High School Friends Turn Idea into Global Business
By Ed Brennen
The next time you’re at University Crossing and your cell phone battery is running low, you can get a fast, free and secure one-hour boost at the new phone charging kiosk made by local startup company Veloxity.
And if you’re lucky, you might even run into two of Veloxity’s co-founders: UMass Lowell seniors Felipe Nascimento and Upkar Singh.
Nascimento, a business administration major in the Manning School of Business, and Singh, a mechanical engineering major in the Francis College of Engineering, launched Veloxity in the summer of 2013 with a pair of high school friends from Chelmsford, brothers Krassi and Lucky Popov, both recent Bentley University grads.
What began in the Popov family garage, where the four young entrepreneurs produced a prototype for Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, has quickly grown into a full-fledged business that’s provided nearly 300 kiosks for customers around the world, from London to Australia, Vancouver to University Crossing.
“It’s pretty cool to see it here on campus,” Nascimento says while watching fellow students try out the newly installed kiosk, swiping their UCards to access one of its six lockers for a free charge from one of three different USB cables. “A lot of my friends have sent me Snapchats or Facebook photos saying, ‘I can’t believe you guys are here.’ It’s nice to see that people are using it.”
Necessity, the Mother of Invention
The four friends got the idea for the charging kiosk after the repeated frustration of having their phones die while out on weekends. “When your phone dies, you’re kind of stuck,” Singh says. “You can go to a friend’s house or charge it in your car, but we thought there should be an alternative.”
So they took to the Internet and found a manufacturer in China that made a similar version of what they had in mind, then began working with the manufacturer and other parts suppliers to bring their self-funded vision to life: an ATM-sized kiosk with a touch screen and LED-lit lockers that could be used, either for a small fee or for free, in places like restaurants, bars, malls, hospitals, stadiums, concerts and trade shows.
“It took off from there,” says Singh, a self-described “tech geek” who serves as Veloxity’s Chief Operating Officer, handling the logistics of shipping units to clients — or even loading them into the back of the company-owned Suburban and driving them to events around the Northeast.
Singh, who was born in India and immigrated to the United States with his family as a child, also applies his engineering skills, using his computer-aided design (CAD) know-how to help transform rough concepts into technical blueprints.
“As with any small business, you’re not limited to what your title says,” explains Singh, who is currently working on a new kiosk model that is sleeker, has eight lockers and does away with a card scanner through use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip technology.
“We’re always trying to make improvements and keep up with what the market demands,” says Nascimento, who as Chief Technology Officer provides technical support for clients like Comcast and Boston University, while also keeping an eye on what the competition has to offer.
“We’re starting to work in Central America now, but they have to operate on coins and bills because no one has credit or debit cards,” says Nascimento, who was born and raised in Brazil before moving to Chelmsford with his mom in the fifth grade. Unable to speak English, he quickly bonded with the Bulgarian-born Popov brothers. Singh joined the group in high school after moving to Chelmsford from the San Francisco area.
The company, whose name stems from the Latin word “velox,” meaning “rapid,” recently moved its half-dozen employees from a small office in downtown Lowell to a more spacious headquarters in Chelmsford, just minutes from campus.
“I never envisioned us all working together,” Nascimento says, “but it’s been great.”
A Winning Presentation
While there were already non-secure phone charging bays for students to use at Lydon and O’Leary libraries, Director of Instructional Technology Support Mike Lucas began looking into a locker version after seeing one at a trade show last year. Lucas found a few companies that make such kiosks, but he recommended the university go with Veloxity for several different reasons.
“They impressed me with their initiative and their presentation,” he says. “And other than the fact that they were UMass Lowell students, one of the good things about the company was that they were willing to work with our UCard. We didn’t want students to use their credit cards on the machine, even if it wouldn’t be charged. Veloxity was also really the only company that didn’t require outside advertising as part of the package. We don’t like to inundate students with advertising.”
Lucas says administrators will monitor the usage of the kiosk, which was installed in the University Crossing lobby near Starbucks in December, before deciding whether to add more units in other high-traffic areas around campus like the McGauvran Student Center and University Dining Commons.
“We can see these used in academic space, as well,” Lucas says. “When students are low on juice they can drop off their phone, head to class, come back and be good to go. I can see it being used a lot.”
Viva Las Vegas
During winter break, the Veloxity team traveled to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. While most companies pay thousands of dollars to attend the world’s largest tech extravaganza, Veloxity was actually paid by CES to be there and provide four kiosks in the VIP lounges.
“That was a blast. I was pumped,” says Singh, who will join the team in March for a trip to Austin, Texas, where Veloxity will take part in the annual South by Southwest festival featuring film, music and interactive media conferences.
Nascimento, who traveled to Atlanta just before spring semester to check on kiosks at the Georgia Dome, says it can be tough to balance a full-time course load with all the responsibilities of a startup.
“I’ll be on my way to class, talking to a customer and trying to finish up the conversation before entering the classroom. Or I’ll have to leave the classroom to make a quick call in the hallway,” he says. “It can be hard sometimes, but it’s a really cool experience.”
“You just have to keep Chinese hours and take a lot of cat naps,” adds Singh, who attributes his entrepreneurial spirit to his parents, both of whom have owned and operated several small businesses through the years. “My inspiration definitely comes from my parents — and growing up in a household that has to think for themselves how to make money.”
Nascimento, who started out in computer engineering as a freshman before switching to management information systems, says attending UMass Lowell has fueled his own interest in innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Thinking back to my first year living on campus with a group of engineers, that might have been where everything came from,” says Nascimento, who expects to devote himself to Veloxity full-time after graduating this spring. “I’m glad I came here. I can’t imagine how it would have turned out anywhere else.”
As Veloxity starts to build revenue through sales, rentals and hosting at events, Nascimento and Singh agree that venture capital funding is the next logical next step to grow the business. They also agree that the company has benefited from the entrepreneurial spirit that has taken root on campus.
“Everyone has different ideas; not everyone has the ability to make it happen. But when you partner up with other students, it allows for a more diverse workplace,” says Singh, who would love to work with his parents after graduating in December but plans to stay with Veloxity for the foreseeable future.
“It’s our baby after all.”