Resonado's co-founders, from left to right: Peter Moeckel ('20), Erikc Pérez-Pérez ('19), Brian Cho ('19) and Christian Femrite ('19)
When the Fighting Irish football team takes the field against the Louisville Cardinals on September 2, the founders of Notre Dame startup company Resonado will have a special reason to cheer on the team. Their logo, rather than a more universally recognized brand like Bose, Gatorade or Under Armour, will grace the headsets of head coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff in clear view of the national viewing audience.
That’s quite a season opener for an unknown company.
How did Resonado, a company that didn’t even exist until 2017 when it was launched by then Notre Dame students and now graduates Brian Cho, Christian Femrite, and Erikc Perez-Perez and now senior Peter Moeckel, land on one of the most sought-after pieces of real estate in collegiate football? Have you heard that it takes a village to raise a child? In this case, it took an entire university to launch a startup and ultimately score this unique partnership.
The story begins with an immigrant family from South Korea living in New Jersey. The father, L.H. Cho, was an electrical engineer with a passion for entrepreneurship who had succeeded in selling two companies. He was grooming his son Brian to follow in his footsteps, teaching him about electrical engineering. One of their pet projects was perfecting an alternative to cone-shaped audio speakers, a technology originally developed 140 years ago and ripe for disruption. When it came time for Brian to choose a college and a major, L.H. assumed his son would select an elite East Coast university and study electrical engineering. Brian had other ideas.
”I met a Notre Dame graduate, also an immigrant, at a college fair. She described Notre Dame’s national alumni network as having a second family across the country she could rely on for help. That was very appealing to me,” explains Brian. “I decided to enroll in Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business as a finance major.”
Igniting a passion for entrepreneurship
Brian had no interest in becoming an entrepreneur. That is, until 2017 when he saw a brochure promoting Notre Dame’s annual McCloskey New Venture Competition. More specifically, he saw there was a $50,000 cash prize to the winner. He entered the competition with fellow student Peter Moeckel and while they didn’t win, the two considered it a success. “We fell in love with being entrepreneurs,” Brian says.
In the back of his mind was the project he shared with his father, the now patented Flat Core Speaker technology. It had never been commercialized, in part because of a lack of market demand. But with the advent of smart phones, tablets and other speaker-enabled micro devices, the time to redefine the shape of sound was ripe. Cho and Moeckel recruited two fellow students to their team, Erikc Perez-Perez, a marketing major, and Christian Femrite, an electrical and electronic engineering major, along with Brian’s father as chief technology officer. Resonado was born.
With support from the Notre Dame IDEA Center, the four founders set their sights on the 2018 McCloskey New Venture Competition. Their strategy centered on taking the speaker technology direct to consumers. The proposition was extremely difficult; apps are a far easier sell to consumers than hardware. While their plan fell short with the judges, the team had two powerful takeaways: the realization that a cool technology does not correlate into a real business and more importantly, a mentor.
A startup’s dream, rent-free living in Silicon Valley
Notre Dame alumnus, San Francisco attorney and McCloskey Venture competition judge Richard Pivnicka saw something special in the students and Resonado. He offered to serve as their business advisor. There was one more thing: Pivnicka gave the foursome the opportunity to spend ten weeks in Silicon Valley rent-free during the summer of 2018.
“This was a huge opportunity for us because living expenses are insanely high,” recalls Cho, “but we still didn’t have enough money to go.”
Hearing of the students’ situation, the Notre Dame Career Center stepped up with funding from alumni and benefactors designated to help students with internships. Now with just under $10,000 in their kitty, Team Resonado headed west for the summer to network and continue building their company.
The students quickly learned how to navigate Silicon Valley. While they couldn’t afford Uber and lived on Red Bull and ramen, they did make an insane number of contacts in private equity and technology circles. Says Brian, “We got more done in a day in the Bay Area than we could in a month in school. The experience was incredible.”
Let the funding begin!
The knowledge gained led to a pivot in Resonado’s strategy. The students adopted a business-facing model that would enable them to provide their Flat Core Speaker technology to corporations for use in their products. The change in strategy caught the attention of IDEA Center advisors and earned Resonado its first investment, $70,000 from the Notre Dame Pit Road Fund, an investment fund established in 2017 to accelerate promising early-stage technologies and startup ideas toward development.
With the funding, the students, now with space in Notre Dame’s Innovation Park, focused on perfecting their technology and go-to-market strategy. The Flat Core Speaker technology is lighter, more efficient, and delivers sound superior to that of audio’s current coil configuration. However, it’s the flexibility to design speakers in new and exciting ways that make Resonado’s technology attractive to manufacturers in a wide range of consumer industries. The Flat Core Speaker is also a possible replacement for sound systems used in automobiles, recreational vehicles, homes, concert halls and stadiums.
Thus empowered, Team Resonado set its sights on the largest, richest student startup competition in the world, the 19th Annual Rice Business Plan Competition, held last April in Houston, Texas. Resonado was one of 42 teams selected from 300 applicants from the world’s top universities to compete for more than $1.5 million in prizes.
Team Resonado did not disappoint. The panel of 300 judges awarded the Notre Dame students second place and a total of $425,000 in prizes.
On to the 2019 McCloskey New Venture Competition
Student teams are allowed to compete in the McCloskey competition twice if their business plan has changed significantly. With the pivot in their business model, team Resonado decided to try again in 2019. Amid stiff competition—a record 175 teams competed for more than $350,000 in prize money—Resonado won, splitting the $50,000 McCloskey Grand Prize in the Notre Dame student or alumni category with another team, Vital View Technologies. The foursome also took first place for best business plan and best presentation. The event was particularly meaningful for Resonado chief marketing officer Erikc Perez-Perez.
“We had won top prizes all over the country before this year’s McCloskey competition, but winning at home, in the presence of the friends and mentors who helped make all of this happen, was a feeling I’ll never forget.”
The publicity generated from the wins at Rice and Notre Dame, fueled Resonado’s $1 million pre-seed fundraising round that closed in late July. Most of the investment came from Notre Dame alumni and angel investors, with the balance coming from angel investment firms from across the country, including Elevate Ventures, Queen City Angels, Band of Angels, Catapult Ventures, Connetic Ventures, and OWL Investment.
Resonado currently has more than 25 prospective clients in industries that include recreational vehicles, automotive, home audio, and consumer electronics in their pipeline. They kicked off a second fundraising round, a $2 million seed round, August 22, at 500 Startups Demo Day in San Francisco. Brian says the goal is to close the new round by November with funds used to further expand the Resonado team and develop their technology.
A sound partnership with Notre Dame football leads to Resonado’s national debut
In the meantime, however, thanks to a deal negotiated by Theodore Loehrke, president of Notre Dame Global Partnerships, which manages the use of the university’s brand in athletics circles, Resonado will make its national debut on the headsets of the Fighting Irish football coaches. Resonado will remain front and center for the entire season, an enviable position sure to boost interest in the company. The deal has special meaning to Brian Cho.
“Here we are, a no-name company started by a bunch of college students with a major partnership with one of the nation’s top football programs. From the beginning, Notre Dame, the IDEA Center, and countless alumni welcomed the opportunity to support our dream, one most people thought was impossible. This partnership and Notre Dame’s brand power will help Resonado succeed, but more importantly, it will show future students what’s possible when they attend Notre Dame,” Cho says.
“This is what makes Notre Dame unique; we help students succeed.”