Her startup began with a house fire, took her to the high-profile television pitch show Shark Tank, and turned her from an aspiring physician to an inventor and entrepreneur.
Now Akshita Iyer is living on Chattanooga's Southside and raising a second round of venture capital to build out the next phase of Ome, her company that turns ordinary stoves into internet-connected smart devices.
"It's all about the home being a safe place," Iyer says, pointing to the proliferation of smart devices that govern everything from doorbells and thermostats to lights and locks. "Why not appliances?"
In 2016, Iyer was living in North Carolina, where she and her husband had met as students at Duke University. During a visit, Iyer's mother accidentally started a house fire when she forgot to turn off a stove burner. That mishap ignited Iyer's desire to make kitchens safer and more efficient using technology.
"Step one was to solve our own problem," Iyer says. "We thought it was cool, and we thought we could build something, even if we were the only ones who ever used it."
Ome stove knobs fit over existing stove hardware and allow users to control cooking remotely, as well as shutting off burners that have been left untended too long. The knobs nest over existing stems and connect via the Ome app, giving users the ability to control the stove via smartphone.
It all sounds pretty simple, but the starts and stops of development, testing, manufacturing and rollout of the product have been a real trial by fire, Iyer says.
"People don't want to do hardware because it's capital intensive," she says. "And being a female founder building a tech company, it does take a lot more time."
Iyer and her husband, Ranjith Babu, founded the company together, and his help has been crucial to getting Ome off the ground, Iyer adds.
"I can't imagine starting this with anybody else," she says. "We have complementary skills, and because we started together we've been able to make so much more progress without needing to raise a lot of money."
The two met while Babu was in medical school at Duke, and Iyer was an undergraduate focused on neuroscience and planning to attend medical school. She was taking a gap year, working on a concussion program for Duke Athletics, when the idea for Ome developed.
While her husband continued to pursue his medical career while he helped develop the company, Iyer went all in as an entrepreneur. In 2018, they landed an appearance on Shark Tank, where they were offered a deal for investment in the business – a deal they turned down. They just weren't ready, Iyer says.
"I'm so glad we didn't take it because we didn't know what to do with it," she says.
But they knew they were onto something, and moved to the San Francisco Bay area to live with friends and make venture capital connections. In 2019, they nabbed a spot in high-intensity startup accelerator Techstars. Soon after, they raised $1 million in their first round of investment, hired an engineer and were on their way to having a product they could scale.
The pandemic threw them a curveball, but ultimately delivered some benefits to their business. People hunkered down at home, and took a new interest in sprucing up their environments. And the rapid rise of remote work meant venture capitalists were more willing to consider businesses outside of major metropolitan cities, Iyer says.
"There are a lot of funds reaching out that pre-COVID would not have looked at me," she says. "Because of COVID, I don't have to travel much. Most of the money I've closed, I've never met the investors."
In October, Iyer and Babu moved from California to Chattanooga after Babu landed a job as a neurosurgeon at CHI Memorial Hospital.
* Role: CEO and founder of Ome
* Hometown: Buffalo, New York
* Personal: She and husband, Ranjith Babu, live on Chattanooga’s Southside.<
"I actually didn't know where Chattanooga was," Iyer laughs. "It was initially, 'no.' But I mentioned Chattanooga to a few people, and they all said, 'Oh, it's gorgeous.'"
After a short visit, she reconsidered her initial reaction, Iyer says. And while the move was a leap of faith, it has proven a smart move for their quality of life and the future of Ome, she adds. She is able to spend time in Atlanta and Nashville, meeting with investors, and she's considering setting up an office in Atlanta, but life there doesn't appeal to her, Iyer says.
"I didn't want to live there," she says. "The drive from here to there is probably as long as driving from place to place in Atlanta."
The business is wrapping up a second round of funding for $3 million, expanding its staff – which now consists of five people doing the work of 12, Iyer says – and launching pilots with senior living communities that will make it possible to do high-volume deals.
"We have customers and orders to fill," Iyer says.