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Entrepreneur Brian Chen ’07 brings the world its first smart suitcase

Brian Chen ’07 understands the anguish of lost luggage. Once, after he returned from a trip to Ecuador, his suitcase didn’t. When it turned up two weeks later, his prized digital camera was missing, along with his trip photos. So when a friend called in 2013 with an idea to prevent this from happening again, Chen leapt at it.

“We’re in this day and age where we have smart thermostats and smart watches,” he says. “Why not smart luggage?”

Today, he is co-founder of Bluesmart, a company devoted to smoothing travel through technology. Its first product is a sleek carry-on suitcase that’s controlled through a smartphone app. Travelers can track its location, lock and unlock it remotely, check its weight, and even receive notification if they’re leaving it behind by mistake. The time, he says, has come for this product, which also doubles as a phone charger. 

“Twenty-five million suitcases are lost per year. People are hungry for it,” says Chen. “Plus there’s been little innovation in suitcases over the years. Suitcases didn’t even get wheels until the 1970s. We took an everyday object that people haven’t cared to reimagine, and now we’re reimagining it.”

Bluesmart launched with a crowd-funding campaign through Indiegogo that quickly turned sensational. 

“We set a goal of $50,000,” says Chen. “We hit the goal within two hours. People loved the idea. Everyone has had some mishap with luggage.”

The campaign has since topped $2 million. Chen, who was in his first semester of business school at the MIT Sloan School of Management when the campaign rocketed to success, took a leave of absence to focus on the company. He moved to Hong Kong with his team to oversee initial luggage design and manufacturing, and now lives in San Francisco, Bluesmart’s world headquarters.

Chen and his four fellow co-founders recently shipped the first batch of “suitcases that can’t get lost” to Indiegogo supporters. Buzzfeed named it one of the best products of the year (“insanely clever!”); Fast Company called it a “carry-on bag that James Bond could get behind.” By the end of 2015, they had raised an additional $11.5 million from Silicon Valley investors such as Y Combinator.

An English literature major, Chen says he never could have imagined making smart suitcases when he was a student at Swarthmore. Smartphones and apps didn’t exist, of course, but his keen interest in entrepreneurship did. For Chen, it began in elementary school when his family moved to Taiwan.

“Entrepreneurship was part of Taiwan’s story,” he says. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur before I knew how to spell the word. It always played in my mind that entrepreneurship was a force of good in the world.”

After graduation, Chen landed a job at Endeavor, a New York City-based nonprofit devoted to supporting entrepreneurs with big ideas in developing countries. That’s how he met his friend Diego Saez-Gil, an Argentine who dreamed up smart luggage. (Chen’s other Bluesmart co-founders all hail from Argentina.)

The Bluesmart suitcase went on retail sale in December. It’s graphite black, with blue highlights. Why blue? 

“We liked the color,” he admits. “The world is blue. Part of our mission is to connect the world through travel and technology.”

Now that lost luggage may be a thing of the past, what about those pesky security lines? 

“We’re trying,” says Chen. “Joking aside, that’s one of travel’s headaches, so we’re looking into solutions.” 

All it might take is a little entrepreneurial spirit—and the right carry-on.