A Spotlight on eLab Startup Response
60 days–– this is the average purchasing time it takes nonprofit organizations to order and distribute sufficient aid to millions during severe natural disasters, famines, and other humanitarian crises according to eLab team Response. Co-founded by Engineering students Keivan Shahida (’20), Kais Baillargeon (’20), and Nolan Gray (’20), Response is aiming to prevent such lengthy delays in humanitarian delivery from occurring again by helping procurement officers at nonprofits purchase life-saving supplies in significantly less time.
The team originally met one another during orientation week for the College of Engineering, developing a friendship first before eventually coming together to develop a startup. Keivan and Nolan, pursuing majors in Computer Science, and Kais, pursuing a major in Operations Research had all been drawn to the entrepreneurship community at Cornell given their experience building software to solve real problems within their respective majors. Keivan, for example, had been a member of Cornell’s AppDev Project Team and worked on their inaugural Cornell Dining-affiliated app Eatery which is now used by over 6,000 students a month and available on both iOS and Android platforms. Having their past projects such as the Eatery app come to fruition further sparked the team’s interest in entrepreneurship, so they began by participating in the 2018 Life Changing Labs summer incubator program. Following the program, they felt ready to apply to be a part of the 2018-2019 eLab cohort.
Keivan, Kais, and Nolan knew that they wanted to build a software product that was designed to help others and make a positive impact in the world. The team was interested in working with nonprofit organizations, so they devised an initial product intended to improve communication between donors and nonprofits. However, upon connecting with organizations like UNICEF, the Response team learned that there were much more serious problems facing nonprofits and wanted to work to solve one of these larger issues. They entirely changed the focus of the product to address one such problem–– procurement. As they discovered with the case of one severe drought that affected a district of 1.5 million people in Pakistan, procuring life-saving resources for millions of people is usually an overly complex process executed manually through pen and paper, faxing, and extensive paperwork. The goal of Response is to function as a “digital procurement officer,” putting this process online and automating it for the ease of both the distributors and recipients of humanitarian aid.Response narrowed down their target customer to focus on humanitarian development organizations in the $100-500 million revenue range that are on the field long-term, addressing a wide range of issues from refugee crises to drought. What Response aims to do is to significantly cut down the amount of time the procurement process takes for each of these organizations.
With the resources available to them through eLab, the team made significant strides over the past year to develop Response into what is now a live platform for digital procurement services with a growing pipeline of customers. “eLab has been the most important resource we’ve had access to at Cornell,” Keivan remarked as he reflected on his time in the program. “From the moment we sat in our first interview with eLab Managing Director Ken Rother and were asked questions about aspects of our business we hadn’t even considered before, we knew we were working with truly veteran entrepreneurs.” eLab provided the Response team with the funding and resources they needed to gain a holistic perspective of the nonprofit organization and humanitarian aid system and get in contact with key figures, mentors, and prospective customers in the field. The team had the privilege of pitching to investors in New York City as well as traveling to Washington D.C. to interview leading nonprofit officials and attending one of the largest humanitarian conferences in Brussels, Belgium.
In addition to these types of connections, another aspect of the eLab program that helped the Response team was the internal accountability it provided. Every week, the team had to check in with peers and professors, which served as a “powerful mechanism for us to achieve more because we had to deliver on what we said,” as Kais explained. The team described eLab as an “incredibly open and supportive community” with a strong dynamic between the different teams in which everyone was there to help one another. Before Life Changing Labs, the team felt that they had been operating more or less on their own. That is until eLab welcomed the Response team into the ecosystem, which helped them build the confidence they needed to develop their vision for Response and begin pursuing major clients. The team just recently moved out to Washington, D.C., where they set up headquarters at co-working space WeWork for the summer. Washington, D.C. is an ideal location for Response to grow as most of their target nonprofit customers are based in that area, which will be a great growth experience. As their platform for pilot organizations goes live, the team is eager to be closing their first contracts and securing their first customers this summer with a goal of going full time with Response after they graduate this coming year.
Like most startups, Response has experienced its fair share of growing pains. Fine-tuning small details such as incorporation and forming contracts can take up a lot of time for the team. “This summer poses a good amount of uncertainty given how much we will just have to learn as we go,” Keivan elaborated. However, with the ongoing support of eLab, the Response team remains optimistic and excited for the rest of the summer. Although the 2018-2019 program has come to an end and they are now considered eLab alumni, the team is grateful for all the resources eLab has provided and will continue to leverage the relationships they have formed along the way. When asked what will motivate the team going forward, Kais responded, “We felt like as a group of product designers and software developers, one of the best ways to have an impact was to help nonprofits operate more efficiently. We feel motivated by the concept of reaching more beneficiaries. If we succeed in what we’re doing, we will reach millions, which is very rewarding and an exciting experience for us. It’s by far our favorite part of the journey.”
Do you have an idea that you are ready to grow into a company? Applications are now open for the 2019-2020 eLab Cohort. Apply today at: http://www.elabstartup.com/apply/