MailHaven, a Louisville startup led by Kela Ivonye, is currently in San Francisco at the prestigious Highway1 accelerator. Only 3 percent of applicants are accepted to the program, according to its website.

Highway1 focuses on accelerating hardware startups and helps them take their prototype to product.

In a brief email from San Francisco, Ivonye called the Highway1 acceptance “amazing,” but left it at that. However, his mentor in Louisville was more than happy to recall how Ivonye got his project off the ground.

A few years ago, Dave Durand of Forest Giant met Ivonye and said, “I saw something special in Kela,” noting Ivonye’s “passion and drive.”

Durand said that Forest Giant worked with Kela, helping him out, letting him work out of the offices, encouraging him to “keep on trucking.” But eventually, after Ivonye’s earlier startup, Arrow Food Couriers, closed, he told the Giants that he needed to get a job.

“Don’t get a job,” Durand said to Ivonye. “We’ll pay you and you can stay here and keep on working.”

So for a “little bit of equity” in MailHaven, Durand decided to incubate MailHaven for two years, paying Ivonye a salary and letting him use Forest Giant’s resources for design and development work.

“When you believe in someone, give them a chance,” Durand said. “People need that.”

Durand said that we should all live by the “pay it forward” model.

CEO Kela Ivonye

For Ivonye and MailHaven, the “pay it forward” has paid off.

Highway1 is one of the top accelerators in the country. It’s a four-month program that takes place in its 1,000 square-foot laboratory, equipped with the latest in prototyping tools, including 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC mills. There are also full-time mechanical and electrical engineers on staff.

Ivonye and CTO Jonathan Frazier have already been through the Vogt Awards program in Louisville. They received 12-weeks of mentorship and $25,000.

Ivonye wants you to try his MailHaven app so badly, he’s willing to send you a present if you do so. It’s not (just) a bribe. The MailHaven app meticulously tracks your packages from just about any retailer from their shelf to your door and can now do so using Amazon’s Alexa. Ivonye doesn’t want you to have to wait until you have a package ordered to experience the new Alexa compatibility, so the company will ship you a package so you can track it.

Likely the present will be a MailHaven sticker or T-shirt with the slogan “All Mail Goes To Haven” (cute, huh?) on it, but one in every 100 people who download the app will receive an Echo Dot.

“The app is ready for public use but only through our beta program. Folks have to sign up and then we invite them,” Ivonye said. “It wouldn’t be available publicly through the App Store for another couple of months. The beta version has all the tracking functionality and is good to be used now by anyone who signs up.”

Check out an early test of the Alexa Skill. Try not to giggle when Alexa pronounces UPS as “ups.”

What MailHaven does isn’t entirely new. You can already track your Amazon packages with Alexa. Other apps aggregate your package shipments into one app. However, MailHaven, Ivonye said, is doing it better. “Other apps search your emails looking for receipts and are making money,” he said. MailHaven, on the other hand, gives you a new email address that you only use when ordering packages. So the MailHaven app isn’t crawling your inbox, just that particular email address.

Amazon released Alexa’s API, but Ivonye said that right now that there aren’t many people developing with it yet. Adding this capability to the MailHaven service allowed the company to, as Ivonye said, “super-differentiate ourselves.”

According to Ry Crist at CNET, more than 5.2 million Echo devices were sold in 2016 and there are approximately 5,100 Skills that have been created.

An actual smart mailbox, connected to the app, is also in the works.

Angel investor and startup mentor Greg Langdon was one of the application judges for the Vogt program.

He said in an email: “The more subjective things that we look for are a team of founders who are dedicated to the effort, and a business model that can scale significantly. Kela and Jonathan both exhibited a real passion for what they’re doing at MailHaven; as I recall, Johnathan quit a full-time job to work on the startup. And, given that MailHaven addresses a very large market for e-commerce deliveries, they have an opportunity to scale into a national or a global business.”

MailHaven was one of only six Vogt Award recipients chosen for 2016, from an applicant pool of more than 25.

Ivonye and Frazier expect to return from San Francisco in June.