Start Me Up

At the Columbia Startup Lab, the ideas keep on clicking.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2014
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Launching a Thousand Ships

It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and Delphine Braas ’14BUS and Adrian Gradinaru ’14BUS are catalog-ready in matching nautical navy T-shirts, clutching WeWork coffee mugs, and eager to talk about their boat-rental company, Sailo.

“It’s like Airbnb for boats,” says Braas.

“With a little bit of Uber thrown in,” says Gradinaru.

“And Yelp . . .,” adds Braas.

“So, it’s kind of like the best of every start up . . .”

“But for boats!”

Indeed. It started, Gradinaru says, when he went on an enviable trip with his Columbia Business School cohort: a week sailing between the Greek Islands.

“It was something I’ll never forget,” he says. “The views, the time with my friends. It made me really want to keep sailing.”

But when he returned to New York, Gradinaru realized that it wasn’t so simple. He didn’t have a boat, for one thing. And there wasn’t an easy way to rent one — it involved contacting individual marinas, which generally didn’t do a brisk rental business. Even if he were able to find one, he wasn’t experienced enough to take a boat out on his own.

Through his research, though, Gradinaru learned that there was no shortage of vessels out there; more than fifteen million privately owned boats — both powerboats and sailboats — were sitting at marinas, and were only used roughly 5 percent of the time. Boat owners were unlikely to rent their expensive equipment to a novice sailor, but recruiting a stable of Coast Guard–licensed captains solved that problem, and made it possible for potential customers to use the service regardless of experience.

Gradinaru had the technical skills to begin developing the idea into a website; before coming to Columbia, he had earned a master’s in engineering from Stanford and spent a decade at tech startups in Silicon Valley. A Columbia Business School course on launching new ventures helped him to structure his business plan, and he didn’t have to look far to fill in the rest of his team.

“I think we first met at a cocktail party for European students,” said Gradinaru, a Romanian national, of Braas, who is from Belgium. A veteran of the hospitality industry, Braas was president of the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization.

“After working at Nestlé and other big companies, I came to Columbia knowing that I wanted to work at a startup, but I didn’t have a concept of my own,” she says. “I interned at several before Adrian approached me with his idea.”

The two clicked, and Braas took over marketing and customer acquisition. They were joined by a third partner in January, who worked full-time while Braas and Gradinaru finished their degrees. By August, they were beta-testing the site, which matches boat owners, customers, and captains through what Braas calls a three-sided platform. Boat owners and captains will advertise their services through the site, and as on the popular vacation-rental site Airbnb, they are also responsible for setting the price. Customers can then browse through the offerings and find a good fit for their needs, guided by a Yelp-style user-review feature.

“Boating has the reputation for being an elitist activity,” says Braas, who expects that a typical outing would cost between $100 and $150 per person per day. “We don’t think it has to be. These are prices that some people would pay for a nice meal, or going out after work.”

2014 AMA Columbia-Portraits Global-Innovators from Colleen Deng on Vimeo.

Sailo is currently based only in the New York area, but as the company grows, Gradinaru and Braas hope to move south for the winter to popular boating destinations like Florida and the Caribbean. For now, they’re putting in eighteen-hour days at the Startup Lab, recruiting clients at boat shows and other events, and securing investors.

“It doesn’t even feel like a job,” says Gradinaru. “Everyone here is trying to build something, and they believe in it completely. I’ve got no complaints.”

Well, except for one thing.

“Given that I started this company to make it easier for me to go sailing,” he says, “I haven’t had time to go out on the water.”

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Connecting Disaster Victims with Relief

Nearly two years after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York, many of the thousands that the storm displaced are still homeless, seeking benefits, and otherwise feeling the effects of the region’s deadliest and costliest storm.

Tyler Radford ’12SIPA thinks he can help.

When the storm hit, Radford was a newly minted master of public administration volunteering for the American Red Cross. He was disillusioned by the logistical nightmare of disaster relief: though there was a tremendous outpouring of support — more than $575 million in donations for Sandy alone — Radford found that it wasn’t easy to get the money into the right hands.

“Navigating the web of assistance from FEMA, insurance companies, relief agencies, and private donors was daunting,” he says. “Survivors were relying on word of mouth to find programs that they might be eligible for. At the same time, the agencies were all trying to reinvent the wheel. It was frustrating for everybody.”

In response, he and two of his fellow aid workers developed RecoveryHub. Currently the Columbia Startup Lab’s only nonprofit venture, it is an online platform that connects donors, relief agencies, and survivors after a natural disaster.

“Remarkably, RecoveryHub is the first and only site to bring these groups together,” says Radford. “We wanted to empower both sides with the tools and information needed for a faster and better recovery.”

In addition to aggregating resources and information, RecoveryHub will eventually have an innovative wish-list feature, which Radford hopes will lead to a more efficient use of resources. Through the site, organizations will post lists of specific things they need and projects they hope to fund. Donors can then browse these lists and decide exactly what they want to support.

“So, instead of just clicking the donate button and giving $10 or $20 to a big organization, donors now have the option to choose projects, locations, and organizations that resonate with their own interests and beliefs,” Radford says.

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