In this Q+A, Ansh Bhammar, co-founder and co-CEO of ForagerOne, dives into his founding story, experience with MC Boston, and return to MC as an alumni-in-residence. ForagerOne is all-in-one integrative platform that connects faculty with students looking for research opportunities.
Most recently, they’ve added another service targeted towards research conferences, primarily to ease the pain of transitioning to a virtual setting.
Q: What pain point are you solving?
A: Higher-education is a decentralized and disconnected environment, and these issues have been further exacerbated during the pandemic. We create technologies which help universities and colleges build out their infrastructure for academic research, a foundational pillar of most institutions. We have two product offerings: our first product creates a marketplace for students to find and connect with faculty mentors for research and collaboration; our recently released second product was created earlier this year, from the demand of our institutional clients and partners, to help academic research conferences transition to virtual.
Q: How did you come up with the idea behind the company?
A: It all started with our own difficulty as students trying to get involved in research that led us onto the journey of creating ForagerOne. After countless hours of Google searching for faculty, hundreds of emails, and only a handful of meetings did we realize how decentralized universities and colleges were. Incredible research was happening across our university, yet it was so difficult to find and connect with the right faculty mentors for us.
In my case, I had committed to one of the few faculty who got back to me after my extensive outreach. A few days before I was going to start, I came across an article recently published by my university by sheer chance. In essence, it highlighted the efforts of another faculty member in a different department I hadn't come across who was doing precisely the kind of work I imagined doing. So, I apologized to the professor I initially committed to and was fortunate enough to have this new faculty member take me under her wing.
In my co-founder Yash's case, he had worked in a lab for a semester before he realized that it wasn't the right fit and decided to leave. The poor match cost both him and his supervisor their investment of time and effort. Yash reached out to more faculty and, through a series of happenstance connections, eventually found himself a fantastic faculty mentor on an entirely different campus.
Our technical co-founders Michael and Nitin, had similar experiences as well. Michael tried to get involved in research even before starting college, and it took him repeated waves of outreach until he got just one positive response. Nitin, a computer science major, by chance, heard about a faculty member working on computational neuroscience research, which was looking for students from a third-degree connection.
Through each of our experiences, we arrived at the same realization: there had to be a better way. And that's how it all started.
Q: What are some early stories you encountered that helped you understand the pain point you’d like to solve?
A: From finding the right faculty mentors to connecting with them, students are faced with unnecessary challenges the whole way through. They have to scour the numerous outdated, unstandardized, and incomplete department websites, which make it difficult to understand what faculty are currently working on and if they are open to taking in a student at the time. On top of that, students then have to cold email faculty to get involved, which often results in no response because faculty receive hundreds of emails per day, and they can quickly look over non-urgent student requests. To compound that, at times, students don't know how to make a compelling case for themselves, and their applications can come across as unworthy of attention. On the other hand, faculty have no systematic way of finding students (who can often be productive and dedicated contributors to their research), especially outside of their departments and circles.
Q: What stage is the company currently at?
A: We are a post-revenue, intentionally bootstrapped company. We currently have over 50 institutional clients and partners that have funded our growth and progress. While we may choose to raise to further accelerate our trajectory, our customer revenues are more than sufficient for us to continue growing the company. We are very grateful for all the universities and colleges that have been such a foundational part of our journey, including our alma matter (Johns Hopkins University), and hope our growth remains exponential!
Q: What is the company’s unfair competitive advantage? Why will it be sustained?
A: Combining our growing market presence and novel underlying technology with our expertise as academic researchers, we have uniquely positioned our company to deliver value in the research space. Few companies and organizations are able to build and provide specific value to our rapidly growing client base, which is why our technologies have been adopted since we launched our first product in May 2019.
Q: What are people most excited by? What do they like most?
A: Our growth has accelerated even more since the pandemic began, particularly with our newest product which has been spreading like wildfire in academia. We have so many inbound requests we’ve had to put a hold on our outbound sales and marketing efforts and make additional hires to ramp up output! We’ve established our brand as an innovative and trusted organization that uniquely caters to the niche of academic research technology, and as such we’ve become recognized leaders in the space. As researchers ourselves, we are extremely close with our institutional clients: we listen - and from what we learn, we build and provide.
Q: What are people least excited by? What do they dislike most?
A: Integrating a technology in academia often requires going through administrative red-tape, which can result in the need to involve multiple offices and approvals, particularly at institutions that are publicly funded. As a result, the need for our technology has to be both strong and clear in order for the buyer to be prepared to get the necessary approvals in place.
Q: What has been the company’s biggest accomplishment to date?
A: Just as the pandemic first hit in March, many institutions were scrambling to figure out how they could transition their research conferences and events to virtual. Our clients and connections were complaining that there was no virtual conference solution that was tailored for research and academia. At first, we just thought of it as a cool hackathon idea to deliver value in the market as a free offering for brand development. Little did we know that with the magnitude of institutions that wanted to use our system, our ‘side project’ ended up becoming a full-blown second product offering with its own pricing and client base. Because we had been active in the space, listened to the needs of our customers, and reacted quickly, we have been able to create one of the most widely used virtual conferences solutions in academia.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for the team moving forward?
A: As we continue to grow rapidly, our biggest challenge is creating a sustainable growth trajectory – we want to make sure we can continue onboarding clients at a fast rate but while also delivering a personalized and stellar customer experience for each of our clients.
Q: How has MassChallenge impacted the future of your company?
A: MassChallenge was an absolutely foundational part of our growth as a company. As first-time entrepreneurs, it was really the MassChallenge community that provided us the support we needed to develop our strategy and growth plans. From the workshops to learning and brainstorming with our peers to hearing insights from mentors, we built out some of the most foundational components of our business that have positioned us for success today.
We had come into MassChallenge with one contract, and after the program was complete, we had gained 5 additional clients (6 total). Now, we’re at over 50. I think we’re experiencing the inflection point at the beginning of the growth curve (or so I hope). And that’s all thanks to the support we got from our MC mentors, peers, and staff. And we know that MC will continue to support as continue the journey.
Q: What was your favorite week? Favorite moment?
A: My favorite moment was undoubtedly the awards ceremony. A bunch of us founders decided that, it being the last night of being all together, we would take the night off from networking to simply having a good time with each other. We ate, drank, laughed – it almost felt surreal that we had gone through an absolutely crazy 4 months together. Those bonds have stayed strong ever since.
Q: Why are you returning to MassChallenge as an AiR?
A: Such an interesting question, as it’s not something I’ve ever thought about because being a continued part of MC is such an obvious decision for me and everyone I knew in our cohort. MassChallenge is a community that runs deep, a community that consists of individuals who offer their hand to fellow entrepreneurs without expecting anything in return. In that way I knew I belonged, and why I’ve remained active in MC to bring value and support to the incoming cohort as an AiR.
Q: What sort of community culture would you like to foster amongst the cohort?
A: Openly sharing and providing peers support was critical for my own experience at MC and I’d like for the cohort to be that way was as well. We all go through so much, from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and the answers are often never clear. It makes a big difference when you have other entrepreneurs to rely on for support, brainstorming, and sometimes just someone to share a chat over one of those good ole Harpoon pretzel and beers near the MC office (I’m having these cravings way too much lately being remote).
Q: What value do you see the AiR role bringing to this year’s cohort founders?
A: While I’m by no means a startup expert, our company has gone through quite a journey and a significant chunk of the startup lifecycle, from concept to product to a rapidly growing customer base and deals with strategic partners. I feel as if my experience can bring ideas and discussion with this year’s cohort on pretty much everything related to business development, from sales and marketing strategies to customer success and investment (even though we intentionally opted to not take on funding during MC). I have a lot of fun working with my Wolfpack.
Q: What advice would you offer a founder that has been accepted into the program?
A: Reach out. Reach out to your peers, reach out to mentors and alumni (even if they don’t have office hours), reach out to the staff. The connection to MC is strong and people are ready to help.