Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Tray Bien

An enterprising student team brings an introductory class project to market.

By Kimberly Swick Slover

Some problems are so common that people barely notice them or assume that if a viable solution existed, it would have been discovered long ago.

Last fall a team of four engineering students took 10 weeks in the incubator of their ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering class to identify and create a solution for one such problem: the high incidence of injuries and accidents related to awkward serving trays in restaurants. Less than a year later, two of the team members transformed their class project into a new business, Tray Bien LLC, to bring their product—an ergonomic serving tray—to market.

Shinri Kamei ’16 and Krystyna Miles ’16
IN BUSINESS: Shinri Kamei ’16, left, and Krystyna Miles ’16 describe themselves as accidental entrepreneurs. Photograph by John Sherman.

Class of 2016 students Shinri Kamei, Carly Kuperschmid, Krystyna Miles, and Yvette Zou teamed up to tackle Professor Ulrike Wegst’s ENGS 21 theme of inventing solutions for mobility and portability challenges. In need of an accessible testing ground, the group took a fresh look at serving trays in local restaurants.

“We observed the standard serving tray was begging for improvement,” Miles says. “In the first week we met a waitress who told us she and many of her coworkers suffered from severe tendonitis and ‘were just waiting for carpal tunnel.’ We focused on human-centered design and were in constant dialogue with Hanover restaurants to test and receive feedback on our concepts. After several messy prototypes, we felt we had designed the ultimate improved ergonomic serving tray.”

Constructed of sturdy, lightweight bamboo, their tray prototype featured slots to slide in stemware, holes to secure glasses, room for plates, and two rectangular openings with fist grips to accommodate different arm lengths and put the server’s wrist in a stable, comfortable position.

Why had no one thought of this before?

“It’s almost too obvious. I think people just overlook and accept the standard tray that has been around for a long time,” Miles says. “For centuries!” Kamei adds.

The Tray Bien team realized its prototype might have a life beyond the classroom at the ENGS 21 final product demonstration, where they received overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from the College community and advice from Professor Wegst and others to “get patenting this right now.”

The students, who won Thayer’s Phillip R. Jackson Prize for outstanding performance in ENGS 21, immediately began the patent process. They officially filed a provisional utility patent for their product in February 2014.

While Kuperschmid and Zou moved on to other academic priorities after the class, Kamei and Miles had become passionate about their product’s potential to improve the health and working conditions of food servers. Their research revealed that the food-service industry—the second largest employment group in the United States—bears huge financial losses and reputational damage from accidents caused by heavy, unstable trays. Astonishingly, no viable alternatives to the old standard are available on the commercial market. Kamei and Miles registered Tray Bien as a limited-liability company in New Hampshire in March 2014.

“We decided to take it forward as a business venture because so many people loved our product and recommended we take it to the next level,” Kamei says.

Wegst introduced Miles and Kamei to Gregg Fairbrothers ’76, founding director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN), to seek advice on launching the venture. Fairbrothers gave them his book, From Idea to Success, and connected them to Tuck School of Business resources, DEN student and alumni mentors, and to Kevin McClamroch, vice president of sales at Adams-Burch, a major distributor in the food-service industry.

“Their product had merit; it’s more functional, stable, and ergonomic than traditional serving trays, and meets an industry need,” McClamroch says. “We talked through the cost the market would bear for the product and how they plan to take it to market. They had a good concept but lacked a good deal of market feedback.”

Their conversation coincided with an upcoming Adams-Burch trade show in the mid-Atlantic region in March 2014 that would attract thousands of buyers in their target market, from restaurants to caterers and casinos. “I invited them to set up a booth, show their concepts, and get real-world feedback to see if theirs was a real-world venture with legs to go forward,” McClamroch adds.

Krystyna and Shinri in the machine shop
“After several messy prototypes, we felt we had designed the ultimate improved ergonomic serving tray,” says Miles. Photograph by John Sherman.

Kamei and Miles returned to Thayer’s machine shop with instructor and mentor Charles “Chip” Brettell to build new iterations of their tray, and also designed a logo, business cards, and marketing materials. They finished Fairbrothers’ guide to entrepreneurship on the plane to Washington, D.C., for the trade show.

“Our tactic going in was to approach every person who walked by our booth and ask them, ‘Can we tell you about our trays?’ Some people were initially, understandably, unenthused, but we told them our story—that we were engineering students from Dartmouth College—and demonstrated our tray anyway,” Kamei says. “By the end of our pitch, nine of 10 customers requested more information or placed an order.”

What happened at the trade show surprised McClamroch, a 20-year industry veteran.

“Shinri and Krystyna took my suggestions to a whole new level. They moved their booth to the edge of the aisle and stood in the aisle so that it wasn’t possible for customers to pass by without engaging one of them,” McClamroch says, laughing. “I was able to use them as a great example of enthusiasm and engagement for the rest of our suppliers.”

Tray Bien became the talk of the two-day trade show. The students came away with confidence, actionable ideas for product enhancements, interested investors and manufacturers, six supply companies that wanted to license their product, and more than 2,000 orders from customers for products that didn’t exist yet.

With the next challenge—the annual Dartmouth Ventures entrepreneurship contest—just weeks away, the students threw themselves into preparations. Fairbrothers, Justin Leon Tu’15, and alumni mentors Catalina Gorla ’09 and Bill Nisen ’73 coached them through dry runs of their presentation and offered invaluable tactical advice and support.

“Krystyna and Shinri, in typical Dartmouth form, were learning machines, using every piece of feedback as an opportunity to grow,” says Gorla, founder of DEN’s Ohio chapter. “I have never met two undergraduates more receptive to feedback.”

Competing against more than 100 companies, including 26 DEN regional teams, Kamei and Miles sailed to the last round. In their final presentation to 300 people, they radiated enthusiasm, poise, and passion. Twice the audience interrupted their presentation with applause. The Tray Bien team emerged with the First Place Prize, the People’s Choice Award, and a total of $29,000 to take their product to market.

 

IN THE WANING DAYS OF SPRING SEMESTER, Kamei and Miles arrived in the Couch Project Lab at 8 a.m. to discuss their journey and critical next steps. They smiled and seemed upbeat, their scratchy voices the only sign of fatigue or stress.

They described themselves as “accidental entrepreneurs” ascending a steep learning curve with phenomenal support from Thayer, Tuck, DEN, and others.

Tray Bien in use
“We focused on human-centered design and were in constant dialogue with restaurants to test and receive feedback,” says Miles. Photograph courtesy of Tray Bien.

Miles says that starting a company has been the most exciting, rewarding, and meaningful journey of her life—and also the most time-consuming and challenging. “Passion is the key to being a successful entrepreneur,” she says. “If money is the only incentive, I don’t think it’s the best driving force to get you through the hard parts. Success for us is getting our trays to our end-users and improving their daily lives, whatever it takes. We’re not defining success by financial metrics.”

The power of the team—and surrounding themselves with people they trust—has been critical for Kamei and Miles. They say they’ve learned firsthand how vital communication skills are for conveying ideas effectively and interacting with all types of people. And they agree that juggling academic and co-curricular responsibilities with the insatiable demands of building a business is hard.

“The most important thing we’ve learned is that we absolutely love doing this,” says Kamei. “There are truly amazing resources at Dartmouth. Everyone wants to help and is excited about experiential education. We’ve found it’s the best way to learn.”

Kamei and Miles say they also learned to listen to customers, who insisted on dishwasher-safe trays. The partners let go of beautiful bamboo in favor of a phenolic composite board—a more resilient material that maintains the wood aesthetic—for their final products.

The Tray Bien team spent much of Sophomore Summer refining materials, finalizing manufacturing and distribution contracts with their attorneys, pushing forward on a non-provisional patent, and edging closer to getting their first products to their first customers. With their distributor, Adams-Burch, serving the mid-Atlantic region—a good test market—and linked to a large network of regional distributors, Kamei and Miles are already preparing for the possibility that Tray Bien could move into the national market.

But mainly they’re keeping their minds on the work at hand.

Calling Kamei and herself “playful partners,” Miles says they’re “excited to be right here, right now. There are so many exciting entrepreneurial initiatives happening on campus now. We’re so grateful to be involved.”

—Kimberly Swick Slover is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

 

From ENGS 21 to Industry

Tray Bien LLC is the latest company that began with an ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering project. Here are the others.

Osmonics

In 1963, when ENGS 21 students Dean Spatz ’66 Th’67 and Chris Miller ’66 Th’67 were given a jar of brackish water and told to find a way to make it potable, they came up with a prototype for a reverse osmosis purification system. They ramped up their undergraduate project into graduate-level research. In 1969 Spatz cofounded the reverse osmosis company Osmonics with longtime Thayer Overseer Ralph E. Crump. Their first machine was sold to the Mayo Clinic for kidney dialysis. The second went to a car wash for a rinse-water system. The company grew into a world leader in reverse osmosis filtration. In 2003 General Electric bought Osmonics for $275 million.

Aqua Design

Founded in 1983, the desalination company Aqua Design was an extension of a 1963 ENGS 21 project with Professor Paul Shannon and a reverse osmosis graduate research project that Spatz and Miller conducted under the guidance of Dean Myron Tribus. Aqua Design engineered, manufactured, constructed, owned, and operated seawater reverse osmosis desalination plants supplying water to governments and resorts mainly in the Caribbean. The company reduced energy consumption for the main desalination process to less than 9 kilowatt-hours per thousand gallons by reusing the hydraulic energy in the waste brine by means of dynamic pressure exchange systems. Sold to Ionics in 1996, the company is now part of General Electric.

Gyrobike

Six years after Hannah Murnen ’06 Th’07, Augusta Niles ’07, Nathan Sigworth ’07, and Debbie Sperling ’06 Th’07 tackled the eternal problem of learning to ride a bike, their solution, the stabilizing Gyrobike wheel, went on the market. The inventors and Errik Anderson ’00 Tu’07 formed a company, GPSS, LLC, which developed the intellectual property, filed the original patent, created prototypes, and wrote a business case. Under the business leadership of Daniella Reichstetter Tu’07, thousands of children’s Gyrobike wheels were sold directly to customers and through various retailers. In 2013 the inventors sold the technology’s rights and patents to U.K.-based entrepreneur Robert Bodill, whose renamed product, Jyrobike, is available for purchase at jyrobike.com.

Spiral-E Solutions, LLC

The company, founded in 2011, features a vacuum suction tissue-stabilizing device designed to prevent tissue damage during endoscopic surgery. The device was invented in ENGS 21 by Alison Stace-Naughton ’11 Th’13, Ihab Basri ’13, Brenna Gibbons ’12, and Ph.D. candidate Scott Snyder ’00 Th’01. All cofounded Spiral-E Solutions, LLC, and serve on its board. Stace-Naughton is the company’s manager.

 

Learn more about ENGS 21 by watching our playlist on YouTube:

For more photos, visit our Student Projects album on Flickr.

Categories: Features

Tags: award, entrepreneurship, innovation, patent, projects, students

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