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ECs are Ready to Keep Building after Graduation

Updated: Apr 4

Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) sits down with ECs building everything from venue discovery software to fintech in Africa.

Buyout: Driving restaurant business while helping event planners find venues As the Social Chair of her section during RC year, Emy Han (MBA ’24) had a tough time trying to find a venue to host her section’s 120-person Holidazzle party. She called restaurant after restaurant and used those pesky general inquiry forms on their websites. Han spent this past summer as a Rock Summer Fellow to try to figure out if this “super stressful experience” is a problem for others. After speaking with party planners at law firms, healthcare companies, and consulting firms, she learned she was not alone and in fact that most others were using a do-it-yourself solution without much streamlining. Starting with a scrappy Excel document with restaurant availability and pricing that she manually compiled, she was able to to take a two-week, laborious process down to two days. Still, Han is not content: she wants to make it a two hour process to search, discover, and book a venue for your next event. Thankfully for Han, there is technology that allows her to show planners up-to-date availability at restaurants: restaurants utilize software like Triple Seat and Resy, and Han’s company – Buyout – leverages APIs that hook into these calendars. 

At least for now, Buyout is focused on the discovery process. Once the contracting is done, the restaurant can proceed forward with the client as they usually do. Buyout is free for planners. Restaurants and other venues pay a 3% commission on food and beverage to Buyout, which Han equates to a “referral fee.” Restaurants are happy to pay this, Han shared, due to the fact that margins for a restaurant buyout can be double those of a sold-out evening of individual tables. Throughout the process of building Buyout, Han has leveraged her strengths: her UI/UX background has enabled her to develop compelling designs, while her e-commerce brand experience has come in handy to help convince restaurants to come onto the platform by educating them about the fact that corporations are simply booking the venue that responds to them first.

Middleware empowering organizations to shift from probabilistic to deterministic AI AI systems often do not have enough context on the data they are evaluating; they are sometimes right and other times wrong, in large part due to the fact they are probabilistic. Recognizing this problem, enterprises want to create systems that they can control. This belief about the current state of AI is driving Chia Jeng Yang (MBA ’24) and his co-founders to build a deterministic AI retrieval system. The goal: make it easier to connect the dots between different pieces of data. The company’s product is a middleware solution that sits on top of record databases and flows out to a large language model (LLM). 

The ideal customers are developers trying to build information retrieval systems. The company, which recently raised an angel round including investment from individuals at OpenAI and Databricks, currently has design partnerships with a number of Series B and C stage companies. More partnerships will soon come through the pipeline through collaboration with later stage companies across the fintech, legaltech, and healthtech spaces. While there is a long term opportunity to inject context for agents, right now the company remains focused and “heads down” on developer work.

Gigbanc: Allowing remote workers in Africa to be paid in foreign currency through a reliable, customer-friendly platform In his RC year, Paul Omoregie Okundaye (MBA ’24) “spam messaged” over 600 people on Facebook and Twitter in Africa to learn about their experiences being paid by employers outside the continent. Through these conversations, he learned about a problem that is now the impetus for his venture, Gigbanc: it is hard for those in Africa to be paid in foreign currency. At the same time, there is an increasing demand across the globe to hire developers and other remote workers and creators in Africa. According to Okundaye, 40% of developers in Nigeria work for a company headquartered outside the country, yet their options to receive payment are limited. Getting paid through a traditional bank requires multiple references and imposes many restrictions on spending. Gigbanc solves this problem by offering a multi-currency wallet where users can store their funds in US dollars or an alternative currency, which can help them avoid the currency erosion that stems from high inflation.

Okundaye shared that over 50% of VC funding in Africa has been in the fintech space. Despite the potential competition in this space, the company’s challengers often have poor customer service, frequent downtime, and pricing that can be prohibitive. In addition to differentiating itself on these dimensions, Okunaye sees Gigbanc separating itself from the crowd by being a platform that is more than just a mechanism for transactions. To date, the company has built a waitlist with 10,000 people on it and has several hundred users in its beta. They have raised $300,000 in angel funding, are currently completing $200,000 more in angel funds, and plan to raise a Pre-Seed round in August. On the product horizon, they intend to develop a business suite aimed at companies hiring a large number of remote workers, along with expanding into offering credit by leveraging the vast amount of data the company captures.

KiraGen: Using machine learning to make CAR-T technology available to 91% of cancers

CAR-T is an effective blood cancer treatment. The problem? Only 9% of all cancers are in the blood. The other 91% – solid cancers – have not yet benefited from CAR-T. The problem with modifying a cell is that there are millions of potential new cell combinations that can result from the lab work. Even with robotics, it is infeasible to test this volume of arrangements. Enter Aaron Edwards (MBA ’24) and his company KiraGen, which is using machine learning to model how different changes to a cell would impact its efficacy.

KiraGen is a platform approach company; they are not trying to discover a new molecule or protein. Rather, they intend to license their first asset to a pharma company, while their ML model can rationalize decisions to help with the FDA’s requirement for companies to justify why they make the gene editing decisions they do. Right now, much of the machine learning in the space is focused on small molecules; KiraGen is one of the first platforms where machine learning is being used in the context of cell therapy and gene editing. The company – which received its first check in December and has the support of 2048 Ventures – is now kicking off a pre-Seed raise in the realm of $2.5 million.

Making senior care client onboarding faster and easier

Jamie Gong (MBA ’24) wants to tackle the “administrative burden of client onboarding” in senior care. As she watched her grandmother develop Alzheimer’s, Gong saw firsthand the challenges her mother faced while trying to navigate the journey of getting her the right care. This personal experience, coupled with the so-called ‘silver tsunami’ – the cost and burden on society of a rapidly aging population – led Gong to conduct interviews with over 120 people to determine how to best serve the senior care market. Building off these learnings, she developed a pilot for her onboarding software tool with a 300-resident senior care facility funded by the Massachusetts Government. 

In this process, Gong learned about the challenges of slow sales cycles in this space: Gong first met the facility’s CEO in March 2023 and it took until September 2023 to receive approval for the funding. This inspired her to shift to involving care managers as design partners. While Gong is still seeking clarity on her approach to this massive problem, especially from a go-to-market lens, she appreciates the value that industry associations serve as a growth funnel, and she remains focused on using the pain point of onboarding as a wedge into this large and growing market.

Turmerik: Expediting and diversifying clinical trials by freeing up physician time for patient education

Ayushi Sinha (MBA ’24) comes from a family of doctors. She is ready to make her impact on the medical space through her company, Turmerik, which seeks to use machine learning to more efficiently source and sort clinical trial patients. Sinha’s senior thesis at Princeton explored why facial recognition does not work effectively for people of color. This problem stuck with her and she wants to do something about it from the lens of clinical trials. Sinha explained that pharma companies are paying premiums to people of color for their participation, and the FDA is now requiring racial diversity at trials. Nevertheless, it is extremely costly and not easy to find the appropriate group of candidates for a trial. 

At present, Turmerik is a machine learning-enabled screening tool that reads patient records at scale and expedites the costly process of identifying and selecting best-fit candidates for a trial. Competitors have tried to get involved in this space, but their approach is based on a bet that patients are going to take the initiative to learn about and sign up for trials on their own – without the involvement of a physician. Sinha has taken the opposite angle, instead integrating into physicians’ workflows and placing the onus on the physician to educate the patient. Sinha’s bet is that by augmenting all the patient record screening in the background, Turmerik can free up time for physicians to focus on educating the patient.

Four Dots Health: Voice AI-enabled tech to find available doctors and schedule appointments

Patients do not like waiting on hold when calling doctor’s offices, nor do they like the tedious process of calling many offices in the struggle to find a new doctor who is in their insurance network and available in a reasonable amount of time. Rohan Mehta (MBA ‘24) and Miheer Patankar (MBA ‘24) are committed to taking advantage of the “inflection point” in voice AI to solve this problem at his new company, Four Dots Health. Their model revolves around AI agents calling a doctor on the patient’s behalf to work on scheduling, insurance details, and so forth. While their focus is on the phone channel today, they intend to become more omni-channel over time. Mehta believes that go-to-market is the biggest challenge in healthcare and he is excited about the fact that the company can give away its product to users without the need for a health plan or employer to be in the middle. The goal is that when the company goes to sell its product to a healthcare plan, the pitch is heavily supported by the fact that the company has already claimed many of the plan’s beneficiaries as users. 

Mehta wants to meet both patients and providers where they are: on the patient side, they are utilizing a two-way, HIPAA-compliant text channel. From a provider perspective, Four Dots Health differentiates itself from competitors such as Zocdoc by being free for providers to use and not requiring an integration with a patient scheduling system. Having been heads-down building product over the past few months, Mehta intends to start a fundraising process around May, and is also open to joining an accelerator.

Montage: Discover and purchase clothing and other designs that you see on screen

You’re watching Sex in the City and you see Carrie Bradshaw with one of her famous bags. You want to know the name of -- and perhaps purchase -- that bag. What do you do? Katherine Manweiler (MBA ’24) has founded a company, Montage, designed to help you solve this problem by allowing one to easily find everything they are seeing on their favorite TV shows and movies. A quick keyword search such as the name of an actress will populate photos of them with their most iconic outfits or accessories, leaning into consumers' “underlying human desire of aspiration.” One can then click a link that will bring them directly to the seller’s page with the given article of clothing or accessory. In this way, Montage creates a unique acquisition channel for brands and retailers.

The timing could not be much better for the business. According to Manweiler, in recent months, brands have been experiencing diminishing returns on ads within TikTok and Instagram, coupled with new policies that are making ad targeting less effective. Montage provides highly curated shoppers to brands at a significantly lower cost than advertising on popular social media platforms. When asked who she’s excited about targeting with Montage, Manweiler said “it’s the men,” explaining that the ongoing loneliness epidemic means that fewer males have partners to help them shop, giving Montage an opportunity to provide a shopping companion of sorts. As of now, the highest converting user group is men aged 25 to 44. With respect to growing the user base, Manweiler has been running a blog that drives engagement and user growth, and features conversations with stylists who are “far undervalued in praise” for their efforts in bringing memorable characters to screen.

Despite the fact that the company revolves around trends, Manweiler is decidedly “anti growth hacking” and is instead building the infrastructure for a company that will last, including a clever use of search engine optimization to drive traffic. To this point, the company has been bootstrapped, with Manweiler having worked on it since her first year at HBS. As graduation approaches, she plans to raise approximately $500,000 to supercharge user growth, make progress on the technical roadmap, and advance sales and business development. While movies and TV appear to be amongst the company's biggest focuses thus far, when asked about potential other use cases such as sports, Manweiler hinted that they have something exciting in store for this summer’s 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. We will stay tuned.

Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) loves all things startups. He created and runs Above Board, a weekly newsletter which features Q&A's with investors and founders about startup investment, board management, and corporate governance. Most recently, he served as the Chief of Staff at Scenery, a Series A-stage startup backed by investors such as Greylock. Previously, he was a Schwarzman Scholar where he earned a Master in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Chuck co-founded and was the CEO of Intern From Home, a recruiting technology startup that served students from over 600 colleges and was featured in publications such as The New York Times. Chuck earned his bachelor’s from Brown University, where he served as the Co-President of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. He loves to golf, cook, and go on long walks.

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