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From idea to startup

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From idea to startup: Where are my keys? Check your phone

Ever lost your keys, purse or phone (or all three) and wished you had a device to solve that problem once and for all?

Serial entrepreneur Shailendra Suman knew that frustration well. And where there was frustration, he saw room for invention.

In January, he launched “IFI (short for “I Found It”) Systems,” a Bluetooth-enabled device that attaches to your keys, purse, toolbox or anything you want to protect and works as a wireless leash.

The device connects to your smartphone via a mobile app. So if your put the IFI device on your keys, then once your phone gets 30 feet away from them, both will make a pinging sound.

You can also create “safe zones,” where the device will judge the GPS signal and automatically deactivate within a certain radius. (You might do this, for example, if you don’t want to hear pinging every time you walk away from your office desk.)

The device retails for $29.95, and the mobile app can monitor up to six items.

“It’s one more step of security,” says Suman, “guarding against our own negligence.”

So far, Suman says he’s sold about 6,000 through his website, www.ifisystems.com. He presented at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, and says he’s in talks with a handful of big-box retailers.

Engineering to product development: IFI Systems is Suman’s third product on the market. Suman was born in Varanasi, India, and attended Columbia University for a masters of engineering.

He then worked in business development for several companies, one of which sent him to Australia. That’s where he first saw a gas gauge for propane tanks.

The device, sold at home improvement stores, measured the amount of propane in a tank. When working his grill, Suman had always guessed at how much was left, so it was common for him to buy more gas before the tank was completely empty. What a genius product, Suman thought, so he bought one for himself.

But the Australian-made gauge didn’t screw into his American-made tank. So he contacted the company owner to see if there was a U.S. version of the product.

No, they replied.

Seeing a business opportunity, Suman dipped into his savings and bought the rights to the drawings and the patent for U.S. production for less than $50,000. He soon after quit his job and moved his wife, Anshu, and their two sons, Arjun and Neelu, to Charlotte, where he began building his business full time. That was in 2004. Now more than 6 million gauges (called a GasWatch) have sold. They’re available in big-box stores across the nation, including Walmart, Sears and Lowe’s Home Improvement.

Try, try again: Suman, who lives off N.C. 51, near Providence High School, has an office and warehouse in downtown Matthews with six employees. He constantly feels the itch to invent.

“I come up with a problem and have enough grasp of how to solve it, to find the people who work in that area,” says Suman.

But as many inventors and entrepreneurs know, sometimes your products don’t succeed. And that’s a tough pill to swallow after you’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours working on something, Suman says. He learned that lesson with his second set of products: antibacterial cutting boards, spatulas and tongs. They never took off, mostly because it was hard to demonstrate the problem and how they solved it, he says.

But after moving on, he began developing IFI Systems, which Suman has high hopes for.

And right now, he and a team are working on his latest not-yet-ready-for-the-public idea.

“It’s a big satisfaction … creating something that solves a problem,” Suman says.

‘From idea to startup’ tells the story of how an entrepreneur turned an idea into a business. Contact reporter Caroline McMillan at 704-358-5087 or cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
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