Shriya Sekhsaria ’18 used her lifelong interest in collecting memories as inspiration for her senior thesis. This summer, she took that interest a step further by turning her thesis into a startup company called Lumhaa with the help of the Keller Center.
Lumhaa is about recording and sharing memories through a virtual platform. Users can create virtual “memory jars” via text descriptions, audio or video recordings, and images. Memories can be shared or kept private, and they can be tagged with locations, dates, and emotions. Today, Lumhaa is worth an estimated $2.5 million, according to a VC firm's July estimate.
“My interest in collecting memories started when I was really little,” Sekhsaria said. She explained that by age three or four, she would regularly approach strangers to ask them to share their memories with her.
Sekhsaria is a former head news editor for The Daily Princetonian.
Sekhsaria began creating memory jars in India the summer after her freshman year in college. Her focus for the summer was to write a book about terminally ill children in India who were below the poverty line, in order to raise money for their treatment. When some of the children she was working with passed away, Sekhsaria created memory jars for them and mailed them to their families. The jars contained notecards upon which she wrote short stories, quotes, and drawings about and from the children.
“I knew I didn’t bring them back, but that was my way of immortalizing the kids,” Sekhsaria said.
Sekhsaria continued her work after seeing the impact the jars made on the families. Over the next year, she started working with army units around the world.
“Whenever a soldier’s body went home, a jar went home with the body,” she said.
During her junior year, Sekhsaria started to apply her study of psychology to her memory jars. She became interested in why the memory jars she had created made the impact they did and asked what an ideal memory jar would look like. These questions became the focus of her senior thesis with the psychology department.
Sekhsaria’s research for her senior thesis investigated the feelings that resulted from creating and reading memory jars. Sekhsaria found that reading from memory jars — whether their own or other people’s — made people feel significantly happier and less lonely. These results came from a wide sample of people, including seniors at the University and people 80 years of age and older in several different countries. To measure results, she used the UCLA Loneliness Scale and the Ryff Scale of Psychological Well-Being, among others.
Sekhsaria’s completed thesis earned the Edward E. Jones Memorial Prize, which recognizes “the most outstanding work in social psychology, broadly construed,” according to the University psychology department’s website.
Sekhsaria’s next step involved entrepreneurship, in which she earned a certificate through the University's Program in Entrepreneurship. This involved developing Lumhaa as a virtual platform for creating memory jars.
To build Lumhaa, Sekhsaria is working with a team of India-based computer programmers and three undergraduate interns, Crystal Wu ’20, Hannah Wang ’21, and Mara Muslea ’20.
Wang is a news writer for ‘Prince’ and Muslea is comptroller.
Sekhsaria and her team of interns speak weekly with their eLab advisor, Marty Johnson ’81. Ed Zschau ’61 serves as their Keller Center advisor.
The Summer Accelerator Program also provides workshops and sessions to teach students about entrepreneurship topics. It grants small amounts of “seed” funding to each participating entrepreneurship team without taking equity in the companies, said eLab Entrepreneurial Program Manager Stephanie Landers.
Through the Summer Accelerator Program, Lumhaa has developed into an increasingly layered memory-sharing experience. Among its several existing and developing features, Lumhaa’s “Lum Day” presents a “Question of the Day” that incorporates the memories recorded on the website. The “Walk” feature allows users to see memories connected to various locations.
Though the Lumhaa app itself is free for up to 3GB of memories, according to Sekhsaria, Lumhaa also offers Lum World, a paid service for organizations to aggregate the memories of their members. It is currently used by the University's Keller Center and by HomeWorks, a Trenton-based nonprofit providing housing and support for high school girls, founded by Natalie Tung '18.
Landers said Sekhsaria’s personal motivation is a big factor contributing to Lumhaa’s success.
“I see that it means so much to her, because she works very, very hard, and it shows in the end product that she’s creating,” Landers said.
In the future, Lumhaa plans to offer Lumhaa Premium, a paid extension of the free app which would provide additional services such as in-person memory interviews and physical memory jars, as well as Lum Store, which would allow members to commission art representing their memories, and Lum XR, to allow people to relive their own memories and those of others through virtual reality.
Wu, who applied to work with Lumhaa in hopes of becoming acquainted with startup culture, found the company’s focus on stories to be novel.
“The application for Lumhaa seemed very personal,” Wu said.
The memories recorded on Lumhaa so far include around 25,000 jars from 60 countries, with a few thousand people signed up for accounts with the platform. According to Sekhsaria, Lumhaa's memories include those of about 200 Olympic athletes and a few hundred Uber drivers, as well as senior citizens, World War veterans, and others.
“People are the heart of everything we do,” Sekhsaria said. “Lumhaa is meant to be something that makes you feel like your story fits into the world.”