Editor's Update: After a successful March 2015 crowdfunding campaign and clinical research study, FokusLabs launches its RE-vibe anti-distraction wearable band today. Using a proprietary algorithm, its vibrations remind kids and adults to stay focused when they begin to get distracted. Both Kickstarter orders and new ones begin shipping this week, in time for holiday gifting.
Here's a video the company released this week to explain the device:
The following story was originally published March 6, 2015
55. That’s the minimum number of times I was distracted by my own thoughts, the Internet, or other self-made distractions while writing this article. And that’s not including distractions from emails, my phones, or other people.
If we assume each distraction lasted a minimum of one minute, I wasted nearly an hour of my time being distracted (without intending to) just while writing this piece. If an adult without diagnosed ADHD or a learning disability, years of experience in practicing self-control and time management, working in a relatively distraction-free office can get that distracted, imagine what it’s like for a child who struggles with ADHD trying to learn in a classroom full of 20 other kids who are just as easily distracted as I am.
This is the situation many children, particularly those with learning disorders, find themselves in every day at school.
A new device born in a lab in Wake Forest and called RE-vibe is coming to market this year to help those kids, and us adults, stay on task. RE-vibe is a wearable wristband that approximates when a wearer is distracted and with a small vibration, gently reminds the person to return to the task. It works because of the proprietary algorithms imagined and created by the school psychologist-turned-entrepreneur founder of FokusLabs, Rich Brancaccio.
On the surface, Brancaccio’s story is somewhat of an entrepreneur-style Cinderella story—a person sees a problem, thinks of a solution to the problem, builds a company to fix said problem, and makes money and creates jobs in the process. But if you dig a bit deeper, it’s a story of hard work, passion and a community that supports new, innovative ideas and makes the connections required for an entrepreneur to realize the vision.
Prior to starting his company, Brancaccio didn’t work in technology or business. Yet he created a unique technology solution to a problem he witnessed firsthand and built a business around it that caught the eye of multiple well-respected startup supporters in the Triangle. And if his newly-launched Kickstarter campaign is successful, he’ll have the cash to begin large-scale production of RE-vibe bands within three years of when he first visualized his product. We caught up with Brancaccio right before the Kickstarter launch earlier this week to hear more about the business, the product and what he hopes to accomplish with the help of the campaign.
The Background story
The No. 1 complaint Brancaccio heard from parents and teachers over his nine-year tenure as a school psychologist was that the children constantly drifted off task and couldn’t focus long enough to learn what they needed to know.
Teachers were perpetually frustrated and had to spend a great deal of time encouraging and reminding the students to remain focused by either tapping them on the shoulder or calling their name out across the classroom.
“With so many kids needing constant redirection I thought there had to be something better than this,” he says. But he couldn’t find it. So in 2012, he set out to create the ‘something better’ himself while continuing his full-time work as a school psychologist at a Wake County Public High School.
At the time, wearable devices were starting to become more mainstream, and Brancaccio recognized the ‘something better’ could take form in a wearable device like the popular Jawbone UP or Fitbit but with fewer distractions (it wouldn't connect to the Internet or mobile apps). But before he could build the solution, he had to teach himself how to do it.
Brancaccio has always built things and considers himself a “maker.” He also has some experience in coding and software development. So while he didn’t have all the skills to build the RE-vibe out of the gate, he could conceptualize the product and determine what skills he needed to gain to build a prototype. He then studied coding, software and hardware development, went to meetups to learn from others, and practiced.
With the new skills, he wrote the software for what he dubs, a “very basic prototype.” But it was enough to prove the concept, and get help designing a production-grade device from the professional engineers at Morrisville-based Device Solutions, which describes itself as a “virtual R&D department for companies of all sizes.”
Brancaccio’s first outside funding came late in 2013, when he joined Groundwork Labs and won an NC IDEA grant. Groundwork’s John Austin introduced him to the staff at the Wireless Research Center in early 2014, where he joined its commercialization center, which helped him create a go-to-market strategy and obtain Intellectual Property (IP) rights. In May 2014, he won a $25,000 grant from Innovation Fund North Carolina. The funds helped him bring on his first employee, Reid Powell, to help with supply chain and manufacturing logistics.
Everything about the RE-vibe—with the exception of the patented algorithms Device Solutions helped Brancaccio create—is simple. Originally designed with children in mind, the device is stripped of anything that might distract a young mind. There is a hidden button that is only reachable by the provided programming tool. LED lights are also hidden, blinking only when the battery begins to die (Its life is about seven days). It automatically powers on and off when you put it on and take it off. The reminder is a simple vibration but which changes in length or number each time so a person won’t get used to the vibrations and begin to ignore them.
It has three settings—mildly off-task, moderately off-task and highly off-task. The algorithms use the chosen setting to approximate how frequently the user will be off-task and reminds them accordingly. In addition, parents can activate a homework setting to keep their children focused while they complete their work, and help them determine when to take breaks.
Materials and manufacturing were also important to Fokus. To ensure the band is safe to wear, it’s made of food-grade plastic and does not contain any harmful chemicals such as phosphates, lead or BPAs. Partnerships with companies in California, Minnesota and North Carolina ensure the bands will be made in the U.S. and that production can begin as soon as Fokus completes a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Brancaccio chose crowdfunding in lieu of venture capital because he wants to connect directly with consumers to get feedback on colors and other features of the device. Specifically, the $25,000 campaign will allow for the purchase of plastic molds necessary to start the production process, and cover the cost to manufacture the first devices.
Once the RE-vibe is on the market, Brancaccio will sell it for roughly $100, but Kickstarter backers pay $69 for first dibs. RE-vibe will launch with both adult and child sizes.
To date, $4,524, or 18 percent, of the goal has been pledged. The campaign ends April 2.
Brancaccio will eventually seek venture funding once the demand and consumer base grows large enough. To get the band into classrooms, Brancaccio will sell directly to parents. If things take off, he says he’d be excited to sell to big-box stores or work with school systems, but for now will focus on selling directly to consumers.
Brancaccio says FokusLabs has, “a few plans to take this up a notch down the road.” He says, “There is a large need in the classroom, but a lot of companies don’t know there is the need so we want to bring in some unique products into that space to help improve education through technology.”
We’re adults and we all know by now that there are no Cinderella stories in the startup world—only passion and hard work and maybe a bit of luck of being in the right place at the right time.
Brancaccio’s story is no different, but his story is encouraging for the Triangle. It’s proof that the connections the entrepreneurial support organizations like Groundwork Labs work so hard to make actually matter. And it’s proof that the Triangle’s startup ecosystem is getting better at helping those with good ideas navigate the murky waters of creating a product, building a business and moving ideas to the market even if they don’t have technical or business experience.
It could even be possible that this story could foreshadow what we hope to see bear out in the data in the coming months and years—that North Carolina is not following national trends, but indeed becoming more entrepreneurial over time.