From Full-Time Students to Full-Time Entrepreneurs
Today, Rohit Kalyanpur and Paul Couston, the founders of solar-powered drone startup Optivolt Labs, are the youngest founders to date to enter Techstars Chicago Accelerator as part of Techstars Class 134. Not so long ago, they were full-time undergraduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
They met in an entrepreneurship class during their first year of college, and their friendship evolved into a business partnership that has already taken them far: less than 1% of startups that apply to Techstars Chicago Accelerator get accepted.
So how did they go from full-time students to full-time entrepreneurs?
Techstars Associates Jaida Nabayan, an undergrad at the University of Chicago, and Hannah Selonick, a recent MBA grad from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, sat down with Rohit and Paul, and asked them about their entrepreneurial journey so far.
Q: Tell us about the origin of Optivolt.
Rohit: I started this company about four years ago, in high school. It started out as a research project that I was working on, because I conducted research at universities during my summers, and I wanted to see if I could use solar energy to sustainably charge my phone.
The first prototype I built was this big clunky circuit board connected to solar panels. My first prototype actually set my iPod touch on fire, but after many iterations and design considerations I realized there could be commercial value if I optimized it.
Q: How have you benefited from being student entrepreneurs?
Rohit: We used everything that the university had in terms of entrepreneurship. We took advantage of almost every single university competition. UIUC had different grants, and we were part of the iVenture Accelerator.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you had as student entrepreneurs?
Paul: The stress of being a student while trying to run a company and attending engineering course-loads. All of our friends were taking classes, and we were in those exact same classes and trying to run a business.
Q: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring student entrepreneurs?
Paul: Use as many resources and connections that you can! However, do check with the Technology/IP department to ensure that you are within your rights as a student to use university resources for your private company.
Rohit: Start as early as possible — and choosing the right cofounder is everything.
Q: How did you decide to apply to Techstars?
Rohit: Back when I was doing this in high school, I was looking into Techstars and accelerator programs. I actually started a club at my school called Start-Up Club. I brought in CEO’s from Seattle every week who would teach and inspire people. One of the people I invited was from Techstars Seattle, so he was actually in Techstars back when I was in high school. He was telling me about the program and it was always something that I wanted. So, being in it is like a dream come true, and we are so excited to be part of it.
Paul: We decided we were going to apply to accelerators because we had nothing to lose. Everyone else was taking the weekends off, while we were making progress on the company and applying to accelerators.
Rohit: We actually applied to Techstars last year for the 2017 cohort but ended up not making the final cut, and that is how we first met Logan [Lahive, Techstars Chicago Accelerator Managing Director]. Logan really liked our idea, too. We showed up in suits and Logan roasted us! He said, “So, is that what you guys wear everyday?” We haven’t worn suits since.
Q: Tell us about the tech entrepreneurship class where you met.
Paul: Rohit and I got randomly assigned to formulate a fake limited liability company in a startup law class we were both attending at UIUC. And we did that for five minutes, and then we started talking about the actual companies we were working on. Then Rohit made me sign an NDA before he showed me the phone case.
Rohit: Trust issues.
Paul: One of the reasons we made it so far as a hardware company was probably our comfortable amount of paranoia. But anyway, in that group project, we talked about partnering up. Within a month we had an operating agreement and we were in business together.
Q: Rohit, how did you decide to bring Paul in as a cofounder?
Rohit: Paul came from a background in Industrial Engineering, with a focus on product design and manufacturing, while I focused on technology and electrical design, so our skills really complemented each other.
The thing that really got me was that I showed my prototype to lots of people, and everyone I talked to was so astonished by it. Then I showed it to Paul — he praised it for five seconds, but then started thinking of ways to make it better. I thought it was cool that he wasn’t too in love with the product.
Q: You’re currently on a leave of absence from school to do the Techstars Chicago Accelerator. How did your parents respond to this choice?
Paul: You know, it was kinda a no-brainer. It is such a prestigious program, and has such a low acceptance rate that even convincing our parents didn’t take a lot of effort.
Obviously our parents want us to go to school, and Rohit and I didn’t work this hard to not finish a degree, but this in comparison to anything else… why wouldn’t we take Techstars?
It was definitely not planned. I was planning on graduating in December. I was signed up for classes, it was going to be an easy semester, and then I would be done. Now all my friends are graduating December and I am not.
Rohit: The conversation with my parents went really well, and they were fully supportive. Just the fact that Techstars is this huge accelerator, not only in Chicago but this whole global network, it really helped. I think it was the perfect risk to take at this time.
Paul: And the university will always be there.
Rohit: We can always go back to school. We can’t always do Techstars.