NSF-Funded eLab Startup Launches with Fortune 500 Company
While attending Cornell, Andrés Gutiérrez (B.Arch. '15, M.S. '17) and Adler Faulkner '18 pursued a business idea for a modular building system that could be shipped in pieces and self-assembled on site. Its potential uses were for disaster relief shelters, military operations, and space exploration.
In the process of developing an initial business idea, the duo began developing software that could map complex relationships between the structures' physical components, a necessary step in enabling self-assembly. These young entrepreneurs saw so much potential behind the algorithms they were developing to automatically map information, they were inspired to found a different company called Comake.
Comake is a smart workstation that consolidates the vast number of accounts and cloud services used by modern workers. The software also provides new-age contextual mapping: for example, when a worker emails a colleague with a document, Comake will automatically show both users any related versions, files, people, and other messages.
The technology caught the eye of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which recently awarded the founders a $225,000 grant to further develop the product.
Gutiérrez and Faulkner first explored the concept for Comake through Cornell's Life Changing Labs incubator. Next, through Cornell's eLab accelerator program, they learned to describe their relatively abstract business idea in concise terms.
"Our time at eLab was focused on a lot of very early customer discovery and conceptual work," said Gutiérrez. "The eLab mentors did a great job in preparing us to successfully pitch top investors like First Round Capital's Dorm Room Fund and General Catalyst's Rough Draft Ventures."
The eLab team also prepared Gutiérrez and Faulkner for the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 0 program, which helps entrepreneurs develop their products for market and apply for grant funding. Since participating in the NSF program — which included Innovation Corps (I-Corps) training to commercialize their business idea — the pair has conducted close to 300 prospective customer interviews around the country to focus their go-to-market strategy. Through the Phase 0 program, the founders also applied for and received their SBIR grant.
Gutiérrez and Faulkner have used the grant to hire Comake's first full-time employee and open an office in Culver City, California. They are currently preparing to launch their product with several companies — including a Fortune 500 company — later this month.
The cofounders said they still rely on the advice and mentorship of their eLab instructors, including Ken Rother, eLab program director, and instructors Tom Schryver, Steve Gal, and Brad Treat.
"Ken was our mentor," Gutiérrez said. "He met with us weekly, helped us try to communicate what our product was, helped us synthesize concepts. Steve helped us with sales and figuring out how to talk to customers. Brad was the reason we did the NSF SBIR Phase 0 program that led to our grant, and Tom helped us practice for interviews."
Gutierrez and Faulkner said they feel fortunate to have been a part of such a supportive faculty and community.
"I come from a strategy and design background through Cornell's architecture department — a school that is not traditionally associated with business or entrepreneurship, but I maintain that it is the place where I learned how to think creatively and approach problems," Gutierrez said. "Adler comes from the engineering school, with a different culture and experience. We were able to come together to found Comake, each through our own paths at Cornell, where we were lucky to be inspired, mentored, and supported by amazing faculty and by the community. For me, these mentors were Andrea Simitch and Jenny Sabin — I don't think their impact on our success so far can be overstated. Students should really try to take advantage of their time at Cornell by engaging with their program and department, but also by making connections with people across the broader university. Programs like eLab that help bring students together across departments are really special in that sense."
This story first appeared in the Cornell Chronicle by Casey Verderosa, a writer for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement