RIVER NORTH — Running may be good for the waistline, but a local team of engineers wants it to help users send texts and check Facebook, too.
The group of engineers behind MyPower — a device that stores kinetic energy from running and walking and uses it to power smartphones — first cooked up the idea while studying at Northwestern University in Evanston.
"As you walk or run with the device on, it stores up your movement — running or walking — and converts it to usable energy inside," co-founder and CEO Tejas Shastry said. "It stores your power throughout the day. Then you just plug it in, like an extra battery, and it charges your phone just as fast as a wall outlet does."
Lizzie Schiffman joins DNAinfo Radio to chat about My Power:
If you walk 10,000 steps a day, you can charge your phone for three hours. You'd get an even longer-lasting charge if you also wear the device while working out or biking, MyPower co-founder Alex Smith said.
Shortly after the team developed its first workable prototype last year, it saved Shastry from getting into hot water with his girlfriend. He said that's the moment he realized their invention could have worldwide appeal.
"There was one time I was out — I went to a comedy show late at night — I promised I'd call [my girlfriend] and my phone was about to die," the Lakeview resident said. "I was like, 'Ah, she's going to be mad.' Then I realized, 'Don't worry, I have my MyPower on me,' so I was able to charge my phone."
The device is the size of a pager and shaped "like a hip flask," Shastry said.
Earlier this year, the team started working out of tech incubator 1871, their unofficial home base when they're not on campus in Evanston.
A few weeks later, they won a $75,000 grant in the Chicago Challenge Cup, sponsored by the Clean Energy Trust, a local nonprofit dedicated to “making the Midwest region a national center of innovation for clean energy."
This weekend, they'll head to Washington, D.C., to compete against 63 other startups at the 2014 Challenge Cup, a global startup competition for prize money and investors' attention.
The Making of MyPower
MyPower founders Shastry, Smith and Michael Geier developed the idea for their device as a class project while all three were working on raw material science and engineering doctorates at Northwestern.
"It was an issue that we all had: We kind of all had problems with short-lasting battery life," Shastry said. "Everyone's been in that situation where their smartphone dies before the end of the day, and especially when you're active, and you're busy, and you're using your smartphone all the time, it dies faster."
Co-Founder Smith had developed a three-battery rotation to keep his Samsung Galaxy charged.
"He has three batteries," Shastry said. "He keeps one in his phone, one at work, and he changes them at different times. He had an alarm that went off to alert him to change them halfway through the day. It was nuts.
"We're all active people, we run, and it was like, 'Why can't we use the energy we generate while running or walking to recharge our smartphones?'"
Although their class was focused on business development, the trio conveniently all have engineering backgrounds, and knew they wanted to work with kinetic energy in some way for their project. Shastry said it was a no-brainer to solve two problems at once: their need for a class project, and their desperation to keep their overtaxed smartphones alive.
"There are other kinetic chargers out there, but they're huge, so you can't take it with you, or you have to wear something the size of a backpack," Shastry said. "Our focus was on making it smaller so people can take it with them without noticing that it's there."
"We were all involved in designing it — Mike [Geier] knows the most about the actual circuitry and things like that, and Alex [Smith] and I do most of the pitching."
The team developed a proprietary system to shrink the kinetic conversion technology to an unprecedentedly diminutive size, which they're now in the process of patenting.
With a Little Help from Their Friends
Shastry said that while the business was growing and gaining interest from investors, he had no doubt the team would stay in Chicago as MyPower expanded.
"Chicago has been so good to us," Shastry said. "The Clean Energy Trust has been a great supporter of us. During our class, each team was paired with an outside mentor, and [Clean Energy Trust CEO] Amy Francetic happened to be our outside mentor. She loved us — she's a great woman, and was really instrumental in helping us refine our concept."
Shastry said one of the biggest breaks in their product development came when another mentor suggested they start hanging out at 1871, the tech-centric co-working space in River North.
Shastry said they split their time between Northwestern's lab facilities in Evanston, 1871 and "in my living room, over takeout and beers."
1871 "is a great place," he said. "One of our advisors works out of there, and we always go there to talk to him. He's always introducing us to other people that work there and it's great — the kind of feedback, and new ideas you can get from bouncing things off of other people who think differently has been so, so valuable."
Shastry said elements of their accompanying app, which seeks to "track, chart and game-ify fitness," were ideas born from their collaboration with other tech thinkers in Chicago.
The team hopes to hire their first full-time employees this summer. When they graduate, the trio expects to make MyPower their primary focus as well.
"We're still going through finalizing our advisory board and our investors, but we're really excited about the partnerships we're working on," Shastry said. "There are a lot of organizations in Chicago, especially in the clean energy space, that are really good partners for us and a lot of other clean energy startups."
"We're all committed to the company," Shastry said of his, Geier and Smith's future plans. "In two years we hope you'll be able to buy one when you buy your smartphone. We want to see MyPower next to the checkout counter at your cell phone store."