SolePower aims to charge smartphones with footsteps

From left to right: Adam Pinson, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major and former intern at SolePower; Hahna Alexander (CIT ’13), current chief technology officer at SolePower; and Matt Stanton (CIT ’13), current CEO of SolePower.  (credit: Courtesy of Davit Davitian) From left to right: Adam Pinson, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major and former intern at SolePower; Hahna Alexander (CIT ’13), current chief technology officer at SolePower; and Matt Stanton (CIT ’13), current CEO of SolePower. (credit: Courtesy of Davit Davitian)

In 2013 alone, Carnegie Mellon launched a record 36 startups which, combined, produce everything from 3-D printers, in the case of PieceMaker Technologies, to artificial heart valves, in the case of PECA Labs.

Recently SolePower, a company that makes electricity-generating insoles, has been making headlines by earning a spot on Popular Science’s 2014 Invention Awards List. The SolePower insole, according to the SolePower website, produces electricity when the wearer steps on it, and stores the energy in an external power pack.

SolePower was born when its co-founders, Carnegie Mellon alumni Matt Stanton (CIT ‘13) and Hahna Alexander (CIT ‘13), took inspiration for their senior mechanical engineering capstone project from hand crank-powered flashlights. They wanted to make shoes that lit up when the user stepped on them, with the initial goal of making walking or running at night safer.

“After the class, Matt and Hahna saw greater potential for their product,” business developer for SolePower Davit Davitian, a University of Pittsburgh graduate, said via email. “By storing generated power for later use, they could make a renewable, portable power source for various mobile devices. As a hiker, Matt saw an immediate benefit for outdoor enthusiasts. Both of them also recognized the great social benefits SolePower can have for people living without access to electricity.”

According to Popular Science's article recognizing SolePower, “Instead of using piezoelectric and other inefficient, bulky methods of generating electricity, [Stanton and Alexander] shrunk down components similar to those found in hand-cranked flashlights.”

Although the idea behind SolePower was a direct result of Stanton and Alexander’s classwork, the company grew with the help of Project Olympus, an initiative of the School of Computer Science that fosters student entrepreneurs.

Distinguished career professor of computer science Lenore Blum founded Project Olympus in 2007 after seeing countless Carnegie Mellon students move to California when they graduated to work in Silicon Valley, rather than pursuing their own ideas as entrepreneurs.

“We produce the best technological resources on the planet, namely our students, and as soon as we produce them we export them everywhere but here,” Blum, who has worked at Carnegie Mellon for close to 15 years, said in an interview about her inspiration for founding Project Olympus. “I could understand what’s going on — if you’re getting these great jobs, why even think of starting something yourself? That was the culture.”

Inspiration from Project Olympus also came from Blum’s work with Aladdin, a National Science Foundation-funded institute for algorithm research. Aladdin researchers found applications for algorithms — what Blum called the “basic building blocks of computer science” — outside of computer science theory, using them for everything from mapping logistics and distribution centers for Federal Express to managing auctions. Around this time, too, Blum said, there was a decrease in federal research funding. “There used to be more funding for basic research from the government; in the past 10, 15 years funding has gone down, which is really a shame because the major innovations of our company have come from basic research,” Blum said. “I had this bright idea. I thought, well a lot of our products are close to commercialization, so why don’t I commercialize them and bring money back for research?”

From there, Blum created Project Olympus, which has nurtured close to 150 PRoblem-Oriented Business Explorations (PROBEs) since its inception. From these PROBEs, 99 companies have been founded — 76 student-based and 23 faculty- or innovation fellow-based.

Recently, Project Olympus partnered with the Tepper School of Business’s Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship to form the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which Blum co-directs with Dave Mawhinney, assistant teaching professor of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Donald H. Jones Center.

“Project Olympus played a crucial role in the formation of SolePower,” Davitian said. Davitian stressed the mentorship to which Project Olympus gave Stanton and Alexander access. “It provided Matt and Hahna with a place to work as well as needed advice and mentoring on how to start a business. Kit Needham and the rest of the staff at Project Olympus helped Matt and Hahna on learning how to create a solid business plan, go to market strategy, and other crucial aspects of business development. [Dave] Mawhinney also had a large role in mentoring them and helping them understand what it takes to start a successful business.”

SolePower is only one of many successful companies that have come out of Project Olympus and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, such as DuoLingo, a popular smartphone app for learning new languages, and OpenCurriculum, an online platform for creating and sharing K–12 learning material.

SolePower was also part of AlphaLab cycle 10, from January 2013 to May 2013. As part of AlphaLab, SolePower received $25,000 and business knowledge which, Davitian said, “has been much more viable than the financial benefits of AlphaLab.” Davitian continued, “The program connected SolePower with an amazing group of mentors and advisors.”

Although SolePower’s current model requires a 15-mile hike to charge a standard smartphone, Stanton said, “The company is working toward a design that can charge an iPhone after less than five miles of hiking and withstand about 100 million footsteps of wear and tear,” according to Popular Science.

SolePower’s first insoles are on track to be released by the end of this year or early next year, Davitian said.