Q/A with Ashley Moy, CEO, Cast 21, and Alex Niemczewski, CEO, BallotReady
Earlier this month we released our Illinois Innovation Index, detailing record levels of entrepreneurship activity from Illinois universities, with over 800 companies founded and $630 million in funding raised over the last five years. Index findings also showed that Illinois is retaining more of these companies than ever before – over 80% of active university startups from 2012-2016. This impressive growth and retention hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Illinois universities have made extensive efforts to expand resources offered to entrepreneurs and centralize them within campus entrepreneurship centers. In addition to providing more resources, universities are tapping into the state’s growing entrepreneurship ecosystem, helping connect founders with new partners and funding opportunities to grow their businesses.
In this edition of Catalyst, we talk to two university-supported founders – Ashley Moy of Cast21 and Alex Niemczewski of BallotReady (pictured left and right above, respectively) – about their experience as founders, their route to entrepreneurship, and the resources that have helped them along the way.
First off, tell us about your background and how you got into entrepreneurship. Were there specific experiences that were influential in your decision to become an entrepreneur? Have you “dabbled” in entrepreneurship before — or is this your first venture?
- (For Alex): specifically interested in your “non-traditional” tech background as a philosophy major, and whether you ever felt that to be an ‘obstacle’ while building a tech platform. Did you feel the need to learn any new skills to compensate for not having a tech background?
- (For Ashley): Interested in learning about your path from engineering student and researcher into entrepreneurship
Alex: I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, inspired by my dad who started and continues to run his own business. Philosophy was always interesting to me personally and I don’t regret going to school for it at all — it’s taught me how to think work with people and I can apply it to everything I do. I’ve just learned that many successful CEOs actually have none-traditional, liberal arts backgrounds. Also, it was never a barrier for me to learn technology skills — I learned how to code and build a website and even taught coding at a bootcamp.
Ashley: I am getting my engineering degree at the University of Illinois in bioengineering. Years ago, I made up my mind to change the way humanity heals, and the degree lent itself nicely to that vision. I can’t point to a single moment in my life when I decided to be an entrepreneur, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of running my own healthcare organization. Cast21 is my first venture. Before the company was formed, I was an intern for another Illinois-based healthcare SaaS startup.
Where did the idea for your company come from? Once you had the idea, what steps did you take to turn that idea into a company? What convinced you that you could even do it?
Alex: A friend (and no co-founder) Aviva was running for local office and asked me to vote for her — that’s when I realized there was no formal place on the web for me to research any candidates on the ballot. There were PDFs available which involved a lot of digging but if you didn’t have time to explore those, everyone was pretty much guessing and deciding who to vote for on the spot. Advocacy groups and unions spend billions on spreading candidate information — we realized there was a market need and opportunity for a nonpartisan, online voter guide very quickly. Our first step was to approach the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP), which continues to serve as mentors, early investors and advocates for our platform.
Ashley: My cofounder Jason and I started making the device as a part of an interdisciplinary senior capstone project. Our backgrounds overlapped in medical devices, and so we decided to create a device to solve a major issue in healthcare. Jason had been in over 50 casts, and he was so passionate about providing a better solution. When we started, we had no intention on building a company. We entered a business competition on a whim, won, and the rest is history.
What university programs and resources were you able to utilize to help start and grow your business?
Alex: We’ve taken advantage of several University of Chicago resources besides the IOP, including the Polsky incubator and the National Science Foundation I-Corp program which allowed us to define our revenue model and get early customer feedback. We won the Social New Venture Challenge in 2015, participated in the national I-Corp, worked out of 1871 for a little bit, and are now based at WeWork. We also earned the opportunity of entering a partnership with IBM Watson for data analytics, after winning a University of Chicago Cognitive Computing Challenge.
Ashley: I feel the University of Illinois has a very robust system for promoting entrepreneurship, and I am thankful for the opportunities and resources within their system. We took full advantage of the Cozad New Venture Competition and its coaching sessions, the iVenture Accelerator, and now EnterpriseWorks at the Research Park. Outside of UIUC, some of the best support we’ve gotten was through the Chicago Innovation Mentors at MATTER Chicago. We were humbled to be selected as a mentee for this program, which allows early stage ventures to grow and learn along side seasoned healthcare experts.
What’s the current state (in terms of growth metrics/personnel/funding/presence) of your company, and what steps are you taking to continue its growth? Any upcoming milestones you are particularly excited about?
Alex: BallotReady just closed a seed round this past January, and we’re currently well staffed at six along with two interns. Covering the recent gubernatorial race on Kentucky was our first big venture outside of Illinois, and we’re excited to cover upcoming races in Philadelphia and Texas too. We’ve received some wonderful personal feedback by teachers who are using the platform in civics education and nursing homes enabling their residents to get better equipped to vote. If anything, the last presidential election has showed us the need for an accessible platform especially for citizens to learn about local candidates. Our goal is to expand nationwide and reach every election on every ballot by 2018.
Ashley: Cast21 just closed a seed round, and we are currently going through product testing to ensure the device is as strong as the current standards of care. We are located in Champaign, IL and have 2 full time employees and 6 interns working on the engineering challenges and content creation. Our team is exciting about having our fracture orthotics on patients before the end of the year.
(interviews edited for length and clarity)
ISTC President & CEO Mark Harris joins Illinois university-incubated startups Tovala (University of Chicago), Photonicare (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Eat Pak’d (Northwestern University) on Good Day Chicago to give a firsthand look at why Illinois is a hotbed for startups. (Linked here is a post from Photonicare’s Facebook page)
The PitchBook 2016-17 report features an annual breakdown of which universities produce the most VC-backed entrepreneurs.
What we’re reading
- Chicago Venture Magazine previews IMSA’s new innovation lab
- Illinois startups raised $6 billion since 2012: new NVCA report
- 45 companies to present at 18th Annual InvestMidwest capital forum
- How UIC is making room for a technology boom
- New biomedical research park coming to Lake County
- Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Innovation Award winners ring Nasdaq closing bell
- Chicago universities launch program to attract foreign founders
- How did Chicago’s brightest business mind reach the top? Listen to Hyde Park Angels’ ‘People First’ podcast to find out
- Why Motorola bought a piece of this digital design shop
- 1st of a new feature for ISEIF blog: the sometimes baffling implications of the smart home
- Trump’s revised travel ban still affects 300 UI staff, students
Illinois Innovation Network Featured Resource
Since 2005 Cleantech Open (CTO) has trained over 1200 early-stage clean technology startup entrepreneurs through its annual business accelerator — and they’re accepting applications now! Click for more information and to share with any Midwest cleantech startup in your network.