In August 2013, a crowdfunding campaign for Kite Patch, a malaria-fighting sticker that stops mosquitoes from tracking humans, went viral. With an initial goal of raising $75,000, the project instead raised $557,254 from 11,254 people and became one of Indiegogo's record-breaking campaigns.
The company behind the ambitious Kite Patch is a southern California-based startup called ieCrowd and I talked to CEO Amro Albanna to find out where the company is up to. It turns out that the mosquito-blocking Kite is just one of three products that are currently being produced (more on these below).
It's unusual in the tech world for an early-stage company to work on several products before launching the first but ieCrowd is no ordinary company. Frustrated by the number of promising scientific discoveries that never get beyond the lab, a group of five entrepreneurs including CEO Amro Albanna decided that a new model was needed. They founded ieCrowd in 2010 to seek out such discoveries, develop / commercialize them and then launch them to the world.
It's reminiscent of an incubator. However, instead of providing office space or mentorship, ieCrowd builds the products in house.
All prospective ideas undergo rigorous in-house due diligence. In order even to be considered, the idea must:
Have global impact potential
Take no more than three years to get to market (i.e. not something that will take another 10 years to develop)
- Be somewhat proven, i.e. not just at initial concept stage
Once admitted, the idea is assigned a dedicated product development team of experts, tailored to the nature of the innovation. Each team is also supported by a business and operations team.
Mosquito blockers, gas detectors and auto oxygen tanks
Kite Patch is a great example of a technology that clearly meets the ieCrowd criteria. Mosquitoes wreak havoc across the world, transmitting malaria (which kills an estimated 627,000 people every year), Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, West Nile Virus and a host of other dangerous diseases.
When the team at ieCrowd heard about a discovery at nearby UC Riverside, which blocks the ability of mosquitoes to track humans, they struck an agreement with the university and project Kite began.
Lauded as innovative by none other than Bill Gates, Kite uses chemical compounds to mask the carbon dioxide which is exhaled by humans and which draws mosquitoes in. Once stuck to the wearer's clothing, the patch effectively acts as a protective suit for up to a day.
Kite is still in the process of being developed but CEO Albanna says the goal is to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015.
In the case of Nuuma, the company has once again licensed a discovery from UC Riverside. Dr. Nosang Myung, Chief Scientific Advisor on the Nuuma project, came up with a nanotechnology platform that can detect airborne gases. This research is now being developed into a range of tiny sensors which can be used in all manner of subtle gas detection scenarios.
According to Albanna, consumer health, air quality and even homeland security are all potential applications. For example, use of one of the sensors, made out of thousands of single-walled carbon nanotubes, would allow a parent to monitor the air her asthmatic child was breathing.
Ascent targets a different market again. Initially conceived by a Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) sufferer at UC San Diego, Ascent is a device that attaches to oxygen tanks to improve the efficiency and accuracy of its air flow.
A person walking around requires more oxygen than a person who is lying down, yet at the moment, the flow from a typical oxygen tank is controlled manually. The user must consciously increase or decrease the flow. Ascent automates that process, altering the amount of air it delivers according to the activity of the user. This should enable the user to live a more active lifestyle.
Funding operations and scaling up
The three products make a varied group and Albanna says the plan is to develop many more, mentioning 10, then 50, then 100 as goals.
Scaling such a range and quantity will be a challenge for ieCrowd and Albanna emphasizes that this will be a focus for the coming years. It's not just a matter of finding the discoveries but also recruiting the right people and identifying the right distribution strategy for each.
While ieCrowd occasionally goes direct, its main approach is to use a partnership network. These partners, including organizations such as the US Department of Agriculture, enable the company to test out products and make them available via licensing and distribution agreements.
None of this comes cheap. Since the products are all currently in development stage and pre-revenue, ieCrowd, like most startups, is largely dependent on private capital. The individual solutions have also received a number of grants from foundations and government agencies.
When I reflect on the number of people involved in bringing these solutions to market, the old expression "it takes a village to raise a child" comes to mind. ieCrowd is drawing that village together, assembling all the stakeholders to make innovations a reality.