Like many other Duke students, Charlie Molthrop (E’14) came to Duke thinking he’d follow a pre-med track. Also like many other students, he ended up taking a different path – today, he’s an entrepreneur who’s built his own chatbot startup called Emile.

Molthrop switched his major to engineering after falling in love with the discipline during a first-year Focus program called Engineering Frontiers. His extracurriculars at Duke involved serving as president of sketch comedy club Inside Joke and starting the Duke Energy Club.

Molthrop first became interested in the energy space through his Engineering Frontiers program.

“I saw the magnitude of the problem, and I decided to carve out my niche within that space,” he said. “I saw the value of doubling down on something I was interested in.”

He spent one summer living in Duke’s Smart Home, a sustainability community that uses green technology, while also working for the Duke Carbon Initiative, a job that involved crawling around in people’s crawlspaces and making recommendations about ways they could reduce their carbon footprint.

Molthrop continued his pursuits in the energy space by becoming a Venture for America fellow and getting paired with NextEnergy, a Detroit-based incubator for Michigan energy and transportation companies.

As the manager of technology development for NextEnergy, Molthrop helped companies showcase new technologies on NextEnergy’s campus, which acted as a testing ground for startups in the energy space. His engineering background helped in this work, especially in calculating energy efficiencies.

After a year at NextEnergy, Molthrop felt like he needed to scratch his entrepreneurial itch. He did fun entrepreneurial projects on the side, such as coding a program that scraped Twitter’s API to determine when people accidentally tweeted haikus. This project culminated in a book of Tweets-turned-poems.

But Molthrop still felt the need to do something more. He enrolled in the Venture for America accelerator, which provides free room and board for four months while participants work on their ideas.

He had always had an interest in “life-hacking” and self-improvement, so he began to think of business ideas surrounding these themes.

At Duke, he’d taken a course during which he read the book “Emile, or on Education.” As Molthrop explains it, the book is a thought experiment that details creating the perfect environment in which a hypothetical child could develop and thrive.

What if, Molthrop thought, he could apply that perspective to artificial intelligence?

People are constantly communicating with technology, Molthrop reasoned, but in order for that technology to learn and grow, people need to have a reason to communicate with it.
He started with texting his friends about their goals, checking in regularly to hold them accountable. Around this time, his co-founder, another Venture for America fellow, joined him.

They kept texting their friends to do first-hand research about people’s self-improvement goals. They found the most common two were exercise and sleep.

Molthrop narrowed the focus to sleep so they could create the product. And Emile was born – a chatbot that helps set bedtime goals and hold users accountable to them. Because they had started the process by texting their friends manually, it was easier to build the AI to meet users where they are and to help set reasonable goals.

The company, which is based in Philadelphia, recently acquired its first paid users. Molthrop plans to take what is currently working from Emile and eventually expand it to other goals and interactions.

Molthrop recognizes that sometimes it’s difficult to step off a cookie-cutter path to embrace uncertainty – but he did it, and he encourages others to do so, as well.

“Try to see the opportunity rather than the possibility of failing,” he said. “There’s no such thing as failure; you learn something and apply it the next time.”

To learn more about Emile, visit its website.

To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.

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