May 13, 2014
A High School Startup That Keeps You Awake

School, sports, homework, friends, and managing a successful smart watch company: the balancing act of Eddy Zhong, Adam Lorenz-Kruk, Miroslav Predny, Jessie Ying, and Wendy Li, a group of greater Boston high school students and the founders of Blanc Inc.

Blanc Inc., declaring “innovation is timeless”, has introduced a new type of single purpose smart watch to the market: the Spark Watch. 

The Spark Watch, simply put, keeps people awake. By detecting one’s movement patterns, the watch calculates the average motion of a person and vibrates if the motions match those of a person about to fall asleep.  

When Eddy Zhong’s brother had an emergency the night before the Gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, he didn’t get any sleep before the big test. At the top of his class, he tried to take a quick nap during the test, resulting in disastrous test scores. Often falling asleep in class himself, and watching other students do the same, Eddy saw a solution to this problem, and put his smart watch idea in motion. 

Zhong teamed up with longtime friend Miroslav Predny, a senior at Winchester High School, and then Adam Lorenz-Kruk, a junior at the Bromfield School, after a meeting of the Bromfield School’s Society of Finance and Economics Club. The team launched their idea at a New England Chinese Information and Networking Association (NECINA) Youth Entrepreneurship Service (YES) program business plan competition, where Jessie Ying, a junior at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, and Wendy Li, a sophomore at Wellesley High School, were brought on board. Initially the competition helped the team solidify their business plan, but when they won a $1,200 cash prize, they used the money to build a prototype. 

Pictured above:  Eddy Zhong, Adam Lorenz-Kruk, Miroslav Predny, Jessie Ying

Frank Pobutkiewicz, a final round judge at the competition and founder of College Apprentice, Pobutkiewicz saw much potential in the Spark Watch. 

“What struck me as interesting was that they actually had a prototype. With most high school business teams, it’s all about theory and coming up with an idea. They presented an actual watch to me and I was hooked,” says Pobutkiewicz, “I said ‘I bet you I can help you sell these things’. Where so many of these young entrepreneurship programs fall short is actually launching the business.” 

Pobutkiewicz brought the group under his wing of the Young Entrepreneur Challenge at College Apprentice, where they were provided with web design, web development, legal services, and workspace at the Cambridge Innovation Center. Under the Young Entrepreneurship Challenge, Blanc Watches will be competing at an international entrepreneurship program competition at Boston University with students from seven different countries. 

“When I was setting up this program, it was the first time we were taking a high school business through it. Everyone told me I was crazy, and I sort of knew I was on to something,” says Pobutkiewicz. 

Zhong explains that pricey smart watches from Sony and Samsung do everything that an iPhone or Android can do, so if a person already owns a smartphone, there’s no real reason to buy a smart watch. By creating a single purpose watch, the price is lower so students can afford it, and it creates potential for the company to develop more single purpose watches. 

“The advantage is that we have one function that we focus on each individual watch and we’re the only ones that do it. There aren’t any other smart watches that can do this,” explains Lorenz-Kruk. 

The team strives to focus for simplicity, hence the company name “Blanc”, meaning white. 

“If you were an 80-year-old grandmother you would know how to use it. It’s so simple. There’s two buttons. One turns on the watch, one turns on the spark. You don’t need an instruction manual,” says Zhong. 

This goal of simplicity is backed by numbers. 

“A report just came out that said half of Americans that buy wearable tech stop wearing it after six weeks,” Pobutkiewicz points out, “By customizing and focusing on one element and one specific application, there’s a new category that you dive into.” 

Pobutkiewicz says the most exciting part of working with Blanc Inc. on the Spark Watch is taking the initial idea of helping high school and college students stay awake and finding other applications for it. The company is finding ways that the Spark Watch can help travelers avoid jet lag, and to keep people like overnight security guards, ER nurses, and medical interns awake. 

Ying says the company is looking to expand its markets to people like truck drivers and pilots as well. Military use is also a possibility, with veterans saying they would have loved to have had a Spark Watch while in the service. 

Balancing school, sports, and college searches is tough enough without the pressure of launching a company, but Zhong says a quote he once heard describes the team’s attitude, “There’s no such thing as a ‘ I don’t have time’, there’s only such thing as priorities.” 

The group meets every weekend and some weekdays after school, all while working individually in between. Zhong says it all comes back to dedication and priorities. 

“Sleep sometimes is a priority that you have to give up. When I set up the manufacturing line, we outsourced to China, which is in a different time zone. I would come home from school at 3:00pm, sleep until 8:00pm, stay up until 3:00am to call them, then took another three hour nap before going to school.” 

Spark Watches, now in the pre-order stage, are available for $50, but will cost $100 after the pre-sale period ends. The team explains that pre-ordering was a strategic decision because they wanted their business to be focused on selling their product, not on raising money. The website, launched just three weeks ago, has already made over $2,000 in presales. 

“That’s more than 50 percent of the businesses on this floor [at the Cambridge Innovation Center]” says Pobutkiewicz, “This is a real business. This isn’t theoretical. This isn’t an academic approach It really encapsulates what we’re trying to do as a company, where students really have to be in control of their own futures and own destinies. And this is an example of that.”

Maddie Bilis is a student at Emerson College and a VentureFizz Contributor. Follow her on Twitter @MadBillzz.