Success at Their Fingertips

Melissa Draper ’77 and her husband Tim Draper with Tung Pham (UMass ’15) and Thu Do ’16. Photo by Carmen Pullello

Sometimes minor inconveniences can lead to major innovations.

For Thu Do ’16 and Tung Pham (UMass ’15), the experience of a forgotten credit card while eating at a local restaurant could have ended in frustration. Instead, the two began a conversation about commerce and technology that led to a business plan, two scholarships to the Draper University of Heroes in Silicon Valley, and a $10,000 check awarded to them as winners in Smith’s  2014 Draper Business Plan Competition.

“I forgot my purse at home and complained about why I even need a credit card to pay for my meal,” Do says. “We talked for hours about the existing complications and inconvenience of our current payment method, and wondered why we don’t have a faster, easier, safer way to pay. Why not use something we already have, we always own, and we never forget at home? Why not use our fingerprints?”

An application to compete in the Draper Competition helped the two focus their idea. The result was a system called Helix, which allows users to make payments by placing their fingers on a scanner, choosing a payment method, and securing the transaction via a registered online photo that allows cashiers to verify their identities. Over the course of three months, it rose to the top of the pile in the competition funded by Melissa Draper ’77 and her husband, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Tim Draper.

“The Draper Business Competition at Smith College is like the Academy Awards for women entrepreneurs. Some great companies are being made from it as we speak,” Tim Draper says. “This year’s winner, Helix, has a system that is more secure and more convenient than using a credit card to shop. Simply a fingerprint and a photo and you can take your yoga mat and be on your way.”

The competition finals included the Draper Business Trade Show April 16, the culminating experience of a process carefully designed to sharpen competitors’ business skills as they were coached on generating ideas, assessing and field-testing them, and presenting them in writing and in person.

“The last three months was a long process of turning our idea into a viable business: refining business model, customer development, building a product prototype, etc.,” Do says. “Every step was challenging and required a huge time commitment but I enjoyed every single minute of it and felt so lucky to have a great partner to work with. We did not always agree on everything. Nevertheless, our differences are what allow us to see things at different angles and complement each other in many ways. After three months, the new skill sets that we have built up, the great friends and incredible mentors we have met, and the reinforced passion for entrepreneurship are the biggest rewards for both of us.”

Now in its second year, the Draper Business Plan Competition expanded this year with the invitation to students at Barnard, Bay Path and Mount Holyoke colleges to join Smith students in developing and pitching sustainable business models in an attempt to win a portion of $25,000 in cash, scholarships and other prizes. Nearly 50 students from the four women’s colleges participated in the event organized by the Center for Women and Financial Independence.

Both Do and Pham won scholarships to Draper University, but had already committed to internships for the summer. Do, a double major in economics and mathematics, will work at Bank of America Merrill Lynch as an investment banking analyst intern; her competition partner, Pham, a computer science major with a minor in math, will work as a software engineer intern at Facebook. Both intend to attend Draper University in the future, and both plan to enroll in graduate schools.

As for the winning project, Do says they are carrying it forward, focusing on the development process and digging deeper to understand their target market: “We hope Helix will become the next step forward in payment innovation, and someday we will be able to joke with our kids about how people used to pay for things with plastic cards.”