The passions and privations of the start-up entrepreneur

Arun Gupta and Greg Nemeth don’t have an office at YEI, but they like to hang out there, and I met with them in the institute’s cramped conference room. Gupta is a slender Indian American with kind eyes and jet-black hair. He speaks rapidly, almost in fast-forward, and punctuates his speech with nervous laughter. Nemeth is sturdier in build, and his demeanor is calmer. He has the soothing voice of a late-night talk-show therapist. The two of them complement one another nicely. “If I had a dollar for every time somebody’s told us we’re like a married couple, we wouldn’t even need this venture,” says Nemeth.

Gupta and Nemeth, too, had both just dropped out of college and were living off savings and the largesse of their families. They had spent the previous summer as YEI fellows, preparing to become full-time entrepreneurs and launch their new company, WakeMate. One step was to research the competition. There are other sleep-cycle alarm clocks on the market, but according to Gupta and Nemeth, these products have serious drawbacks: the cheaper models (starting at $180) don’t work very well, and the higher-quality ones (starting at $300) are either too expensive or too cumbersome.

The two also cold-called sleep experts around the country. Eventually, they contacted Robert Stickgold, at Harvard Medical School, who has a novel theory about the sleep cycle. Stickgold believes that during the night, most commonly when we go into and out of REM sleep, we wake up, roll over, perhaps grunt, and then go back to sleep. He admits he has yet to gather the data that would confirm his theory, but he has observed the phenomenon countless times over his decades of research.

Gupta and Nemeth seized on the idea, reasoning that—if Stickgold is right—there are two or three dozen ideal moments within REM sleep when people can wake up and feel their best. The trick was to build an alarm that could identify these peaks. For his part, Stickgold agreed to serve as an adviser to WakeMate. Over the years he has been approached by many entrepreneurs with similar ideas, but Gupta and Nemeth impressed him. “It became clear to me that they had done more of their homework than most people,” he says, “And they were in a program [the YEI fellowship] that would help them make this happen.”

After many consultations with Stickgold, Gupta and Nemeth designed a wristband with a built-in accelerometer, which they programmed to identify certain distinct body movements that correlate with the peak moments. If a peak took place during the wearer’s chosen wake-up window, say between 7:40 and 8:00 a.m., a signal would go out via Bluetooth to the wearer’s cellphone, which would wake him or her at the ideal moment for springing out of bed.

It wasn’t easy for Gupta and Nemeth to win over their first and most crucial backers: their parents. As they tell it, they explained to their parents with great passion that they wanted to forge their own path, not to follow the slow, safe, and more boring route of climbing up the corporate ladder.

“Everybody wants to get rich,” Gupta told me, “but most people don’t get rich until they’re old, and then they don’t really spend their money. It’s like a weird thing. So it almost makes sense to take out massive amounts of debt when you’re young and just pay it when you’re older.”

“And in the meantime,” I hazarded, “you can enjoy the benefits of . . .”

“Of having a lot of money!” finished Gupta exuberantly. “Because I want to buy a Porsche, but I’m not going to drive my Porsche around when I’m 70.”