Steve Melito of FuzeHub chats with Joshua Aviv, founder of SparkCharge, and previous winner of FuzeHub’s Commercialization Competition. Learn about SparkCharge’s growth after the competition and find out his advice for this year’s competitors.
Steve Melito: Welcome to New York Manufacturing Now powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. So last fall, FuzeHub held its first ever Commercialization Competition. We did this in conjunction with NYSTAR, which is the division of Science, Technology and Innovation in Empire State Development. At the Commercialization Competition, companies competed in person for the chance to win up to $50,000. Today we’re going to meet one of these winners, Josh Aviv of SparkCharge. Josh, welcome to New York Manufacturing Now.
Josh Aviv: Thank you for having me.
Steve Melito: Josh, we’re going to talk a lot today about your adventures with SparkCharge, but first, would you like to tell us about yourself? Are you from Syracuse? What do you like to do?
Josh Aviv: So originally from Dallas, Texas. That’s pretty much where I grew up, and then I came to Syracuse to get my BA in Economics from Syracuse University. End up staying to get my master’s in Information Management to Data Science from the high school. And while I was in college, I started SparkCharge in my dorm room.
Steve Melito: Okay, all right. So you came to Syracuse to go to school. You love the weather so much that you stayed?
Josh Aviv: Pretty much, yeah.
Steve Melito: All right.
Josh Aviv: The snow is what got me.
Steve Melito: Good, good. So let’s talk about SparkCharge some more, get right down to it. How did you come up with the idea behind it?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, so it was in conjunction. I took a environmental economics class with a professor here at SU, and part of that class was talking about clean tech and clean energy. Around that same time, I remember, I believe it was spring break or Christmas break, a friend of mine let me borrow their Jeep for a week. And the stipulation was I had to return the Jeep with a full tank of gas. And I remember driving the Jeep around for a week and having a lot of fun, and then when it came time to put gas in it, I almost went broke. And I remember driving it from the gas station back to the house, and in that short little trip, the notch in the gas tank had already moved down some.
It got me thinking there has to be a better way to get from point A to point B in a car via motor transportation, and I started looking into electric vehicles and electrification of vehicles. And this problem kept popping up called range anxiety, and I think it was actually coined by Jay Leno at the time because he had tested all these cars and all these new electric cars and he found there was a really big problem with them. I started working on a idea to end range anxiety by pretty much installing or developing a really ultra fast charger for electric vehicles.
Steve Melito: Okay, excellent. Range anxiety, is that Jay Leno’s term or is that one that you can trademark someday?
Josh Aviv: I don’t think I can trademark it. It’s like a industry standard term. It’s used all throughout. I wish I could trademark it.
Steve Melito: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So how did you get started? You had an idea, you had some inputs, but how did you actually start this journey of starting SparkCharge?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, that’s actually a really great question. I remember the first time I went to an entrepreneurial event on campus, I remember I was in an econ class, and I was sitting in the back of the class and I got a tweet that there was a pitch event happening on campus in the engineering building. I remember I’d had this idea and I hadn’t really done anything with it, and I figured this is going to be the opportunity to kind of go test this out. So I remember hopping up in the middle of class, having to walk by the professor, walk right out of the door in the middle of class and go over to this entrepreneurial event that was going on. And I pitched the people there, I believe it was Stacy Keefe, Dee Carter and Tony Kershaw who were running the ideas part of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University.
I pitched them on the idea, and they were like, “It’s an interesting idea. Work on it or work with us on it.” I remember meeting with them. Usually once a day they would give me something to do in terms of, “Well, go research this, go research that.” I would do it and I would come back. I’d be there every day almost completing these extracurricular entrepreneurship activities and just basically hammering out the idea, hammering out the concept, doing the market research. And within about a month I had a pretty solid business plan, and through that, basically every day going to them, had a business plan and started entering business plan competitions at the university. Started getting a lot of traction, a lot of feedback from there.
Steve Melito: That’s great. So you had an opportunity, you seized it, you literally got up out of your chair, and went to take advantage of it, which is great. And then the market research, I’m interested in that because I’m wondering are there competitors in your space? Did you enter sort of an empty wide open space or did you realize, hey, I’ve got to do something better than this other guy?
Josh Aviv: So from the market research, I realized that there was a huge gap in the industry. Everybody wanted electrification of vehicles, but there was this massive problem with infrastructure. And I realized that nobody was really doing it right. I realized that it really didn’t make a lot of sense to have these poles sit out in the open where nobody was using them. Some of them were behind dumpsters from doing the research. A lot of them, actually a lot of the research came in Syracuse. There’s a bunch of charging stations that sit downtown empty 90% of the time. And I said, “This is really inefficient. Why can’t the charger go with the electric vehicle owner? Why can’t it go in the trunk?” That way you’re not having a parking space just sit empty for a ton of time. You’re not spending billions of dollars on infrastructure. If electricity is all around us and it can be harnessed, why can’t it be harnessed to go in the trunk of my electric vehicle and then used whenever I want it?
Steve Melito: Okay, great. So you saw an opportunity, you took a look at the landscape and said, “Here’s what’s not working.”
Josh Aviv: Correct.
Steve Melito: Did you do any type of web- based market research as well? Did you have to dig deep into the weed?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, so I mean, we even went as far as looking on Facebook and different EV owner clubs and seeing what they were complaining about, what were their key issues of owning an electric vehicle. So we went as far as that. We also looked at a lot of research papers that had been done in the past on what it would take to get electrification to take off in the United States.
There were a lot of government backed programs that said they want a million cars by this year and a million cars by that year, and they were falling short. We’ve realized that the reason they were falling short is that people didn’t feel comfortable buying electric car without knowing where they were going to fill it up. There was an educational piece missing there to it as well, and we realized that our product could not only help ease the process of buying electric car and get rid of a lot of that anxiety and a lot of that worry, but also helped in the educational process of figuring out how do you charge this car. If the charger’s already with you, then you’re already warming up to the idea of buying an electric car from day one.
Steve Melito: All right, good. You had mentioned earlier that you developed a business plan. Can you tell me about that process?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, it’s actually interesting because nowadays, startups, there’s really not a lot of need to write one. But back then it was kind of the norm. The process of writing a business plan is number one, come up with an idea. The best way to come up with an idea is to solve a problem. So I mean, the reason why we buy phones, the reason why we buy laptops, the reason why we buy the shirt that we’re wearing today is because it solves a problem for us, and people buy solutions to those problems. So that’s the number one thing when writing a business plan is what’s the problem that you’re going to solve? And then doing the research in terms of how am I going to solve this problem? Is this feasible? Would people like it? Basically going through the whole process of how you’re going to get it to market, your distribution, your manufacturing if you will, things like that. It’s a process that usually takes a week or two. It’s good to do in the beginning. I definitely agree.
Steve Melito: Is it worth it? Should everyone do it even though it’s not required?
Josh Aviv: I think so. I think you should do it at least once or twice because your business plan is always going to be evolving. As things change in your market, as your product changes, your business plan is always going to be evolving, and that’ll always be something you can go back to and say, “Well, what was our thinking a year ago today? We wrote this business plan a year ago today. What’s our thing? What’s changed since then?” So I do think it’s something that everybody should do at least once when they first get started, but eventually you’re going to move at a pace where the business plan doesn’t hold as much weight. But I think for young entrepreneurs and new entrepreneurs, it’s definitely a good thing to do.
Steve Melito: Excellent, great stuff. So you got some help along the way here in Syracuse. You got some help during your education. New York State also provides really significant support for startups and manufacturing. Besides FuzeHub, and we’ll talk a little bit about FuzeHub afterwards, have you worked with a lot of other New York State funded agencies or assets?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, we definitely have. So we’ve worked with the Clean Tech Center here in Syracuse, which is based out of Tech Garden. We’ve worked with NYSERDA a lot as well. So there’s a really good ecosystem for entrepreneurs here in New York State, including FuzeHub, and I think that’s only going to continue to grow. But I think being a New York State company definitely has its benefits because of the devotion to clean tech, because of the devotion and funding behind getting these renewable ideas out there.
Steve Melito: How did you approach NYSERDA? I know they do a lot, especially a lot with startups, but what was your first step?
Josh Aviv: First step was actually going through our local Clean Tech Center here at the Tech Garden. It’s a NYSERDA funded program, so it’s a pretty easy front door into NYSERDA, if you will. It gets you very comfortable working with them and what their standards are and what they expect from a company. So that was our intro in.
Steve Melito: Excellent. And so, now let’s get to FuzeHub a little bit. Obviously going back to the introduction, you were a winner of the first ever FuzeHub Commercialization Competition, and I’m wondering what’s been the biggest benefit of being a Commercialization Competition winner, other than the money? Or maybe it is just the money, but tell us what’s helped.
Josh Aviv: So I think what comes with winning FuzeHub, obviously the money’s great, but I think what we’ve gotten out of it is we’ve gotten introduced to a lot of manufacturers. And a lot of manufacturers have come and found us through the competition, reading about the competition, and they’ve reached out to us and offered their services. So I think if you’re going to enter a FuzeHub competition, be at the stage where you’re able to take advantage of a lot of these things. Be at the stage where you’re ready to go into manufacturing or you’ve done manufacturing and you’re looking for manufacturers because it will put a spotlight on your company, and you’ll be able to receive a lot of help that way.
Steve Melito: That’s good. I’m really happy that you brought up the point about engaging manufacturers as a startup. Speaking from experience, because I do talk to a lot of startups, they believe they’re ready to engage a contract manufacturer when they’re not. And from the contract manufacturer’s perspective, they look at the startup and they say, “Well, does the startup have any money? Are they ready to engage me? Am I going to sink a lot of resources into them and get nothing in return?” Those are just the facts. So as a startup, in your experience, what’s it been like working with manufacturers?
Josh Aviv: So, when we first started out, we had a lot of those similar experiences where they would usually just give you a high quote to get you to go away.
Steve Melito: Get you on your way, yeah.
Josh Aviv: Get you on your way, yeah. But as of now, I’d say a lot of the experiences we’ve had working with Upstate New York manufacturers has been pretty positive. They’re usually willing to help you as long as they know that you’re serious and you’re going to actually work with them on it. But a lot of things we’ve also realized is that there’s a ton of manufacturing opportunities specifically here in Upstate New York, and they’re usually willing to help startups out. They’re usually not big, massive manufacturing firms. A lot of them are family owned or family run. So they understand the concept of a startup and where you guys are coming from, but for the most part, it’s been extremely positive.
Steve Melito: Good, happy to hear that. So in particular, when you won the award and you got the award money, was there a challenge that you were able to address with that that you couldn’t do before?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, absolutely. It actually helped us with a lot of our prototype manufacturing, if you will. So one of the things that we really needed to do was figure out who could help us manufacture certain components and certain parts. It helped us do that by placing a lot of small batch orders with manufacturers in Upstate New York. It helped us secure a lot of equipment that we would need to do further testing and then do prototyping. So it was a dual front. It helped in terms of vetting manufacturers but also helped in terms of getting the tooling and stuff that we needed to continue our manufacturing process.
Steve Melito: That’s great, that’s great. So since the Commercialization Competition and the award, has your brand awareness grown to more people, more companies, other than just ones that would like to sell to you, know who SparkCharge is and what you can do?
Josh Aviv: Absolutely. I mean, I’m not getting recognized in airports or anything like that, but-
Steve Melito: It’ll come.
Josh Aviv: It’ll come, right? Yeah. But in terms of brand awareness, I think the brand awareness has definitely grown. We’ve worked very hard to keep manufacturing in Upstate New York in terms of… That’s one of our core ideologies here at SparkCharge is to keep manufacturing here.
But in terms of brand awareness and everything like that, it’s definitely gone up. We have a lot more followers. FuzeHub, the social media team, tweets out everything that we tweet out. So they’re building awareness that we’re generating as well. But yeah, definitely gone up somewhat.
Steve Melito: That’s good. So how do you do social media? How do you find time? Do you do it yourself? Do you have someone on staff or someone that you hire out?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, we have a very awesome head of marketing and branding, Laura. She does an amazing job with actually finding electric vehicle news, a lot of electric vehicle data that’s out there, and then putting it out on our social media so that people are aware of how fast the market’s growing, what’s happening in the market, different states and things like that.
Steve Melito: Okay. So that’s great that you have mentioned Laura. I haven’t had a chance to meet her yet. I talked to Chris on the way in.
Josh Aviv: Yeah, our CTO.
Steve Melito: Yeah, can you tell us about Chris a bit?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, Chris, excellent. Super, super, super awesome CTO. Came from Lockheed Martin, left Lockheed Martin to join SparkCharge. He’s doing a really good job leading the engineering team here at SparkCharge. He’s definitely done an awesome job at, I guess we call, rallying the troops and then also being the point of contact to work with a lot of these manufacturers. He’s done an extremely awesome job here. Can’t say enough good things about him.
Steve Melito: That’s great, and he took that leap. It’s almost a leap of faith to leave Lockheed and come to a startup. It says a lot about what you’re doing and what obviously people believe that you can do.
Josh Aviv: Absolutely.
Steve Melito: All right. So Josh, what advice would you give to a company that’s looking to pitch in a Commercialization Competition? You’ve certainly learned some lessons, how to present, how to prepare. What advice would you give someone?
Josh Aviv: Find really good mentors and practice a lot of pitches. So one of my dearest mentors, Linda Hartsock, who runs the Blackstone Launchpad at Syracuse University, leading up to FuzeHub, I was pitching her two, three times a day, going over the pitch, going over what’s the idea that we want to get across? What are we trying to sell? What’s the key problem that we want people to understand?
When you’re pitching, I think with FuzeHub, we only got six minutes. So you have six minutes to kind of go over this huge problem that you’re solving, how you’re solving it and why someone should pick you to help you solve it. And the best thing you can possibly do is get a really good mentor who can help you through that. Mine was Linda Hartsock, as I said, and pretty much every single day leading up to FuzeHub for a couple of hours, just going over and over and over and over and over the pitch.
Get as many people as you can to see your pitch and see you pitch. Everybody’s going to be different. So some people might say this, some people might say that. Some people might take a slide one way. Some people might take your presentation the other. I even had the people here at the Syracuse Center of Excellence, Tammy and Ed, look at the pitch deck and go, “Hey, from our point of view, from a faculty point of view, this is what we see.”Pitch it to your customers. Make sure they understand, that they get it. So that way when you go to a competition, you’ve pretty much got a very good understanding of what somebody’s going to take away from your presentation.
Steve Melito: Excellent. I got to hear you speak last fall, and I remember you were very polished and very energetic, and you gave your pitch to a lot of other people. Did you practice it on your own as well in front of the mirror, in the car, whatever?
Josh Aviv: Absolutely, yeah, practice. Yeah, you got to practice it every chance you can get. By the time the day comes around, you should just be going over and over and over and over in your head with it. But yeah.
Steve Melito: That’s excellent. Josh, what advice would you give for startups in general? You’ve been on this journey for a while. We’ve talked about some things already. Is there anything else that you would share with startups that they need to know?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, so build a good team. Team is crucial. Nobody does it by themselves. So make sure you have really good teams. Depending on what stage you’re at, make sure you get a really good mentor. So those would be the two biggest things. Build a team that believes in the product, that believes in you, believes in what you’re doing. Get a mentor that’s got your back, that’s willing to work with you.
There’s a saying here at SparkCharge that “We don’t take a mentor that won’t pick up the phone at 3:00 AM in the morning.”As a startup, you’re going to have problems that are going to range all day long. It’s not a nine to five thing. So get a team around you and get mentors around you that are going to be with you through thick and thin, that are going to help you through whatever might arise, and then also be patient. Startups, we move very fast, but this is something that you’re going to have to dedicate probably five to eight years of your life into, sometimes maybe more. But be patient and be very like strong- willed about it as well.
Steve Melito: Should people prepare to eat ramen noodles and sleep on a couch in the basement and all those things as well?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, absolutely. I think that kind of goes with it. You’re usually not going to get funding from day one. You’re going to have to work at it. You’re going to have to get people to believe in it, and that doesn’t happen overnight. So if you’re not able to eat ramen noodles and sleep on a couch, then hopefully you have a really good idea that can take off quick, but you should definitely be prepared to do that.
Steve Melito: Good. Now have you been talking to investors as well already?
Josh Aviv: Yeah. We closed our pre- seed round a couple of months ago, earlier this year, and now we’re opening up our seed round. Our seed round will actually take us into manufacturing. If anybody out there is interested in our seed round, just email me josh@ sparkcharge.io.
Steve Melito: Excellent. Any advice about working with potential investors?
Josh Aviv: Come prepared. Be prepared for diligence. Be prepared to answer any questions, but I think the main one is preparation. Know your market, know your competitors, know things like that.
Steve Melito: Okay, very good. So it’s been a really exciting time in the history of your company. You’re just getting started. You’re growing by leaps and bounds. What are your goals for the rest of 2018 and beyond?
Josh Aviv: Yeah, so our goals is pretty much right now, we’re gearing up to manufacture our first thousand units, and we plan on shipping those out. Pre- orders will start opening up, I believe, the beginning of next week. We’ve got a lot of people lined up to take their spots already for our pre- order campaign. So if you’re out there, SparkCharge.io to get your pre- order. And then we’ll be manufacturing a thousand units, hopefully to ship by the end of this year, and then heading in the next year, ramping up again, ship more.
Steve Melito: Okay, so that’s SparkCharge.io.
Josh Aviv: SparkCharge.io.
Steve Melito: Okay, very good. Very good. Well, Josh, thank you so much for joining us with New York Manufacturing Now. Anything else you’d like to add before we-
Josh Aviv: No, this has been great. Thank you guys for coming. Sorry I was late.
Steve Melito: Not a problem. Thank you for having us.
So before we wrap up, I’d like to share some good news with everyone. FuzeHub is going to have another Commercialization Competition this fall. And as with last year’s competition, companies will compete in person and can win up to $ 50,000. Now please note that award funds must be used to produce or improve upon a working prototype or beta phase, which will enable the applicant, the winner hopefully, to pursue additional investment in customers leading to the commercialization of their product concept.
Would you like to learn more? If you’re a startup, if you’re part of FuzeHub’s mailing list, keep an eye on your email inbox for some more information about this year’s event. It’ll be forthcoming soon. And if you’re not on FuzeHub’s mailing list, please sign up today. The way to get started is if you go to our website at FuzeHub. com, you can look for a Contact Us link in the upper right hand corner on the homepage. That’ll launch a little form. Just fill that out. We’ll take care of the rest. So thank you again for listening to New York Manufacturing Now. On behalf of FuzeHub, this is your host Steve Melito signing off.