Around 90 students in the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) participated last month in an interactive webinar with David Young, cofounder and chief commercial officer of Bounce Imaging. In the hour-long session, Young shared his experiences developing a product named as one of the best inventions of 2012 by Time magazine and the challenges and rewards involved in launching a startup.
The webinar was part of a weekly series hosted by MOSTEC, an online education and enrichment program for top high-school seniors from across the country. From July to August, the students complete online coursework and projects in science, engineering and technical writing, culminating in a five-day conference on the MIT campus. From September to January, the students interact with MIT faculty and staff and receive online mentorship from industry professionals.
During the webinar, Young said the idea behind Bounce Imaging was born in the wake of the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. Francisco Aguilar, the company’s other co-founder, observed that local search and rescue teams faced difficulties without access to the kind of complex imaging technologies possessed by better-funded international groups.
Young had personally experienced this need as an infantry officer in Afghanistan. At times, his missions would take him through complex terrain that, particularly in the dark, posed challenges for locating targets. In 2012, Young helped teach a course on leadership lessons from the military at MIT. Aguilar was enrolled in the course. When the two started talking, Bounce Imaging turned from idea to partnership.
Bounce Imaging attempts to meet the need for low-cost, complex imaging technologies observed by Aguilar and Young with its main product, the Explorer. According to Young, the Explorer — which is currently just a few months from functional prototype — will be a baseball-sized device paired with an Android-based platform. The ball is coated with a protective material and covered with six wide-angle cameras, each hitched with a set of infrared illuminators.
The user employs the device by tossing the ball. While the ball travels, it simultaneously images from all six lenses and wirelessly transmits the information it captures to the platform. The images are stitched together by the platform to deliver a 360-degree panoramic image.
As Young showed the students, the team hopes to incorporate a host of different sensors into the unit. This versatility will allow the ball’s use in a variety of applications, ranging from search and rescue operations to Homeland Security inspections and firefighting.
The students brainstormed potential technological challenges to the device through MOSTEC’s chat feature. They considered issues related to fitting all the cameras onto a limited surface area, the necessary durability of a ball made for tossing, and ensuring a high shutter speed for the rapidly traveling cameras.
The students, who are approaching college application deadlines, asked Young how his educational experiences informed his entrepreneurial venture. An MIT Sloan M.B.A. with undergraduate degrees in math and statistics, Young said that his studies have been particularly helpful in the business side of the project, rather than in its engineering or technical aspects.
“It gives you an empirical lens.” Young said. “There’s a lot of data analysis that goes into establishing a business. Understanding a market… how to do financial models… how to do supply and demand forecasting. Stuff like that — that’s not stuff that you can just guess at.”
Young further acknowledged that grades are important, but that his experiences have taught him the importance of skills beyond the textbook. “At the end of the day, being able to successfully network, being able to find resources that are valuable to you and bring them to bear on the situation at hand — there’s nothing more important,” said Young.
Although he did not know it during his deployment, Young’s military and tactical experiences have also had a continuing impact in his career as an entrepreneur. As the chief commercial officer for Bounce Imaging, Young is the primary point of contact with those who will actually utilize the Explorer, from SWAT operators to police chiefs. “I can speak the same language that they can. I understand the threats associated with operations and the things that they’re concerned with.” he said.
The webinar discussion also explored aspects of life as an entrepreneur. Young shared the thrills he has experienced in this journey. Asked by a student about his favorite parts of the job, Young cited two elements. The first, he said, is the sense of genuine impact: “It’s the feeling that we’re actually doing something that’s going to make a difference and that people care about, that they want to see completed and in the field.”
The other is the relative freedom of the profession — a freedom, Young emphasized, that comes with its own difficulties. “I’m my own boss. I set my own schedule. I don’t answer to anybody, and we do this as a team. That sounds cool, but it’s also very challenging,” Young said. “It’s easier to work for somebody else and have them tell you what to do. It’s much, much harder to be self-motivated and be a self-starter, and do it on your own — particularly if you don’t know how to do it.”
Young cites the collaborative community he has discovered at MIT and in Boston as critical for the team’s accomplishments. “The number one reason that we haven’t failed yet is because of networking,” he said. “One thing about the community in Boston that sets it apart is that people want to help each other.”
He advised students to focus on community when searching for a place to study or start a project. “I am against picking a place just because it’s high on a ranking, or because it has a good reputation. Those things matter but… they don’t matter enough to sacrifice your time and your experience if you’re not going to happy there. And hands down, the people here are not only incredibly talented, intelligent, and accomplished, but it’s really true that it’s a collaborative institution.”
MOSTEC students followed up on the discussion with enthusiastic emails to Young. Their questions ranged from the differences between undergraduate and graduate school to how Young defends his project in the competitive marketplace.
Young remarked that some of the students’ questions were akin to those he fields from investors. “They really impressed me,” he said.