Collaborizm, a Kickstarter-esque website based in New York, specializes in nurturing companies in the pre-incubation stage — before they have seed money, a business plan or even, in many cases, a working prototype.
When a huge earthquake hit his hometown in Nepal in 2015, Madindra Aryal and his family had to stay in tents without electricity. He and his neighbors lived in complete darkness at night, and they could not charge their cellphones, which meant they were unable to contact worried family members.
From that experience, Aryal, a 26-year-old electronics engineer, came up with an idea: Why not try to produce a solar-powered cellphone charger, one that would be inexpensive enough that Nepalese villagers could afford it?
Although he knew he could not do it on his own, he set up a project called Nepal’s Light, then looked for a way to raise money, which is no easy feat in a poor nation.
Enter Collaborizm, a Kickstarter-esque website based in New York that specializes in nurturing companies in the pre-incubation stage — before they have seed money, a business plan or even, in many cases, a working prototype. Collaborizm connects aspiring entrepreneurs like Aryal with mentors, suppliers and early-stage capital.
For Aryal, help came fast: Collaborizm connected him to Gham Power Nepal, a utility. He also had a previous deal with Bal Joshi of Thamel.com, which transfers money and goods to and from Nepal. Those resources enabled him to build a prototype two weeks after the quakes.
After the prototype was built, 500 chargers were manufactured, priced at 2,500 rupees (about $24), and delivered to those most affected by the temblor. With the help of Collaborizm, Nepal’s Light raised $10,877 on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
With these funds, Aryal was able to build another 500, which were distributed free to rural Nepalese still living in darkness.
Collaborizm helped Aryal create weekly discussion panels to give him advice on improving the product. From those discussions, he decided to make his charger more portable by using plastic instead of metal.
“If we want more entrepreneurs going from step three to 60, we need to help more young ones go from zero to three,” said Steven Reubenstone, founder and chief executive of Collaborizm, which was set up in March 2016.
It does not always work. Some ideas, no matter how intriguing, languish because of insufficient demand, an entrepreneur’s lack of know-how or countless other reasons.
For instance, Narendran Asokan, a 22-year-old computer-science engineer in India, wanted to manufacture shoes with a built-in GPS to help locate children who are lost or abducted.
But he had problems obtaining the type of salt he would need to power the battery in the shoe.
“Collaborizm provided me with a special kind of salt from the United States,” Asokan said. “Suppliers in India sold such salts only in bulk. The salt crystals will vibrate with each step, powering the battery, sending a signal to the database.”
Collaborizm also helped him raise money to refine the product and connected him to a mentor, Robert Lancer, the site’s chief technology officer. Lancer led him through each step of the creation cycle.
Asokan was able to get the GPS in the shoe to work, but he could not power the battery without more money and a bigger team. The project is stalled as he pursues a second startup called Sciencotonic, which he describes on the website AngelList as an “augmented reality application to teach science.”
Sciencotonic is the first project on Collaborizm to receive support from Startup India Hub, a clearinghouse for Indian entrepreneurs. Asokan will get legal help, investor support and a manufacturer.
“Young entrepreneurs need to know the pitfalls to avoid while getting their products to market,” Lancer, 33, said. “It is easy to get carried away over engineering, adding features and losing focus of what users need. It’s a constant process that ideas must go through.”
As anyone who has ever watched “Shark Tank” knows, it is not easy to coax venture capitalists to invest in early-stage projects, particularly ones that are just a gleam in the eye of someone in a faraway land. But Collaborizm connects like-minded people across the world to produce the prototypes that gain the most traction on the platform.
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“We have said it was impossible to do a project, and some project leaders still go ahead with it,” Lancer said. “I often give my 2 cents, and some have proved me wrong.”
For now, Collaborizm has minimal revenue. About three months ago, it began taking a cut of the pay that freelancers earn through their work on Collaborizm projects, which so far has amounted to about $20,000 for the parent site. Those freelancers, who are drawn from developing companies, are paid small amounts — say, $40 to help build a product prototype — and sponsors on the site put up the money. The idea is that crowdsourcing talent from underdeveloped countries can help inventors get their models built far less expensively than they could in the United States.
“If you don’t have money, we can connect you with people who do have it,” Lancer said. Mentors like him oversee the entrepreneur’s progress, sometimes delivering technical critiques and other criticism needed to keep inventors focused.
“Ideas fail all the time,” said Justin Sherratt, an entrepreneur and a former director of the Founder Institute in New York, which trains entrepreneurs and nurtures startups. “Collaborizm is doing a good job of helping these startups get closer to that jigsaw puzzle we call product market fit.”
The site is “like a virtual water cooler that provides support and the needed camaraderie during the early stages of a company,” added Sherratt, chief operating officer of the virtual reality game Next Island. (It is not posted on Collaborizm.)
One of the projects on Collaborizm with popular appeal is CoffeeBot, a drone that will deliver coffee to people in the workplace (or elsewhere). Theoretically, it will roll around the office proffering coffee and doubling as a drop box for office mail, controlled by employees’ cellphones.
John Rodrigues, a mechanical engineer who is the CoffeeBot project leader, and his team have learned a few things along the way: For one, they are creating a second iteration of CoffeeBot that will be taller, the better to serve customers in cafes and at office desks.
“The goal for CoffeeBot is to see the robot delivering coffee in Starbucks and at workplaces, putting a smile on the people’s faces,” Rodrigues said.
As these projects mature, Collaborizm hopes to keep supporting their efforts. “The only way to fail on Collaborizm is to give up,” said Reubenstone, the founder. “We hope to disrupt the creation of early-stage startups, helping projects develop and mature into small companies.”