Paul Couston BSIE 2019: Undergrad students create solar powered phone charging case
Kristin Tennant with Madeleine Hubbard
7/18/2017 12:06:23 PM
The young siblings did plenty of building with the LEGOs, but they also conducted mini experiments, testing their creations and making adjustments along the way.
“We would make stuff and then drop it from different heights to see what was strong enough to hold together, or we’d experiment to figure out how we could build a taller tower,” says Couston, who is starting his junior year at ISE this fall.
Later, as a high school student, while many of his peers were obsessed with technology, Couston’s love for LEGOs evolved into an interest in construction and manufacturing, which he explored through summer employment and internships.
“I love making tangible things that people will actually like to use. I’m drawn to the physical interaction between people and things,” he says. “There’s something rewarding about having an idea and being able to turn it into something physical. I’m also a visual thinker—I’m addicted to CAD and 3D printing, which is essentially grownup LEGOs.”
A circuitous path.
It’s no surprise that Couston gravitated toward industrial engineering, but his first application to ISE was denied. He entered the University of Illinois in general studies, determined to find opportunities that would feed his entrepreneurial and leadership interests, like Illinois’ Student Sustainability Committee, whose members elected him vice president (and later, president for two years).
He also fortuitously stumbled into an idea-to-enterprise class at the Technology Entrepreneurship Center (TEC), which offers education and resources to help students and faculty become leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Paul mistakenly entered my class as a lost, first-semester freshman,” says Harlee Sorkin, an adjunct lecturer at TEC. “Instead of leaving, he pitched a problem and a possible solution to the class and ended up having several others jump on board.”
The idea was to incorporate solar on portable gas generators, developing an energy system similar to a hybrid car. Couston and his TEC class team took their innovation all the way to the 2016 Cozad New Venture Competition, where they were a top-12 finalist out of 120 proposals.
The summer after his eventful freshman year in general studies, Couston was admitted to ISE.
Infected by the entrepreneurial bug.
As a sophomore in a TEC startup law course, Couston met freshman Rohit Kalyanpur, an Electrical and Computer Engineering major who would eventually become his business partner.
While Couston was busy working on his solar-hybrid generator the year before, Kalyanpur was an ambitious high school senior in Seattle who was making strides with his own solar innovation—a phone case that utilizes solar to charge phones.
“I used my phone a lot, and when I updated the software it drained my battery really fast,” says Kalyanpur. “I became interested in figuring out whether I could actually charge a phone using solar.”
He came up with the basic technology and design, did some customer discovery around his neighborhood, then started cold-calling manufacturers in China to make a prototype.
By the time Kalyanpur arrived on campus in the fall of 2016, he had a working prototype in hand and was on the lookout for a business partner. When Kalyanpur first showed Couston his innovation, Couston was clearly impressed, but Couston also offered constructive criticism and asked important questions. It was just the sort of push-back Kalyanpur needed in a business partner.
“I wanted us to think through the market and how to make it better—I didn’t just fall in love with what he had,” says Couston, who applied his industrial engineering knowledge and market and manufacturing experience to improving the product.
In 2017, Couston and Kalyanpur entered the Cozad Competition, where they were a finalist and in-house prize winner—precisely the push they needed to launch their company.
An undergraduate startup is born.
Particle, Optivolt Labs’ trailblazing product for the iPhone, is unique from competitors in key ways. The compact system includes two cases—one to protect the phone and an outer case with the battery and solar panel, which utilizes both indoor and outdoor light to triple the life of the phone battery. Students, remote workers, business professionals, travelers, and outdoor enthusiasts are all key to Optivolt’s customer base.
“This system lets you have your phone in your pocket and the solar panel out where it’s exposed to light. You can even hang the solar panel on your backpack,” Couston says.
The Optivolt team typically works from 7:00 am until 7:00 pm. In order for the team to relax and bond together, Couston says “we go back to one of our apartments and we just watch [HBO's comedy series] Silicon Valley. Even on our break, we’re still doing startup stuff.”
The startup’s most recent move was into the University of Illinois iVenture Accelerator, a year-long incubator program that gives top student startup teams the time and support they need to get their product to market. Optivolt Labs earned a $10,000 grant and space to set up shop at the start of summer 2017. Customer discovery, identifying the right manufacturer, and fundraising are next-step priorities. In addition to launching a Kickstarter campaign, Optivolt is taking pre-orders on its website and pursuing its seed round of investors. Sorkin, who is serving as the startup’s iVenture mentor, says their prospects look promising.
“They are focused on finding the right technical solution to an existing customer problem, as opposed to trying to start with the technology and pushing that on the market,” Sorkin says.
Couston sees a market that’s more than ready for Particle to solve its phone-charging problems.
“We’re going to advertise that you’ll never have to worry again about whether your charge will last the entire day,” he says. “With this product we’re offering freedom from the wall outlet, and there’s no bulk. Right now there’s nothing that does this out there.”
Engineering at Illinois and ISE made it possible.
Optivolt is a succesful combination of the specific technical skills Kalyanpur learned in ECE and the wide-range of business and design skills Couston holds as an ISE major.
Of his ISE training, and the holistic skills it has taught him, Couston says, "“Rohit and I are a really good team because he focuses on the circuitry and electronics, and I focus on the design: a case that can incorporate those electronics and still be manufactured at a price that allows us to operate as a business.”
He says, "You can design anything you want. Like I can make a really awesome phone case if I wanted to. But that doesn’t mean people are going to buy it. That doesn’t mean that you can manufacture it. That doesn’t mean you can price it at a point that people actually use it. So it’s like you have to find a balance between creativity, and realistic limitations of technology and manufacturing. And if you can find that point in the middle where you’re still creative and innovative but… you’re still realistic in the design of it, that’s where you find the product market fit, and that’s where you start selling, and that’s where people will buy it.”
Couston says that this is how ISE differs from more specialized majors. “I think that is what ISE teaches you, how to become a well-versed and reasonable engineer.”
“GE101 was probably one of the absolute best classes that I’ve taken at this university just because it gave me such a broad overview of design and how to design for manufacturing."
Couston also credits the Illinois community for the startup’s success. “The University of Illinois has been an incredible resource,” says Couston. “The alumni network has been fantastic. We’ve got alumni in Chicago. We’ve got alumni in St. Louis. We’ve got alumni in Silicon Valley. We’ve got alumni who have relationships in China and Taiwan. None of that would have happened if we weren’t in the University of Illinois.”
Couston says that a lot of his peers get similar opportunities, but as a student “you have to capitalize on them. Anyone who walks out of this university saying ‘I don’t see the big hype with the alum network or I never utilized the Alum network, they just weren’t playing their cards right. This University has an amazing network.”
"You can get into contact with almost any alum, and the moment you say, 'Hi, I'm an undergraduate student in engineering at the University of Illinois', they'll schedule time with you."
Success and big decisions.
Of the many decisions facing Couston as he seeks investors and opportunies, one important stakeholder has made her intentions clear. Couston says, “My family really wants me to get my degree, no surprise. They're not ecstatic about the idea of me taking a semester off. So she’s made me promise that no matter what I’ll go back and get my degree. So if we have a multimillion-dollar buyout, I’m back on the market, there’s a good chance my mom would be a big stakeholder in me returning to school. But I can’t expect anything different from her, she just wants the best for me and my future.”
Thank you, Ms. Couston. We agree. At ISE, we look forward to working with Paul to finish his degree, sooner or later, whether he's getting to class on a bicycle or behind the wheel of a Tesla.
Good luck, Paul! Good luck, Rohit!
FOR FURTHER READING:
Visit Optivolt Labs online
"How One Startup is Using Design Thinking to Create a New Solution For An Old Problem," Huffington Post.
"How Design Thinking Is Redefining Wireless Charging." Inc.
"This UIUC Student Startup is Using Solar Power to Charge Your Smartphone." ChicagoInno.