The evolution of an iSchool startup

What happens when information science academics make business their business, turning research projects into commercial enterprises? Is it still research? Is it the job of researchers?

“Everyone in our field wants impact, wants their research to matter, but it is not always clear what that means,” says iSchool Associate Professor Jacob Wobbrock. “Do we need to commercialize what we do to have an impact? Is that our burden? Or is it enough to make the discoveries and hope other people will apply them?”

To shed light on the campus-to-market process, Wobbrock, iSchool Associate Professor Amy Ko and ’13 iSchool Ph.D. alumna Parmit Chilana prepared a trailblazing case study that was recently selected as a 2015 best paper at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, also called “the CHI conference.” The paper was led by Chilana, now an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and advised by Wobbrock and Ko.

The paper, one of 21 chosen from more than 2,150 submissions, examines the transformation of a research innovation – a point-and-click Q&A tool for websites – as it moves from the UW iSchool to the real-world marketplace, morphing to meet commercial demands as part of a new venture-capital backed startup called AnswerDash.

The paper describing AnswerDash’s evolution, “From User-Centered to Adoption-Centered Design,” is one of the first to provide in-depth insights into the commercialization of human-computer interaction research. “There really isn’t much literature on the gap between research prototypes and commercial products. After starting at Waterloo, Parmit wanted to come back and try to understand this gap and share what she found with the academic community,” says Ko.

Ko, Wobbrock, and Chilana are co-founders of the two year-old company, the iSchool’s first official spinout. Though startups have emerged for years from computer science, engineering, and business, they’re still relatively new to Information Schools nationwide, says Wobbrock.

He points to three critical factors that made the iSchool launch possible. One was a strong, inventive doctoral student: Chilana. Her dissertation work laid the foundation for the startup. Another was the unqualified support of iSchool Dean Harry Bruce, who anticipates more such spinouts in the school’s future.

The third factor was less tangible -- the iSchool’s innovative, impact-oriented culture, a culture comfortable with what Wobbrock calls “research in the wild.” Its scholars regularly step off-campus to test ideas. “An impact-oriented culture like that of the UW Information School values both the ivory tower and getting out of the tower and down on the street to see what kind of difference we can make,” he says.

Wobbrock, who worked as a programmer in Silicon Valley startups before getting his Ph.D. with Ko at Carnegie Mellon University, serves as AnswerDash’s founding C.E.O.  Ko is company C.T.O. Wearing two hats -- as academics and entrepreneurs — has given them a singular perspective. “A lot of academics, who have never been in a business, let alone started one, have no idea how this works, and what lies in that wide gap between a research project and a product, and between a product and a viable business,” Wobbrock says. “That’s what we’re addressing in our paper.” This is Wobbrock’s sixth CHI best paper and Ko’s second; both also have several honorable mentions at the conference.

The AnswerDash tool developed by Wobbrock, Ko and Chilana lets users find precise answers quickly on websites. Users can click on an object of interest, say a digital dog i.d. tag on pethub.com, and AnswerDash will instantly show you the most common questions asked by other users about that object (Does it work with GPS tracking?). Click on the question, and up pops your answer (Yes, it has Bluetooth signal tracking). There’s no scouring separate knowledge bases, user forums, related articles, or isolated Q&A links. The answer’s right there, same page, a click away, no extra typing required.
The product originates in Chilana’s Ph.D. work at the iSchool. Over four years of research, she created a peer-to-peer help tool called LemonAid -- “Aid” for help; “Lemon” for the sour experience when you can’t find it. LemonAid relied on crowd-sourced questions and answers to end website users’ frustrating searches. “In the beginning, Parmit and I were strictly focused on helping website visitors get answers more easily,” says Ko. “We didn’t think about the commercial aspects at all.”

The focus on product-users began to shift to product-buyers (“adopters”) as the innovation made its move to the marketplace, changing its name from LemonAid to Qazzow to the more businesslike AnswerDash. Leading that charge were Wobbrock and Ko.

The two researchers took leaves of absence from the iSchool to develop the first version of the product, secure initial pilot customers, and raise more than $2.5 million in venture capital funding, building on an initial $50,000 seed grant from the university’s commercialization gap fund. A portion of all revenues return to the UW. “Our motivation was to get a research contribution really truly out into the world and disseminate it,” says Wobbrock.

The learning curve was steep. Instead of an audience of scientists, engineers, and designers, the iSchool researchers faced an audience of business strategists, media experts, analysts, and competitors. They had to master marketing, messaging, pricing, selling, partnerships, and commercial product design. For a year, Wobbrock and Ko drove around town pitching their startup to any investor or company that would listen. “We revised our investor pitch 49 times before we finally got the right one,” says Wobbrock.

Talking points turned from benefits for website users to bottom-line business benefits for companies, including converting their site visitors into paying customers. Online web users, they explained to potential investors and clients, abandon transactions if they cannot find quick answers to questions: the result is the loss of an estimated $8 billion annually in online sales. Another benefit they pitched was reduced customer support cost. Companies’ customer support teams are inundated with repetitive questions over email that cost money and solves. With AnswerDash, site users can get self-service answers under their own steam.
There were significant adjustments and tradeoffs as the product evolved to meet adopter needs. Businesses were fine with using crowd-sourced questions, but they wanted to provide their own answers. “We found businesses aren’t comfortable letting their own visitors provide answers unless it’s in a separate forum – but not on the main site,” says Wobbrock.

Engineering presented formidable challenges, too. The AnswerDash team had to not only address issues like browser compatibility, but integrate their product with a variety of complex, pre-existing systems and processes. ”We didn’t use a single line of code from the original LemonAid research project, but we carried over most of the ideas,” says Wobbrock.

Today, the startup has about 50 customers, with some significant players in the wings. Initial reporting is positive. One vacation rental agency calculated bookings increased by more than 30 percent since putting AnswerDash on their site. Customers’ tech support costs are spiraling down. “In our first 20 customers, return on investment was about $20,000,” says Wobbrock. “Customers are seeing AnswerDash reduce their email support tickets by about half.”

The AnswerDash staff now numbers 13, almost half of them engineers. Its board of advisers includes heavy-hitters like former Drugstore.com C.E.O. Dawn Lepore and Google Product Manager David Aronchick. The team is continually perfecting the product.  “We are working with early-adopter companies to really get the design right, to get that product-customer fit right. If it’s not, it’s like spinning a tire in the mud as you try to gain market traction,” says Wobbrock.

Wobbrock describes the three-year journey helping build and promote the company as tremendously long and complex. He does not, he adds, plan on being a C.E.O. forever. “I’m more interested in the discovery of new knowledge than in commercialization. I’m an academic at heart. But I wonder, when I return to the iSchool, how this experience with AnswerDash will open my eyes to different ways of doing things

“I know I’ve grown a lot and gained many new skills in leadership, strategy, communication, and people management. Those skills should be useful back in the academy.”