Dirk Swart, Vic Aprea, and Xanthe Matychak – all 2015 Rev Hardware Accelerator alums – have recently been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a source of funding that enables entrepreneurs to develop their technology for public good.
“The goal of Wicked Device is to create jobs, manufacture in the United States, and employ people who want to work on rewarding projects,” says Dirk, who emigrated from Cape Town in 2001, noting that Ithaca has a special vibe. He chalks it up to beautiful surroundings, a high quality of life, and access to several schools with a focus on R&D. “This is the kind of small town where we a company like ours can even exist.”
Dirk is the co-founder of Rev Member Company Wicked Device, a contract manufacturing company that is also active in the Maker movement. He and fellow founder Vic joined Rev in 2014, and in 2015 Wicked Device was one of Rev’s Hardware Accelerator teams. There they met fellow Accelerator member Xanthe Matychak (who is now the Assistant Director of the program). Xanthe, who is an active member of Ithaca’s Makerspace Ithaca Generator and a design instructor at Ithaca College Dept of Environmental Studies, had also been working in hardware design for years. The trio realized they had a common interest in IoT devices and ed-tech.
Xanthe approached Dirk about applying for the grant after meeting a SBA representative at the Women Redefining Entrepreneurship conference in February 2016; she thought the grant might allow them to develop Wicked Device’s Air Quality Egg for an educational software platform.
The Air Quality Egg – created by Dirk and Wicked Device CTO Vic – measures several factors of air quality, including the six pollutants identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Clean Air Act of 1963. The open-source air quality sensor got its start on Kickstarter five years ago and was subsequently voted one of Kickstarter’s Best of 2012. The Air Quality Egg has established itself as a reliable tool, scoring comparatively better than many of the similar products on the market.
The grant, which has awarded the team a total of $225,000, will enable Dirk, Vic, and Xanthe to expand the Egg’s OS to include a software platform that is more accessible to users. The team envisions the Egg being used by teachers in schools across the globe to allow students to create and conduct their own scientific experiments using real data.
“It’s not easy for students to do experiments with real air quality data,” says Xanthe. “We’re hoping that this gives them a chance not only to conduct experiments, but to design their own.” The team plans to make their software both collaborative and easily accessible, leveraging the Air Quality Egg’s technology to develop a powerful data-sharing tool for scientists of all ages. “The Educational Tech market is a great fit for techo-idealists like us. It affords us the freedom to explore how we might connect users to do things that make the world better in a way that mainstream consumer markets don’t always have room for.”
This kind of innovation isn’t feasible without funding, though; many small businesses don’t have the resources to develop projects that may not yield immediate revenue. “I feel indebted to the NSF,” admits Dirk. “They really believe in science and innovation, and they give you a network of support. It’s a bit like Rev on a national level.”
Both Xanthe and Dirk feel that the SBIR application process is unique. “It’s not like sitting in front of a venture capitalist or a bank manager,” says Dirk. “The person who is approving the grant – the SBIR program manager – is your friend. They want to see your project succeed.”
This is not the first time Dirk, Vic, and Xanthe have collaborated to create success. They won an Infy Maker award from the Infosys Foundation last year for a similar project. “One of the biggest offerings that Rev provides is this idea of creating a more connected entrepreneurial community,” says Dirk. “Our collaborations are just one example of where networking has paid off.”
What’s next for the tech trio? The project is currently in Phase I of development, but the team hopes to expand the educational platform for use in not only air quality data, but soil and water as well. Xanthe cites the conditions in Flint, MI, explaining that their platform could help speed up the process of correcting pollution problems. “What if those students, teachers, and parents had the tools they needed to make their data visible?” she asks. “We’d like to enable everyone to share that data with the world.”
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