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Disha Katharani speaking with two people

Full STEAM Ahead

At the intersection of the arts and sciences, businesses thrive

“Can you help me?”

The young kids at a Mumbai activity center were thoughtfully engaged in a paper art project. One by one, they carefully rolled slender strips into colorful spirals for use in larger tactile creations. But the children were growing frustrated and losing interest fast, calling on assistants for the cumbersome coiling work.

So Disha Katharani ’06 found a solution, a new spin on a centuries-old art form.

“We developed a motorized tool for paper quilling,” says the co-founder of the learning-focused Imagimake Toys. “Once you insert the paper and press a button, the coil is automatically formed. It’s really exciting and fantastic, because it allows the child to focus on the forms and shapes that they want to create—not the tedious task of rolling paper. The possibilities are endless.”

The cornerstone of Imagimake’s Spyrosity kit, the quilling tool is a recent winner of the Parents’ Choice Foundation’s Fun Stuff award. But it’s also an example of the interdisciplinary nature of many Swarthmorean startups—fueled by the “STEAM” subjects of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.

“When I think about teaching engineering in a liberal arts context, one of the best ways that we set our students up for success is by helping them learn how to see the deep connections between seemingly unrelated areas of inquiry,” says Matt Zucker, associate professor and chair of engineering. “Engineering also exposes students to all kinds of technical problems, so they’ll have confidence and adaptability no matter what project they decide to tackle.”

Businesses develop for all sorts of reasons: To fix a problem. To fulfill a need. To do something better, more efficiently, more effectively, more creatively.

Or sometimes—as in these STEAM-powered endeavors—to do all of the above.

In Pursuit of the Perfect Cup

The conversation started—as so many great ones do—over a cup of coffee.

Only this talk included one of the top specialty roasters in what’s arguably the coffee capital of the world.

Was it possible, Luis Fernando Vélez asked Eduardo Umaña ’15, to brew a sweeter, less bitter cup? The coffee connoisseur had been using the reverse French press method at his Amor Perfecto cafés in Colombia, but the process was tough to replicate outside a shop. Umaña—an engineer, Bogotá native, and fellow coffee lover—was eager to find an answer.

“I started exploring ways to brew coffee using negative pressure,” says Umaña, forcefully pulling water through the grounds to extract more of the coffee’s flavor. “Vacuum brewing was largely unexplored, and there weren’t any machines that could conveniently apply the brewing method for making coffee at home.”

Enter the FrankOne, the first electronic vacuum-extraction coffee brewer on the market (and, amazingly, the first coffee brewer from Colombia, period), created by the Miami-based Umaña under Vélez’s mentorship after two years of trial and error. Named for coffee-export pioneer and former president Francisco de Paula Santander—“he’s a national hero in Colombia, our George Washington,” Umaña notes—the FrankOne draws the coffee away from its bubbly, bitter crema, producing a cleaner, sweeter serving in about 30 seconds. The result meets the Specialty Coffee Association’s Golden Cup Standard: the “perfect” cup of coffee.

That fact alone has been enough to generate buzz among coffee enthusiasts and techies. Nearly 1,800 backers pledged more than $166,000 toward FrankOne’s successful Kickstarter campaign, and Gear Patrol declared it “the most interesting new coffee maker in a very long time.”

Umaña has a knack for marrying form and function while reimagining objects used every day. As an engineering student and SwatTank participant at Swarthmore, he designed and manufactured a ceramic-and-leather watch, still available for purchase through his website (The minimalist timepiece makes a cameo in FrankOne’s Kickstarter videos.) For his senior project, under guidance from Engineering Professor Carr Everbach, Umaña created an artful Möbius strip-inspired lamp that can be turned on and off with a short, sustained whistle.

The FrankOne, though, is his biggest project to date, with shipping expected to start this April. But it hasn’t been without snags: In early January, when manufacturing was about to begin, the motor in a 5-month-old prototype short-circuited and died—a scary case of early life failure.

After an emergency meeting, a design tweak, and weeks of continuous testing, production resumed. To Umaña, the near-catastrophe was a blessing in disguise.

“Had we not discovered this, we would have found out in a potentially unpleasant way,” he wrote to backers in an update on his Kickstarter page. “Imagine having thousands of machines all over the world that unexpectedly start to fail.”

It’s one of the downsides of a startup—having to navigate uncharted waters. But Umaña is undeterred.

“I have too many ideas in my mind that I want to hold in my hand,” he says. “I think I will be creating objects the rest of my life. Being an entrepreneur makes that possible—it is the only path that gives me the freedom to create.”

Dance Your Heart Out

Sarah Gladwin Camp ’05 is never quite sure what she’ll encounter on any given workday: a budget concern, a sick employee, a mysterious monster hidden somewhere inside her studio.

“OK, team,” she whispers to her pint-size crew. “You have to be very quiet. I’ve been looking around for footprints and trying to figure out where he is. Want to help find him?”

The youngsters gleefully join her on the enchanted journey, crawling through cavernous tunnels, feeling drops of rain upon their arms, and twirling around like tiny tornadoes. In time, the secret search party transforms into a delightful dance party, with a stop for story time in between.

For Camp, the founder of the creative-movement class ZoomDance, every day is an adventure, brought to life by her students’ imaginations.

“In my past as a nanny, I’d seen plenty of kids’ dance classes that were slow and not that fun, working hard on things that didn’t seem that engaging for the kids,” says Camp. “So I devised a class that was really active and adventurous, where we’d read stories and act them out, and work on qualities and dynamics—being playful and courageous, in addition to learning dance moves.”

What started in 2008 as a single class for South Philadelphia preschoolers, advertised through flyers passed out in parks, has grown into a full-fledged business. Today, ZoomDance has three additional teachers, more than a dozen weekly class sessions, party-hosting services, and a summer day camp. The key, says Camp, has been adapting to the needs of families.

Including her own: Since daughter Sydney came along three years ago—born to Camp and husband Ben ’05—Camp has tweaked her teachings and modified her workload, hoping to strike the right work-life balance.

An athlete growing up, Camp “accidentally got interested in dance” in college. She entered Swarthmore intending to be a physics major, loading up on math and science classes her first semester. For her PE requirement, though, her options were limited, so she decided to give Modern 1 a whirl.

“I totally loved it,” says Camp, who made dance her major and later earned a master’s in contemporary dance. “By the second semester of my freshman year, I was doing six hours of dance a day, helping start a performance team, and looking at studying dance abroad. I kind of just dove head-first into it.”

What appealed most about dance was how it enabled her to interact through motion, to be funny, awkward, or unusual in the physical. It’s the perfect mode of expression for children, Camp says—using their bodies and minds creatively to bring out their personalities.

“Art is so important for everybody, but especially young kids, because it alters how they see and relate to the world, and how they interact and collaborate with other people,” she says. “The way that our culture works right now, that’s pretty essential.”

That’s the big takeaway from her ZoomDance classes, and a large reason why her repertoire has resonated with local families.

“I’ve realized that I’m not actually trying to teach the kids dance at all,” says Camp. “What I’m really teaching is how to work together and take care of each other and share space and take turns and behave in different situations.

“Dance is just the medium I’m using.”

A Fully Baked Plan

Entrepreneurship is a lot like a scientific endeavor, says former Swarthmore physics professor Carl Grossman: “Here’s an idea—let’s see where it takes us; let’s see what we can do with it.”

And he should know: As director of science and research at the startup Brava Home Inc., co-founded by his onetime student Dan Yue ’05, Grossman spends his days in a lab, helping develop the next technological advancements for the innovative appliance company.

Released last year, the Brava Smart Oven ( uses “Pure Light Cooking”—high-intensity halogen lamps emitting both visible and infrared light—to directly target the food and drastically reduce the cook time of homemade dishes. Steak and potatoes, a 45-minute meal in a conventional oven, takes just 15 minutes in the Brava oven; a whole chicken cooks in 60 minutes instead of the standard 100. A built-in temp sensor ensures meat is done to perfection, and smartphone connectivity lets home cooks monitor meals away from the kitchen. The space-saving appliance is not much bigger than a toaster oven.

Yue developed the Brava idea while watching his mother scramble to prepare a holiday dinner. With constant checks on the meal cooking in the kitchen, she was checked out from any conversation with her family.

So Yue teamed up with high school friend Thomas Cheng, now Brava’s chief technology officer, to create a prototype. Tech veteran John Pleasants later joined as CEO.

“The product itself really is exciting,” says Grossman. “The invention by Dan and Thomas was brilliant—it’s a new idea, new technology, a new product. It’s fun developing technology with passionate people who are really creative, inventive, and hungry for success.”

An expert in optics, Grossman applies his skills toward characterizing and quantifying the light emitted by Brava’s heaters. Ever the scientist, he’s also been “an advocate of lots of testing before we move forward with any ideas and designs—making sure that, not only does it work, but is it manufacturable?”

Several other Swarthmoreans have been instrumental in getting Brava off the ground, including Mark Janoff ’04, the company’s head of business operations. Though Yue is no longer actively involved in Brava’s day-to-day operations, he maintains a seat on Brava’s board.

For Grossman, the transition away from academia has been a smooth one, especially with an innovative team backing him up.

“I really enjoy working in business, and it’s much more hands-on than you might think,” he says. “Developing and building systems and getting the tech to work—that seems to be my forte. And it turns out to be pretty useful in the business world.”

Imagine It, Make It

Disha Katharani ’06 didn’t set out to create a toy company, but her customers insisted. That’s what it felt like, anyway.

After Swarthmore, the math and engineering major returned to her native India as an Ernst & Young consultant. An MBA led to her first entrepreneurial journey, By the Buy, offering buying and marketing support to retailers.

“We did a lot of work for children’s bookstores and playgroups,” Katharani says, “so many of our services were centered around kids as our target market.”

That included workshops and programs in the children’s “edutainment” space—with a strong educational, skill-building, or craft-based objective. Sensing her audience was much wider than she could reach through her clients, Katharani launched Imagimake, a Mumbai-based children’s activity center, co-founded with her husband, Ravi Kumar. As parents began requesting activity kits to bring home or give as gifts, a toy line was a natural next step.

“We were quite fortunate,” Katharani says, “that the market led us to where the next turn should go.”

Imagimake has grown to more than 50 products, designed to inspire a child’s imagination. Besides the crafty Quill On line, the company has received critical praise for its Mapology puzzles: pieces cut into the shapes of states or countries, with separate flags identifying capitals and fun facts about each location.

Although the toys are available on Amazon, through Imagimake’s website, and in stores overseas, Katharani hopes to further expand their reach in the U.S. and globally. One way is through exhibitions. Her crew travels annually to Germany’s Spielwarenmesse, the largest toy fair in the world, and has exhibited stateside the past two Februarys at Toy Fair New York. Katharani foresees a European expansion in 2019, with orders already being filled in Greece, Hungary, and Belgium.

As the business grows, through successes and setbacks, Katharani stays grounded in her STEAM foundation formed at Swarthmore—in the engineering logic that drives her product development; the math that touches every business function, from accounting to finance to inventory; and the creativity gained from studying across the liberal arts.

“Swarthmore gave me the confidence of being able to do a lot of things,” she says. “Today, when I encounter a challenge, I always know that I have the mindset to think creatively about what the solution can be.

“Spending four years at Swarthmore set me up for life.”