Taking Advantage of New Resources
While Realtime Robotics didn’t necessarily need seed funding from Duke-affiliated sources to get their idea off the ground, many future successful businesses do.
In 2017, Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) approached Leslie Collins, professor of ECE, and Jordan Malof, assistant research professor of ECE, for help with their security cameras. One of the biggest time sinks facing the group was having to manually inspect all of Duke’s security cameras on a regular basis to make sure they weren’t being blocked by a plant or smudged by pollen or an enterprising spider.
Drawing from a long history of using machine learning techniques to analyze photos and videos, Collins and Malof worked to develop a software package that could monitor the performance of security cameras autonomously. The technology learns the correct view each security camera is supposed to provide, and then alerts users whenever that view is compromised by issues such as blurring, tilting, tampering or glares.
After successfully launching the software on Duke’s campus, the researchers quickly discovered that the City of Durham and the University of Pennsylvania—where some of their colleagues worked—were interested in using it as well. They clearly had a potential company on their hands. They just needed to launch it.
“One of the biggest resources we used was the Duke Incubation Fund,” said Malof. “When you’re just starting out, most people generally don’t have $20,000 of their own money to kick off a business venture. Without the Incubation Fund, I’m not sure if we would have continued with the project.”
"Without the Incubation Fund, I’m not sure if we would have continued with the project.”
But continue they did. With seed money in hand, the team set to work using many of Duke’s other entrepreneurial resources to get Security Camera Maintenance Company, or “SCMC," off the ground. Once again, Duke OTC was instrumental in filing patent applications and completing a licensing agreement. They also had recently launched their Mentor-in-Residence program.
Mentors-in-Residence (MIRs) are entrepreneurs who have successfully raised capital for, built, sold or invested in start-up companies. Working with Duke OTC, these forward thinkers share their insights, experiences and numerous connections with startup projects. Each MIR handles a portfolio of projects related to their particular field of expertise and provides astute and personalized guidance to help create great new ventures.
SCMC worked with MIR Kurt Schmidt, a member of the Duke Angel Network who has served as a board member, chairman and advisor to technology innovators from San Francisco to Sydney to Shanghai. He met with the team on a weekly basis, helping them through issues that require more of a close engagement with the company, such as working through the script when cold-calling potential customers.
And similarly to Realtime Robotics, Bill Walker was also a big help to the fledgling company.
“If you’ve never gone through the process before, you don’t know whether you’re doing things right. There’s no guidebook,” said Malof. “Having access to these seasoned veterans was priceless. They can often tell you when you’re on the right track (or not!); or simply to confirm that yes, it is supposed to be this hard.”