Shantanu Bala, Ajay Karpur, and Jake Rockland graduated from three different Arizona high schools over the course of three years.
Yet the computer science and engineering students had a common bond that brought them together—the Flinn Scholarship.
And now, years after they were first introduced, the three Flinn Scholars are running a local high-tech startup company, Somatic Labs, that has created an initial product based on the haptic-technologies research Bala began at Arizona State University.
“We’ve been heavily influenced by the Flinn Scholarship,” Bala says. “On a base level, meeting each other happened because of the Scholarship, but also the thought process of where we wanted to locate ourselves. We realized we have a really strong network of people we knew here in Arizona.”
Somatic Labs unveiled the first prototype of “Moment” in December. Pre-orders are now underway for the screenless wearable device worn around the wrist that through a touching sensation can act as caller ID, a metronome, provide turn-by-turn directions, and allow users to feel the passage of time.
“I initially came up with a really rough idea of turning the passage of time into a sensation that moves across your skin, basically taking the passage of an hour and literally just feeling time move as a sensation,” says Bala, whose concept has evolved radically as the device’s design has matured.
The Flinn Scholarship Program, sponsored by the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation, provides an unparalleled package for undergraduate study at an Arizona public university for 20 of Arizona’s highest-achieving high school seniors each year. The merit-based scholarship program covers the cost of tuition, fees, room and board, and at least two study-abroad experiences. The Flinn Scholar community totals about 80 current and 500 alumni Scholars.
The program is accepting applications from Arizona high-school seniors for the 2017 Flinn Scholarship through Oct. 23.
Bala, Karpur, and Rockland, who had collaborated on previous projects, remained in contact while activities and studies led them in separate directions over the past two years. Earlier this year, Bala reached out to his friends and asked about starting a company together based on his past work.
Somatic Labs formed and made a pitch for office space at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation at GateWay Community College in Phoenix. In August, they moved into the business incubator, where the three share one long, narrow office. They also live together, renting a house near downtown Phoenix.
Somatic Labs began taking pre-orders in mid-September with plans to make Moment’s first shipment in March. The goal is to receive $100,000 worth of pre-orders in order to produce an initial batch of 1,000 units, which will be made in Arizona.
People will wear Moment on their wrist like a watch. But with their technology there is no need for a screen, only a small light that will change colors.
“Your entire body is one input device for an entire sense,” Karpur says. “It encompasses so many different types of information that we get about our surroundings.”
The device, which uses Bluetooth to connect to an iOS or Android smartphone, can serve several purposes depending on what software applications are installed on the user’s phone.
The GPS system creates a sensation that moves to the left for a left turn and becomes more intense when it’s time to make the turn. The metronome allows musicians to keep time or feel the beat, a use that excites piano player Karpur. For frequent phone contacts, a pattern is established so the Moment user will know who is calling by the touch pattern without ever looking at the phone screen. And users can create custom timers to stay productive or to pace a workout.
The worldwide media is taking notice. Somatic Labs has been featured by MIT Technology Review, the BBC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., or CBC.
“The broad vision for the company is developing technology that augments human perception, and Moment is the first step in that,” Rockland says.
Bala, a Class of 2011 Scholar from Barry Goldwater High School in Phoenix, graduated from ASU with majors in computer science and psychology. As a high-school student, Bala began his research in haptic technologies at ASU’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing. He has previously worked on the design of a haptic glove, a form-fitting haptic suit that delivers cues during physical therapy, and a translation of the human voice into tactile sensations.
In 2014 he was awarded the prestigious Thiel Fellowship and a $100,000 grant to continue his research. The Fellowship enabled him to move to Pittsburgh temporarily to learn about different manufacturing methodologies and the production of electronic products.
Karpur, a Class of 2012 Flinn Scholar from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, graduated from ASU in May with a degree in electrical engineering. He has conducted research in electrophysiology and computational neuroscience in the same lab where Bala spent several years. He also studied computer science for a year abroad in Singapore and traveled throughout southeast Asia as part of his Flinn Scholar experience.
Rockland, a Class of 2013 Scholar from Canyon del Oro High School in Oro Valley, is working at Somatic Labs while he continues taking classes at University of Arizona, where he is majoring in computer science. He has experience with firmware development, full-stack web development, and iOS development. Rockland spent several months in Spain traveling and studying Spanish and later studied computer science for a semester in Paris as part of his Flinn Scholarship.
All three company cofounders point to the unique Flinn Scholar community as one of the main benefits of the 31-year-old program, allowing Scholars to build special personal and professional relationships.
A Somatic Labs advisor and board member, who is also a startup founder, is a Flinn Scholar alum. Their lawyer is also a Flinn Scholar. The same goes for two of their early-stage investors.
“You think about the alumni networks at Ivy League schools, and the Flinn Scholar one has not been around as long but has the potential to be at least as powerful of a community, especially because there is a deep involvement and investment of the people into the community,” Rockland says. “It’s exciting to think about as something we will still have the opportunity to participate in 20 or 30 years down the line.”
And Bala, Karpur, and Rockland all say they simply enjoy just having a conversation with a fellow Flinn Scholar.
“You never have a conversation with another Scholar and not learn something,” Karpur says.
For more information about Somatic Labs and Moment, visit https://somaticlabs.io.
For more information about the Flinn Scholarship Program and applying for the 2017 Scholarship, visit www.flinnscholars.org.
By Brian Powell, Flinn Foundation