Victor Mateevits, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois, has always been fascinated by the intersection of humans and technology.
The culmination of his research is a jacket that allows people to use the sense of touch--and not the sense of vision--to feel how close or far away objects are from them. The jacket is fitted with 13 sensors. Each sensor emits an ultrasonic pulse that bounces back when the pulse meets an object, causing a tingling on the skin.
The closer an object is, the stronger the sensation is on the skin, with pressure applied by small vibration motors.
"To try it out we had people walk around campus blindfolded, navigate the library or throw ninja stars at incoming attackers." Mateevits says. "We were fascinated by the fact that blindfolded people wearing the device for the first time were able to walk without assistance and avoid obstacles."
That's the moment his "aha moment" hit!
"I realized SpiderSense could be more than a cool device to get you to see the invisible," he explains. "A technology like this needed to get out of the lab, solve real-life problems, impact the very people who need it most."
That's the moment a science project became the impetus for starting a business, SpiderSense, which went on to become one of five finalists in Salesforce's Small Business, Big Impact contest.
"SpiderSense can be life-changing for people with visual impairments or people working in hazardous low-visibility environments, like firefighters or policemen. We believe superpowers are for everyone!"
Michal Alter, another Small Business, Big Impact finalist, founded Visit.org following an epiphany about the nature of travel and what it means to be a citizen of the world.
"Israelis have a culture of traveling," she explains. "When you travel for long periods, you tend to meet the locals and go off the beaten path. (In America) people tend to travel for 7 to 10 days. In such a short time, it is much harder to have that serendipitous meeting with locals."
"I realized I wanted to create a mechanism where people on shorter trips had these kinds of travel experiences. Travelers can continue traveling the way they are used to (staying at a resort, visiting mainstream tourism attractions, or even going on a business trip) and easily add an experience that is completely different and super powerful."
Alter had worked with non-profits in Israel and saw that small do-good organizations have a unique understanding of local culture and history and trust relationships with local community members - that no mainstream tourism business can ever provide.
That's when her "aha moment" hit.
She went about building relationships with many of these organizations, creating relatively short immersive travel experiences (half-day to multi-day), which travelers could add on to their regular itinerary.
"This revenue lets us grow as a business and invest in bringing thousands more previously off-the-grid organizations online, driving the exposure and awareness they deserve," she says.
Jennifer Alexander Monzón, another Small Business, Big Impact finalist, had an "aha moment" that came as much from the heart as from her head. She was on a second date with the man who was later to become her husband when the conversation turned to goals and dreams. That's when inspiration hit.
"He shared his dream to create a coffee company that would feed malnourished children in his parents' home country of Guatemala. When he told me of his dream, a wave of chills ran through my body."
That's when Monzón realized her "aha moment" had come years before.
"Three years before meeting my now husband, I led a group of students on a 10-day trip through Guatemala," she recalls. "It was inexplicable at the time, but I distinctly recall looking up at the moon in the night and having a feeling that this place would be very important in my life. It made absolutely no logical sense at the time! Yet, over the intervening years much has been revealed."
While this was just a dream for her husband, Monzón was determined to make it a reality. In her words, she became the "champion" of the idea. In December of 2010 she presented him with the prototype of the coffee, complete with grinder. It showed him the vision could be real.
That began a three-year process of starting a business. Among the many tasks was interviewing 150 different roasters. Finally, in 2014, they took a Zipcar, drove all over Chicago and distributed the first boxes of samples.
Today, the business is thriving. Serving the highest quality coffees and artisan roast in small batches, Chapín Coffee is both a commercial success and a social success. For every bag of coffee purchased, Chapín Coffee provides meals to malnourished school children. To date, they have already served over 22,000 meals.
Monzón's advice to others?
"Be passionate. Be authentic. Follow your intuition so that you can open up miracles that are all around you."
To see two other fascinating stories of "aha moments" that became successful companies click here.