Travel plans that went awry led Elaine Wang to do a favor for a friend, and that favor has led her to a new career as an up-and-coming entrepreneur in the realm of augmented reality.
Wang, a Naveen Jindal School of Management student scheduled to graduate this spring with an MS in Management Science, is the co-founder of Cthrough, a startup whose initial product is a mobile app that gives users, as Wang says, “an immersive experience” as they visit new places.
The app overlays digital maps of such visitor destinations as amusement parks and zoos, museums and even college campuses, with location and real-time information — even customized encounters — about significant places at each locale.
Since its winning debut at the spring pitch competition put on by the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in April 2017, Cthrough has enjoyed a lot of competitive success. Most recently, it picked up the $5,000 first-place prize at the US India Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s 2017-2018 Spirit of Innovation Competition and Business Plan Presentation in January.
Wang’s path to the app’s creation started in San Francisco in in January of last year, on what was supposed to be a long weekend vacation with Yan, her best friend from her native China. But at the last moment, Wang says, Yan did not get a visa because of a paperwork glitch.
That was particularly unfortunate, Wang says, because Yan, a specialist in augmented reality technology, had scheduled meetings in San Francisco with attorneys and incubator managers to exchange ideas on future augmented reality possibilities.
Trying to salvage the situation, Wang volunteered to go to a couple of the appointments. The first, she recalls was supposed to be an hourlong “casual chat” with a lawyer. “After five minutes, I ran out of things to say,” Wang remembers.
So that night, “I did intensive research on augmented reality, and the second meeting, with an incubator executive, went well.”
More than that, Wang’s efforts stoked her own passion for the technology, and she came home determined to launch her own augmented reality startup, what she initially thought would be hardware and a “directional window” to be used in cars.
Later, because of safety issues and the costs of building hardware, she decided instead to create a software directional app.
Although settled on a product, Wang recognized a major shortcoming, though. She had the business background but not the technological know-how she needed to proceed. Posting flyers that advertised her need, she found Trusit Shah, a computer science PhD candidate in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.
The appeal of collaborating, Shah says, lay in the fact that “I had been working on an augmented reality-based indoor navigation system since December 2016 and had been looking for a business partner who could help me in management. When I saw the flyer Elaine posted during March 2017, I realized that she was working on a similar idea.
“I emailed her and arranged a meeting. … That's how it started, and now we both are working on delivering a better AR experience to the world.”
After winning the pitch competition, the pair set up shop last summer in the UT Dallas Venture Development Center, an IIE-run incubator for promising new businesses.
Wang, now officially CEO of the company, and Shah, the chief technology officer, oversee two employees, one a UT Dallas alumnus and the other a UT Dallas student.
“I’m the only one who is not an engineer,” Wang says.
In November, Cthrough won second place and $10,000 in IIE’s Big Idea Competition. Last month, Wang and Shah filed for a patent for the app.
Next up? “We’re in the process of talking to a prospective local customer,” says Wang, who by the way, now has a lot to say about augmented reality.
— Kris Imherr