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Ep. 38: Big Idea Competition

Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories

Ben Franklin Technology Partner’s first virtual BIG IDEA Pitch Presentation and Awards was held June 18, 2020. About 100 participants joined the Zoom event to watch this year’s six finalists compete for a prize pool of $50,000, and to vote for the winner of the People’s Choice Award, sponsored by Somerset Trust Company. Ben Franklin, in partnership with Startup Alleghenies, hosted the contest to highlight the region’s emerging tech-entrepreneurs, innovators and small manufacturers, as well as to provide them with financial support to take their businesses to the next level. In this episode, we talk to the big winners Timothy and April Kretchman of Action Driven Education, LLC, and People's Choice winner Ankit Patel of Meerya LLC!

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This is Jonathan Kersting, with the Pittsburgh Tech Council, I have the honor and privilege of hanging out with Comcast to tell our 50 Summer Stories of Pittsburgh Tech, it's going by fast, we're really having maybe 11 or 12, more of these stories to go. And I'm kind of getting a little sad, but we're gonna keep telling stories even after we get past 50. Because we are talking to people, like we're going to talk to you today. They're making you so excited for what's going on in this region. And I say, you know, Pittsburgh, I always say is like western Pennsylvania to a certain degree. It's like we have so many great communities around us that really build up Pittsburgh and make this whole region. Just super awesome. Today, we're gonna be focusing on the big idea competition, which I think is so cool. And we've got some great guests we have we have people that participated in one in this event, and I think this is just an awesome way to really just keep the entrepreneurial juices flowing, despite anything that's going on with COVID. And before we jump into it, I just want to introduce Marilyn Kail, she's going to tell us a little bit about the big idea competition and what it's all about. And then we're going to introduce our guests today, as well as hear about 30 cool companies, because these guys are working on some great stuff. And what I love about this is the diversity of stuff. We're talking about education technology. We're talking about autonomous driving technology. It just goes to show you no matter what it is, we're whipping it up here in the region. That's for sure. So Marilyn. Thanks, first of all for pitching this out to me. I didn't know this happened. And you reached out like, yes, we want to talk about this. This is a great story. So thank you for reaching out. I would not have happened unfortunately. Like I said before, I'm like chained to my second bedroom. I don't get out much anymore.

Well, we're all kind of chained. I think a little bit right here. At least we don't have to have a mask on right now. Right?

Exactly. I can breathe.

Maybe that helps a little bit, but I'm happy to tell you about big idea. The big idea event, really a contest and competition took place in June and July. All the Pittsburg tech events happened virtually because but even so more than 100 participants zoomed on in to watch six innovative entrepreneur finalists compete for a pool of $50,000 and people's choice award so that they could have financial a little bit more money to get take their business to the next level. The big idea contest is is co sponsored by Ben Franklin technology partners, and I'm sure a lot of folks know about them. They've been driving innovation across Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. And our new commerce slight new commerce startup Alleghenies, startup Alleghenies. We kind of think of it as a movement to provide free support to entrepreneurs across six counties in Pennsylvania, but the impact generally reaches the region, the state in which our entrepreneurs sometimes the country in the world, as you'll He as you as you'll learn as you talk to these guys, so I think that's probably about it startup Alleghenies, these guys are enrolled, we were thrilled to have them. And along with our wonderful partner, Ben Franklin technology partners in the Appalachian Regional Commission, because they made it all happen. They're all doing some great work and making this type of stuff possible. So let's jump into this. Like I said, I want to start with the People's Choice Award. I was at the people's choice award because people are seeing something special going on there. Plus, I have a pension for all things about autonomous vehicles, and everything like that. So we have at our city, we have Ankit Patel here from Meerya. Welcome to the show. I'm so glad to have you here. And I can't wait to learn about what you're up to. It's all about autonomous braking. I just think that's pretty cool.

Yeah, thanks, john, for having a go. All right. No worries.

Sorry, I'm having a little issues with connections but I yeah, thanks for having us on. The podcast. And I'm sure we'll get started with exactly what we do here at Meerya. And we're focused on making your car horn useful. So we do a lot of customer discovery with people who are drivers, which are majority of Americans as well as global citizens. And the one thing that we hear about is horns are aggressive, they're monotone as well as they're loud. And so we want to give it utility, because that's a critical safety warning device to Department of Transportation and as vehicle and as vehicles get smarter, and the paradigm shift in autonomy, autonomous driving, as well as electric vehicles, fuel, so electric vehicles, your horn really hasn't changed as much. And so we have all these alerting systems because everyone's distracted whether it be a driver at a green light or a pedestrian crossing a pathway. There has to be some sort of alerting system that can really adapt to all the distractions that we have in our world. And your horn really hasn't been updated in the last few decades. And so what we've done is we're taking a car horn, and we're making it digital and so that the sounds that it creates aren't as harsh. There aren't necessarily as loud and they're not as aggressive. So for different scenarios for let's say, vehicles that are autonomous, we'll use a we'll use Argo as an example when because you see them all across Pittsburgh. Absolutely. If the vehicle has the algorithm detects that there's a 50% chance that a pedestrian it doesn't see this vehicle coming instead of having the typical horn blare at 110 decibels. It can vary the volume automatically, a gentler kinder horn then right but still giving you a warning but not like warning the heck out. Yeah, exactly. And so it varies the volume, the tone and the sound. And the exciting part about It is that electric vehicles are starting to become a bigger part of our ecosystem, right. And they have to have some sort of sound they emit now since last year to 2019. And you have now you have vehicles like Tesla's soon to be reviens lucid, that have to have a speaker as well as a horn, we have a device that can do both. And so that's going to save companies money. And so what it'll do is you can have the frequency flexibility of between, you know, 20 to five kilohertz to something that is, you know, a horn which is a lower frequency range. And so, we want to add that versatility not only to save companies money, but to also increase safety as well as you know, bring utility to your horn. Especially if we think about Pittsburgh with the self driving space. You know, how our vehicles going to warn not just other vehicles, but other entities like pedestrians and cyclists, you know, definitely. Me personally, I don't want to hear 110 decibels. As each time, you know exactly. And sometimes like, I want to hit my horn, but like, you know, it's too loud. Like I'm not hitting to be loud enough just to let you know. So if there's something that like a half amount with a friend, they're like, Hey, could you get moving as opposed to get moving? Yeah, absolutely.

Amazing. No, that's just so. So where did this idea come from? This is what I get so jazzed about because it's like, no one's thinking about horns, you're thinking about horns. I mean, come on.

So we only have a few 10 minutes to talk about, but it's a long story. Okay. It began with my father. He grew up in India, and he was an elect. He's an electrical engineer. And so he developed a scooter horn because a lot of people were coming to Him To replace their scooter horns. Okay. And what he realized was that they're power hungry devices. And so he developed something that was not only more energy efficient, but it ran off the alternator of the Spirit. Okay, and so he started manufacturing to bigger companies. Long story short He moved to the US and gotten to the hotel industry, Indians.

Now that's awesome, man. It's a great story.

And so I worked at Procter and Gamble. And I used to work, a walk to work in Cincinnati. And one day I came across a cyclist that was merging into vehicles lane and that cyclists was on their phone and not realizing the vehicle was passing them. And luckily for the cyclists, the vehicle swerved out and kind of thought to myself, how our future vehicles supposed to communicate to a cyclist. And I thought as myself as a driver, you know, I'd use my horn, but then I'm like, you know, I'm afraid to use my horn personally, because as you said, it's loud. It's aggressive.

You start on people, so I'm a cyclist and people honk at me like I don't honk at me. I know you're behind me and when they do, you get startled like this. And you can swerve your lane a little bit. It just goes to show you got you have horns like in your blood. I mean, this goes back to your Yeah, that's that's like so amazing.

It goes back to my dad and his. It's kind of crazy to think that yeah, it's such a device that when we think about it, you know, we take it for granted. Yeah, really, it's funny. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Mark Ruber. Know, he does a lot of YouTube videos. He's a former NASA engineer, and he goes through really in a detail process with his video about creating a uplighter horn, and later, and so he developed this video going through about how he installs it in his car and how you know, you know, when you think about your car, you only have one built in tool to help you audibly communicate and that's your horn and, you know, everything we do in our, you know, lives. We email, we text, we are on the phone, we have so many communication tools, that when it comes to your vehicle, you only have one, you only have one tool and so it kind of made me think about how do we increase the versatility of the

I love it medium. I mean, I can see why you were the People's Choice Award. I'd like that. That's It's nice. It's a unique and novel solution that that seems really important and you honestly comes down to safety bar 101 super pumped for you super pumped for you. So let me switch gears back a little bit. I want to talk to April and TimothyKretchman. From from action driven education, which I think I liked the name of your company, because I'm feeling like stuffs gonna happen with a name like action driven So guys, you were the big winners of this thing. And that's that's pretty crazy. Congratulations.

Thank you so much. We appreciate it. We appreciate all the support we've received all the way through this. So it's been a quite an adventure.

I can imagine So how long have you been working on this, this company for and how is like education, your passion?

Yeah, well, if you count our education time in there, it's quite a while I was in education for 22 years, okay. equal amounts of time there but as teachers we we did learn first of all that action is what changes the world so we that's why we named our company when we did action driven education. But our goal as educators is to come up with ways to change it for the children that are struggling the most to learn those being children with disabilities, right? So what we've developed is our Accomod system, okay, which stands for accommodations and modifications, aka mods, and what they are. They're detailed descriptions of ways to empower a child pastor disability. So despite the fact that they may have a disability that my age, otherwise, very cool, very cool. So tell me more. How does this work? Exactly. And tell me about the different types of disabilities that this works with? Because I mean, I just I've actually been doing a lot of interviews with folks that are in the education field I've been hearing like a lot about like, I'm not a parent, but I'm learning now more and more that there's so many children with different types of disabilities now, and there's really been more I guess, more recognized in this day and age and there's so impactful, and so to have a tool that can help him get past this, I think it's just really exciting.

Oh, disabilities, Obviously the category that we work with, although we really try to drill it down to needs, and so many people will struggle with an aspect of learning even if they are or are not identified with a disability. So maybe you're a child who struggles with, like attention or being able to read reading comprehension, for example, you might struggle with fluency with your math facts or a short term memory difficulty, for example, and then you get into disability categories like autism and learning disabilities as well. So our goal is to help teachers and parents who are ultimately responsible, I guess, you'd say, for finding ways to educate these children. And our goal is to put out as many of these ACA mods as we possibly can, and organize them in an online system that's designed to gather from the user input about the child that you're specifically thinking about. So we talked about their strengths right? Then gather a little bit of input from them, so that we can return to them some suggestions, some ideas or ways they can overcome this child's disability.

That seems like the key to me right there. Because you're always you'd be confronted with a plethora of things in which to pick from. So being able to narrow that down to get to the right ones quicker would probably make a huge difference. Right? Right. Exactly. And that that's been what took us the most amount of time, we've been working on developing our Akhmad system for three years now. Okay, and that took us the most amount of time without ability to beat it down to take from hundreds down to a handful that are the most appropriate for a child. And in addition to that, then once they find the Achmad or two that suits the child's need, we then support them through implementation. So in the details of our athamas our guidance for the teacher or the parent to say, consider this accommodation. And then once you decide that it's the right one, then there's details to help them implement in the classroom. As well, it's almost like a roadmap from beginning to end to find a way to support a child.

That's amazing. And this is a subscription based model as well, too.

So what we do is our, our primary goal is to impact as many children's education as we can. So we try to sell to school districts all the way over to individual subscribers. So if there's a parent, or a teacher that's interested as as an individual, we have a subscription for them as well. And we basically provide that all through our website and action driven education calm.

I love it. I love it. And I'm assuming new with the whole COVID pandemic and so many people have been doing school from home and everything like that this is even more important than ever, right? Hmm.

It is definitely exceptionally important. You know, we tailor the system to children with special needs, but we're actually trying to help teachers, general education teachers, special education teachers, teach them in the least restrictive environment. So we want them back in that regular education classroom, and with some small tweaks and some unique ideas, you know, we can help them pass their disability. So whether that's providing them with a set of guided notes or just something that will assist that student to reach their fullest potential in that regular education classroom, and eventually, we're all going to be back to face to face instruction. So not all we say it's true.

So, you know, we're not only looking at virtual accommodations and modifications currently, but eventually we're going to need to, you know, assist the students support the students and the parents and the teachers to get them back to face to face and try to get them where they need to be and to learn to their fullest potential.

Absolutely. So tell me about winning this is a big deal. I mean, I think that's pretty amazing stuff. I mean, besides getting a nice chunk of cash, which can mean all the difference towards getting your company to the next level, what what kind of connections and things have you made from this as well? too.

Well, I have to tell you, I I'm pretty famous for a really poor YouTube video where they caught me saying I'm just a teacher. I don't know what okay. About in that infamous video, is the fact that when it comes to running a business, I was a teacher with an idea and and while I can teach him and help children with special needs, I didn't have any idea how to begin a business and structure that that was mentioned earlier with the startup Alleghenies and the Ben Franklin. So many times when you just go like this, you know, hold your head and think, what am I going to do? I'm not a business person here, like, I need that insight, right.

Early on that the minute I had that feeling, I need to just reach out to somebody in that ecosystem. And they and they definitely, it's been a tremendous help, not just on the financial side of things, and maybe even more so than the financial side of things is a supportive right system that the folks that are there to help us.

I would often say yeah, I mean, the cash is like the icing on the cake, but it's really it's the connections and support. But you're getting that are really the most beneficial to the company. So I'm curious Anki What are your thoughts? I mean, being the People's Choice Award through this, and your experience going through this, how helpful is if you can make new connections? And really, because because we are entering a pretty, pretty crazy cool market there, I mean, the barrier to entry can be pretty tough. Honestly, I'm assuming going through this process is definitely I don't think brought that down a little bit for you maybe. Absolutely. And so, here, at least in Bedford County, the bcda, or the Becker County Development Association, they're part of startup Alleghenies. They have a startup coach who is I think it's just been awesome to Andrew and he's kind of helped me kind of reshape and kind of reward the company. So it's not so technical and that people can understand it because that was a big challenge for me is because I as you can imagine, I talked to a lot of audio engineers. Exactly. And so they just want to you know, they want to cut to the chase, and so I had to take a step back and explain it. And so they've done a great job. He's got me in touch with the Ben Franklin partnership in State College during the tech moderator. And so that has helped a lot with understanding how to really, you know, come across quickly, how do you have your value proposition, your customer discovery? A lot of that has been something that, you know, you know, I've read, you know, the lean startup, but they actually go through the startup owner manual from Steve Bagley, right, deep value, he then you realize that, okay, I've done this a lot differently. And so like, going back into it, and, and having those resources to really, you know, grasp all of that has just been, it's been really amazing considering the location that we're in. You don't you don't think that there would be that many resources, but there are a lot more resources that there were 5-10 years ago.

Exactly. And now that we're all accustomed to zoom, like it's you can be anywhere now and start being Building your company, honestly. And so I would say, Yeah, I would be in a beautiful part in Bedford county trying to start my company, that's for sure. Get away from the hustle and the bustle, if all I could. So congratulations to both you guys all around just great work. And this is the type of thing that I think is just really making our region just completely completely cool. And so of Maryland, like when's the next one? How can people plug in and, you know, be part of it and get part of the competition?

Well, there are some tech accelerators coming up. Ben Franklin and startup Alleghenies also, co sponsored accelerators as well as big idea. I think the best thing to do is go to startup And see schedule of events is also or Ben I'm sorry, I met but Ben Franklin's website startup Alleghenies website, there's always a listing of events and what you need to qualify.

Perfect and I really encourage everyone to do that. I mean, I just love the fact that people like teachers, I have an idea I can see a better way turn to a company. I know there could be a better horn like tyrannical company. I love it. I just think it's so cool, man. I love what you guys are all up to. And I cannot thank you enough for being part of our summer and 50 Pittsburgh tech stories. Great stuff all the way around, guys. Congratulations once again on your success to date. Thank you and thank you.

Thanks so much, Jonathan.

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