Product development company Levaté aims to empower and increase the independence of people with disabilities. Founder Dillon Dakota Carroll speaks to YourStory on the startup, and his move to Germany to test new waters.
YourStory: What was the reason for your shift to Berlin?
Dillon Dakota Carroll: The reasons why I came to Germany are manifold. On one level, I was interested to learn German, and about Germany. I came to scout the city last year, and I really liked it. The more pragmatic reason why I came to Germany is that in terms of European countries, the German visa process is much more straightforward.
YS: You have a startup in the US. Are you working remotely, or do you plan to set up operations in Germany?
DDC: The idea is to do something different in Germany. With regard to my startup, we are currently looking for funding in order to finish the product development. At some point if we are successful, we would like to expand to Europe, but we are not at that stage yet. So, what I am going to be doing in Germany is getting plugged in co-working spaces, seeing how I can be an asset for the community, and exploring how I can find my niche in the startup ecosystem in Berlin.
YS: Will you use this money to fund your startup in the US, or is this work completely independent?
DDC: My work in Germany is independent of my startup. My partner and I are trying to self-fund our startup and bootstrap it, but unfortunately, the amount of money we need in terms of investment is a bit beyond what we can contribute at the moment. We are, therefore, currently looking for funding.
YS: Can you tell us about your product? What motivated you to develop it and at what stage are you?
DDC: The product is called Levaté, and it is a wheelchair lift. The idea is that you can clip it on your existing wheelchair - you don’t need to buy a new wheelchair you just buy mechanical legs that sit underneath - and when you deploy it, it lifts the wheelchair up by half a meter.
You can use it to talk to somebody face to face, sit on a bar top, reach out in a grocery shop. It’s all about restoring independence for the people sitting in a wheelchair. The idea came from a friend of my business partner, who is using a wheelchair. He went to a concert and couldn’t see anything and mentioned how frustrating that was for him.
We started looking into it and realised we don’t think about the difficulties of somebody in a wheelchair, and it really is difficult because they live in an environment that has been built assuming the person can stand up and walk around.
Eileen: Do you have customers for the product yet?
DDC: No, we don’t have any customers, but a prototype. However, it is not good enough yet, which is why we are looking for funding to do more product development. Currently, the product is too heavy, and it’s difficult to put on and take off. We want to make it lighter in the near future.
YS: What are the challenges in identifying investors?
DDC: The biggest challenge has been that a lot of investors are familiar with software products, but are not so interested in hardware products, as software products promise greater returns in a shorter timeframe. Another challenge is that we are based in Oklahoma, US. There are investors out there, but it is not Silicon Valley. It is thus difficult to get plugged into the right networks and people.
YS: Tell us a bit about yourself. What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
DDC: I do not come from a family of entrepreneurs. On one side my family were farmers in South Georgia, and my mother’s family are Italian immigrants. I studied engineering but my first job after graduating was acting as a startup consultant internal to the University of Oklahoma.
That really opened my eyes to the possibilities because what really interests me is the intersection of engineering, design and business, and how we can use these three different aspects to make the world a better place. Additionally, I had to work 16 hours a day during this job. My second job led me to Bangladesh - where a failing leadership made me realise that I don’t want to have a boss but would rather become an entrepreneur.
YS: You mentioned you moved to Bangladesh, what did you do there? What are the differences between the American and the Bangladesh entrepreneurship ecosystem?
DDC: I spent six months in Bangladesh, though the originally-planned tenure was of three years. While I did startup consultancy there, Levaté gained traction. We got our first seed funding during my time in Bangladesh, so I kept working remotely for Levaté.
There are differences and similarities between the American and Bangladesh startup ecosystems. The entrepreneurial mindset is universal. However, a lot of startups I saw used existing solutions and adapted it to the local ecosystem. There was also a much bigger emphasis in the startup community on social impact because a lot of people see it as a possibility to help address the problems Bangladesh has.
A big difference I saw, and where I could add a lot of value, is that people in Bangladesh follow the boss whatever he or she says. They are also not used to thinking for themselves or taking the initiative.
YS: Coming back to your startup, how did you meet your co-founder Ethan van Meter?
DDC: Ethan and I met at the University of Oklahoma when I was working as a startup consultant. One of the projects I did was launching a new agile product design programme. He was one of the first teams that came through in that programme. I joined the team, and Levaté was the first product we developed as part of the programme.
We were originally six people working on that project, but after graduating, everyone else went their separate ways. He and I were excited enough about it to keep working on it till date.