Founder Friday: Ommo's Minjie Zheng
Welcome to Founder Friday, where we learn about the people behind the Highway1 startups.
Today we talk to Minjie Zheng, founder and CEO of Ommo.
HWY1: Tell us a little about your background.
MZ: I graduated early from Washington University in St. Louis with dual degrees in computer science and electrical engineering and went straight to work for Riot Games as a platform engineer during their explosive growth.
Where did the idea for this business come from?
I’ve always been interested in 3D interfaces and the idea of embedding digital information into our everyday lives. Movies like Iron Man and Minority Report made me want to be able to carry that kind of technology everywhere. After two years at Riot, I still wanted to build that everpresent AR interface, so I left and started learning about embedded design and programming for VR/AR applications. At the time, the first Oculus dev kits had just come out, and displays were already getting pretty immersive.
The thing is, once you’re in a 3D virtual space, the most intuitive thing you want to do with the objects in that space is touch them, and there’s no way to do that. You have to use game controllers or a mouse and keyboard, and it just doesn’t feel right. I looked around, and every solution was falling short; they said they could track your hands, but they could only do it in the most ideal conditions, which pretty much never happen. I realized this was a big problem that needed solving.
How did you find out about Highway1?
When I started, it was just me until I found [Ommo CTO] Farshad Memarzanjany, who brought a lot of technical expertise and help with hardware and design. We work well together, but at a certain point, we realized we needed outside resources to take this from prototype to final product. We started looking at top-tier accelerators that provide not just funding, but mentorship and the structure you need to get a product out; Highway1 was at the top of the list in lots of publications.
What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far at Highway1?
The biggest surprise is that there’s a huge gap between what you think is a functional looks-like prototype and actually getting the product out to manufacturing. Farshad has had manufacturing experience shipping smart meters and other industrial devices, but I’ve never had that type of experience. Our idea was always to develop the technology, keep improving it, finalize the electrical design, and then some magic happens in a month and we can just manufacture it. [chuckles] It turns out it doesn’t work like that at all.
Some of the most valuable things we’ve gotten out of the program are the industry connections made by Highway1. It’s one thing to say “Okay, we need [x], now how do we go about finding this resource?” But at Highway1 not only do we not even have to ask those questions, people will proactively suggest mentors to talk to and office hours and lectures to attend. It’s invaluable to be able to talk to experts and not only find people we know we need, but also learn about people we didn’t know we needed.
What are your goals while you’re at Highway1?
Our main goal is to perfect our technology. We have a proof of concept built that shows off the positioning tech, but in order to be able to track your fingers and hands, it needs to be comfortable, wearable, and small. We want to get the technology down to that form factor so we can start the industrial design around it. That’s the main goal; we also want to be better connected to the community, so we’re doing more user research and talking with investors in the area in preparation for raising our seed funding.
What’s your day-to-day like?
I get here in the morning, look at my very full schedule of lectures and meetings and office hours, and try to slot in time to work on the technology and business stuff and everything else. It turns out it’s best to go through the day, and then after everyone leaves the office is when you can focus on the real work; there are usually people here until 9 or 10 o’clock every day.