Student presents at whiteboard
Learning in Sync
Trinity startups get educational, musical

Trinity entrepreneurs are working to change the way we learn.

For student startup Skelton Musical, which has designed a collaborative, team-based musical product called a beat band that replaces the metronome that musicians use, their approach is all about getting people back in musical sync. 

“The beat band is both a metronome and tuner, and it goes on your wrist,” says Lucas Riley ’23, along with fellow team members Paul Kim ’23, Alfonso Kamel ’23, and Gabriel Ogden ’23. “And instead of an audio signal, like most metronomes, it'll use haptic feedback, which is basically vibration.” 

For newly-launched nonprofit FARO (Spanish for “Lighthouse”), who sell an internationally-minded curriculum to schools that focuses on issues such as sustainability and conservation, the goal is inspiring action for a global set of young students. 

Alongside team members Shelby Atherton ’23, and Elena Negron ‘22, Rachel Poovathoor ’22 says “we can better our global community by empowering students to act on global issues, such as plastic pollution. Just knowing that we can enact change through our social enterprise and our nonprofit organization, that’s something that pushes us on a philosophical level.” 

Both of these startups are, themselves, in the middle of their own learning process as part of the 

2022 Louis H. Stumberg New Venture Competition, Trinity’s premier entrepreneurship incubator that wraps up this fall with a $25,000 grand prize at stake. These teams, along with five other finalists, have spent this summer honing their businesses, networking, raising capital, and taking other vital steps as part of the Summer Accelerator phase of the competition.

Skelton Musical members (from left) Lucas Riley '23, Paul Kim '23, Gabriel Ogden '23, and Alphonso Kamel '23.

Learning Curve

By advancing from the prelims, each team at the Stumberg Competition gets $5,000 in seed money—but that’s just the beginning of what the 10-week accelerator has to offer. The teams also get free housing, wages for up to 40 hours a week for four employees, crash courses in business workshops and seminars, and invaluable networking opportunities within Trinity’s highly-developed network of alumni, as well as industry and fundraising connections.

Skelton team member Ogden, an engineering science major (same as  the other three members of Skelton), says the housing was a major part of the accelerator. “I don't think that there would've been really a way for me to stay over the summer and work on this startup if I didn't get housing.” Kim, another Skelton team member, adds, “And there was the fact that we actually got to work on our business over the summer, instead of having to have another job.”

Over the years, Stumberg teams have often used the accelerator to fine tune their products, technology, or services. But even though Riley says the team of Skelton engineers “kind of knew what we wanted our product to be and to look like, we still knew absolutely nothing about the marketing and the business sides, or sales and financial dashboards.”

That’s where the networking side of the accelerator comes in. Both Skelton and FARO, in addition to getting a seat for multiple unique Trinity seminars and guest speakers, also have access to a venture mentoring service; they get plugged into Trinity’s strong and growing base of entrepreneurship alumni; and they also earn a free membership to work at Geekdom, San Antonio’s premier startup coworking space and incubator.

“The networking, with our venture mentors and alumni who showed up, that's just been really helpful,” FARO’s Atherton says. “Everyone has been really open to giving us free advice. We just ask, tell them the kind of the problem we’re facing, and we get such great advice.”

FARO team members (from left) Elena Negron '22, Shelby Atherton '23, and Rachel Poovathoor '22

Model Students

Most of the advice, for both teams, has been learning how to pivot or adapt their business models, if not their specific products. 

For FARO, which is a nonprofit and thus operates a bit differently from some of the other groups, learning how to operate in the world of NGOs and government grants was a vital step.

“We learned how to utilize grants,” Poovathoor says. “Obviously, we want the majority of our future income to come from our products, but because we're in the nonprofit world, we can leverage that status to receive relevant grant funding to help get us off the ground. So, this summer, we’ve really been building the tools to make FARO more sustainable.”

And with Skelton’s prototype functional, the focus now turns to working with different manufacturers, figuring out how to get this product into the hands of as many users as possible this fall. “The big thing for the next couple months,” Kim says, “is being able to figure out how to start at a large enough scale to be profitable. So I think we’re just learning how that all works, all at the same time as remembering how important your brand is and keeping sight of the mission and values for your company.”

Master Motivators

The summer accelerator can also be a crucial time for Trinity entrepreneurs to really cut to the core of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

But for both FARO and Skelton, the motivations behind both products have been clear from the start.

FARO’s interdisciplinary curriculum features international case studies on plastic pollution, a self-produced and published book that accompanies this curriculum, along with relevant worksheets for teachers to use and a step by step guide for the culminating project project that teachers can lead anywhere in the world, which is to create an artifact out of recycled plastic. Poovathoor says “If you think about a lighthouse, it is not only rooted in one place, but it is also able to look out and shine a light on other places in the world as well. That’s a perfect analogy for what we aim to do.”

“Think globally, act locally” might as well have been the FARO group’s motto this summer, as all three team members practiced what they preached by working together on their business while spread out around the world.

While Atherton studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea, Poovathoor was in Bosnia for Trinity’s  international criminal justice program. “And here I was in San Antonio,” Negron says, “so we were spread across three time zones. But just like the students that use our curriculum, we can learn a lot from these different places and cultural contexts.”

The Skelton team also has a personal motivation behind their product: not only is the entire team united by a love of engineering, they’re also all musicians—and each wants to make music more accessible to groups of people at a time, not just individuals.

As a result, the Skelton beat band also has a syncing function so that multiple units can be synced to the same beat, ideally used in a group setting. That’s not something a regular metronome can do.

“Everybody has a right to be a good musician,” Riley says. “Personally, I have a lot of hindrances with my level of musical talent. So, everything had to come from practice, and that involved metronomes. Currently, these types of accessories just don't work for everyone. They can be expensive, difficult to balance on your music stand, or even to hear as a group if you’re in a band.  If you're a middle school band student in San Antonio, you can't go and spend $250 on something like this.”

The Skelton Musical team presents their pitch at the Spring 2022 preliminary round of the Louis H. Stumberg New Venture Competition

Prepping for Finals

Each Stumberg startup still has some work to get done as finals crunch time approaches this fall.

Skelton wants to find aforementioned manufacturers who can help them make their product as efficiently as possible in an era where the price of electronic goods is skyrocketing. And then, the group needs to have real users test the product.

“Our product is kind of solidified, but we also want it to look better,” Skelton’s Ogden says. “It's clunky, it's ugly. It's definitely not what we'd sell as a final product, but we also want to start putting it on somebody's wrist and get some real feedback on the experience of using a metronome like that.” 

FARO is excited to announce they’re launching dual pilots of their curriculum in Quito, Ecuador and also in San Antonio. The Ecuador connection is with a graduate of Trinity’s Master’s in Teaching program, Poovathor notes. 

“So we’re not only launching, but we're hoping to get some preliminary data on how our curriculum is doing in those classrooms,” she says. “Ideally for us, we'd love to have a testimonial or two from parents, teachers, or kids who have gone through the curriculum, to hear how students are feeling and interacting and what their attitudes are toward our lesson plans and projects. And then quantitatively, we want to know the effects this is having on students, for example through a factor such as whether test scores are improving as a result of learning through the inaugural FARO curriculum.”

Even with the nerves and tension building as the final presentations before the Stumberg judges loom, the FARO team say they’ve learned to take pride in the little things:

“The companion book Shelby & Maria wrote for our curriculum, we went from seeing that book progress as an idea, to a draft, and nowit’s being sent to print. Same thing with the curriculum I created,” Poovathoor adds. “So I know we’re also pumped to see our work formally published and out there soon. Seeing all of our progress thus far has been so fulfilling, between last summer and now: seeing it come to life is more than enough to keep propelling us forward.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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