Start-up Succeeding in a Challenging Economic Climate-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Start-up Succeeding in a Challenging Economic Climate

In today’s struggling economy, it is especially exciting to report the success of our alumni. Sarah Laiwala (M.S., SEDM, 2008), along with her partner, Bertrand Damiba (M.S., SEDM 2008), is watching their start-up company grow. SecuriMobile is developing technology for voice authentication on mobile devices.

Using voice biometric technology, SecuriMobile strives to secure access to mobile devices. In the volatile environment of identity theft, and the exponential increase in the storage of personal information on mobile devices, it is no wonder that a company providing features such as VoiceLock to protect sensitive applications like VPN and on-line banking, is expanding regardless of the financial challenges facing many other technology businesses.

BlackBerry

Expecting to close their first round of funding this Spring, SecuriMobile employs three full-time employees, two part-time employees and three interns. Additionally, the company continues to tap Carnegie Mellon for interns and future employees. At present, the software is usable in IVRs and on iPhone, Android, and Blackberry devices. Development for use on the web is anticipated soon.

iPhone

Sarah credits much of her success to the hands-on experience and the support of her instructors at Carnegie Mellon. She first became familiar with the software engineering and software management programs while she was at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) pursuing her undergraduate degree in computer engineering. Sarah was an intern for approximately two years with Lockheed Martin and spent time at their locations in San Diego and Sunnyvale, California. While in Sunnyvale, Sarah’s manager, David Krimsley (M.S., SE Tech, 2004) spoke highly of his experience at Carnegie Mellon and encouraged Sarah to investigate.

While completing her bachelor’s degree at UCSD, Sarah was exploring employment opportunities with Apple, Inc. She was also considering graduate education and seeking a program that could assist in her management aspirations. Recalling the advice of David Krimsley, Sarah began her studies in the Software Management program at Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley in the fall of 2006 just three months after being hired by Apple.

“The team-based design of the courses really helped us to visualize real-life issues that can occur in the software development process. In Foundations of Software Engineering, our team designed and developed deliverables to meet the expectations of the VP’s of a (fictitious) company; Ray Bareiss (Director of Education Programs), acted as the Vice President of Marketing and our instructor, Ed Katz filled the role of Vice President of Engineering for the project. Dealing with the demands of the VP’s in the classroom prepared us to load balance desires of clients in the real world,” says Laiwala.

Although Sarah began her studies focusing solely on management, she also became quite interested in the software engineering element. “I am very grateful that Professor Katz encouraged me to explore the various electives in the program. Having interests in both the innovative and entrepreneurial aspects of software, I wanted to explore both components and was encouraged to do so. I took advantage of the program’s flexibility, taking courses that offered diverse knowledge of the software industry, and, along with my teammates, developed an idea for a business venture.” Professor Katz offers, “I was impressed with Sarah’s entrepreneurial interests, and we discussed her career goals to strengthen her software engineering skills.”

The team’s business venture idea was refined in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a course designed as a venture capital competition. “The competition provided a venue for us to take our software engineering ideas and turn them into a marketable product. Our team, consisting of Bertrand Damiba, Romuald Lemarchand (M.S., SEDM 2008), and Fernando Guayasamin (M.S., SEDM 2008), decided to take the mobile route. The imaginary company (during the competition) was called VoiceMobile, and we wrote a business plan for voice authentication on mobile devices for the Enterprise. After winning the competition, Professor Evans encouraged our team to further develop our business plan and form a company.”

Evans says, “Sarah made an immediate impact on the first day of class. She clearly had GM potential and an entrepreneurial demeanor from the outset. We had a number of guests in our class including successful entrepreneurs and leading venture capitalists. Sarah never failed to ask interesting and sometimes difficult questions. Absent for one of our classes she requested the email address of the speaker as she had a question to put to her.”

Even after completing her degree in 2008, Professor Evans’ advice to follow through on her business plan remained on her mind. Following a four-month hiatus, “the team” was re-energized with two additional founders, and in March 2009, the company became a reality, Sarah acting as the Director of Marketing and Business Development and Bertrand as President and CEO.

Evans adds, “Balancing a career and doing a start-up is a tough job by any standards. However, Sarah embraced the task enthusiastically even enlisting her brother Nadim, who was graduating from UC Berkeley, to help with the financials. The high tech venture business is Darwinian and oftentimes questions from potential investors are tough they pull no punches. In every meeting with venture capitalists and angel investors, she adopted a sensible, down to earth, and realistic approach. As a sign of her maturity, Sarah always incorporated feedback and revised her plans accordingly in the light of empirical reality.”

Laiwala concludes, “The hands-on, team-based education I received at Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley has been invaluable to me. The constant support and encouragement from the faculty helped immeasurably in building the confidence necessary to venture out into the software industry and start our company. Even in the current economic climate, the skills that I’ve gained during my studies at Carnegie Mellon have equipped me to take on the challenge.”