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Success Stories

Enes Umur GokcekCo-Founder & CEO of Niche

"Without a team of outliers, Niche would not be possible"

Farley Q&A

Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I am an Engineering Design Innovation M.S. student and a Fulbright Scholar from Turkey. I am passionate about assisting, connecting and empowering people. I strive for innovating disruptive high-tech products and designing unique experiences to make users’ lives easier and happier.

What drew you to IoT?

After graduating from Istanbul Technical University as a Mechanical Engineer, I worked for high-tech companies and innovated state-of-the-art IoT products. Through these experiences, I realized that most high-technology products come from technology-centric development. I believe that technology-driven solutions are most valuable when they are designed for people. I decided to learn human-centered design methodology to create high-technology products that solve people's problems through the design thinking process.

What drew you to Farley Center's NUvention program?

Nuvention: Analytics was the right choice for me to explore the possibilities of IoT technology further while I gained a better understanding of state-of-the-art applications in the space. When I first read the course syllabus which mentioned an impressive list of industry leaders and experts who would be appearing as guest speakers, I was fascinated. Add to this the experienced faculty the course had and I knew I would not find an opportunity like this anywhere else.

How did you come up with the idea for Niche?

Throughout the class, I'd been holding one question in the back of my head: “Which objects in our daily lives would provide meaningful value for users if they were connected?”

Then, during a routine meeting, while I was doodling on post-its and thinking about what to make for dinner, I dreamed of an attachment that could “connect” my kitchen storage containers. This “daydream” device would help me prepare my evening meals by auto-ordering the items I needed to make meals. It would also be able to get information about my supplies anywhere, anytime.

At first, I thought that this innovation I designed would only be useful to solve a specific problem I alone had. However, after going to people’s houses and interviewing them in their kitchens, I realized that I was not alone in my need for such a device. As I made efforts to turn my dream device into a real IoT deliverable, I interviewed more and more people, all the while applying human-centered design to create the first concept which I’d named Niche.

What is Niche?

Niche is a smart ecosystem which tracks and auto-replenishes home supplies in an effortless and worry-free way. The Niche ecosystem consists of smart, connected sensors which we call Sapphires and the Niche App. Users can easily connect the Sapphires to the internet and stick them to the inside of any type of container lid. Users then perform a one-time calibration for the item they would like to track. They can then set preferences and define a trigger level for actions like auto-ordering or creating a shopping list.

How did NUvention/Northwestern influence your journey?

In particular, one NUvention: Analytics guest speaker, Mert Iseri, a Northwestern alum and CEO of SwipeSense, is one of the reasons I chose to attend Northwestern University. Though I knew Mert as my mentor, when he was one of the guest speakers for NUvention: Analytics, I was so surprised to hear his stories. He shared a lot of his experiences including his achievements and failures and what he learned while he was studying at Northwestern that I had never heard before.

It was an interesting feeling to imagine Mert sitting in the same classroom, taking exactly the same class I was taking now when he was a student. Today, Mert is saving thousands of lives. Even so, he is still willing to support students—like me—in their quests to create something amazing to make the life better and happier for others.

How did "Team Niche" form and who are your members?

Niche would not be possible without Team Niche which is made up of brilliant students. Our first motivation is to create something that solves a technically challenging problem in a meaningful, elegant way. That’s how I connected with Niche’s Business Lead, Sergei Bekeshkin, MBA 19’, who has more than seven years of professional work experience.

After meeting Sergei, I was lucky enough to build my talented Niche team with more “outliers” and tenacious “go-getters” (which is one of the most important skills for entrepreneurship).

In addition to Sergei, our other team members are:

  • Chris Datsikas, EDI 18’, Technology Lead*
  • Ivan Calvachi, EDI 18’, Design Strategy Lead*
  • Jishnu Pradeep, MS CS 18’, UI/UX Front End Lead*
  • Mark Gu Jung, CS 20’, Software and Cloud Systems Lead*
  • Joseph Seongsik Kim, CS 20’, Software Engineer
  • Ahmet Selman Kurt, Ph.D. EE 23’, Embedded Software Lead (National University of Singapore)
  • Irem Unal, Graphic Designer at Babil Creatives (Part-time)
  • Berkay Ozen, EEE 19’, Electronics Engineering Intern (Bilkent University)

* denotes NUvention: Analytics/NUvention: Web alum

From the outside looking in, Niche has a lot of members. But to move fast in the IoT industry, you need team members who each handle a specific role to make that possible.

Tell us a bit about Niche's progress.

In less than ten weeks, we did a lot of things from creating numerous product prototypes and different concepts to testing different use cases. We also did UI/UX testing, created various PCB designs, did mobile app development in iOS and Android, set up a cloud database and server, built our website and filed a provisional patent application. Yes, you can learn from our valuable faculties like Professor Dan Brown, and write it yourself with a little bit of help from a patent attorney!

Most importantly, at the end of ten weeks, we found the right concept for Niche. Now Niche attaches under container lids so it is able to understand supply level better and can provide more detailed information, including percentage and remaining serving amount. We also have a fully functioning Minimum Loveable Platform which consists of smart sensors, a mobile app, and cloud services with performance features. We believe our users will love it.

Without the support of experienced people who made it possible to achieve a lot of different things in a short amount of time, Niche would not be possible. NUvention: Analytics' Professor, Mark Werwath, literally spent two hours more than a few times brainstorming different concept ideas, identify key partners, use cases and offered us his network to help us reach our goals faster.

Also, within the Segal Design Institute, The Garage, and the McCormick [School of Engineering] there are invaluable faculty and employees with amazing experience who are willing to share their valuable time to support students and help them create something amazing. You almost feel a moral pressure to give back these people and make them proud of you. This feeling motivated our team to work harder every single day as entrepreneurs.

What's up next for Niche?

Right now, our team is preparing for a month-long user testing with our first 20 products. We will test it with working mothers who are our target users. We would like to learn as much as possible about their lifestyle and how we can create an '11-star' experience for them through our platform before we scale. We believe that these mothers deserve more quality time so they will have the energy to smile with their loved ones. Our mission is personalizing and automating online grocery shopping. We will make it happen.

How can people keep in touch with your team and track Niche's progress?

You can keep tuned in with our project and subscribe to our newsletter through our website www.projectniche.io. Communicate with us through hello@projectniche.io.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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