BYU students develop businesses to improve lives, save money

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Korey Hocker, CEO of SignGlasses, wants to improve deaf and hard of hearing students’ academic experience. (Cristina Bolaños)

Korey Hocker, the CEO of SignGlasses and a BYU graduate, was at a trade show displaying  technology his then-brand-new company designed to dramatically improve deaf and hard of hearing students’ educational experience.

A blonde Texan woman in her forties approached Hocker and to his surprise, gave him a hug. With tears in her eyes she said, “I have a deaf daughter, and this would greatly impact her education. Please never stop doing what you’re doing.”

BYU students are no longer only concerned about starting businesses that are financially strong. Many are focused on solving social problems that will make the world a better place. The Social Venture Academy, a program hosted by the Ballard Center in the Marriott School of Business, helps turn student entrepreneurs’ socially-minded ideas into successful business ventures.

Being socially-minded and looking to improve the world around them has not always been a focus for students, and it now seems to be purely generational, according to Ballard Center Associate Managing Director Aaron Miller.

“They don’t care as much about being rich as they do about their life’s work having meaning to them and to the people around them,” Miller said. “There’s never been a time in the history of the world where a single person can have more leverage for good.”

The Academy specifically focuses on providing resources and giving valuable knowledge to student entrepreneurs with a business venture idea that is socially-minded.

“Our preference is that your social impact is so deeply embedded that you can’t separate the social impact from the venture,” Miller said.

That is the case for SignGlasses, which has created smart glasses that deaf and hard-of-hearing students can wear in classrooms for better comprehension.

The glasses provide remote sign-language interpretation right in the students’ eyes so they don’t need an interpreter with them in the classroom.

This is how it works: A deaf student has a camera that sits on top of a computer, and the professor wears a microphone. The audio and video are then sent to a live interpreter who can be sitting at home interpreting what is going on in the classroom. The interpreter’s signing is then broadcasted to the glasses, which can be worn in any classroom.

SignGlasses has developed many versions and designs of the glasses during its time as a company. (Cristina Bolaños)

“They can choose to look at the interpretation that’s in their glasses, and it’s a live person. And because it’s overlaid in real-time, they can also choose to look through that interpretation, so in a sense it’s a bit like virtual reality,” Hocker said.

There is no lag time in receiving the hand-signed words from the off-site interpreter, Hocker said. “It’s actually just as fast as a student looking back and forth at a live interpreter. They no longer have to look back and forth because they have it right in their eye.”

While Hocker was testing his glasses at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, he met a deaf missionary from Bolivia. The missionary put on the glasses as an interpreter signed in a different room.

“He started crying instantly, and he said, ‘Is this available in Bolivia? This would change my life.’ And we had to tell him, ‘Not yet, but hopefully when you get back from your mission,’” Hocker said.

Another benefit to SignGlasses is that the video, audio and correlating sign language are stored forever, so deaf students can go back and re-watch classroom lectures as they are studying for exams or finals instead of having to borrow someone else’s notes.

SignGlasses is piloting its technology at four universities and four K-12 school districts this fall. They hope to roll the product out across the nation within a year.

Hocker said being part of the Academy and starting SignGlasses has taught him to be more aware of what others are going through.

Speaking of deaf students’ resilience in a world that is designed for those who hear, Hocker said, “It’s inspiring for me to see especially students who have made it to the university level because a lot of them don’t. It’s just really difficult. I learn a lot from them every day, and if I could ever give back and if this could help their experience, then that’s why we do it.”

Miller said the Academy is seeing more and more tech-based ventures like SignGlasses using technology to solve social problems.

Another business venture in the Academy that uses technology to improve the world is Trash Talk.

Matt Liddle, the CEO of Trash Talk and a BYU alum, designed sensors that attach to commercial dumpsters and help with container collection optimization. The sensors are connected to the cellular network and to the internet, and they monitor how full each container is.

The sensors’ data is then sent to Trash Talk’s web portal, where collectors can see which containers need to be picked up that day and which ones can be skipped to save time and money.  

“I really envision Trash Talk and this technology disrupting and changing the waste and recycling industry and being a part of the push towards just getting that much closer to zero waste, helping improve recycling opportunities and just making the collection process more efficient and less polluted,” Liddle said.

Liddle said Trash Talk will dramatically increase the efficiency with which waste and recycling are collected, which means a reduction in carbon dioxide and methane emissions and better use of collectors’ time and means.

Liddle also said his experience in the Academy has helped him look beyond himself. “One big thing that I’ve learned is that it’s about people, and everything is about people and making the world better for people.”

The Academy offers many resources to BYU students like Hocker and Liddle who are starting their socially-minded ventures. The resources include funding, mentors, advice from judges, knowledge, guidance and networking connections.

“Because at its root, entrepreneurship is just daily problem-solving, and there are problem-solving practices that work better than others. That is what we try to help them with,” Miller said.

Both SignGlasses and Trash Talk won the Academy’s “Best Venture” in 2017.

Universities are doing a better job of supporting entrepreneurship by providing resources. Miller said BYU is consistently ranked in the top 10 in the nation for entrepreneurship.“There is something unique about BYU students that they are more entrepreneurially minded than the average college student,” Miller said.

There are many ways to get involved with the Social Venture Academy. Even if a student does not have a business idea, he or she can connect with the Academy and have a meaningful experience. Students can sign up at socialventure.byu.edu.

“I’m grateful that we have this generation that is seeing the opportunities in front of them and choosing the ones that make people’s lives flourish,” Miller said.