Originally created 05/16/03

New businessmen find success with talking smoke detectors



ATHENS, Ga. - Armed with a unique product that addresses the fact that traditional smoke detectors do not wake small children, four graduating MBA students at the University of Georgia have launched a start-up company that could prove to be a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

The Terry College of Business students, who got their diplomas last week, tell tales of entrepreneurship that are reminiscent of the late 1990s, when it seemed every young person with a great idea could launch a successful company.

Matthew Ferris, Bruce Black, Kerry Moher and Doug Ghertner won first place for their KidSmart Vocal Smoke Detector at the 2003 Carrot Capital Business Plan Competition in New York in April.

Just two weeks ago, they took first place at the 20th annual Moot Corp Competition in Austin, Texas - a competition that BusinessWeek magazine refers to as the "Super Bowl of World Business Plan Competitions."

The students won about $750,000 from the two competitions, along with media attention and connections that extend to manufacturing companies in Asia.

"It was a lot of tough interviewing as well as a lot of tough networking," said Mr. Ferris, the president of KidSmart. "It was one of those things where you think: Why didn't someone think about this a long time ago?"

The product combines a smoke detector and a digital voice recorder, and was created at about the same time several television stations broadcast investigative reports about the failure of traditional smoke detectors to wake sleeping children.

Researchers have found that children do not wake up to regular smoke detectors - and if they do, they often panic and hide under a bed or in a closet.

"News organizations all over the country started breaking the story that children won't wake up to a regular smoke detector - it takes them far beyond seven to eight minutes to wake up, and you have about two minutes to get out during a fire," Mr. Ferris said.

The MBA students' product allows parents to record a message to sleeping children - first, to wake the children, and then to tell them how to leave their rooms and, ultimately, the house.

According to Mr. Ferris, studies on their product have found that when prompted by parents' voices, children wake up within seven seconds, and are capable of exiting a house within 30 seconds.

The students have fielded media requests from The Wall Street Journal and ABC-TV's Good Morning America.