Founder Friday

Luma Legacy’s Alina Balean

Welcome to Founder Friday, where we’ll learn a little about the people behind some of the companies doing their thing at Highway1. Today’s founder is Alina Balean of Luma Legacy.

Who are you? (don’t forget your official job title)
I’m Alina Balean, co-founder and CEO of Luma Legacy, a smart jewellery company.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got your company started.
I have a masters in interaction design from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU’s Tisch School, where my focus was on making wearables.

I had a quarter-life crisis that brought me to New York a couple years ago, and I’d been cyberstalking that program for a long time, knowing I wanted to do it and never thinking I could actually get in.

When I did get in, I was super excited; I was a graphic designer for a long time and I knew that I loved technology, I just didn’t know what I could do with it. That program was really amazing because it opened my eyes to the potential of technology, as well as my own. In my second or third semester I really got into wearables and started understanding how to work with conductive thread; I made a lot of soft wearables, like a texting hoodie.

Where did the idea for this business come from, and what role did you play?
About four years ago, my co-founder Karol was taking a class on the future of product, and she was tasked to think of a product she’d want herself; when my smart hoodie made it onto CNN, she got in touch. At the time, she was more about advice, asking me how she should build this thing, and then I was like “No, no –I’m gonna help you do it!”

Tell us about this hoodie!
I was taking a class called Towers of Power where we were playing with a GSM module; the class is three weeks long, and we had to make a project at the end. That’s what’s great about that program — by no means is it conceptual. It’s just like at Highway1: there’s a shop, there are people, and you make this thing real.

I had three weeks, so I got my friend Rucha involved. We wanted to make something you can wear that allows you to go about your day and not always have a cell phone on you, instead using your body as a form of communication.

There were gestures sewn into the hoodie: if you rolled up the sleeve or put up the hood, it’d send a preset message, in this case specifically to my mom telling her what I was up to, ’cause you know how parents worry. If I rolled up my sleeve it would tell her I was in class and working hard; if I put up the hood it said “Hey Mom, I love you, I miss you.” And it had its own cellphone: it had a SIM card, you didn’t have to connect to anything with Bluetooth, it was ready to go.

How did you find out about Highway1?
Highway1 was another thing I was cyberstalking for a long time. One of the Jewelbots founders, Maria Paula, came to ITP, so I was very aware of Highway1; plus, my professors mentioned it a lot. It was something that I always knew existed!

What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far?
Every day we learn something completely new. The mentors and staff here have a really good way of asking the right questions that help them understand our product a lot, better than in other situations where we’d ask for advice from people who don’t have this experience, and it would always be very generic. But with the staff and mentors here, we’ve been able to push the limits of our thinking.

Can you talk about what the focus of your founding team was, and how you met the challenges (if any) of branching out beyond your personal experience?
Our founding team has a lot of experience in wearables and UX/UI design; my co-founder Karol has designed a lot of apps for HBO and Lytro, and so she has a lot of experience in understanding what an app should look like and how a user interacts with it.

Our hardware lead Brigid just finished her masters at NYU Polytechnic where she also focused on wearables, so she has a really deep understanding of the tech and has really been able to lead the hardware side of things. I have a really mixed background even though I have this masters in interaction design; I was also an investor in First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, so I know how early stage investment works and how to organize a team.

I think that was a good foundation for what we need right here; from there we’ve been able to hire freelancers and get other people on board to help with other things we’re focused on.

What are your goals, both while you’re at Highway1 and beyond?
Our biggest goal is to have a product that I can be wearing onstage at Demo Day. In the future, we want to figure out a really good method for manufacturing.

Any advice for people looking to start out in hardware?
It’s hard. Make sure what you’re building is something that needs to exist in the world, and make sure that you’re ready to live with 40 people like we do right now and not sleep ever and still continue to come in every day and push forward, because it’s gonna be one of the hardest things you ever make.

People are not gonna be throwing money at you just ’cause you think your idea’s really cool: make sure you think it needs to exist.

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