Meet Shinri Kamei ’16 and Krystyna Miles ’16, prospective BE candidates in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering respectively at Dartmouth’s Thayer School fo Engineering.
“We had a ton of ideas early on, and we didn’t know that THIS was the idea we wanted to pursue until we went to restaurants and realized that it was a real problem,” said Miles, referring to her and Kamei’s start-up venture, Tray Bien, conceived in their Introduction to Engineering (ENGS 21) class during the fall of 2013.
Posed in class with the challenge of identifying a problem and a solution under the theme of mobility and portability, Kamei and Miles’ group “…went to dinner at Molly’s as a team and asked our waitress if she ever experienced wrist pains, to which she replied, ‘Oh my God, all the time. We all have tendinitis, and most of us are just waiting for carpal tunnel”” recalled Miles.
Over the ensuring weeks, the extensive and iterative interviews with waiters and waitresses in Hanover restaurants became the basis of the inspiration to create a new ergonomic serving tray that would prevent wrist such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel related to the holding and handling of serving trays.
The trays are trademarked under the name Tray Bien which is a play on the French words “very good,”. Tray Bien won the Phillip R. Jackson Engineering Sciences Prize among a group of 14 ENGS 21 projects.
“At first we considered other project ideas too. For example, we thought about a device that would transport accumulated hair in shower drains to a trash can without physically touching the hair clump,” said Kamei.
Ultimately, after presenting all their ideas to a panel of Thayer professors as a part of ENGS 21, the group concluded that Tray Bien proved most promising.
After the class ended, the group consulted a patent lawyer over winter break and pursued a provisional patent with the encouragement of the Thayer panelists who witnessed the project grow, mature and take off. On their first day back for the winter term, Miles and Kamei met with Professor Gregg Fairbrothers of Tuck School of Business and director of the newly revamped Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network. He directed them to a contact at Adams-Burch, a large wholesale supplier of food service equipment. In mid-March, the duo hosted a booth at Adams-Burch’s annual Great Ideas Trade Show in Landover, Maryland and showcased their idea to over 200 industry professionals.
“We were just holding our trays all day from nine to six, and trying to get people’s attention. In the end, we took 2,000 pre-orders in the two days we were there. Before that point, we didn’t know that any of this was possible, because we didn’t know if there really was a market for this type of product. The tradeshow was the proof of concept that encouraged us to keep moving forward,” explained the duo. “When we came back toe school in the spring, we entered the Dartmouth Ventures entrepreneurship competition and for the first time in the competition’s history, won both the first place prize and the people’s choice award.”
Currently, the duo is talking to more than 10 manufacturers who have expressed tremendous interest in making their trays.
“We are looking at samples they sent us, and we’re hoping to pick and finalize a contract soon since we already have a distributor lined up,” said Miles. “They [the distributor] are the same people who made it possible for us to attend the trade show, and after witnessing our success, wanted to work with us.”
When asked about the actual work behind the success of Tray Bien, Miles and Kamei admit to the long hours that their project consumed but also describes their experiences as tremendously rewarding the informative.
“Nothing ever just happens,” explained Kamei. “There was a ton of work and focus that went into it, but if you seek the resources here you can definitely find them. Even before the final product is done, it’s so much more than just project design. You have to be out there talking to people, learning about the market, etc. This entire experience has basically been a crash course in entrepreneurship because before this we didn’t know anything about business and the food services supply market, and the best way of learning is by doing, and that’s just what we are doing.”
“But what really made this whole experience great was being here at Dartmouth. Being students, just in general, really helped our whole story, in terms of people being interested in our product. And being at Dartmouth, we had access to many mentors and professionals in the Dartmouth and Tuck community who sincerely wanted to help.”
“Hopefully, we will have the product rolled out by the summer. And whatever profit we accumulate in year one, we will want to roll back into the company. Right now we are just students doing this for the learning curve, and we have some licensing offers that we are hoping to look more into at the end of the year. Ultimately we want to determine whether or not we are in the best position to be distributing our trays because we know that there is probably someone out there who can do a better job. For now though, we want to keep it for a while because the process has been so great as a learning opportunity.”
“For now though, we want to keep it for a while because the process has been so great as a learning opportunity.”