After a family vacation a few years ago, Berkeley Haas student Antoine Balaresque realized that his mother wasn't in any photos from the trip -- she was always behind the camera.
Balaresque teamed up with fellow undergraduate Henry Bradlow, an EECS major, and they sketched out an idea for a camera that would produce the ultimate selfie -- entirely hands free, intelligent, and capable of producing videos and still shots in a variety of outdoor environments.
Last week, Balaresque and Bradlow launched a pre-sale campaign for their first product, Lily, a flying camera that controls itself, and it went viral instantly, picking up coverage in WIRED, CNN, Forbes, and other major news outlets. Forbes had named the two entrepreneurs to the 2015 30 Under 30 list.
"We are so excited to share this with the world after two years of work," says Balaresque, now the CEO of Lily Robotics. "What makes Lily unique is that you do not need to pilot it, it just follows you around and creates the best shots for you. All you have to do is throw it in the air. It is that easy." The camera also offers a small tracker that records audio from the ground, seamlessly synced to the camera's aerial footage.
At Berkeley, their journey as founders started in a campus robotics lab, and they incubated their newly formed company as part of the inaugural cohort of Free Ventures, Berkeley's undergraduate-run incubator.
After wowing the judges at Free Ventures' Demo Day, Lily was offered a spot at Cal's SkyDeck Accelerator. "Free Ventures and SkyDeck helped us refine our pitch and get ourselves ready for institutional investors. They helped us articulate our story and long term vision in a way that was very appealing to investors."
In the meantime, the two software engineers embraced their roles as hardware entrepreneurs, enlisting additional engineers to work on the autonomous flight, computer vision, and design of the camera. "Manufacturing is already hard, plus we have software backgrounds, so there was a steep learning curve."
Lily earned investments from prominent angel investor Ron Conway and Andreessen Horowitz Board Partner Shana Fisher, and were advised by senior executives at GoPro and Dropcam.
While many hardware companies debut their products on crowdfunding sites, Lily chose to launch a pre-sale campaign. "The great thing about pre-sale vs. crowdfunding," says Balaresque, "is that you can get to know your users much better. We are raising awareness with the campaign, but at the same time, we are engaging customers early on, and we have lined up tier-1 manufacturing partners who are committed to long term success with us."
Balaresque and Bradlow have also built their leadership skills by bringing together the complete spectrum of assets required to launch a product. "Our launch team has web developers, designers, an SEO person, an online marketing person, a social media team, and a PR team. It requires great coordination and execution. Software tools like Slack, Basecamp, and Github are very useful there."
Though they intend to take the company far beyond this first product, Balaresque and Bradlow also plan to stay close to their Berkeley roots. "Berkeley is an amazing environment for budding entrepreneurs, and it's great that the school is doing more in this area." Their advice for future Cal students who build ventures while in school is simple: "Stay curious. Learn. Build something with your friends."
For more information about Lily, visit http://www.lily.camera and follow @LilyRobotics on Twitter.