U-M Startup TurtleCell Offers Solution to Tangled iPhone Earbuds

Those of us who can scarcely leave the house without our headphones firmly anchored in our ears all have the same problem: perpetually tangled cords.

TurtleCell, a startup based in Ann Arbor, MI, believes it has the solution. TurtleCell has designed an iPhone case with headphones embedded inside on a retractable cord, which means there is never any slack to get tangled. The design is so promising that TurtleCell recently won the $10,000 first-place prize at the annual American Society of Mechanical Engineers Innovation Showcase, beating out teams from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and MIT.

“We were blown away by the presentations,” says Nick Turnbull, TurtleCell’s co-founder. “We were truly shocked we won. It was an honor to be validated.”

Turnbull and his co-founder, Paul Schrems, met while freshmen at the University of Michigan. (Turnbull is currently a senior.) They both worked for a company that hired students to run house-painting crews back in their hometowns during the summer. Turnbull says he and Schrems worked their way up to eventually managing 200 employees making a combined $2 million in revenue. That kind of success piqued their interest in becoming entrepreneurs.

It was Schrems who first had the idea of putting headphones directly into an iPhone case. They officially started their company in 2011 and quickly won the consumer products category at U-M’s 1,000 Pitches competition. They set about designing a prototype and printed it using the university’s 3-D printers.

“We printed about two per month, but we didn’t really know what we were doing,” Turnbull admits. “It wasn’t until April 2012 that we got our first [set of headphones] that retracted, and they barely played audio.”

Turnbull and Schrems knew TurtleCell needed help, so they applied and were accepted to TechArb, the university’s student business accelerator. Because of this, they were able to sit down with the Troy, MI-based designers Munro and Associates. “They looked at our prototype and completely simplified it,” Turnbull says. “We were able to cut the number of parts we used in half, which allowed us to get our first real quote for manufacturing.”

Turnbull and Schrems continued to refine the Turtlecell product through the end of 2012, when Ryan Waddington, managing director at Huron River Ventures, heard about the company at TechArb’s end-of-term showcase and wanted to get involved. Though TurtleCell’s technology wasn’t quite a match with Huron River’s cleantech portfolio, Waddington became an official adviser to the company. “He’s been a huge help to us,” Turnbull notes.

Turnbull and Schrems signed a lease with Ann Arbor SPARK in June, where they’ll continue to get TurtleCell off the ground, and launched a Kickstarter campaign that expires on August 4. The goal is to raise $50,000 toward a first manufacturing run.

Turnbull says no matter what happens with the Kickstarter campaign, he considers it a win because of the immediate customer feedback it has provided. “If the campaign is successful, we’ll move forward to get these first units produced and delivered,” Turnbull says. “If the Kickstarter fails, the plan is almost the same, but all the backers will be invited to pre-order through our website.”

TurtleCell recently raised $50,000 from a local angel investor and has perfected a headphone design that Turnbull says would retail for $40 alone if the company sold them separately. “There hasn’t really been a similar product that has been super successful,” he adds. “Our key technology is that our headphones only add about 6.5 millimeters to the phone case.”

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