How to not cook the kids in the car – and six other good ideas

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A clever alarm to prevent kids dying in hot cars has won AUT startup weekend

An idea for a sensor-based alarm system to warn people if a child has been left in an overheating car, has won the inaugural AUT Kickstarter Weekend.

A three-man student team, made up of two designers and a creative technologies major, beat 50 other students in six teams to the top slot in the start-up ideas competition.

Photo: Tim Hamilton, VisionWorks 

The runners-up were an Uber-like app for urgent deliveries (dial up if you want your mother-in-law’s birthday present dropped off and van drivers bid for the job), and a student job service (bob-a-job for uni and school kids).

The Pepitech child car alarm idea involves a flat sensor sitting under the fabric covering of a child seat. The gadget can tell if a child is in the seat, and also measure the air temperature in the car. If parents accidentally leave their child and the temperature goes above safe levels, it would trigger an alarm (much like a fire alarm), which would alert passers by.

A 16-month-old baby died in the car park of Whangarei Hospital in January having been inadvertently left in his mother’s car, and figures show up to 50 children die in hot cars each year in the US.

The AUT start-up weekend, run out of the university’s southern campus in Manukau, was put on to give students the opportunity to develop a business idea under typical start-up weekend conditions (54 hours, pitch your initial ideas, make up teams and then work like crazy all weekend before a final pitch to judges at the end), but in an non-intimidating way, says organiser Stephen Thorpe, a senior lecturer at AUT’s School of Computer and Mathematical Sciences.

Photo: Tim Hamilton, VisionWorks 

“On Tuesday 24 March in the no 2 carpark one of the students asked me the question ‘Steve can we have a start-up weekend at the South Campus? And the following Friday [students] responded positively to my market validation survey – will you come south? And will you pay to come?”

Thorpe says that while there are plenty of similar events available in New Zealand (the most recent Startup Weekend Auckland was in June, and Wellington hosted a Science and Research Startup Weekend in July), his experience was that students were reluctant to pitch their ideas at gatherings involving “real” entrepreneurs, in case they got publicly knocked back.

In the same way, although AUT already hosts two student enterprise challenges, the AUTEL Innovation Challenge, and the AUT Venture Fund Kickstart Competition for early-stage businesses, there was nothing for students with very early-stage ideas, Thorpe says.

“There was a gap between having a nice idea and learning skills to find out if it will work and who can help you. There is a lot of support once it’s up and running, but we wanted to provide a learning opportunity early on.”

Photo: Tim Hamilton, VisionWorks 

He says it was also a good way of getting students from different courses working together, rather than in their subject-specific silos. The weekend brought together business, IT, design, engineering, creative technologies and marketing students, as well as students from the MBA programme - and one PhD student.

Callaghan Innovation’s Christina Houlihan, who has won two different start-up weekends and been a runner-up in another, was one of 12 mentors for the AUT students.

“More than 90% of the ideas at start-up weekends never proceed to becoming a business, but it doesn’t matter,” she says. “It’s all about learning the basics – forming a business model, market validation, pitching, and how to work with people you’ve never met under stressful situations.”

Photo: Tim Hamilton, VisionWorks 

Pepitech team members Praveer Srivastava, Ben O’Connor and Thomas Davies say their product wasn’t popular with other students at the initial pitch, and they tried unsuccessfully to get students with business and marketing expertise to join the group.

 Photo: Tim Hamilton, VisionWorks

The number of post-its signifies the popularity of an idea. Pepitech has only one 

But even with a small team, they say they struggled to get agreement, and changed their minds about the product and the market right until the last minute.

“We went round and round; at one stage we almost switched to the pet market,” O’Connor says. They also considered a device that sent alerts to a parent’s phone, or even the police, he says, but eventually settled on a more simple alarm.

“The design side was easy, but we spent so much time discussing the business side, customer interaction, finances and sales. [a start-up weekend] teaches you about these things and about deadlines and how to be efficient in your processes.

“I’d definitely recommend other students to do it.”

Thorpe is already planning next year’s Kickstarter Weekend, probably at AUT’s main campus, where he says it would attract more students.

“It’s been so much fun. Stressful because we didn’t know what to expect. But fun.”

 Photo: Tim Hamilton, VisionWorks