University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management
Industry: Health/Medical Devices
Founding Student Name(s):
- Steven Bleau, UMN College of Design, Class of 2021
- Morgan Kerfeld, UMN Carlson School of Management, Class of 2021
- Rick Pradhan, UMN Carlson School of Management, Class of 2021
- Beth Urbanski, UMN Carlson School of Management, Class of 2021
Brief Description of Solution: Telo is a health-tech-focused design company committed to increasing independence and breaking stigmas for individuals with mobility complications. Starting with its patent-pending posterior rollator, Telo aims to build a seamless ecosystem of mobility-centered products and services.
Telo’s patent-pending rollator features a reverse frame that prevents it from rolling ahead. By putting the user at its center, the handles act like parallel bars allowing users to take natural strides and maintain proper walking habits while also opening them up to the world so they are seen first, not their rollator. With embedded technology and a mobile application, Telo’s device serves as an activity tracker for a population that cannot utilize traditional wrist wearables. By providing tangible activity tracking, setting baselines, and monitoring progress, Telo’s device helps users take back control over their mobility.
What led you to launch this venture? One of Telo’s founders, Steven, grew up with a dad with multiple sclerosis (MS), which led to his involvement with the National MS Society. The organization ran a youth camp every year for children to learn about their parent’s condition while also meeting other kids growing up as youth caregivers. One of the activities they did every year was an empathy exercise where they had the kids simulate common MS symptoms by having them wear things like weighted shoes, vaseline, covered glasses, and thick gloves while doing a series of tasks aided by a wide range of assistive devices. Not only did these exercises give Steven a better understanding of the challenges this community faced, but they also showed how assistive products can greatly improve a person’s quality of life but also lack a lot of innovation.
This led Steven to study product design at the University of Minnesota, where in the summer going into his senior year, he found himself living back home with his dad during the height of the pandemic while his mom was caring for his grandmother in Canada who was in isolated care due to a fall. This experience highlighted the crisis faced within long-term care as well as how falls and mobility loss are often at the root of a person’s loss of independence. This sparked the idea to innovate on the rollator walker for his senior capstone project, a device that millions rely on for independence yet has gone relatively untouched for over 40 years. During this time, Steven met Morgan, Beth, and Rick through the Entrepreneurship in Action course at the Carlson School of Management. The team shared a similar passion for helping others in need of care and quickly got on board with the idea. As we learned more about the problem through volunteer work, interviews, and research, we were driven to develop Telo into a business with a goal to become a social enterprise that utilizes its products and services to solve the long-term care crisis.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with this venture? Telo was fortunate to be selected as a semi-finalist in the MN Cup competition in May 2021. MN Cup is the largest state-wide startup competition in the country. This opportunity allowed our team to connect with incredible mentors and other entrepreneurs in Minnesota over the course of the summer as we prepared our business plan and pitch deck. After advancing to the finals, Telo was honored to be named the runner-up in the Student Division. While extremely ecstatic about our performance after only starting Telo a short six months prior, we also went on to receive Securian Financial’s “Putting Family First” Award and Meda/JPMorgan Chase’s “Minority Led Innovation Award.” The MN Cup further showed our team how large of an impact Telo can make in the lives of our community members while also providing us the early capital we need to get off the ground.
How has your business-related major helped you further this startup venture? When starting Telo, it soon became apparent that a strong business takes not only a well-designed product and vision but also killer business instincts. Three of Telo’s co-founders graduated from the Carlson School of Management with degrees in varying business disciplines. This has been advantageous as Telo has grown and we have been able to specifically focus on our areas of strength.
Morgan was an entrepreneurial management major, which afforded her the opportunity to take almost all experiential courses in undergrad where she consulted for start-ups and started a couple of her own. These experiences gave her the confidence and skill set needed to lead Telo’s strategy and operations.
Beth graduated with a degree in marketing. During her time as an undergraduate, she learned how to effectively create a brand and engage with consumers, which has proven extremely important as she works to do the same for Telo.
Rick studied finance and accounting during undergrad which taught him the hard skills needed to manage a company’s finances.
Finally, while not a business major, Steven took many entrepreneurship courses to complement his product design degree. The combination afforded him opportunities to learn how to design for a larger vision and has given him the experience needed to develop impressive designs that can translate from renders to real products.
Which business class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Telo was started in John Stavig’s Entrepreneurship in Action course sponsored by the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota. This business course was different from others. The main purpose of the year-long class was, simply put, to build a business. Through the course, we were given the resources and network needed to support us on our journey. However, the company we built and the direction we took was completely up to us. This is where Telo’s four co-founders met and where Telo became a business.
Throughout this class, our biggest lesson was how crucial collaboration and networks are to being successful. We were fortunate to receive an advisory board through the course filled with incredible mentors who gave us the hard feedback we needed to push ourselves. Above that, the course allowed us to meet individuals we would likely have never known to reach out to without our professor’s introduction. These connections continue to be a large driving force for Telo and have been a key reason for our fast progression and success to date.
What business professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? John Stavig, the director of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship and also the professor of Entrepreneurship in Action, has been the greatest contributor and supporter of Telo. We can confidently say Telo would not be where it is today without John. He has walked alongside our company since the beginning, constantly encouraging us to shoot for the moon while still being “business smart.” He has always taught us to not shy away from risks and that it is better to fail than to not have tried. As we have grown and all now graduated from the University of Minnesota, John has continued to support us by reviewing business plans and answering panicked emails, texts, and phone calls, while also making incredible connections for us in the start-up space. We cannot thank John enough for the role he has played in making Telo a reality.
What is your long-term goal with your startup? Telo’s long-term goal is to create a connected product ecosystem of fall prevention devices to enable our community to live active, independent lives in their own homes for as long as possible, thereby aiming to solve for the long-term care crisis. Additionally, Telo is an extremely mission-centric company and hopes to further our mission by dedicating a portion of our revenue toward sponsoring youth caregivers with support groups and professional caregiver training so they can go on to create an even larger impact in healthcare.
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