Specdrums: From ideas to prototype

Insights from Cornell entrepreneurs Matthew Skeels B.S. ’15 and Steven Dourmashkin MEng ’16, Specdrums founders

Matt Skeels and I have always loved the idea of the next big invention. In high school, Matt built robots, rockets, and model airplanes, while I spent my free time designing and building gadgets like a portable ping-pong table and autonomous curtain opener. Though we seldom struggle to invent, we have learned that it takes more than a great idea to be a successful entrepreneur.

Matthew Skeels B.S. ’15 and Steven Dourmashkin MEng ’16, Specdrums founders

Our passion for practical gadgetry led us to Cornell’s resources in mechanical and aerospace engineering, including the Emerson Machine Shop and the Rapid Prototyping Lab. Matt and I joined CUSat, a satellite project team, where we met in the attitude determination, control, and navigation subsystem group. Matt was too ambitious to stay on the team for long, and during his sophomore year he founded Cornell Rocketry, a student-run project which has now grown to more than 30 members. I eventually joined to work on the launch vehicle’s electronics, tracking system, and hazard detection algorithms.

As serial inventors, Matt and I constantly discussed our ideas. Eventually, we came up with an idea for a “magic” ring, which we envisioned could be used to turn on lights, send messages or money to people, and do other seemingly “magic” actions.

After speaking with a musician friend, we discovered the perfect use case for our idea: a ring called “Freedrums” to give drummers the freedom to play anywhere at any time and inspire non-musicians to easily learn. Unaware of the significance of our friend’s input, we had just conducted our first customer development, our first lesson in entrepreneurship.

Our initial challenges, including reliably transforming the user’s surroundings into sound and shrinking the electronics within a relatively small ring, fueled our ongoing product development. In fact, I ended up developing a majority of the technology and algorithms through my senior design project in Cornell’s Autonomous Systems Lab with Hadas Kress-Gazit, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Matt and I also spent time 3D printing new designs and working with systems engineer Michael Hojnowski on design and assembly.

As our prototypes evolved into a viable product, we began looking for a structured program that would help us learn the basics of starting a business. We were clearly more accustomed to solving engineering challenges, and needed the help to move from idea to market. We identified eLab as a great resource to transition our focus from an engineering invention to a real-world venture.

Prior to delivering our pitch to eLab, we came up with an ambitious goal: to design a smaller, more reliable prototype. We renamed our sleeker product “Specdrums” to more accurately depict the concept of turning the color spectrum into sound. During our pitch, we realized how important it was to let the product speak for itself. Our soon-to be mentor Steven Gal, a senior lecturer of management at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, and other eLab mentors actually interrupted our pitch to play with our prototypes, and even invited other eLab representatives to join in. It was this turning point when we realized the viability of our idea in action — and the positive impact of mentors to a new business.

“As someone who focuses on hardware entrepreneurship, I was blown away by the discipline they brought to the hardware development process,” said eLab’s managing director Ken Rother.

Throughout our first semester of eLab, Matt and I honed our basic skills in customer development — something that was never directly taught in our engineering courses. We interacted with musicians around Ithaca, set up meetings with music professors at Ithaca College and Cornell University, and spoke with private percussion instructors. The conversations not only helped form initial community interest around Specdrums, but also helped us evaluate key customer needs and how to meet them. The feedback added practicality to our prototype, including the ability to fit all finger sizes, having a relatively long battery life, and playing sounds with an unnoticeable delay. This ultimately allowed us to appropriately design our first fully-custom ring, capable of being manufactured, and was a huge step in our Specdrum’s development.

In order to make this next prototype on our own, we needed to use much more sophisticated equipment than what we had in our apartment. For this reason, I joined Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, a regional business incubator, this past January. In addition to the tools supplied, Rev also proven to be very beneficial with technical and business guidance from other members and advisers, particularly Kenneth Rother and Brad Treat, who are both entrepreneurs and also visiting lecturers of management at the Johnson School.

Rother has guided our PCB design and manufacturing, while Treat connected us with several local small-scale electronics manufacturers and useful resources, including Trevor Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies, an expert in the interaction between music and technology. In addition, Rev’s coordinator, Jeremiah Cotman, has always been available for suggestions and help, including tuning our Demo Day pitch.

With resources and support, we are on the path of turning our technical idea of a “magic” ring into a commercial reality. Matt and I are continuously improving our fully-custom prototype, and plan to finalize its design at Rev’s hardware accelerator this coming summer. At the same time, we are working towards developing a crowd-funding campaign to help us gather enough funding to be able to manufacture our rings on a larger scale. Specifically, we aim to have at least 10 percent of our mailing list donate to our future crowd-funding campaign. Since we plan to set our crowd-funding goal to $50,000 with 500 people donating to our campaign, we need to gather approximately 5,000 email addresses! We believe that the strong Cornell undergraduate and alumni network will help us achieve this goal and raise the initial needed funding. In particular, we are hopeful that alumni attending our demo-day pitch will sign up to our mailing list and eventually donate. We plan to raise awareness around campus by participating in Cornell business and engineering competitions. Lastly, we hope the strong music community at Ithaca College as well as Cornell will promote our product and help it spread throughout music communities outside of Ithaca.


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