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Former UC Merced Students Travel Entrepreneurial Path to China

July 22, 2013

Three entrepreneurs with UC Merced roots are trying to revolutionize the biking experience.

UC Merced graduate Seena Zandipour, and former students Tony Belmontes and Kenneth Gibbs, are developing Helios Bars — handlebars that transform any bicycle into a “smart bike” through features such as smart phone connectivity, GPS tracking and lights that flash from red, yellow and green based on speed.

“We started with a simple idea and realized we had the technology to add more,” said Zandipour, who graduated in Fall 2012 with a bachelor’s in management. “We want to revolutionize the biking experience.”

The group took its quest to Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site, where it raised $120,000 — far more than the $70,000 goal. Group members plan to begin shipping the smart handlebars in December. 

The three are home after spending four months in an accelerated program in China that helps launch hardware startups. They won spots in the cutting-edge HAXLR8R program. The venture fund provides $25,000 in seed money, office space and mentorship to entrepreneurs who travel to San Francisco or Shenzhen, China.

In addition to trying to disrupt biking, Zandipour and Belmontes have left a mark on the UC Merced campus. They were part of the team that won the top prize in the inaugural Mobile App Challenge in 2012. Their “Classlerts” app — still in use today — allows students to receive text-message alerts when a slot opens up in a desired class.

Brian O’Bruba, director of the Career Services Center, helped develop the Mobile App Challenge. He’s not surprised that Zandipour and Belmontes were selected for the HAXLR8R program based on their performance in the competition.

“They are hard workers and have innovative ideas,” he said. “Participating in the App Challenge helped them further develop their ideas and hone their skills.”

The three co-founders of Helios came together at UC Merced as freshman roommates. Belmontes and Gibbs, both of Yuba City, have been friends since the sixth grade. In Zandipour, of Walnut Creek, they found a software, marketing and business mind that complemented their hands-on expertise.

“We benefit so much from collaborating together,” Gibbs said.

Last summer, the trio of bike enthusiasts began working on an idea to improve safety and expand the cycling experience. The idea of Helios Bars began to take shape.

After spotting the HAXLR8R program on the Web, they applied and went through several Skype interviews. Zandipour said he thinks having past success — such as Classlerts — helped them win spots in the program.

Between January and May, the three inventors lived in China and built prototypes, visited factories and took in the massive electronics market. In their free time, they explored the city and even got involved in the music scene.

Zandipour said he rapped about the struggles to succeed, while Belmontes played the drums and Gibbs also sang.

“Everything we did there seemed cool to us,” Zandipour said.

The entrepreneurs have raised more than $100,000 to begin production of Helios Bars; hundreds are on order. The company now is raising money for shop space and other business start-up needs.

Belmontes, who hopes to return to UC Merced in 2014, said the university gave him a strong foundation to pursue their dreams.

For Zandipour the Mobile App Challenge experience has been extremely useful.

“Having to present the concept over and over again helped me see what works and what doesn’t work with investors,” Zandipour said. “UC Merced has the potential to be the UC campus known for entrepreneurship.”

O’Bruba agreed, saying the university offers an exceptional learning environment where programs like the Mobile App Challenge foster a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship.

“UC Merced is already becoming a leader in adopting or creating new technologies, new ideas and new methodologies and our students are an important part of the innovation that is taking place on and off campus,” he said.