Student Startup Takes Prize at $100k Competition
Mimir Insights creates researcher database for biotech industries
Ethan Kopit, Ian Leaman, Ian Luo, Qais Iqbal, Arlo Clarke, and Gabrielle Bova at the 2016 Tufts Gordon Institute $100k New Ventures Competition (Chitose Suzuki, Tufts University).
by Greta Jochem, '17
While interning at a biotechnology company the summer before college, junior Ian Leaman was tasked with generating leads for their sales team. His job was to research potential clients by searching the internet for details on scientists and their experiments. "The whole time, I knew there had to be a better way to do this than scraping through hundreds of research papers," said Leaman.
Three years later, Mimir Insights, the company he founded with classmates Ethan Kopit and Jon Arbaugh, has built a new way for biotech companies to investigate and generate potential customers. Mimir captured the first place prize—$20,000—in the General/High-Tech Ventures track of the $100k New Ventures Competition this spring, an annual contest sponsored by Tufts Gordon Institute that is open to recent alumni, faculty, staff, undergraduate, and graduate students.
During his first few weeks at Tufts, Leaman met Kopit, a fellow resident of Metcalf Hall, and Arbaugh, a classmate in an ExCollege class on startups and technology. "The idea for Mimir came pretty naturally," recalls Kopit. "The three of us were discussing our summer internships and Ian thought there must better way to go about the research Ian was conducting. We were all interested in entrepreneurship and seeking an opportunity and a good team. As far as we knew, there were no other products in the market that solved this problem.
Their goal was to reduce the time it takes for biotech salespeople to find potential customers. Their product has evolved over time. Initially, Leaman envisioned Mimir as a life sciences web crawler—essentially an internet bot that searches the web for relevant information. "That would have been an extraordinary undertaking," Kopit recalls. "Since then, we have focused on what we can do with less data." Today, Mimir Insights has three clients, and helps users search over a million investigator profiles more efficiently by aggregating grants, publications, and clinical trials into a single, searchable database of researcher profiles. Kopit compares Mimir to LinkedIn: "In the same way you would search LinkedIn to learn about someone's professional experience, you can search Mimir to find researchers, their current experiments and details of their grant funding."
As full-time students and entrepreneurs, the three students find the schedule demanding: each of the co-founders spends 20-25 hours per week on their business. As primarily self-taught entrepreneurs, they have had a learning curve. For Kopit, the biggest challenge was learning where to start. "If I said 'Tomorrow you're going to found a company that makes bicycle gears out of carbon fiber,' your first question would be 'Well, how do I do that?' It took a long time for us to learn which questions to ask or how to ask for help. It seems basic, but that was 50 percent of the work."
A political science major, Kopit believes his study of political theory has helped him think about business in new ways. "Political philosophy is about the design of human systems, and considering the best ways for people to live and how we can build systems to maximize that 'best way," he explains. The thought process he employs in his political philosophy major has helped the team approach some aspects of the business differently. "It has contributed to why we think critically about what kind of culture we want, how to design pricing models and really any interactions we have," says Kopit. "We chose our pricing scheme because it fits our users and the experience we want for them, not because it's the industry standard."
Leaman and Arbaugh, both computer science majors, focus on data and product management, and development, respectively. Arbaugh says he's gained the ability to think critically when solving problems and building professional quality software from his computer sciences classes. For Leaman, Programming Languages and Machine Structure and Assembly have been essential courses in his work for Mimir.
Seven other Tufts undergraduates—researchers, engineers, and marketing managers—now work for Mimir: juniors John Bailey, Arlo Clarke, Qais Iqbal, Collette King, Ian Luo and Abdisalan Mohamud; and sophomore Gabriella Bova. All are either paid or receive equity in the company.
Given their busy schedules, the founders believe organizing too many meetings can detract from their progress. They hold a monthly "All Hands on Deck" (AHoD) meeting. "Basically, we just want to give everyone a chance to ask any questions and discuss progress to date," said Leaman. "Other than AHoD, each department is responsible for setting and meeting their own goals."
The team applied to the $100k New Ventures Competition twice before their recent win. "What separated this application from our past entries was traction," says Kopit. "Before, we had an idea, a basic product, and some companies expressing interest, but this time we had actual, paying users."
Alumni, established entrepreneurs, investors, faculty, lawyers, and technical experts screened sixty applications for the 2016 competition. Eighteen teams—six in each of the Life Sciences, Social Impact and General/High Tech tracks—moved to the final round where they pitched their ideas to a panel of judges and answered their questions in front of a live audience. "You generally know where the potential holes are in your business, but a judge could always throw you a curveball. In front of an audience," says Leaman. "You just do your best and be honest."
Their prize money will be devoted to server space and technology licensing to improve their product. The team also won the competition's Audience Choice Award, presented to the project that event attendees deem has the most potential. "It was great validation, and we've allotted the Audience Choice Award to morale spending on food and fun," says Arbaugh.
As they finish their junior year and look ahead to graduation, the Mimir leadership contemplates the company's future. "We've had this company for almost three years and we've only been selling a product for the past six months," says Kopit. The team believes that with three clients, it's worth their continued time investment.
The team is aware that the final product could go in many directions, depending on the data added. Leaman envisions the product "evolving into a powerful suite of sales and marketing tools for the biotech industry and then expanding into other industries." It's most important, explains Arbaugh, that they build a company they are proud of: "We want to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of hyper-growth startups and build a company with sound financials and a healthy culture."
View a complete list of all of the winners in the 2016 $100k New Ventures Competition.