A connected carry-on

MBA student’s company has raised $1.7 million for its smart luggage

December 22, 2014

Brian Chen, MBA ’16, and Kate Drane of Indiegogo with the Bluesmart suitcase

Brian Chen, MBA ’16, and Kate Drane of Indiegogo with the Bluesmart suitcase

Brian Chen, MBA ’16, knows a thing or two about travel. Born in Colorado, he moved to Taiwan at age 11, attended college in Pennsylvania and has worked in Ecuador, San Francisco, and New York. Today, he is putting that experience to work as the co-founder of Bluesmart, a new high-tech luggage company.

“Luggage can be the source of a lot of headaches for today’s business travelers,” said Chen, noting that an expensive digital video camera was stolen out of his checked luggage last year on the way home from Argentina.

Bluesmart’s carry-on suitcase comes with location tracking, a digitally controlled lock, a built-in scale, a proximity sensor, and a battery for charging electronic devices. “This is a suitcase where all the cool features are integrated,” Chen said. “People love the idea that they don’t have to walk around the airport looking for an outlet to charge their phone.”

Founded in 2013, Bluesmart grew out of a conversation two Argentinian entrepreneurs had over coffee one day in New York. Chen knew one of the two from working at Endeavor, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in emerging markets, and he soon found himself on a team of five working to develop a smarter suitcase. “We all jumped on the idea,” Chen said.

Bluesmart launched a crowdfunding effort in October through Indiegogo and the company has already raised $1.7 million. “Crowdfunding let us basically validate our idea and validate that customers want our products before we put a lot of money into the product itself,” he said.

The company has built working prototypes and tested its suitcase at airports around the world to ensure it passes smoothly through security. The carry-on can be locked and unlocked from a cellphone using a patent-pending locking system approved for use by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. It carries a battery capable of charging a smartphone six times. And it weighs just 8.5 pounds—about a pound more than its closest competitors, according to Chen.

To date, Bluesmart has orders for 6,000 suitcases.

“The market was hungry for something like this,” said Chen, who heads up business operations for Bluesmart while his four co-founders handle such tasks as design, engineering, and business development. “Travelers are very passionate about what luggage they use, and there hadn’t been much in the way of new features.”

Bluesmart keeps Chen busy, but when he was accepted into MIT Sloan’s MBA program, he decided—after consulting with his partners—that the opportunity was worth pursuing. “I wanted to spend time thinking hard and intensely about my leadership style,” he said. “Also, I wanted to get the training to think about how the best organizations work. That’s something I didn’t feel I had from working at startups.”

MIT Sloan has not disappointed him. “The MIT community has been really valuable for me and for Bluesmart, from meeting with investors to fellow students with expertise we needed, to some of the clubs and treks I have done,” Chen said.

For example, as a member of the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship and Innovation Club, this fall Chen was able to join the Silicon Valley Pitch Trek, which gave him the chance to meet top venture capitalists. “Sloan has really accelerated my network,” he said.

Chen also praised the coursework at MIT Sloan. He credited his Organizational Processes class with helping him to think about how to structure Bluesmart as it grows as an organization, and he said Introduction to Operations Management has provided insights into supply chain issues. “That’s been really helpful for me because it directly relates to my role when it comes to strategy, fulfilling orders, and acquiring users,” he said.

Bluesmart’s next milestone is to start shipping suitcases, which should happen in August 2015.

Once manufacturing is underway, the co-founders (Chen, Tomi Pierucci, Martin Diz, Alejo Verlini, and Diego Saez Gil) will consider expanding the company’s offerings. The goal, Chen said, is “to build out a real business and company around the vision that we’ve laid out. That includes different products and a real brand that customers can trust.”

Meanwhile, Bluesmart is still taking orders for its graphite black carry-on with spinner wheels through Indiegogo. The suitcase is expected to retail for $450.