protect your lunch

A Houston entrepreneur is thinking out of the box with smart lockers for food and personal items

Dommonic Nelson wants to make sure everyone's lunches are safe. Photo via cleverboxcompany.com

Someone kept taking Dommonic Nelson's lunch. A Texas Southern University student living at home and commuting from Greenspoint, Nelson only had a few minutes to scarf down his lunches between studying Maritime Transportation. But regularly, he'd reach into the community refrigerator on campus, only to find, well, nothing.

One night, Nelson was in the shower, wondering why his lunch had been taken again, and the long journey to Clever Box Co. began. He barged into his grandfather's room — it was 2:40 in the morning — and told him he had an idea for a series of high-tech boxes designed for storing various things. The boxes could keep personal items (the Stash Box) and packages (the Happy Box) in large companies and coworking spaces, and for people to quickly pick up their food from restaurants without having to wait in line (the Yummy Box). If Nelson couldn't get his lunches back, he was going to make an entire business on making sure no one got stolen from again.

"We're taking ordinary lockers normally found in office buildings and retrofitting them to make them smart lockers," Nelson says.

It wasn't a bad idea, given a 2017 Peapod study that claims 71 percent of Americans have had their lunch stolen. But like most late-night shower ideas, Nelson's didn't work. Firstly, it wasn't a locker — he was stuck on refashioning community refrigerators, and no one wanted to buy in. He denied a $70,000 job offer in the maritime industry to make $14.50 an hour at Southwest Airlines, which gave him free travel. That took him all over the country, and finally, on one trip to California, where a last-minute meeting with Michael Feinberg, whose firm Bluefish Concepts was featured on CNBC's Make Me A Millionaire Inventor, crushed his dreams. You have the right idea, Feinberg said, but the wrong formula. It seemed like nobody needed a smart refrigerator. On the flight home to Houston, Nelson cried.

Nelson had entered entrepreneurship early. As a kid, he found his stepdad's old CDs and asked to try selling them. He made $500 that first week, bought a CD burner, and made $4,000 in three months by ripping tunes from beloved artists and selling them on the cheap. He was making cash in a place where there wasn't a whole lot of it — and he didn't do it by reinventing how music was sold; he just made it a more efficient process for his Greenspoint neighbors.

It was the same idea that would save Nelson's forthcoming business. Back in Houston, some of Feinberg's words echoed in his head: We already have refrigerators, we already have lockers. Why not just enhance them? Nelson didn't need to reinvent the wheel, or the refrigerator. He just needed to bring high-tech efficiency to lockers, to make them more secure but still easy to use.

One day, not long after getting back from his California meeting, Nelson ordered food online. He was busy, trying to work through the kinks in the design and figure out new markets, but he had to wait in line at the restaurant. He thought about the way that many restaurants treat pick-ups as an honor system — leaving them out for anyone to take, just like he had left his food in a refrigerator at school. There had to be a better way to do this, he thought. So he made one.

The rest of 2018, Nelson and a software engineer locked themselves in an attic and coded the design for the Yummy Box, which won Station Houston's Demo Day Pitch Competition that December. The next month, Clever Box Co. received its first order and exhibited their technology at Station Houston 3.0. There, they found Station Houston was struggling to develop a way to store parcels — Nelson collaborated with the start-up hub and designed the Happy Box, which sends messages to users when they have a delivery.

"We looked at it as a great opportunity to diversify our offerings," Nelson says.

Recently, Nelson finalized the pilot program for the Yummy Box at SouthernQ BBQ, a decade-old East Texas barbecue joint that has gained attention in the last few years as one of Houston's best spots.

Clever Box Co., too, is getting awards. Last month, Nelson took home one of 26 Houston Business Journal Fast 100 and Innovation Awards. And right now, he's raising $200,000 in revenue and hopes to expand his teams of three to make smarter and more secure locks for all of the boxes. Eventually, he hopes to partner with food delivery companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats for residential spaces. He imagines a Yummy Box in the lobby of his own apartment building — a driver will drop it off, he says, and Nelson will take the elevator down, walk to the locker, and open it up. Inside, he'll find his lunch. No one will have taken it.

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Building Houston

 
 

This health tech company has made some significant changes in order to keep up with its growth. Photo via Getty Images

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

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