Author Archive for Matthew Levernight

Keen Home Smart Vent

The idea for Keen Home came to Ryan Fant one night while he was trying to get to sleep. With air from his apartment’s air conditioning system blowing in his face, he realized it would be nice to use his smartphone to close the vent while trying to sleep. This was in 2012 when he was a first year student at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and when he returned to his parents’ home for Thanksgiving he walked around their house to see how and when the thermostat would turn on and off, with a hunch that controllable vents could improve efficiency in addition to the convenience factor.

That hunch turned out to be right, as his first experiment suggested having a system of vents that could open and close to block air flow to unused rooms could lead to 30% energy savings. He contacted classmate Nayeem Hussain about helping him enter the idea into a NYU competition, then decided to enter it in the TechCrunch StartUp Battlefield competition as well. Six weeks before the competition, they received a call from a TechCrunch editor, who loved the idea and wanted to know if they had a prototype. They didn’t.

But many will tell you that rule one of entrepreneurship is the same as improv comedy: always say yes.  And they did, worked 120 hour weeks for the next month and a half and had the prototype in time, as well as a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $40,000. They are now working to bring their product to market through Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouses starting next spring.

So, how does the Smart Vent work? By replacing the existing vents in each room of a house with Smart Vents, you can then use your smartphone to close vents in unused rooms, reducing the amount of conditioned air the system needs to provide, saving energy in the process.




Founded by three 22 year old graduates from George Washington University: Jon Halpern, Brian Gross and Rey Coriano, AthleteTrax is an internet based sports team management tool focused on club sports teams with a Pittsburgh connection. The three friends came up with the idea for a platform that would allow managers and coaches to schedule practices, share film from practices, confirm schedule changes and more while in college. After getting their idea validated by coming in second place (out of 144 contestants) at GWU’s business plan competition, they came to the AlphaLab accelerator in Pittsburgh to develop their concept further.

While they originally planned on targeting NCAA sports teams, they discovered that the bureaucracy surrounding major college sports programs would make the cycle between the first contact with an organization and the sale of their product very long, too long for a cash flow dependent startup. They then chose to pivot to club sports with a freemium model, with revenue provided by two sources: purchasing team supplies through partnerships and collecting dues payments for a small fee. They provide fully integrated workout tracking, scheduling practices and competitions, communication and a fundraising platform.

They are focused  on expanding their base of teams, as they currently serve around 95 teams and over 2,000 athletes. Jon Halpern believes his company has definite advantages over competitors because of AthleteTrax’s platform for sharing practice video, the way their communication system is set up and the national partnerships they are developing.


One of Inc. Magazine’s Coolest College Startups 2014, Applits is an app development company that applies the power of crowdsourcing to create  apps that are actually in demand by users. They accept suggestions for new apps from members of their online community, use feedback from the rest of the community to identify promising ideas, send the most popular ideas to a panel of tech experts, and then gets continous feedback from their contributors throughout the technical development process. Community members earn points for each suggestion, which translates into a share of revenue from apps that find commercial success. They are the first company to allow smartphone users to be involved every step of the way with app development, while rewarding useful suggestions with a share of the revenue.

Applits was founded by two students at The Ohio State University, Keith Shields and Joshua Tucker, who are building a fascinating business while still in college. This concept applies many lean start-up methods like continuous feedback to create the best possible chance for an app to find success. At the time of the Inc. article, Applits had already launched 9 apps and had 11 more in development.

I think Applits has found a great way to get ahead of the competition in a crowded field. By taking advantage of liquid networks and a pool of ideas, they can find more and better ideas to produce truly innovative apps.




Rent a textbook for $5 a day?

As a college student, Mike Shannon realized that some textbooks are rarely opened by students because they are only used a few times in class, but students still need to buy the book. To save money, most students try to purchase used textbooks if at all possible, but this creates something of a vicious cycle as textbook manufacturers raise prices to compensate for the fact that while they only make a profit once, the book may be resold 4 or 5 times. Shannon realized this was an inefficient business model where all parties lost out to a certain extent. In addition to the costs, his research revealed that 78% of students open their textbooks less than once a week.

His creation: Packback, currently in its beta period, puts a twist on conventional electronic textbook rental models by allowing students to rent the book for just 1 day at a fee of $5 per day. This allows students to save money on textbooks that are only used a few times during the semester, and if a student finds they are referring to a certain book more than a few times all the daily fees will be credited towards the semester long rental price. So, there is really no risk to students if they decide to rent a book for a single day.

Shannon believes Packback can boost revenue for textbook companies, reduce costs for students, and accelerate the adoption of digital textbooks, which he says has been stalled by the used book market, in effect playing a role similar to iTunes in its infancy as a platform to ensure content creators receive compensation for the use of their content while packaging it in a lower cost form.

I am impressed by Shannon’s creativity in developing a way to promote the adoption of digital books while benefiting both textbook publishers and students, only time will tell, but I think Packback has a great future and could become an integral part of how we acquire textbooks.


Elaine Truong- Student and Social Entreprenuer

Elaine Truong is an engineering student at UCLA with an impressive list of accomplishments to her name. She began her career as a social entrepreneur at age 14, running a human rights organization, then starting a jewelry company that employed women in Africa and Central America. Today she is focused on bringing power to Africa, developing ReVolt, a microbial fuel cell that uses dirt to produce electricity. Yes, it’s a dirt powered battery. The goal is to make it possible for people in developing nations to charge cell phones cheaply, as well as power lights. Because of the lack of electricity infrastructure in Kenya, many children need to use kerosene lamps to study for school, which produce soot and cause breathing problems. These lung problems are currently the #1 cause of death among young children in the region.

Elaine also sees great potential for mobile app development focused on African nations, with over 90% of Kenyans currently owning a mobile phone. In addition to her work with ReVolt and being a full time student, she also helped organize UCLA’s first hardware hackathon and is an active participant in international entrepreneurship summits.

I am impressed by her ability to manage her time and be involved in so many different projects at once. Her routine includes getting up at 6 am and making sure her calender is filled with activities for each hour, as well as trying to answer emails and do homework at the same time. She is a great example of someone with technical expertise who is also willing to go out and create the system needed to distribute an innovative idea.

She states that for her: “it’s really important to know what you value, which can set the agenda for you to focus on… Knowing what you value also makes it easier to take a step back and assess if there is a genuine, thought-out purpose behind what you do.”

Ziver Berg and ZIVELO Kiosks

Ziver Birg - Founder and CEO of ZIVELO

Eight years ago, Ziver Berg founded ZIVELO, which manufactures high quality touchscreen computer kiosks that are used by some of the most prominent businesses in the country, from Boeing to Whole Foods. Even the White House relies on them to produce information kiosks for tourists. Coca-Cola IT Manager Ray Ramcharitar has called them “the Apple of the Kiosk Industry”. So, how has Berg done all this and made Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list?

One key to his success has to be the quality of the product he turns out. ZIVELO kiosks are made of aluminum, instead of plastic and steel, and they feature clean designs which project an image of refined taste, both for ZIVELO and the user. At a Las Vegas trade show, instead of filling the booth with products, they featured one kiosk… and a $225,000 Bentley Continental GT automobile. Instead of focusing on sale pitches, they allowed prospective customers to look up information about Bentley automobiles, demonstrating their product while associating it with an emblem of quality and status. But beyond the product, Berg has built his business by focus and being able to pivot from one product to another. He got his start as a teen, working with his brother making pay-per-use internet access stations, which he describes as “pay phones for the internet”. As his business evolved, he became a reseller of other kiosks, before finally entering the market in his own right with ZIVELO, building his products at a plant in Marion, Indiana. Today they are billed as the world’s largest kiosk manufacturer and offer over 100,000 configurations.

Berg states his goal is to get 25 hours of productivity out of a 12 hour day, six days a week. He averages responding to 100 emails, 20 phone calls and attending three or four meetings every day. One suggestion he threw out for other entrepreneurs in an IdeaMensch interview is to aim for 90% completion, instead of seeking perfection. Obviously this doesn’t apply to major issues, but for the little day-to-day things, focusing on ‘good enough’ can reduce the danger of being bogged down. Two more tips: Be up before the sun rises and “Follow trends, merge ideas, add value and create a niche”.

Follow trends, merge ideas, add value and create a niche.- Ziver Berg

One more thing? Here is a business idea he was willing to make public: a service for restaurants and stores that would give customers free internet access, if the customer liked the business on Facebook. Elevator Pitch anybody?