Karina Pikhart, 6dot Innovations: tools that make a difference
One thing I love about the younger generation of entrepreneurs (and maybe this is true of all generations of entrepreneurs?) is that they never do what they are supposed to do. These up-and-coming entrepreneurs are not followers; they are rule breakers. Maybe because they don’t know the rules to begin with? Or even that there are supposed to be rules? Or maybe because they’re just plain open? Such a one is Karina Pikhart, founder and CEO of 6dot Innovations.
A mechanical engineer out of MIT by training, Karina moved to Palo Alto to get a PhD at Stanford. So how is it that I meet her a year later at Startx, Stanford’s incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs, working her butt off as CEO of 6dot to get ready for launch and fundraising? Or, fundraising and launch? They both happen simultaneously for Karina.
Origins: Karina grew up in LA and went to MIT for undergrad. A mechanical engineering student, Karina wasn’t thinking about being an entrepreneur, but she did fall in love with product development. For her senior MechE design class she worked with a team to develop a product for the sight-impaired. The project had the team stumbling around as if they were blind and having to tell objects apart: “And we couldn’t tell between various medicine bottles or cans of soup! That’s when I realized that the problem is pervasive and involves everything everywhere.” Team captain, Karina came up with the idea for a Braille labeler which is now 6dot’s first product – enabling blind people to make labels easily.
That was the fall of 2008. The prototype came out of the class, and, as Karina tells me, “The community – faculty, students, the blind – they all told us to take this further and not stop with an A in the class. As leader that’s when I decided that entrepreneurship was something I would try. It’s not in my family, but it was forced on me by the end-users of my product!”
Karina developed the second prototype in the spring of 2009. She entered in MIT campus competitions and swept those awards. Upon graduation (June, 2009), Karina moved to Stanford to start grad school. That’s what she was supposed to do. But she also moved her fledgling company. California, the land where dreams come true.
Karina completed one year of her masters on her way to the PhD when she decided that she really wanted to give this entrepreneurship thing a fully-committed try. “How could I not do this,” Karina explains, and then continues, “The problem is real. Unemployment is a major issue among blind people. And it’s directly correlated to literacy rates. Literacy in Braille is same as English literacy. Our product is really on point for this, and there are no other products out there to create labels at an early age and teach basic literacy. That means our product is the first thing that a child can use to create a mental map of the world.” Karina concludes, “Our tool is very cool, and you should see their faces light up when they get what we have. This community is blown away by what we are doing.”
Incubation: In the fall of 2010, Karina and her team were accepted into Startx, Stanford’s student startup incubator/accelerator. I visited this incubator which is located in AOL’s building in the summer of 2011, which is where I met Karina and a number of other early-stage Stanford-affiliated startups. The incubator houses about 13 young companies and five to six EIRs, including Ricky Yean (@rickyyean), founder of Crowdbooster.
Startx started on Stanford campus as kind of a spin out from Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE), a student club. It was a very small space when it was on campus. The founder is Cameron Teitleman and he spent a year polling other students and figuring out what the need was. He formed Startx as a separate not-for-profit organization and moved off campus to the free AOL space.
Startx provides a soft landing for students – in addition to the free space they can get a little money over the summer cycle to work on their businesses (a gift of $4K per founder, or enough to pay rent and food). For this, Startx takes no equity. Karina tells me, “The network here is said to be the best in the valley. They really help open up doors. They don’t hold our hands and do it for us, but they make us go through the doors.”
Opportunity: Cool product, but we might think, “small market.” Think again! There are 37 million blind people in the world. And it’s a $10+ billion market. And it’s growing as technology is ever more appropriate to meet the needs of the disabled.
Karina scanned the landscape for other solutions, and describes her process: “We found some lousy tools our there. So the number one question became what’s not out there? It seems super-obvious: we want to create independence for people and solve some of the gaping needs in the market. That’s low hanging fruit.”
Product: It’s taken a year to develop the Braille Labeler through the second prototype and beyond to a recent product launch. In terms of pricing, Karina tells me, “We have priced our product around the fact that people need to be able to afford this. We have not built our business model around waiting for the government to act. Our mission is independence for our customers and we want them to be able to purchase this on their own. If our tool enables Braille literacy, it also enables them to develop independence and jobs.”
Karina’s vision encompasses multiple products: “We are young and not tainted by the assistive products out there now. Most of them were developed 50 years ago or more. They’ve been in the market for decades and the market is status quo. What makes us valuable is that we don’t know those rules and underlying assumptions. And that makes us capable of developing a disruptive technology that people are raving about. If we can continue to have that outlook and that spirit, it will bode well for us.”
People: None of the current team was on the original MIT team. Rob, COO, graduated from Duke U. in 2005, and he brought some work experience when he came on board in the summer 2011. Karina expounds about her amazing interns: “Matt is a super star. He is blind and he just finished his freshman year at Stanford. Can you believe that he plays golf and ison the Stanford archery team? He‘s just incredible. Meghan is a Santa Clara U. student. She is our PR intern. She is managing the press launch and customer service. We also have Jason, a marketing guy, to help with branding. James is helping with accounting and financing. Katie graduated from Stanford this year is our web designer. It’s non trivial to find someone to do this given the requirements for blind people.”
6dot today: The company recently launched and closed a Kickstarter campaign, “6dot Braille labeler: A sight for sore eyes!?” to raise some more seed capital. Aiming for $50K, they raised almost $55K.
With their recent product launch, Karina is focused on marketing and sales. They pre-sold many individual labelers based on networking and PR.
In terms of distribution, Karina is employing a direct sales model at first. She has received interest from retailers and distributors which feed the sales channel. They have shown the labeler at conferences throughout the US – Seattle, NY, Boston, LA, FL, and SF.
They will also explore selling overseas since the labeler can be used in any language. To kick this off, they showcased the product in Frankfurt: “All the big companies were there. And we got some real interest.”
Karina has big plans for her company: “We want to be the biggest assistive technology company in seven years. This is a space where there is so much opportunity and so few players. Unlike any other company in Startx, we have a more open playing field. We are not who are going to be the next Twitter. But we will enter the market and define ourselves well.”
Challenges: The company has not been able to pay anyone, so they all have side jobs. Even with their low burn rate, the company needed startup capital. So Karina raised a small seed round that help push them towards product launch. But, she tells me, “I had to learn by messing up a lot.” Raising money was not easy or straightforward.
Karina knows that the next 12 months are critical for survival: “It’s been the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but it’s also been the most challenging and fun.”
Karina has the eternal, almost pathological optimism that you have to have to be an entrepreneur: “I am going to stay the course and do this. I will succeed.”
And I believe that she, and 6dot, will!