By GREGORY ZELLER //
This is no AAA battery – a Long Island City startup with Long Island connections is bringing its field-tested “charge-sharing” tech straight to The Show.
Hoplite Power, a client of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program proliferating rechargeable smartphone battery packs and a network to rent and return them, is set to join the New York Mets just in time for the Amazins’ unlikely playoff run, with five “Hoplite Hubs” expected to debut at Citi Field later this month.
Company co-founders Jordan Mayerson and Nikolas Schreiber had actually hoped to charge into Citi Field in July, but “supplier-side issues” slowed things down, according to Mayerson.
Such is the life of the early-stage bootstrapper. Mayerson, CEO of the 2014 startup, and Schreiber, who was actually the company’s first tech hire but evolved into a co-founder/chief technologist role, are literally doing it themselves, with the help of a revolving door of interns: designing the hubs, marketing them, even building them by hand in their LIC office.
That last part is no mean feat: The Hoplite Hubs, designed to fit nicely into smaller businesses (bars and restaurants) and larger venues (arenas and airports), are each constructed to store, dispense, receive and automatically re-charge up to 48 Hoplites, the universal battery packs that can be rented from and returned to any Hub in the network.
Working with “dime a dozen” universal battery packs, Mayerson and Schreiber built 18 first-generation Hoplite Hub machines, which have been deployed in a pilot run at several New York City bars.
For Generation 2, the partners designed a new universal battery pack to work with their proprietary kiosks and arranged delivery through a Chinese manufacturer. They had anticipated contracting out the Gen 2 manufacturing, but “capacity restraints” nixed that arrangement, Mayerson noted, so they’ve rolled up their sleeves again.
With the hands-on partners knee-deep in manufacturing, the five Citi Field Hoplite Hubs should be ready later this month, according to the CEO, who suddenly finds himself rooting hard for the up-and-coming Mets.
“I’m hoping they make the playoffs,” he told Innovate LI. “That will give us more time to test the machines.”
However long the Metropolitans’ improbable run lasts, the Citi Field opportunity marks “our first win in the pro-sports space,” according to Mayerson, and Hoplite Power’s most ambitious rollout to date.
The smaller-scale introduction at those NYC establishments, however, has produced some big-time customer data. And data is definitely Mayerson’s thing.
After earning a computer science degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an economics degree from UPenn’s Wharton School, the future innovator found himself doing credit research for Wall Street investment banks. The work didn’t speak to his inner impresario, and he itched to “move into something a little riskier on the entrepreneurial side.”
Inspiration soon struck. Addressing “charging anxiety” for on-the-go mobile users, “especially in a city like New York City, where nobody has a minute to stop for anything,” was “the right idea and the right vocation to pursue,” Mayerson said.
A total investment of about $1 million – including a hefty family-and-friends round and a $550,000 seed from a Japanese VC accelerator – carried the startup through its early formation.
Shortly after launch, Mayerson parted with his original cofounder due to “creative differences,” but the CEO soon struck gold on startup-support network AngelList, where he found a likeminded partner in Schreiber, a mechanical engineer with an MBA from New York University.
With the fast friends churning out prototypes, Hoplite Power launched its pilot program in January 2015. Several questions lingered – Would people pay for a smartphone charge? What locations should they target? – and quickly, the information flowed.
“We’ve seen through the pilot that people love the convenience factor of our on-demand rentable battery backs,” Mayerson said. “This lets them use their phone how they want, where when want, when they want, without the inconvenience of finding a charge or bringing an external battery pack.”
The pilot also educated the partners on a darker reality of any rental business: product losses.
“Our test program has mostly been in bars, and you can imagine the clientele by the end of the night,” Mayerson noted. “There have been just shy of 4,500 rentals from kiosks in the city, and we’ve lost about 375 total batteries.”
That’s between 8 and 10 percent of all borrowed products – “not great,” the CEO admits, though the young company has quickly learned how to cut its losses, with clearly displayed rental terms that warn of “follow-up transaction fees” if Hoplite packs don’t find their way back to a hub in time.
“We only take credit cards at the kiosk,” Mayerson said. “Given that we are able to charge a sizeable replacement fee, we have more than covered our costs from the lost products.”
And there’s a “technological incentive” for renters to play nice: The newfangled battery packs are difficult to recharge, according to Mayerson, “unless you’re an electrical engineer.”
“You can use it until it dies,” the CEO added. “Then you’re going to be charged for a glorified paperweight.”
Most of the customer data so far suggests that users rent the battery packs for about 90 minutes and return them to the originating hub. About 10 percent of transactions have included location-to-location returns, though Team Hoplite expects that number to climb as its network grows.
To that end, the Citi Field tryout looms large.
“Ideally, in a year from now, we’ll have been installed in 12 to 15 other venues,” Mayerson said. “We’ve been contacting the NHL, MLB, NBA, those types of facilities.
“They do an average of 2 million people per year, so those facilities are definitely geared toward extensive foot traffic,” he added. “We’re seeing a strong interest.”
For now, the startup – which has worked with a number of high-profile business-incubation programs, including a Makers Boot Camp that links domestic innovators to Japanese manufacturers – will market its ongoing MicroVentures crowdfunding campaign and continue leveraging the resources of Stony Brook’s CEBIP, which has proven itself a notch above other incubation programs, according to Mayerson.
“A majority of these incubators and accelerators and bootcamps are pretty much the same, unless you’re in Techstars or Y Combinator,” he said. “CEBIP is the only one that has legitimately incubated us, checking in monthly, guiding us toward resources for IP protection, helping with marketing.
“We’ve only been with them for a short time, but this has been the most rigorous as far as participation and the benefits.”
With 150 battery packs on hand an additional 1,850 expected in September, the partners are focused on “our next real milestone,” according to the CEO: playing at Citi Field.
“We were lucky to get in there,” Mayerson said. “And we have potential investors interested in what happens.
“Assuming it goes well, this could lead to a national footprint,” he added. “Not just targeting New York.”
What’s It? Rent-and-return smartphone-charging packs
Brought To You By: Fast friends Jordan Mayerson and Nikolas Schreiber
All in: About $1 million from family, friends and Japanese VCs, for product development and marketing
Status: Ready to play ball