Startup Spotlight: Contact Lets You Interact in the Virtual World

Author: Amanda Quick

Ben Marggraf knows how to recognize and seize opportunities. More than a year ago when he was working on a 3D modeling project, he made a realization: working with a 3-dimensional space on a flat 2D screen didn’t give users the ability to interact with the objects they were creating. He knew there had to be a solution.

“I thought it would be great if I could just reach in and grab my model,” says Marggraf who studies biomedical engineering at Syracuse University. “…We decided that we wanted to make a glove that would allow you to feel and manipulate what you see on your computer screen.”

The glove is now a product designed by Marggraf’s company, which is called Contact. The glove will allow users to feel and interact with objects inside the virtual world.

“We want to become the main input for virtual reality and we want people to be able to actually gather information in the environment that they’re in and feel it in their hands instead of having to work in that space with a game controller or keyboard and mouse,” says Marggraf who is from Dover, NH.

As of now, the team is in the prototyping stage, but here are a few things you should know about how Contact works:

  • It’s a Wearable: “It’s a glove that the user can wear and captures all of the motions of the thumb, index and middle finger,” says Marggraf, the CEO and founder of Contact.
  • Get Information from Your Environment: “We want you to get information from your surroundings so we are working on haptic systems in the form of temperature, vibration, force feedback and pressure,” says Marggraf. “If you’re in an environment where there is a block of ice on one side and fire in the other, you put your hand over by it you can actually feel your hand getting colder or warmer.”

Additionally, Contact’s competitive advantage is the “first movers advantage,” which means it’s the first company to create a product that lets you feel things in the virtual world.

“Companies like Oculus Rift who are doing incredible things have openly said that the missing link for virtual reality is that there is no way to control it,” says Marggraf of the teams opportunity. “So there is no company out there that currently has a product to control virtual reality.”

 Quick Growth: Contact in the Last Year

 Last summer, the team spent their summer in the Student Sandbox to build their product and develop a business model. Marggraf says he’s thankful the team had an entire summer to dedicate to building the company.

“We went from our original prototype, which was just a glove that had a tendon attached to the tips of your five fingers that you could move it around, to actually having a glove that could realistically capture the motion of three fingers and control,” says Marggraf.

More about Marggraf and the Team

In addition to Marggraf, the team includes Tim Meyer who is the main developer and designer; Meyer is also a mechanical engineer and was instrumental to designing the first prototype systems. Tom Buchanan is also on the Contact team and studies Biomedical Engineering at Syracuse University.

Marggraf’s advice to college students working on startups is simple: find out about all entrepreneurship resources available on your campus and take advantage of them.

“We have the IDEA department, which has been great. We won some money through the IDEA Awards and worked in the Sandbox over the summer,” says Marggraf.” I also work at the Makerspace and having access to all of these 3D Printers and laser cutters are immensely helpful if you’re in a company that is trying to do some kind of prototype or hardware.”

Marggraf also says the most important thing he has learned about running his own company is that it takes both persistence and passion to be successful.

“I want to be in a position where I can make decisions for myself and really work for myself because I have come to realize doing this stuff outside of school is really rewarding in and of itself,” says Marggraf. “It’s not easy, but if you have the tenacity to do it, it’s extremely rewarding.”



Startup Spotlight: Skyworks is the Future of Drone Technology

Author: Amanda Quick


Arland Whitfield has always been passionate about technology, so it’s no surprise that when he arrived at Syracuse University he quickly took an interest in drones.

“I really saw a demand for it,” says Whitfield of drones. “I wanted to learn more about it and get the hands on experience.”

He’s turned his hands-on experience into a consulting company called Skyworks Pro and an R&D lab called the Skyworks Project.

“The Skyworks Project aims to discover what is possible with drone technology, both technically and socially,” reads an excerpt from the company’s site. “Our team brings people from all backgrounds together and we welcome anyone who is interested in learning what this incredible bleeding edge technology can do.”

Skyworks: What They Offer

One of the goals at Skyworks is to change people’s perspectives about drone technology and how it can be used to help various companies and sectors.

“Drone technology is a new frontier surrounded by a plethora of information,” reads an excerpt from the company’s site.

Here are some of the services the company offers:

- Consulting: “the experts at Skyworks can help you cut through the noise and decide which drone setup best suits your needs,” reads a portion of the site.

- Working with different industries: The team has worked with different distributors to help create solutions for professionals, policemen, firemen, military and more.

- Aerial video and photo services: The team can help users get requested footage or the “shot of their dreams,” without clients having to worry about getting the shot themselves. Skyworks makes the process “worry-free.”

The Skyworks Project team uses drones to capture aerial video and photos for their clients. Photo provided by Arland Whitfield.

While the team has made considerable progress and is a front-runner in the drone technology space, there are currently regulations on how and where you can use drones.

“You can’t use it for commercial purposes,” says Whitfield. “It’s very cut and dry. If you make money from flying a drone for somebody, you are subject to a $10,000 fine. Based on track records and people flying places they shouldn’t, drones can be dangerous machines and some kind of regulation needs to be put in place.”

More about Whitfield and the Team

The team includes Whitfield – the founder and President of the Skyworks Project – as well as Elliot Greenwald (the chief engineer), Natalie Wiesnet, (media strategist), Jaysin Lorde, Andrew Pregler, Chase Guttman, Kyle Foley, Merritt D’Elia, Tony Shi, Sahevaan Taneja and Erin Miller.

Both the team and company are growing, and Whitfield’s plan for the future is to maintain the R&D lab at SU after he graduates.

“The goal behind that is to have a place where students can explore drones…” says Whitfied. “Students can write a proposal and explore that… it’s a huge sector. We also hope that Skyworks Pro continues as a consulting company with more clients and a growing reputation.”

Whitfield’s biggest advice to anyone who wants to start a company in a field that is somewhat unknown and unregulated is simple: do your homework and know the industry “like the back of your hand.”

“I think there are a million different pitfalls and risks being in the emerging tech sector,” says Whitfield. “The government doesn’t really know what to do about it, and there are a lot of weird policies. Having an understanding of what really is the law and where you fall on the scale is very vital to being able to effectively pursue your goal.”

My class made 340% net profit in 2 days


Not bad, eh? I attended USASBE’s 2015 conference last week and particularly enjoyed the experiential education track. Thank you Doan Winkel! Based loosely off a concept presented by Diana Kinder, I led the following experiment with my undergrad class Management 311 [Idea to Startup] at Le Moyne College.

  • Divide students into 5 teams
  • Give each team $10
  • Tell them to come back next class (2 days later) with a profit
  • Best performing team wins profits made by all teams
  • Must be legal

Each team returned my initial investment (my affordable loss) and a variety of profits. Pursuits and profits were:

  • Group A: Sold water at a campus basketball game: $29
  • Group B: Sold Gatorade & water a campus intramural game: $14
  • Group C: Sold candy on campus: $26
  • Group D: 50/50 raffle (on-campus): $67
  • Group E: 50/50 raffle (off-campus – mainly commuter students): $34

The first three groups bought a product using their $10 investment to try & make money, providing us insight into two lessons of entrepreneurship:

Group A had the right product. They also had the right customers! Water sales at the college basketball game seemed like a no-brainer, as students are not usually able to get any concessions at the game. Selling water fills a totally unmet market need! However, even the best product-customer fit requires the ability for an exchange of funds to occur, and Group A failed to consider their ability to make transactions happen. Turns out, students do not bring money to games, as they are not used to having options to purchase concessions. Lesson? Ease of transaction matters: just ask one-click users!

Group B pivoted from water to Gatorade & saw a large market: there were many more attendees & participants at the intramural games than at the campus basketball game. The group, however, failed to take into account a free, available resource: they discovered direct competition from the water fountain out in the hall. What can we learn from Group B? Larger markets aren’t always the obvious or best way to make money. Understand & research your market. Customer discovery cannot be an oversight.

The last two groups, D & E, leveraged possibility rather than products. Both groups recognized that their success was limited by capital. Instead, they focused on their means (Sarasvathy): who you know, what you know, and who you are. They asked, “How can I make the most amount of money in this time period?” rather than, “How can I make the most amount of money with this capital?” Students must recognize a key lesson: the $10 is in fact a constraint, not an opportunity.

The most successful team did not base their venture on the funding that they had. Instead, they based it on their individual means, concentrating on what they could do, instead of what they could not. They saw the potential of a 50/50 raffle and even segmented their customer base, selling to professors (desiring to support student entrepreneurship) and to students (seeking the chance to win cash). These groups relied on their ability and possibility rather than the constraints of the cash they had on hand.

I was impressed with the outstanding final results of the money made, but the students’ experiential learning was even better!

Key takeaways:

  • Be sure your customers can complete the transaction
  • Understand your direct and indirect competition
  • Lack of money is not always a constraint. Don’t let it hold you up.

Are you sh@#$ing me?

I won’t sh#@% on you

“Your idea is worthless; your execution is everything”: a refrain I’ve preached for years. As a coach & mentor to entrepreneurs, I must practice what I preach. Too many would-be advisors provide feedback solely on their point of view, rather than that of the market. My wife calls this “should-ing” on people: telling folks what to do without benefit of understanding their business or their market. As such, I’ve adopted the opening salvo, “How can I help you?”

“How can I help you?” is a simple phrase that provides me (and the entrepreneur) a cache of data. This phrase tells me:

  • If the founder can concisely tell me his idea, team & market [Elevator pitch]
  • What level of research the founder has done [Level of effort & commitment]
  • Who they’ve teamed with [Ability to attract others to the cause]
  • How far they’ve progressed [Technical capability]
  • Who their target market is [Customer discovery]
  • What their “issue” is [Risk assessment & market understanding]
  • Why they are pursuing the idea [Passion]

Entrepreneurs offer answers to this opening question with numerous variations. Number one the list is: “Do you think it is a good idea?” Far too many coaches simply provide an answer to this question and, even worse, they ‘should’ on entrepreneurs without facts! Unless I am the exact customer that the entrepreneur is pursuing, it doesn’t matter what I think; it matters what the market thinks.


My role as a coach is to provide a framework for the entrepreneur to get out there and discover if customers will pay for the idea. I cannot simply provide kudos. Having worked with hundreds of companies, I can provide historical reference and guidance on data that must be collected and analyzed in many verticals. Investors who have seen thousands of pitches have similar reference points yet still employ subject matter experts and do customer discovery during their due diligence. As it says on every prospectus: “Past results do not guarantee future performance”. Therefore, even with a framework, ensure you analyze the market.

Entrepreneurs, I implore you to seek out mentors with data sets that can advise your decisions. Do not fall into the advisory trap of seeking out “successful business people” to help. Better yet, get out and go ask your potential customers. Lots of them. As W. Edward Demming stated, “In god we trust, all others must bring data”.

Parting advice:

  • Seek many opinions, but weight & rank their value based on experience and data.

Envisioning Emerging Technology for 2012 and Beyond

Can speculation about the future of technology serve as a measuring stick for what we create today? That’s the idea behind Envisioning Technology‘s massive infographic (PDF), which maps the future of emerging technologies on a loose timeline between now and 2040.



On it you’ll find predictions about everything from artificial intelligence and robotics to geoengineering and energy. Mouse over the entries for blurbs describing them and links to more information; you won’t find much more than a Wikipedia page explanation, but that’s plenty helpful for the uninitiated.

In 30 years, it will also be a great reference for where we thought we might end up. Did we really get interplanetary Internet in 2026? Did the Mars mission happen in 2034, or much earlier? The history of technology isn’t one so much of continued progress, but of sudden, unexpected advances. Which means that the predictions here will most likely be replaced by a reality we can’t even begin to fathom today. But it’s still an inspiring vision of the future (even if you’re scared about the robot swarms in 2031).

You can download a PDF for free, or–should you want to track our progress toward artificial photosynthesis and space-based solar power by X-ing out accomplishments on your wall–purchase a poster version here.


By Patrick James on Very Short List