Next-gen entrepreneurs: Teenagers create tech businesses, products at Nalukai Academy’s Startup Camp

  • ‘Imi koni students discuss their website platform idea with Eric Kwan, Kahilu Theatre’s box office manager, who attended Monday’s event for ideas on how to best reach volunteers and attract young audiences. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • Julia Lim, chief engineer on the SouthPaw team, shows Ian Denzer how the scissors for lefties she designed work. A past camp attendee, he helps create a prototype of the product on his homemade 3D printer. (Photos by LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • Hunter Karas, an upcoming senior at Punahou School, demonstrates how his team’s Group Study app connects students seeking study groups. They first began brainstorming on their startup nine days earlier. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • Students Albert Yee and Daycie De Luz collaborate with facilitator Auston Stewart on Ray, a mental wellness app the young entrepreneurs and their fellow teammates created during the camp.

WAIMEA — SouthPaw, Shelfware, Ray, ‘imi koni and Group Study may sound like the latest apps and website platforms you’d read about on Apple or Android’s App Store, Gizmodo, Product Hunt, Lifehacker, Facebook or Twitter.

But these innovative startups were created in just nine days by 20 tech-savvy teenagers last month while attending Nalukai Academy’s Startup Camp.

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On July 22, 11 girls and nine boys from Molokai, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island came to Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab to create their own innovative businesses and products, while learning valuable leadership skills and teamwork. The intensive program is based on lean startup methodology and agile product management, and is free thanks to grants, investors and private donations.

Auston Stewart, who helped create Twitch and formerly worked at Apple, is a Nalukai Foundation board member and a camp mentor and instructor.

“We wanted to see if we could change the outcomes for these high school students by handing them the skills that we learned after 10 years of industry practice that isn’t taught in school,” he said. “The question was, can we get them to create self-perpetuating organizations in Hawaii that are going to drive economic growth and opportunity here?”

The 20 students, selected from among 167 applicants, attend public, private, charter schools or are home-schooled. Of these, seven live on the Big Island and attend HPA, Kealakehe High, Konawaena High, Honokaa High &Intermediate School or Hilo High.

Prior to their arrival, each student had to come up with their own business or product idea. On the first day of camp, they were divided into five teams, pitched their product ideas to each other and chose the best one — or merged two — to develop further.

“They give you all the tools you need,” Addison Hellum, a student from Honolulu, said. “On the first day we each got a MacBook Pro laptop, but by far the most valuable part is the connections you make and the people you meet. Every day we would meet a new person who’s a leader in their field and they would talk to us about leadership, what they do and why they love it.”

On July 30, each group pitched their product to a roomful of potential investors, entrepreneurs, educators and community members.

The first group presented SouthPaw, a brand that crowdsources problems from the left-handed community and offers solutions. They went a step further to develop a product their team member, Julia Lim, designed called SwitchUp — scissors made for southpaws. With the help of camp alum Ian Denzer, her idea was brought to life on his homemade 3D printer.

“A lot of us alum have been acting as consultants for the groups,” he said. “I’m studying mechanical engineering in my second year at Yale University and wanted to help them with the prototype.”

In each presentation, students identified the challenge and their proposed solution. Next, they demonstrated why they implemented it, a revenue stream to fund it and monetary support needed to launch their startup.

Koloikeao Anthony said he and his SouthPaw teammates rewrote their pitch 18 times.

“We wanted to get it just right,” he explained Monday. “We rehearsed it six times earlier today.”

The groups also developed websites, ran real-time user tests, posted tweets on Twitter and set up email blast capabilities.

Cortney Gusick — the camp’s lead facilitator and an entrepreneur with experience in tech — shared her expertise with the students.

“We were able to run real-time user tests they created by specifying demographics of who they were trying to reach for a particular product, and created a whole set of test questions, prompts and actions they wished to use,” she said. “They were recorded in real time and kicked back to them. It was really exciting to hear their reactions from the useful feedback.”

Daycie De Luz, soon to be a senior at Honokaa High, was one of the creators of Ray — a free app that offers “positive reinforcement and assistance for mental happiness.” Options include wellness exercises, connections to therapists and reassuring notifications whenever needed. The app could be especially helpful for people suffering from anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, bipolar or unipolar disorders.

“I went through challenges myself and got my own support system,” she shared during their presentation. “Coming into this camp made me think, ‘why does it have to take years to get better, to have your own tools and resources?’ I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through, so that’s why we have a solution.”

Her teammate, Abigayle Peterson from Hilo High, said, “(The app) is affordable for people otherwise unable to attain help. This was one of our overall goals — accessibility.”

To fund Ray, they proposed partnerships with organizations and institutions, churches, schools and youth groups.

The ‘imi koni team was comprised of three teens from Honolulu and Elena San Jose, a high school student at HPA. The group’s idea was “to connect youth with relevant organizations that provide community volunteer opportunities,” as stated on their website platform.

“Being in this organization has created a network for me that I didn’t have,” San Jose said. “Having an entrepreneurship mind-set has changed my whole path. Now I know there are many more opportunities that my passions are worth going for.”

Group Study, an all-in-one iPhone app, “connects students who want to discuss coursework, explain challenging problems and share insights,” according to their website. The app includes a feed, messages, a video chat and a group study session.

“Let’s say there’s a really hard question that nobody can figure out that’s posted to the feed. Somebody who took the class last year can post the way they did it from a different perspective,” group member Hunter Karas explained during their presentation.

“One of my personal favorites is Study Sesh. There will be tools to arrange meetups in person with a time and place to meet,” he added.

With business cards in hand, students answered questions from individual attendees following the presentations.

Now in its third year, the camp was created by Darius Monsef, a 1999 Parker School graduate who hit it big with tech startups including Colorlovers and CreativeMarket.

“He wanted this camp to impact young people from around the state, and to help create an incubator culture at the high school level,” David Clarke said, Nalukai Academy’s executive director and one of Mosef’s teachers at Parker School. “The camp is like a college course condensed into 10 days.”

The camp’s director, Aaron Schorn, called the students “founders.”

“We want them to turn their ideas into real, actual businesses that have revenue streams that help their communities and the world,” he said. “What makes Nalukai unique is that industry mentors worked with students directly on their products, not just as guest speakers. Also, each group had an embedded mentor from industry.”

The students said they’ll continue to work on their startups now that Nalukai Startup Camp is over.

“We are going to continue to develop our website and keep working on the scissors, outreach and advertising — getting the word out,” Morgan Dean said, an HPA student on the SouthPaw team. “This is definitely not where our idea ends.”

“As we learned in this camp, do something you’re passionate about,” ‘imi koni team member Meakala Wilhelm told the attendees. “Everybody in Nalukai Academy is passionate and because of that, they’re changing our lives.”

Clarke said the number of applications for this year’s camp increased by 50 percent over last year. Finding funding to continue it will be the next step.

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“We’re dependent upon public support as we go into our fourth year,” Clarke said. “We want to have a bigger impact.”

To donate to Nalukai Academy’s Startup Camps go to www.classy.org/campaign/nalukai-startup-camp-2018/c184073