsibility. The startup is already giving back by hiring three Berkeley-Haas interns to work with them.For Schmittat, Crayon Crunch will continue to question the status quo. “The publishing industry has been doing the same thing for years,” he says. “We asked: What are they missing? We dared to ask questions and came up with an answer by developing something new.”
The company will begin printing My Magical Adventure for the public in mid-September, and ship worldwide.