Penn trio's idea is music to snowboarders' ears

The device, still in development, uses motion sensors to shape the music.
The device, still in development, uses motion sensors to shape the music. (JACK DEMPSEY / Colorado Ski Country, File)
Posted: February 04, 2014

Evidently, it's not enough for some people to just ski or snowboard down a slick mountain. Some want to remix music while they're at it.

That thrill-seeker niche has propelled into entrepreneurship three creative twentysomethings who met in a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania who are trying to bring to market a technological device named for and sized like a hot pepper.

Jalapeño Beat Maker began as a class project in spring 2012 and has since monopolized the lives of John Hunchar, 26; Ben Harmer, 25; and Kenneth Liew, 25, who graduated in May with master's degrees from Penn's Integrated Product Design program.

What they have developed in prototype format so far - retail availability is expected by fall - is a U.S.-made molded-plastic device that attaches to the top of a snowboard or ski and, with the help of a circuit board, alters the music the rider is listening to based on his or her tricks, turns, and spins.

The circuit board, barely bigger than a razor blade, is equipped with motion sensors that communicate with the user's smartphone through a Bluetooth wireless connection.

Cut in one direction on your downhill run, and the Jalapeño coaxes out more guitar. Spin, and the music drags as though a DJ were manipulating a turntable. Jump, and the sound pauses.

"We were just having a lot of fun and wanted to take our product to the real world," Hunchar said of the decision to convert a school project into a business venture.

The classmates founded Beat Farm L.L.C., headquartered, on paper at least, in West Chester, where Hunchar lives with his parents. In reality, "a lot of days you could find us in coffee shops in South Philly," he said.

About a third of Integrated Product Design program graduates end up forming companies or working for small start-ups, said Sarah Rottenberg, its associate director. She found the Beat Farm trio an especially "passionate and driven and devoted team" and thought their idea was "super cool," giving it an A.

Surviving commercially is another matter. "It's hard to come up with an interesting, innovative idea," Rottenberg said, "but the harder part is to actually stick with it and will it into being and let it evolve. I think these guys have a shot."

In class, Rottenberg's instructions to Hunchar, Harmer, and Liew were to research the needs of snowboarders and not only solve a problem for them, but also find opportunities to enhance their riding experience.

Interviews at ski resorts and equipment shops revealed "this creative zone, this expressive feeling people felt when they rode," Hunchar said.

Influencing Beat Farm's music-oriented decision was input from 2013 Penn grad Andrew Braunstein, now a software engineer at Google, who described snowboarding as "riding the rhythm of nature."

Farm was included in the company name because it "symbolized creating something new," said Harmer, an Allentown native. The product was named after a hot pepper to suggest "daringness," and coloring it red "added spice to your eye," he said.

Jalapeño Beat Maker has had many design iterations. It was 3D-printed and waterproofed with duct tape when its creators showed up at Mount Snow on Dec. 8 and persuaded Korey Johnson, a freestyle snowboarding coach, to try it.

His experience is part of a video at http://kck.st/1dfEj81, Beat Farm's Kickstarter fund-raising campaign, which ends Friday. Jalepeño's inventors are seeking $53,000 to finance the first manufacturing run. As of Sunday, $9,731 had been raised.

Not only was Johnson impressed that altering music by snowboarding "made my focus a little bit sharper," he loved that the remix could be saved for future listening. "The idea of taking that experience away from the mountain and having that experience the rest of your life is something that's extremely intriguing," Johnson said. As owner of a socially responsible clothing company, SavingtheWorldApparel.com, he said, he's interested in selling the Jalapeño.

Last week, Beat Farm's owners dropped the price to $139 after hearing complaints that the original $199 was too high.

The weekend before that, Phil Ives, owner of a mobile- and video-software development agency in Old City, Raineverywhere.com, got to test the Jalapeño on Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y., calling the experience "a blast."

Since first hearing about the device at a Philly Tech Meetup session in the fall, Ives has contributed $500 to its Kickstarter campaign, suggesting improvements. Getting Jalapeño into the right sales channel will be key, he said.

The Beat Farm guys are already thinking beyond snow sports, to such things as the skateboard. They've also heard other suggested uses for the Jalapeño, including attaching it to pets and skydivers.

"It definitely doesn't come with a rule book," Harmer said.


>Inquirer.com

The Penn grads demonstrate how their portable music creation lets you make sound to match your moves. Go to www.inquirer.com/business


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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