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Oswald Chisala: Why I started a tech startup

Feb. 17, 2016

Oswald Chisala is a sophomore from Zambia, majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in computer science and entrepreneurship. He is a MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program student, member of the Honors College and the lead founder of an expected hardware tech startup called Roze.

It was a quiet evening, although my mind raced in infinite loops, charged with an array of estranged ideas I never expected to ever test. A lot had happened in the last several months, as I recall, and in leaving my comfort zone, I applied to Michigan State University. Soon thereafter, I became an interim intern at the United States Embassy in Zambia working with EducationUSA, while also teaching high school and college-level students physics and mathematics, in the hope that something remarkable would happen.

In many ways our ideas make us unique, and help to define us. I wasn’t prepared to lose myself, but never thought I’d ever have the chance to express my ideas. In due time that perception would change, and that change would be stimulated by an important choice – to take a hard route and figure out how to express my mind and motives, instead of simply blending into society.

Fast forward four months. I touched down in Chicago, and for the first time since boarding an airplane and leaving Africa 32 or so hours earlier, I abruptly felt sheer, unimaginable excitement. My emotions might have been building up silently, or maybe the city’s pertinent attention to architectural detail shook the fabric of my expectations about the Western world so quickly that, on a whim, my subconscious mind excited me. I didn’t really care to figure it all out; I just hoped that whatever caused it would last!

A day later, when I finally arrived at MSU, I met my fellow MasterCard Foundation Scholars – among the best and brightest students from all across the vast, magnificent continent of Africa. At the time, I became one of only three undergraduate MasterCard Foundation Scholar students at MSU. It was surreal! In those rolling moments, I silently developed a key mantra: “I now have the opportunity to fail,” and decided to start a hardware tech company!

Imagine a beautiful sensor that monitors the flow of people in and out of rooms, processes these signals and then outputs useful visual indicators of red, green or amber, like a traffic light, but for people in shared spaces. Also, say it’s capable of syncing wirelessly to other sensors and providing useful information of the exact state of the room (e.g. occupied/vacant, people count, time in, time out, usage characteristics, security status, etc.) via our secure mobile app. Lastly, envision it having a magnetic strip that attaches to any doorframe easily. That’s what my team and I decided to create, and we called it the Roze Dock Smart Sensor! Not bad.

We wanted it to be general purpose, and spent months refining our concept. Our present applications are:

Privacy in shared spaces
We wrote an algorithm that tells you if a room is occupied or not. Think of a college dorm. With this sensor, you can see traffic-light colors and avoid awkward walk-ins. Using the app, you can learn your lifestyle habits and more. Or, consider stadiums, malls, airports, train-stations etc., where finding an available restroom quickly is sometimes difficult. Now you can use our app, which is synced with all the sensors in the building, find the nearest available restroom and save time without paying anything. It’s a free service, and always will be. Now that’s smart! 

Early emergency responses
Imagine a local high school, a city building, a dorm, etc. – any especially-large building. In the event of a fire, the sensors would turn on, displaying the color red, a sound and a green arrow pointing toward emergency exits. But what if someone gets left behind in an unknown room? What if it’s a large building and no one’s keeping tabs on you? The sensor tracks the occupancy of all rooms in a building and communicates via our app, so firefighters don’t have to guess where you are in the building. But it doesn’t end there. There are other smart modes for other situations such as: storms, threats to student safety, hurricanes, etc. These modes will work automatically.

We’ve built a proof-of-concept electrical prototype and tested it successfully. Additional systems need to be designed, software/hardware-programmed, 3D printed, tested and refined, so that the best version of our system can get into the hands of consumers.

My team includes Audrey Peña, a premedical science junior; Samuel Phiri, an electrical engineering freshman; and Daniel Shumaker, a computer science sophomore. We also have a class of incredible mentors like Jerry Norris, Paul Jaques and Lori Fischer. All of these people are turning this device into a reality by contributing in their own unique ways.

Like I said earlier, “Now I have the opportunity to fail.” I’m a Spartan, and through MSU and Spartan Innovations, my team and I have gotten this far. We’ll be participating in a number of competitions such as The Hatching, Broad Business Competition and Greenlight Michigan as we gear up for a national pitch competition against seven of the best collegiate startups in the country: the Student Startup Madness Tournament at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas in mid-March.

As Spartans, we all have a story to tell. If you take anything away from mine, it should be that the only way to reduce the odds of failure is by trying. As Spartans, leadership is embedded in our DNA, so you need to take a chance – a leap of faith – or you’re guaranteed to fail at whatever it is you want to do. This is my story. Tell yours, keep writing it and inspire others.

As we say at Roze, “Inspire creativity! Because.”

I’ll do the same.

Read more about entrepreneurship at MSU