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Harris: Even dry cleaning is going digital

Vijen Patel and Drew McKenna have launched a tech-based laundry pickup and delivery service, called Pressbox. The first location opened in Lakeview two weeks ago.

Melissa Harris

Chicago Confidential

September 8, 2013

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Two 20-something Chicagoans are combining technology and dirty laundry to create a business.

The idea is to create a more efficient system for city dwellers to get their dry cleaning done than having to rely on a neighborhood store with limited hours.

Their company is called Pressbox. And it's a 24/7, tech-driven dry cleaning service, co-founded by Vijen Patel and Drew McKenna, grandson of McDonald's Corp. Nonexecutive Chairman Andrew McKenna Sr.

Here's how it works. Just like using an ATM after hours, you swipe your credit card to get access to a bank of Pressbox lockers. You stuff your dirty clothes, no matter the hour, into a locker, lock it and send a text message alerting the company your clothes are there. The company texts you back when your cleaned and pressed clothes have been returned to the locker along with an access code to open it.

The goal is a two-day turnaround time. Prices are in line with traditional cleaners, Patel said.

Pressbox opened its first public location on Lincoln Avenue in Lakeview two weeks ago. The company also opened a location inside the Green Exchange building that is accessible only to employees of Coyote Logistics. And they plan to place lockers in new Cedar Street Co. apartment buildings, which are marketed under the FLATS brand.

Patel, 27, the company's chief executive, who graduated from Barrington High School, said the arrangement with FLATS is the model he and McKenna, 26, intend to follow. They hope managers of residential high-rises will see the service as an amenity to lure renters and buyers.

"Given the weather in Chicago, we intend to heavily concentrate on high-rise buildings," Patel said. "To get your dry cleaning right at your front door is about as convenient as it gets. And the building gets an amenity at no cost for installation. And it takes up very little square footage, enough space for two chairs in a hundred-unit building."

Patel borrowed the idea for the business from Laundry Locker, a popular San Francisco startup. He asked McKenna to join him, and together they did something smart. Rather than build their own technology from scratch, they inked a deal to license Laundry Locker's technology here.

The two entrepreneurs met in college at Notre Dame when they lived in neighboring dorms. After graduation, McKenna worked for Notre Dame football and then for a mobile-gaming startup in the West Loop. And Patel worked for consulting firm McKinsey & Co. before joining private equity firm FFL in San Francisco.

"I realized San Francisco was really far away from home, and I wanted to come back home," Patel said.

The two wouldn't say much about how they're financing the business, other than their seed investment round was oversubscribed, meaning they raised more money than they expected. And they said their investors stretch from London to California, but all have a connection to Chicago.

"At FFL, I saw too many companies take a couple million-plus dollars and quickly blow through it by spending irrationally," Patel said in an e-mail. "So we wanted to keep the initial round small, forcing us to think carefully about how to allocate, spend and create as much value for our investors."

They have three other employees. McKenna is in charge of operations. They've contracted out the actual dry cleaning to Five Star Laundry, an industrial dry cleaner at Goose Island, and the wash-and-fold service to Bucktown Bubbles.

Patel and McKenna are operating in the sweet spot for Chicago tech, helping an old-line industry become more efficient. But unlike Groupon, which helps local merchants lure customers, Pressbox is competing with local merchants by sending the dry cleaning to an industrial service.

"We were getting some heat for competing vs. local, immigrant-founded businesses," Patel wrote. "So I thought it might be helpful to share that both my parents were immigrants to Chicago — from Uganda and India — and our long-term hope remains to partner with local dry cleaners."

Flying cameras

Charles Forman sold online game-maker OMGPOP to Zynga for about $200 million.

His second startup, with Threadless co-founder Jacob DeHart and Nate Westheimer, is called Picturelife and is based here, where Forman lives part time.

But when his name comes up in Chicago tech circles, the subject more often is his small collection of drones, two of which Forman built from scratch. And he's starting to garner national attention for the beautiful aerial photography he's capturing when he straps a GoPro camera to his quadcopter drone.

He has produced one stunning video over the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn and another over Chicago's Humboldt Park.

"This hobby, for the nerd community, has really just blown up," Forman said. "It's huge. It's 3-D printing times 10. … There's a lot of interest in the space, and it's awesome, but sometimes … people ask really inane questions. Like, 'Why can't you just strap a bomb to this thing? What happens if it falls out of the sky and hurts somebody?'"

Instead, Forman argues that a quadcopter with a camera is "way cheaper and way safer" for an aerial photographer than boarding a real helicopter. And that the technology could improve the quality of independent films, for instance.

Forman operates his drones as a hobby. Using drones for commercial purposes won't be legal until September 2015, when Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to open U.S. airspace to commercial drone traffic, Tribune Newspapers reported last month. Experts estimate 10,000 unmanned aircraft could be aloft five years later.

If commercialization were permitted now, battery technology would hold it back. Forman said his drone can't stay aloft for more than 12 minutes before needing to be recharged.

"They're amazing energy hogs," he said.

Forman got hooked about four years ago after watching an online video of a German man, Holger Buss, flying a multirotor copter he built.

"This thing looks like a UFO," Forman said. "It's on the ground, and it goes from 0 to 50 miles per hour immediately, right up into the sky. Then it flies all the way back to the field he's standing at and lands right in front of him. … I thought, 'Wow, I need to have one of these things.' But at the time, I didn't have any money. It was priced out of my reach."

That's no longer a problem, both because of the windfall Forman reaped from OMGPOP and because the cost of the technology has dropped to as low as $40 or so for a cheap, miniature quadcopter.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential