"Do It!" Advice from Startups

By Chelsea Bailey '16



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Tim Ryan, Jialiya Huang, and Jon McKay working on their own start-up



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Olin has always strived to inspire not only engineers, but also entrepreneurs.   So it comes as no surprise that when The Foundry brought representatives from Highland Capital Partners to campus to talk about their Summer@Highland program, it caught the attention of more than a couple of our enterprising students. Jon McKay ('13), Jialiya Huang ('14), and Tim Ryan ('14) jumped on the opportunity to spend a summer working on their startup Technical Machine.


After applying alongside other college teams from schools like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford for the nine coveted spots, the Technical Machine team was selected!   $18,000 in spending money, free office space, and weeks of mentorship later, the team has wrapped up their summer work, and is finally launching their product today!  


  1. 1.    What is Technical Machine all about?


Our goal is to make hardware development as fast and flexible as software. The broader vision is to enable the creation of physical products or experiences with less investment - in both time and money. The idea is that with our product, you don't have to have a fully fleshed out idea, get funding, and go to manufacturing. You can prototype cheaply, get to an idea that's worth investing in, and then scale up.


Our platform, Tessel, is a tiny Wifi-connected microcontroller board that connects with sensors and interfaces. Tessel is open source, programmable in JavaScript, and uses the same workflow web developers use today. Our goal is to integrate rapid prototyping with Tessel devices and create the "minimum viable product" of physical things.



Our new logo!




2. How did you get the idea for your start up?


We have been planning to do a startup since our first year at Olin, and have been actively involved with the Foundry. Last summer (the summer before our senior year), we all decided to work at startups in order to gain contacts and insight into starting our own company. Then we were all on the same SCOPE team, making internet connected devices. We realized how rewarding hardware can be in terms of creating new experiences, but how difficult it can be for people without hardware experience, like web developers, to get into the space.

3. What was the application process for Summer@Highland like?


Deciding on the idea was the hardest part. We applied to the program twice - first to their early acceptance program, with a different project, which didn't make the cut. The application process involves about 20 free response questions about our product, business plan, progress, and why we're the right team for the product. We also made a 1 minute pitch video. Once we were chosen as a finalist, we had a Skype interview with one of the general partners at the firm who "championed" us. The interview was pretty intimidating because he started off the meeting by saying, "I will just be listening for the next hour... tell me how you'll change the world." So we talked non-stop for an hour. 




The Tessel microcontroller that will "change the world"

4. How has being chosen affected your business?


The path toward becoming a viable company is about striving toward predictability. When we started, the company was highly unstable -- our vision and understanding of customer needs were both hazy. Even our usual strengths, such as technical feasibility, was questionable. Since then, we've hammered out a lot of these issues. If we didn't have the stability of the Highland program and the mentors that came along with it, I don't think we could have figured this stuff out nearly as quickly.


We also learned to dream bigger. Venture capitalists aren't going to invest in your company unless they have the potential to get a 10x return on their investment. They most likely won't, but your idea needs to have the potential.

5. What have you been working on this summer?


Half of our summer has been working on Tessel itself and the other half is time spent trying to reduce distractions. We've had to figure out the legal components to starting a company - how to incorporate, hire, deal with taxes, raise a round of funding, etc. We've also been talking to users (many of them Olin students) to get feedback on Tessel and other companies to try and secure partnerships.




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The Technical Machine hires '13 Alum Eric Kolker as a contractor.

6. Advice for other students interested in dedicating a summer to their own startup?


Do it!   It's been as exciting, terrifying, and fulfilling as everyone says. Once you do start a company, you'll need to invest a lot of energy in reducing overhead.  You should be spending a majority of your time on two things: making your product and talking to customers. 





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Keeping late nights to meet product design deadlines - launch date is September 5th!

Posted in: Alumni Speak, Learning about Design, Life in a Start-up