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From Mind to Marketplace

A vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem helps Columbia Engineering students like Vladena Powers turn good ideas into great companies

Jul 19 2019 | By JESSE ADAMS | Photos courtesy of Vladlena Powers

Graceful Ray CEO Vladena Powers at the NY VR conference last year. Powers has thus far won $70,000 in grants to kickstart her company.

As dramatically as e-commerce has reshaped retail, at times consumers still prefer good old-fashioned shopping. When it comes to the judging the quality of furniture or home décor for instance, it’s tough for computers to compete with the hands-on experience.

But the rise of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) is beginning to change that, delivering a richer experience to cybershoppers thanks to innovative companies like the Columbia Engineering startup Graceful Ray.

“Our product captures all details just as they are in the real world, even across all kinds of surfaces and materials,” said Vladlena Powers, the IEOR PhD candidate who heads Graceful Ray. Her startup uses novel imaging software she co-created to generate high-resolution, photo-realistic 3D captures of objects and scenes, “whereas other technologies struggle to capture surfaces that are reflective, transparent, or fuzzy.”

Though she’s still a semester away from graduating, the long-time researcher in mathematics, algorithms, and optimization has already gotten market traction with Graceful Ray, which is actively growing in terms of both staffing and clients. All the more impressive in light of the fact that less than two years ago, Powers was just one half of a two-person team with a promising idea.

Then, last spring, Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship kickstarted her new enterprise with a $10,000 Ignition Grant. Next, she signed up for the Start Me Up Bootcamp, an annual two-week sprint that convenes dozens of young technology entrepreneurs from across the city for a crash course in founding viable new firms. Held here on campus, the gathering teaches participants to get out of the lab and into the fray, talking with as many potential customers, investors, and even competitors as possible in order to map out their market niches.

And the bootcamp was just the beginning, among an array of offerings for young entrepreneurs that Columbia Engineering hosts, in partnership with NYU and CUNY, as headquarters of the I-Corps’ New York City Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN). From learning about the marketplace to connecting with prospective investors, the node’s wide-ranging activities and events supporting innovators in translating good ideas into great companies.

The Start Me Up Bootcamp also opened the door for further opportunities—as Powers’ team continued conducting customer discovery, they won a spot in the NYC Media Lab’s XR Startup Bootcamp last fall, earning another $10,000 grant. And, their involvement with NYCRIN made them eligible to apply for a highly selective seven-week marathon this spring with the national I-Corps program, garnering an additional $50,000 grant.

“It was incredibly intensive,” Powers said of the experience. “We conducted more than 100 interviews and traveled across the U.S. to learn customer pain points, find partnerships, and determine what we needed to do to execute our business idea.”

They also nabbed their first pilot project with a production studio, collaborating to render challenging textures like gemstones and fur on websites and eventually in AR/VR. Now that they’ve demonstrated that their 3D captures can improve sales metrics, they’re planning to branch out from furniture and home goods into apparel, jewelry and other highly detail-oriented products. Currently, the company is applying for a federal Small Business Innovation Research Grant and talking with museums about capturing their collections. In the long run, they are exploring how to ultimately visualize humans and other living things.

In addition to leading Graceful Ray and concluding her PhD, Powers is also taking time to share her insights with the next generation of entrepreneurs. She dropped by this year’s Start Me Up Bootcamp this spring to advise young innovators forming startups in areas like flexible batteries and high-speed microscopy.

“We’ve learned that continuous dialogue with potential customers is what drives great products,” she said.

Powers designed novel imaging software that combines photo sets to generate high-resolution, photo-realistic 3D captures of objects and scenes.