Stanford-Affiliated Entrepreneurs Attract Silicon Valley Attention

Stanford University’s ever expanding reputation as an incubator of technology-based start-ups continues to catalyze the entrepreneurship process for students. This year StartX, formerly known as Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE), continues that process by helping to promote Stanford students’ business creation in Silicon Valley.

StartX is a start-up incubator designed to improve product development and cultivate experience among student entrepreneurs. It aims to “help the most passionate, talented, and innovative Stanford founders develop as entrepreneurs by providing them access to the community, mentors, information, and resources that they need to accelerate the growth of their companies.”

From a one-thousand strong application pool, seventy Stanford affiliates, including undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, professors, and researchers were accepted to the StartX program last year.

On Sept. 9, StartX held its seasonal Demo Day at the AOL Headquarters in Palo Alto to showcase these projects.

Some start-ups, like ClassOwl, an online social-based class organizer, had been working on their product since well before the start of the summer. Others had yet to make their debut, like WiFiSLAM, a cell-phone based positioning system that aims to make “geolocation” more functional on an indoor scale.

The Demo Day attracted the attention of major venture capital firms and investors, including Accenture Technology Labs and Wells Fargo Bank. It also drew larger Silicon Valley companies like Google, which often buys out new start-ups to acquire their teams and their technologies, and entrepreneurship foundations like the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based organization that aims to promote education through entrepreneurship.

“The best ideas always come from the students, and StartX is no exception,” explained Sandy Miller, Director of Advancing Innovation at the Kauffman Foundation and a former member of Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering.

Cameron Tietelman, a founder of StartX and recent Stanford alumnus, talked about the issues aspiring entrepreneurs often face in developing their products after the ideas have already been formed. He noted that it is often beneficial to have a community of peers working in the same space. To facilitate that, all of the StartX start-ups are given free office space to work on their projects in the Palo Alto office.

“Entrepreneurship is really hard sometimes…all we’re doing is providing a platform for the best founders to learn from each other,” he explained.

One of the featured companies was Qwispher, a social networking service that utilizes natural language processing, a technique for enabling computers to understand common languages and their nuances. Their technology organizes users’ feeds from social media websites by subject and content. Based on the context of the post, Qwispher can interpret the word “Interpol” as referring to a musical act or an international police organization.

Another new start-up, called ByteBite, aims to help users decide what to eat based on reviews of individual dishes at restaurants and even in Stanford’s dining halls. Users can follow others with similar tastes and see what they recommend. ByteBite is additionally aimed at promoting healthy eating habits and being easily accessible to those with restricted diets, allowing for searches based on vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian options, among others.

A start-up called Morpheus aimed at easing the process of Sleep Apnea treatment gained a significant amount of attention at the Demo Day due to its advanced methods for modeling airflow through the human body. According to co-founder Fabien Breckers, a graduate of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and a current Stanford Physics Ph.D. candidate, insufficient air passageways are very often not caused by poor breathing, but rather by the way the air travels. “We are applying computational fluid dynamics to the human body,” remarked Brecker.

Morpheus is currently aiming to sell its product to doctors, hospitals, and clinics with the intention of making Sleep Apnea treatment far less costly and time consuming and far more reliable for patients.

Investors present at the event appeared keenly interested in how these new technologies will affect Silicon Valley not only in the long run, but also in the very near future. Michael Blitz, a representative for Accenture, commented in conversation that consumers tend to ask the question, “What am I going to care about now?” That mentality prompts investors to act quickly on finding the newest and most potent technologies and getting them into the marketplace quickly. Blitz noted that with start-ups, “it’s not about who does something first,” but rather who is able to do it the most effectively and get it into the marketplace.

Still, Demo Day is not completely representative of Stanford’s start-up environment. Considering that StartX has an acceptance rate as low as Stanford University itself, there are many new companies that look to other paths to start their enterprises. Organizations such as BASES and the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) continue to provide support for rising student entrepreneurs through the summer months.

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