As a former college athlete, AfterDark Technologies founder and CEO Dan Wilson will never forget the indignity of being kicked off the sports field. It didn’t matter that he and his Cornell University Swim Team friends didn’t have dibs on his school’s various lit fields at night.
After all, none of the football, soccer or lacrosse players ever crashed their pool during swimming practice. However, the swimmers still needed a place to mix up their alternative cardio workouts and playing ultimate Frisbee seemed like their best bet to break up the monotony of running. Far away from the floodlights, however, the friends often tripped over each other in the dark.
“Buying an illuminated Frisbee helped a bit,” Wilson recalled, “but it was ultimately useless because we couldn’t tell the difference between our teammates and our opponents.”
More than a decade later, while earning his MBA at Babson College in Waltham, Mass., he revisited his Ultimate Frisbee problem. What if instead of lighting the field, you lit up the players? Enrolling in Babson’s Summer Venture Program for entrepreneurs, Wilson founded AfterDark Technologies, a startup devoted to creating “an immersive nighttime gaming experience” with interactive sports equipment and uniforms.
“Anyone can light up an object,” said Wilson. “We’re changing the game by taking things to the next level—equipment that interacts with the player. For example, a Frisbee or football can change color depending on who has possession. You can instantly tell who is on offense or defense in the dark.”
In AfterDark’s flag football, a quarterback who is sacked might have his or her vest flash or turn a different color. At the scrimmage line, instead of counting down five “Mississippis,” the quarterback’s vest flashes five times indicating when the defensive line can rush. When the player with the ball has one of their three illuminated flags pulled off, their vest flashes a “down” signal.
Steve Hansen, a California-based web app developer, tested an early version of Wilson’s game while he was a classmate at Babson. “When we played, there was a tiny amount of ambient light from nearby street lights so we could just see the contour of the ground and the grass. But Dan’s hardware and software is really what made the game playable,” he said. “We had a lot of fun in the dark.”
“I can see this being popular in the summer,” he said. “Massachusetts gets really muggy and humid and it was just a lot more comfortable to run around at night.”
As with any developing product, AfterDark’s wearable technology has gone through multiple iterations. Wilson and his electrical engineer initially experimented with wiring LEDs into jerseys, but they were not durable enough for the laundry. They also tinkered with electroluminescent (EL) wire, a thin copper wire that glows when an ac charge flows through it. The EL wires produced a desirable neon look, but after repeated wear and tear, would break and give players a tiny shock.
Eventually, Wilson found that using side-firing fiber optic cable for vests and belts was equally attractive but more reliable. “There’s a lot of trial and error and running a startup can be a real beating,” said Wilson, “but (pioneer surgeon) Alexis Carrel said it best, ‘Man cannot remake himself without suffering for he is both the marble and the sculptor.’ I have this quote on the wall right in front of my desk. Whenever I get frustrated that something’s not working out, I just lean back in my chair and reread it.”
One of AfterDark’s biggest setbacks came this past summer when its computers crashed and Wilson lost most of his design work. “We had to recreate all our designs from the physical printouts,” lamented Wilson. “We’re talking about two or three weeks lost. I’m kicking myself for not being vigilant with my backups.”
Hoping to avoid similar incidents, Wilson now does all of his design work in Onshape, a new professional-grade, cloud-based CAD platform that facilitates engineering and design collaboration on any device or any browser.
“With CAD in the cloud, I’ll never have to worry about backing up my files again,” he said. “Another thing I love is that I don’t need to have a heavy-duty processor to get into my projects. The PC we use for our printer is a cheap $200 computer and Onshape has worked very well on it. I haven’t noticed any difference between using Onshape with a fast computer and a not-so-fast computer.”
On the financial end, Wilson said he appreciates Onshape’s business model of paying for CAD as a monthly service. “The amount of money our previous CAD vendor wanted to renew our software license was just not affordable for us. Dropping $5,000 on software for us is insane. We could buy five more 3D printers for that. As a startup, we run super lean here. Every dollar that I don’t spend is money that can be invested into our product,” he added.
AfterDark may branch out into other sports, but for starters the company is focusing only on recreational flag football and Frisbee teams. It is currently testing its equipment on college campuses and is aiming for a soft product launch in the spring of 2015.
As the company grows and moves into manufacturing, Wilson sees other uses of Onshape. “I could see Onshape becoming even more useful to us once we start the manufacturing process,” said Wilson. “It will be very valuable to access our designs on a tablet when we’re at a factory and be able to quickly make changes on the spot.”
Babson College Professor Mary Gale, Wilson’s faculty advisor in the Summer Venture Program, said, “As with any startup, the company has its ups and downs, but Dan has tremendous persistence. One of the things that sets apart wannabe entrepreneurs from successful entrepreneurs is the belief that they can make anything happen. They keep going no matter what the obstacles are. Dan believes in what he’s doing and I think he’s going to make it.”