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Saturday, May 08, 2021

SnowShoe Stamp fuses the physical and digital world

Claus Moberg, a founder and CEO of SnowShoe Stamp, has a message for students: You can start a technology company without a STEM major. How does he know? Because he did it. He began with absolutely zero knowledge of computer coding or 3D printing; instead, he had a big idea and some serendipitous pocket change. Now, he runs SnowShoe Stamp, a rapidly growing tech company that could very well change the consumer world.

Moberg graduated from UW-Madison with a double major in political science and an independent studies major comprised of a one-economics, one-third political science and one-third environmental science. He didn’t start there.

“I showed up freshman year wanting to major in meteorology, I had done some internships in high school at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. I wanted to be a research scientist,” said Moberg. During the first part of freshman year, Moberg discovered that, like a lot of us, “science and math at the college level was hard.” He ended up taking courses in political science and environmental studies. In his final year at UW-Madison, he started working for Tracey Holloway in the Nelson Institute.

“I got really fascinated with the kind of research she was doing, which was harkening back to my roots. It was very science-based, but with a very policy-oriented bend. She was studying air pollution and how air pollution impacts air quality, specifically in Asia. She looked at policies to curb impacts,” said Moberg.

So, Moberg took a position in the Ph.D. program and earned a master’s degree in atmospheric science. As he worked toward his Ph.D., Moberg participated in the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp, which focuses on training STEM students in a miniature MBA program. Moberg explained that the program teaches students that STEM majors don’t always lead to laboratory jobs, but students can make “a lot of money doing science and tech research they love,” said Moberg.

Moberg also participated in Climate Leadership Challenge, which has evolved into the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize. Moberg and his team came up with the idea to develop a smartphone app that would let users scan a barcode of a food product and then relay information about the carbon footprint of the food. Moreover, Moberg and his team sweetened the deal by offering coupons for the more sustainable brands.

Moberg and his team won one of the top prizes at the contest, walking away with $50,000 to spend as they please. Moberg quipped that they could’ve gone to Cabo for a few weeks. After a moment, he remarked, “Maybe I think we should have.” But they didn’t. They used the money to test out their idea.

The story is that the idea simply couldn’t work. Every grocery store had a different point of sale system and cash register system, which made coupons impossible.

As with many ideas that don’t work the first time around, the failed system birthed a new idea that could circumvent the network issue. Moberg and his team invented a stamp that allowed users to redeem coupons at grocery stores. The stamp bypassed grocery stores’ different systems because it proved that the customer was present at the point of sale.

But the stamp had other applications. “We realized after we’d invented the technology, showing it to friends, investors, the stamp itself as a piece of hardware was far more exciting with more potential than grocery store apps,” said Moberg. In winter 2012, the team switched their focus.

Fast forward three years and things are entirely different. The company is based in San Francisco with eight employees and 20 3D printers. A common thread links each event in this momentous timeline: The company acquired money and technology by winning competitions. They earned their start-up money from a campus entrepreneurial competition and won their first 3D printer during a hackathon competition.

The team structured their company as a developer-facing platform. They sell the technology to different companies, and in turn, that company designs their own website. “We don’t make Red Bull’s website. They just incorporate a few lines of code and that enables [the stamp] experience,” said Molberg.

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So, what are they doing with their stamps? Lots of things. The stamps fuse the physical and digital world in an almost science fiction way. Moberg explained it to me like this: “Are you sitting in a chair right now?” I replied that yes, I was. I was basking in the sun while conducting this interview. Moberg explained that there is a ton of information about that chair, like the design blueprint, recyclability, maintenance, etc.

“We have a technology that explicitly links the digital information associated with a physical object. Tap a stamp to know it, know the maintenance log, instruction manual, who used it last. That information is far more valuable than just the object,” said Moberg.

But they’re doing far more exciting things with the stamp than ascertaining the history of a particular chair. For example, Red Bull sponsored a concert and handed out stamps. They encouraged users to go to RedBull.com and press the stamp to the website. The stamp triggered an iTunes download.

“Red Bull’s whole point in sponsoring that concert is to get them to consume their media properties. We make a physical object to hand out that can actively drive concert attendees to that web property during the show. We drive ridiculously high conversion rates. They’re usually around 80 percent,” said Moberg.

Another trend in video games allows people to choose their console characters by purchasing a physical toy. SnowShoe can embed the stamp into the toy's foot, that when pressed to the controller, activates the character for the video game.

The company also teamed up with Disney. Disney handed out stamps to their fan club that allowed members exclusive access to online material. Disney changes out the material once a month, so when members press their stamp to the website, they receive new content. They don’t need a new stamp, they don’t need a new access code. They simply reuse the same stamp Disney originally issued to them.

“We actually ended up seeing stamps being sold on eBay because people realized they can access exclusive content and gained value that wasn’t original there in purchase price. They linked to valuable digital assets,” said Moberg.

As I was interviewing Moberg, I wondered if the company was sticking to its original environmental mission. I posed the question to him and he paused for a moment.

“The company is no longer explicitly focused on solving environmental problems. In a grand worldview, if you can give a physical object a digital identity [with the stamp], and if that digital identity can change over time, then it’s harder to throw the object away and it becomes 'ever-green.' Most objects you buy lose value after you open the package. If that thing can be updated via the Cloud and can gain new software, new content, new experience, 'evergreen' in that way, it maintains a much higher value.”

If they’re successful, Moberg hopes they will reduce the overall amount of trash. Moreover, the stamps are made with totally recyclable feedstock.

“But that said, when I go and talk to an investor today, I do not say a single word about the environment. Our clients aren’t using us for the environment. The stamp is a cool experience and valuable for their company.”

As Moberg’s company evolves and so does their incredible technology, I hope that the company has the means to at least partially return to their original environmental mission. But for now, it’s simply fun to watch yet another group of Badgers do amazing things.

SnowShoeStamp.com offers packages starting at $20 for students interested in exploring the technology. Moberg says the stamp requires zero code writing, so he encourages any and all students to check it out.

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