By Kaitlyn Budion, news correspondent
Everyone dreads the low battery notification that pops up on their phones when they’re out and about. It drives people to search desperately for outlets or spend money on pricey rechargeable battery packs. Northeastern alum James Riel wondered why there wasn’t an easier, cheaper solution.
“I think that the status quo at bars and restaurants is you look around for an outlet or go to a bartender or somebody and ask, ‘Hey, can you plug my phone in for a bit?’” Riel said. “And that just feels so un-21st century. There needed to be a new way.”
Riel sought to address that problem by starting Oomf, a company that provides free phone chargers in bars, restaurants and college campuses, including Northeastern. Riel founded Oomf in 2014 after graduating in 2013 with a degree in business administration with concentrations in entrepreneurship and new venture management.
“I would compare it a lot to the Hubway shareable bikes. The concept is very similar,” he said. “You would just apply it to battery chargers and put it on campuses. It’s more like the network of all these stations that you can rent these chargers from.”
While the company originally started in bars and restaurants, it has since branched out to Boston Logan International Airport and over 30 colleges across the country. In April, Northeastern was the first university to launch Oomf on its campus with 300 portable charges at 30 charging locations including Marino Recreation Center and Curry Student Center.
The chargers, which are about the size of the palm of a hand, have an activation code on the back that users enter on their devices at the website oomf.it. First-time users create an account with email or Facebook and then enter their credit card information. If the user does not return the charger within 24 hours, they will be charged $5 for every day the charger is not returned. However, as long as a student returns the charger to any Oomf station within 24 hours, the service is free.
At Northeastern, Oomf’s involvement on campus goes a step further by employing students as on-campus support staff that maintain chargers and stations.
“We are working a little bit with the co-op department. We’ll probably kick that off a little bit stronger for the spring semester,” Riel said. “Something that’s a little bit quicker for us to do as far as employment is our student staff support on campus. Basically, how that works is, the students that are avid users of [the chargers], we actually employ and we pay them.”
Miles Kirsch, a sophomore bioengineering major, works as on-campus support staff for Oomf. He said he would recommend the position to other students.
“I love Oomf,” Kirsch said. “We’re so reliant on technology these days and finding an outlet isn’t always the most convenient thing. It’s an amazing system and a great concept.”
Bob Lentz, an executive professor and entrepreneur in residence at Northeastern, helped advise Riel, who was a student in his capstone entrepreneurship class. Lentz said he admires the business strategy behind Oomf.
“There’s a beauty to it because it’s a very simple value proposition,” Lentz said. “People need chargers. The fact that [Riel] can provide it in convenient places where people are sitting there and that he can do it in a way that maintains his relationship with the customer, whether it’s the venue or the actual consumer, is actually pretty cool.”
Oomf is continuing to grow, with plans to deploy to 12 more colleges by the end of the year, but Riel said the company’s ties to Northeastern will always be important.
“I think what’s interesting about some of the folks on the team is a lot of them are Northeastern grads,” Riel said. “So it’s kind of nice to have our home school that we launched this on be Northeastern. We can have this alumni network of people in our company that get it. It’s a very cool common ground that we share.”
Photo by Alex Melagrano