Building Mice Mazes and Growing to $100k/month

The Story of MazeEngineers

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

My name is Shuhan He and I’m a doctor and entrepreneur. I am the founder of a Boston-based startup called Maze Engineers. We focus on creating innovative mazes for research, integrating cloud computing technologies, wireless systems, and automated data tracking technologies to assist behavioral research. Our aim is to provide support for researchers to conduct important neurological experiments and create therapies for patients. We were actually featured on Nature.com, where we explored the science behind the mazes.

Aside from being a founder, I am also hands-on in the process of designing and creating the mazes for our clients. I have created numerous mazes for different research and purposes, ranging from mazes created for mice to VR maze intended for humans. Some of our clients are private and public universities, the military, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and researchers.

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Additionally, I am also the founder of ConductScience.com, a brand that creates high-quality equipment created and developed by scientists for scientists. This project came as an offshoot of the original MazeEngineers.com idea. It solves two principle problems: the first that many distribution of products in science currently massively inflates the price of products. We look to change that but cutting that fat. The second is something we call the Royalty model of Tech transfer. The fundamental issue is that when brilliant scientists make an idea, it often gets bogged down for years in the tech transfer process.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Before I became an entrepreneur and startup founder, I am first an MD, clocking in hours in the emergency room and conducting research in the field of neuroscience.

I have spent years in Harvard Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and has done numerous research in neurological diseases, with over 20 publications in this area.

While some people might look at other companies as competitors, we look at them as collaborators.

Since I have dedicated a lot of my time working on experiments in the laboratory, I realized that there was a lack of big data and effective mouse mazes to record and repeat experiments in the lab. This was one of my biggest issues as it is challenging to rigorously test things over and over. That’s why I decided to create Maze Engineers.

I worked together with a team of fellow doctors, engineers, and designers to created mazes, combining automation techniques and video integration. This way, we can record the experiments accurately and obtain necessary data automatically, making it easier for researchers to gather important information for their studies.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

Unlike other tools for experimentation, our mazes do not come in a standard design. We create customized mazes depending on our clients, their needs, and the results that they are looking for. I work together with a team of fellow doctors, esteemed technicians and designers to create mazes that would help researchers garner the necessary data that they would need for their study.

While mazes have been around for a long time, it wasn't until I further dived into the studies that I found that most designs were created by people who never really used it. Some of the available older mazes were way too small for the animals and had elements like screws and unnecessary spaces that distracts mice from the experiment. That's the reason why we made sure to focus on efficiency and effectivity of everything that we put on our designs. We also test it personally to check if they work properly for our clients. Each maze design is well-thought of, carefully crafted to fit the need of the study, backed by our team’s intensive research and years of experience.

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Aside from our team, we are also currently developing a model called Tech Transfer. We work with professors from different universities and help them with their designs to make it amenable to selling. The process is something that's based on royalties (something reminiscent of Spotify's). It's something that we're trying in a larger scale and hopefully, we can also apply this with other scientific innovations as well.

Since our products are quite specific, our manufacturing processes are always different. When I first started, I would make the mazes myself in my apartment. Eventually, I was able to move to a rented area and later on purchase a space to manufacture the designs and rent out CNC machines as well. Today, depending on the device, it either gets handled by our technical team in a private factory where most of the complex engineering occurs (i.e. automated hardware) or we create them locally in a similar setup in our purchased space. For the most part, we manufacture our own products, but sometimes, we also do sub-suppliers for specialty parts like custom milling and ironwork.

Once that's done, shipping comes in, which is one of the biggest challenges of the process. These things are sometimes the size of an entire room so we have to figure out the best way to ship and transfer them without getting damaged. Small defects sometimes still occur and it's frustrating, but we work hard to iron out all these kinks.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

I have a strong background in Digital Marketing, so when we decided to finally roll out Maze Engineers, I knew it's possible to do everything online.

We do not have a physical store and we did not have any grand 'launch' for the company. Basically, what we did was put up a website and declared that we are starting the business.

Back then, our website was not that polished -- in fact, it looked ugly -- but we knew that we needed to start, and so, we did just that. I did all the design by myself and mainly used WordPress with a lot of custom CSS in the background. I'm the type of person who believes in starting things. It doesn't matter if it's not perfect. You need validation as fast as possible and getting to that point where it's acceptable is all that you need.

It took us around two months to land our first deal. It was for a researcher who needed a custom maze. Given that it was just me, I knew that I could give the customer a ton of attention and really made sure that the maze was done right. We built a custom device that integrated housing weighted systems. I spent a lot of time coding that and learning about suppliers that could give us the custom parts that we needed. If I didn't know how to do it, I would go to a few suppliers, tell them the issue, and ask them questions until I had a better understanding of how the system worked. I didn't have a single free weekend for months. Once we got that first customer everything was easier--we had the subsuppliers, and evidence that I could put out a good product. It's just grown from there.

After that, the clients started pouring in, and we were able to close more projects months after that.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

Since Maze Engineers completely operates online, we focused heavily on digital marketing. We also have other means of getting leads, but we make sure that we are maximizing all possible means online to reach out to our niche market.

Part of our effort is running targeted Facebook Ads and using tools such as MailChimp to manage our email marketing campaigns. We no longer do Facebook, but it was a key part of our growth. We did it back in the day to grow our awareness but we still get organic press from it.

While it's tempting to jump into exploring venture capital, I really encourage new entrepreneurs to look into bootstrapping.

We also make use of post funnels for post-sales customer acquisition & retention and work with order explorer to manage our leads. Basically, it’s just doing a lot of work to understand scientists and their needs through this strategy. For example, scientists who purchase a maze from us usually publishes a study right after. We read their work, check the discussion section, and most of the time we find the next steps through that. Often times, they actually share the experiments that they plan to do next and we’ll reach out to them to see if we could provide any other needs and apparatuses that might be of use to their next work.

Since our product is not something that the general audience would randomly buy, we make sure to focus our energies on creating highly targeted and well-strategized marketing efforts.

We also actively build relationships and partnerships with other companies in the field. While some people might look at other companies as competitors, we look at them as collaborators.

In truth, a rising tide lifts all boats. We work together with other teams, integrating our hardware into many tools who also sell competing hardware. Instead of looking at it as a disadvantage, we see it as an opportunity to create better products that would benefit the market. It would also be a great way to reach out to a broader audience, get more funding, and grow as a company. One of our current key partners is Noldus and we are more than happy to work side-by-side with their team to create products that would help the scientific community.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

Our company is doing quite well and has a lot of plans for the future.

We plan to expand our services and offer more types of mazes. We've already explored virtual reality mazes for humans and are studying on creating plant mazes as well. We are also now creating mazes for multiple animal models. We're exploring a model for pigs since they mimic human brains very well, as well as a model for zebrafish, as they are great for genetics and toxicology experiments.

While we are continuously finding ways to better our products, I want to keep Maze Engineers small but efficient. The business aspect may be challenging but I want the company to continue to focus on producing innovative mazes and provide impeccable support to the scientific community.

Aside from that, I am also focused on growing my other startup, ConductScience. Technically, MazeEngineers is under ConductScience but it has a totally different function.

While mazes are fascinating and I really enjoyed creating and designing them, the continuous expansion of the company has led us to find and tap a bigger market in the science community. We’ve obtained purchasing power with distributor discounts and we would be more than happy to pass it on to the customers in all of the science supply. We are also working on some partnerships with universities and scientists for Open Access IP, a model that we’re adapting, so we can help them on distributing their creations through our existing platform. We're still in the process of polishing the details, but we're planning on launching our new service this coming fall.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Starting MazeEngineers and putting in the time and effort to learn the ropes of creating products for the science community has led me to bigger realizations in terms of the challenges that inventors, researchers, and scientists face. Licensing and patent creation are some of the biggest hurdles when it comes to distributing ideas and creations, and this has led me to focus on developing Conduct Science’s latest system for tech transfers.

As a part of MazeEngineers, we also acquire unique technologies from other creators. During the process of licensing proprietary mazes from academics and universities, we realized how broken the system is and that the process to transfer unique technology can be too taxing and complicated. Universities often spent millions of dollars patenting products every year, but many of those products never even make it to the market. This high cost for patents prevents smaller startups and researchers from utilizing unique innovations.

And so, we decided to focus on helping academics generate royalties from their innovations so they can do away from the expensive licensing agreements. We are using Open Access IP, a model developed in Europe, helping professors and universities monetize their innovations quickly and making the distribution process easier for the science-community. I think other startups could potentially really benefit from the same process.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

As our products and services are niched, we make sure that the platforms that we invest on would help us tap the right people. We make use of MailChimp for our e-mail marketing, and we also use Facebook Ads.

While we are present on social media, we are not heavy on promoting our products and services on those platforms.

We also use Slack for communication. For websites, we find Reddit to be helpful. Reading through r/entrepreneur and r/startups often have given us new insights and ideas. We also found Starter Story on that platform.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Some of the books that have greatly influenced me are 'Daily Rituals: How Artists Work' by Mason Currey and 'Street Smarts' by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham.

Currey's work has created a big impact on me when it comes to creating habits. It has also helped me to further understand how rituals can affect and enhance someone's productivity and focus.

Street Smarts, on the other hand, has been one of my biggest inspirations when it comes to entrepreneurship. The book discusses Norm Brodsky's businesses and the daily grind of the company, and it gave me plenty of ideas and insights to the challenges and issues that entrepreneurs actually face.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

While it's tempting to jump into exploring venture capital, I really encourage new entrepreneurs to look into bootstrapping. While there is nothing wrong with asking for funding from investors, bootstrapping is a great way to challenge your ideas and test yourself as an entrepreneur.

It takes an unbelievable amount of patience and resilience to succeed and conquer new heights, and I believe that bootstrapping is one of the best ways to further improve yourself and your company. With only your own strategies and ideas to hold on to, this would be one of the best ways to test and continuously improve your service, products, and concepts.

I also encourage you to appreciate and remind themselves of how limited our time really is. It's a great way to find motivation, get yourself moving, be more productive, and live life to its fullest.

Where can we go to learn more?

Feel free to visit our website, mazeengineers.com, or e-mail us at [email protected]

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