Tom Buchanan, co-founder and chief of product at Cincinnati-based Contact CI, a haptic hardware company, has long had an affinity for small business.
“I was born in raised in southern New Jersey,” he said. “My family owned a campground; they were small business owners. [I grew up in a] place where everyone had owned their own business.”
This perspective followed him to Syracuse University, where the founding team for Contact CI formed. It was there that they made some of their first funding strides, taking part in the Syracuse Student Sandbox, an incubator program.
They used the funds that summer for R&D, and growth as entrepreneurs. “At that point, we were all engineers, so we were learning to do business,” he said. Additional capital from the RvD IDEA Awards and the College of Engineering and Computer Science Invention and Creativity Competition — a combined total of $13,400 — didn’t hurt, either.
In 2015, the team moved to Cincinnati, where CEO Craig Douglass is initially from. It was here that they were able to get their first angel investments from VCs like First Shift Tech’s Dave Johnson, E-Technologies Group’s Steve Veldhuis and Warren County Commissioner Dave Young. SAVMAR LTD and Axiom Product Development also invested. As a result, by 2016 the team showed its first prototype at a booth at E3.
“We want to make sure we get these … systems as right as possible.”
The device causing all this buzz? A system, including a pair of gloves (dubbed “Maestro”), that pairs up with a virtual reality headset, allowing users to experience touch when they participate in VR-based technology. In the company’s own words, their device is a “haptic human computer interface to simulate the sense of touch.”
“You put the headset on, you’re wearing our systems, walking around,” he said. In the simulation, “you see a hand, it’s your hand.”
It’s technology that some argue will fill a gap in the VR world, increasing levels of realism for wearers. One that they’re looking to fill early, as the haptic tech community has a predicted valuation of $19 billion by 2022.
Buchanan explained that users will feel slight pressures that immerse the wearers into the VR world. “You touch a table and you can’t push it through, [although it’s] limited to a level you can overcome very easily,” he said. “VR is pretty unique in that your mind convinces yourself something is happening, and it’s really not.”
As a result, the team is still testing other concepts. “We have done some experimentation with bringing temperature, and bringing pressure and bringing weight,” he said. “We want to make sure we get these … systems as right as possible.”
Since Contact CI’s debut, more than 25 corporation leads have expressed interest in the product, including Procter & Gamble and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
While reception to the device was strong from the start, the Contact CI team has always been considering ways to make their device better, and how to optimize their business plan. They took classes to better understand integrating their design with other programs, and aggregated a group of alpha testers this past August.
And most recently, the team launched a two-month Seed Invest program, for their product that closes Dec. 15. So far, the equity crowdfunding campaign has raised $32,900, with a valuation cap of $4 million. “[The fundraiser is] different in the sense that Kickstarter is a pre-order program,” Buchanan said. “Whether you get the product or not, that’s the risk you’re taking.” In this case, participants get a piece of the company. “You put in money to help continue pushing our dreams forward,” he added.