Rev: Hardware Accelerator boosts startup dreams for two Ithaca High grads
A few summers back, two Ithaca High School students, Jasper White and Hunter Hartshorne, decided to renovate a cabin on the White family’s farm near Ithaca. As they worked, they talked about how much easier the renovation would be if they had electricity — maybe generated by the stream that ran behind the cabin. They took this idea into their engineering class at the high school and realized they could make a small, stream-driven generator to provide portable charging.
“This project started off as bringing electricity to that cabin on a little bit larger scale,” says Hartshorne. “We looked into that a lot and we thought, ‘How can we make this project more marketable?’ So, we made it smaller and we . . . moved toward the portable power aspect of it.”
The generator became their capstone project for Project Lead the Way, a national program that develops STEM curricula for use by elementary, middle and high schools. Ithaca High School is a participant in the program.
If they are successful, the generator will work like this: it will contain a battery that is recharged by the power of water moving through a generator, which will be anchored in some fashion. Once charged, the battery in the generator can be used to recharge portable devices such as smart phones, digital cameras, or GPS devices.
Brian Bauer, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and a mentor for Project Lead the Way at Ithaca High School, gave White and Hartshorne encouragement and insight on their product idea, and the two friends became excited by their meetings at Rev, the downtown business incubator developed in partnership with New York State and Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College. They decided to keep developing their idea — which they named Hillside Hydro — at Rev’s summer Hardware Accelerator program.
Bauer says he was impressed by White and Hartshorne right away. “The thing which has amazed me, in particular, is these two had both the passion for what they were doing and their persistence,” says Bauer. “That combination is unusual, so they stuck with it.”
Hartshorne says that working in the program, and at Rev in general, has really sped up the process. “Just working in the space, the level of expertise in one room, is pretty incredible. The blend of people makes it special. I don’t even know how much we all know, but I know it’s immense!”
White agrees. He says that one of his favorite aspects of the program is access to Rev’s three different 3D printers.
“It makes everything go much faster. I can design a part in the morning and have it printed by the afternoon,” White says.
Through their participation in the Hardware Accelerator, White and Hartshorne have also networked with area researchers and businesses that have helped them further develop their concept. By working in Rev, they crossed paths with Fernando Gomez-Baquero, chief executive officer of Bess-Tech, a company that is developing high-performing battery technologies. Gomez-Baquero was eager to hear about their charging device, and he left them with some advice on using the MatLab software for simulations.
On their quest to further improve their design, White and Hartshorne also visited Cornell’s Joseph H. DeFrees Hydraulics Laboratory in Hollister Hall. There, researchers and DeFrees lab director Edwin “Todd” Cowen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, helped the pair lower a 3D-printed probe into the Wide Meandering Wave-Current Flume to gather data about the movement of the water, which White and Hartshorne are now using to fine-tune their generator for streams with varying velocities. They have also determined that because of the generator’s small size it shouldn’t endanger anything living in a stream.
The Hydro team said that having access to the flume was very exciting. They didn’t realize when they set out on this project that they would also wind up creating their own measurement device, which helped to determine how fast water needs to flow in order for the generator to function.
Participating in the Hardware Accelerator has also helped White and Hartshorne wrap their heads about the business side of their idea. They have learned about options for funding a business based around their portable generator and worked with mentors to develop an understanding of their customer base. A visit from regional startup Brewjacket introduced them to the idea of using crowdfunding through Kickstarter.
But first both White and Hartshorne are headed off to college in the fall. Hartshorne will be attending Carnegie Mellon to study engineering and business (he had originally applied only for engineering). White will be attending Hobart and William Smith College and Columbia University as part of a five-year dual degree program for science and engineering. Both agree, however, that they want to pursue Hillside Hydro even as they work through their freshman year.
“We want to keep developing the business. We want to enter some pitch competitions, start getting seed funding, and build a team,” says Hartshorne. “We might try a Kickstarter campaign next year.”
And after that? Neither of them know for sure, but both say they can envision returning to Ithaca after college. They’ve grown up here and like the outdoor spaces. Hartshorne, an avid backpacker, wants to get out on more trails in the region. White says he’s definitely going to be back — he wants to stay on his family’s farm, where the idea for Hillside Hydro first took root.
“Five years from now we hope to have an established company. The plan during the next two years is to launch our product, bring our product to market,” says Hartshorne. “We’d like to compete in the same space as MicroSolar and other portable alternative energy sources that are used in backpacking and camping.”
Other customer markets the pair see being very applicable to this include the Department of Defense as well as the boating, sailing and canoeing markets.
“Our initial market is camping and backpacking, just because we know that market pretty well and we think it’s going to be a good first step because once we have a product that will work for that market it will be pretty easy to adapt it for other markets,” says Hartshorne.
“It’s amazing, actually, when you look at what they’ve come up with so far,” says Bauer. “They never lost track, they never lost momentum. Interest tends to wax and wane and they stuck with it.”