Connor McLeod was all about the startup hustle before he even knew what the startup hustle was. As a teenager in High Point, North Carolina, McLeod scoured the web, buying products on wholesale sites and selling them at a markup on Ebay. Once, he and a friend found a couch identical to one in the friend’s parent’s living room, except much cheaper. So they purchased the couch on eBay, moved it in, and sold the original couch online, netting a $200 profit.
“We were always looking to make a buck,” McLeod, now 23, says.
Nowadays, McLeod’s still about making the moolah. But the rising senior at Brigham Young University is also about helping people. And he’s doing just that with his five co-founders through Piero, a young startup with a mission to make higher education literally more accessible to disabled students. Piero’s hardware product, dubbed “Angel,” is essentially a retrofit device that makes current door systems for disabled persons operate better. Through a mobile app and Bluetooth technology, Piero’s doors automatically open when a wheelchair user is within 10 to 15 feet, making it so they don’t have to reach to push a button that may or may not work.
“For the first time in history, we’re making doors more accessible for someone who’s in a wheelchair than someone who’s not in a wheelchair,” McLeod boasts. “That’s huge, because wheelchair users’ underlying pain wasn’t, ‘I hate being late to class.’ It was, ‘I want to feel independent and I want to feel like everyone else around me.’”
‘WE ALL HAD A COMMON TREND OF WANTING TO START SOMETHING WITH A SOCIAL MISSION’
It all started when one of McLeod’s co-founders, Sam Lew, noticed a friend who uses a wheelchair struggling outside of a door on BYU’s campus. It was a snowy Utah day and the friend, who was in a heavy, electric-powered wheelchair weighing hundreds of pounds, was stuck. Lew rushed over the help her but he couldn’t budge the chair, either. The frustrating experience led Lew to ponder the other daily difficulties those in wheelchairs are forced to deal with.
Lew, who is majoring in industrial design, and McLeod, a computer science major, were both participating in BYU’s Crocker Innovation Fellowship, an interdisciplinary program that places select students in unique, entrepreneurially focused courses followed by field experiences, then finally charges them to create a “product or solution,” according to the fellowship’s website. The duo was paired with four other BYU students and on the prowl for ideas. When Lew approached the rest of the team and suggested they spend some time with his friend to learn more about the daily struggles of disability, everyone was eager, McLeod recalls.
“We all had a common trend of wanting to start something with a social mission,” McLeod, a rising senior, says.
So the team listened and learned. “There are a lot of things she faces, but one in particular is, going through doors on campus is a pain,” McLeod explains.
Not all of the doors on BYU’s campus have handicap buttons. Of those that do, not all function properly. And BYU is certainly not a unique case. Countless buildings in the United States — on college campuses and off — have the same issues, and present the same difficulties to the wheelchair-bound.
WINNING COMMONBOND’S $10,000 SOCIAL IMPACT PURSE
Piero’s device attaches to the motor on a door already outfitted with an automatic opener. Before it works, the team must receive the building’s Bluetooth identification from the facilities manager. On the other end is the user with the mobile app. Once the user comes within range of the door’s Bluetooth, it will open automatically. The obvious improvement is that the door is open before the wheelchair user approaches — no button pushing necessary. The not-so-obvious improvement is that “Angel” also uses internal sensors to check the door on common Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, like the force of the door opening and closing, door motor and button functionality, and duration of opening and closing.
Finally, and importantly, the door does not close until the user’s mobile app is out of the 10- to 15-foot range.
As of now, Lew, McLeod and their team are piloting devices at a couple local universities. But that might change soon. According to McLeod, the team recently went to a building facilities manager’s convention (yes, those do exist), where they met with dozens of facilities managers at other universities around the country. They also recently snagged CommonBond’s social impact award, netting $10,000. The student loan refinancing and lending company with a social mission hosts an annual social impact competition, with the award traditionally going to teams of MBAs from some of the world’s best business schools. This year, though, it was the pesky and thoughtful team of undergrads from Provo, Utah that came out on top.
A COMBINATION OF ‘TECHNOLOGY AND SAVVY DESIGN’
David Klein, CommonBond co-founder and CEO, says nine semifinalists were chosen at this year’s competition based on “originality, feasibility, scalability, and overall market impact.” Once the nine teams were chosen, each created a video, and CommonBond released the videos to the masses.
More than 15,000 public votes later and the top three teams were invited to CommonBond’s New York City offices to pitch Klein and a panel of judges.
In the end, it was Piero’s innovation and specific plan for the $10,000 that lifted them above the other teams, Klein says.
“Their idea combines technology and savvy design,” he says, “and we were impressed by the research and beta program that the team was already undertaking. All of the judges are excited to help Pietro scale its business and make public spaces more accessible to all.”
REGULATORY CHALLENGES, BUT HUGE POTENTIAL MARKET UPSIDE
McLeod says Piero plans to use the $10,000 to move their provisional patent on the device toward a full patent. They also plan to develop another feature on the device that will update a university’s diagnostic infrastructure and create live university-specific ADA-compliant maps. “We can give this live map to facility managers so that they can keep up to date with how accessible the doors are on campus,” McLeod says.
Of course, the team anticipates challenges throughout the process.
“Because disability access is a regulated industry, the team must be mindful that its product complies with state and national law regarding handicapped access,” Klein explains. “But, as the team pointed out, many current doors do not meet these requirements, so there is a great deal of opportunity available.”
Piero aims to make money by selling the device and the diagnostics map, and charging a subscription fee for participating universities. By December 2018, McLeod says, they hope to be profitable.