If you can make it in San Francisco, you can make it anywhere, right? A special part of every Startup Catalyst Future Founders mission is to take the delegation to a Techstars Startup Weekend, where delegates are split up and sent on a path to rapidly creating brand new businesses. I absolutely love the atmosphere of these types of events, I think I thrive under the conditions. You can pick any problem in the world you want to solve, surround yourself with a like-minded team and then you have 54 hours to change the world. It’s intoxicating.
For starters, our hosts (Chris Chang and Jordan Rothenberg) had an incredible energy I think we all fed off from the very beginning. Our darling dearest mission leader Peter made it compulsory for each person in our delegation to pitch a 1 minute idea, for either a problem or a solution to a problem. Almost everyone else at the Startup Weekend was fresh off the week-long Lean Startup conference, and they had a vast range of skills and backgrounds. All up there were around 40 initial pitches, the crowd voted and narrowed it down to the most popular 13 ideas. People could then choose a team to be on, and the teams were narrowed down to just 10, with between 5 and 8 people on each one.
Then, it began. I think we got kicked out around midnight Friday night, I am not sure if it was for our sake or they just wanted to lock the venue.. Regardless I was grateful because the weekend ahead was massive. This is Friday night session was so vital for determining our ‘why’. Who are we all? Why did we choose to be in this team? What can we offer? And most importantly, what did we want to get out of this weekend? For me, honestly, I wanted to win. I knew the judges criteria back to front and I was ready to go full speed at a business plan to create massive impact in the field of education.
The idea I ended up working on was technically mine, as I pitched it, but it wasn’t my idea. That day I was walking along with my friend Matt, another Startup Catalyst Future Founder, and I told him about my idea to use EEG recordings of brain activity, in combination with other physiological indicators to determine how people are interacting with technology. I envisioned an application of this being used to ‘dog food’ new technology to get non-biased information to help with development of new technologies. I noted at the time to Matt that I didn’t want to work on this project however, because I need something that puts fire into my belly, and the only thing that really does that is when I can see a direct application to making someones life better. So he said to me, ‘what if you used it to assess how a child is learning?’ Boom. BrightNest was born. Thanks Matt!
BrightNest is a pod that sits in schools, and children can enter into to have their learning assessed (2-4 times per year). Inside the pod, there is a touch screen, an activity monitor for the ankle and a headset to record EEG recordings of the brain. The child interacts with cognitive tests on the tablet (that actually look like bright colourful games), and from this the pod can assess how engaged/excited/frustrated a child is while doing any given activity. The pod then provides a summary of the results in a dashboard to the teacher and parents, so they can see how the child is engaging with different tasks and can adjust their learning to suit.
I’m not going to lie, I surprised myself on the Saturday. Our group had grown by three people and it was a lot of idea sharing to handle. I remember we had reached morning tea and not made any progress, so with little over 24 hours until presentation time, I made a very deliberate decision to step in and take control. I broke our team into sub-groups based on our skills, gave them each tasks to do and a time for the team to regroup. To the untrained eye, I was confident and assertive. I immediately leaned in to Matt and whispered, ‘Am I being too bossy?’ to which he assured me I was not. Everyone else was talking about how they were having trouble earning the respect of the other people in their group because of their age. Meanwhile, as our team’s youngest member, I found myself coordinating the group, including staring down the barrel of delivering the pitch on Sunday afternoon. I am really proud of how I achieved this, but was completely terrified and unqualified (I smell impostor syndrome..). With Matt as my sidekick (and at times the bad cop to my good cop), we had constructive group discussions on our direction every time some major results came in, whether from market research or customer validation. Everyone remained energised and produced great results which I was able to pull together into the final product. It felt fantastic.
The final pitches were all AMAZING. In particular, the pitches given by our Startup Catalyst crew were incredible (I’m not biased, you’re biased). I was so proud of how much every single group had achieved over the weekend. But man was I proud of what my group achieved. We had a validated go-to-market strategy, a relatively easy to assemble minimum viable product and a huge problem we could solve. We were going to make sure we can identify all challenges children have with learning before they start to fall behind. We were going to make sure no child was left behind in the school system.
We managed to take out the people’s choice prize (I am still finding the sticky dots all over the place) and while we didn’t win overall, it sure felt like a win to me. One of our team members even invited Matt and myself to pitch the idea to her work’s innovation team, as it would be a perfect fit for them and she believed in the product. Who knows, maybe we really did find a way to change the world in two days.