Network through handshakes


Photo by Karlis Dambrans

Molly Boushell, Writer

UMass seniors Marco Chiang and Nate Tepper teamed up last semester to turn a big idea into a promising product. Leaf, a Pebble SmartWatch outfitted with their own software, aims to change the way people network by replacing a dead-stop in conversation to swap contact information with… nothing. By tapping into a natural social behavior, the handshake, Leaf’s wearable technology transforms a basic interaction into a digital networking tool.

The partnership between Chiang, a computer systems engineering major, and Tepper, a finance major, started with a mutual interest in entrepreneurship. Throughout the summer of 2013, Chiang would log-on for a Google hangout with other entrepreneurial students from the Bay Area of San Francisco, where he was interning at Apple. Tepper would do the same, taking time every Sunday night (his time, at least) to log on from his internships in Israel.

The students returned to Amherst for the Fall semester eager to make the most of their Senior year, but Chiang, Tepper, and other members of the hangout found themselves with differing allegiances to many ideas. Chiang was interested in solving a problem he encountered that summer.

“It started off with, ‘How could I send a Facebook friend request to someone as soon as I meet them?’” said Chiang.

Over the course of the summer, he met a number of people he was interested in working with in the future but did not have their information to keep in touch.

“A lot of these meetings were very casual, we didn’t want to push the atmosphere.” said Chiang.  I thought, ‘There has to be an easier way to get someone’s contact information. Everyone shakes hands, why can’t you make it happen at that moment?’”

The answer would become Leaf, but concerns about executing something so complex and an idea of his own kept Tepper from committing to the long road ahead.

“We liked the idea, everyone thought it was a really cool idea,” recalled Chiang. “What kind of prevented us from all getting on board from the very start was ‘Well, how long is it going to take? Can we actually do this?’”

The turning point came at a Hackathon at Yale University. Chiang realized he could cut many months of development out of the creation process by using an existing Pebble SmartWatch as hardware. He wrote the software for Leaf that weekend, and the product placed in the top six of the 500 teams in the competition.

“Then I started pitching it to Nate again, you know, ‘I think this could be a lot bigger.’ We had always wanted to work together we just didn’t really know how it was going to work out.”

This time, Tepper was ready to jump on board.

“I got there thinking I would pitch him, and he was like, ‘I want you to drop what you’re doing an join us.’”

Tepper brought experience in entrepreneurship and sales to the team that went as far back as his days at summer camp, where he sold packages of Ramen Noodles to his fellow campers (at a profit, of course.) He co-founded TEDxUMassAmherst with fellow UMass student Kareem Agha, ’13, out of a frustration that there “weren’t more people on campus taking action and thinking big.”

With Tepper on board and Chiang’s product in hand, Leaf gained momentum, winning first place at the UMass Amherst Innovation Challenge and the Amherst College Pitch Competition. They recently acquired 20 Leaf prototypes.

For now, the UMass seniors are gearing up for a productive summer that includes a Kickstarter campaign and social media launch. Depending on the success of the campaign, they expect to approach investors with $50-200,000 in capital and 100 percent ownership of Leaf.

If the immediate future for Leaf looks bright, Tepper and Chiang’s big picture vision is blinding.

“We don’t want to just build a product, we want to build a company and a culture.” said Tepper. “We don’t want to build one smart wristband, maybe it can do other things, maybe we can create other wearable technology, that will improve the way you live and act everyday.”

Such a bold statement may seem an impossible dream to some, but an enthusiastic attitude towards challenges is a defining characteristic of the Leaf team.

“Every time I get a no, I’m closer to getting a yes, so you just have to keep going. You have to have that positive mindset,” said Tepper. “As long as you’re taking action, it doesn’t matter if you fail. It all comes down to passion. Doing everything you can, every second of every day to make it happen.”

Both Chiang and Tepper will graduate this spring. Chiang, who begins working at Apple full-time in October, believes that entrepreneurial success does not have to be defined by formal education.

“I’ve met a lot of people that had no technical background, but after school they ended up picking up a programming language and learning how to create stuff, and that’s how they ended up getting a job,” said Chiang. “Your four years at college is an opportunity to learn as much as you can, but it’s not the end of the line.”

That is certainly true for Chiang, Tepper, and their company, Leaf. When the UMass graduates cross the stage this week, it will be the end of one line and a chance to fully focus on the exciting future of another.

Molly Boushell can be contacted at [email protected]

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