While working as a data analyst for the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, Alex VanDerKolk, BBA ’13, found himself elbow-deep in data that doctors were trying to use to plan the most effective and cost-efficient treatments for breast cancer patients. Alex watched so many projects stretch on past deadline and over budget as doctors struggled to work with cumbersome data systems that he created a solution of his own: Symport, a cloud-based software enabling more efficient collection, storage and sharing of sensitive healthcare data used in medical research.
Alex and a team of fellow Ross students (Nikhil Kumar, BSE ’14; Max Wolff, BSE ’14; Rahul Iyengar, BSE ’14; George Zakhem LSA ’14; David Middleton, LSA ’15) founded Mountain Labs to distribute their software to research hospitals and institutions. Their concept and client pitch determined, Alex and his team entered Mountain Labs—then called Lab Compass—into the Michigan Business Challenge, where they learned how to address perhaps their most important audience: potential investors.
“[Our concept is] difficult to explain outside of the healthcare industry,” Alex said. “So the most valuable thing we got out of the Michigan Business Challenge was learning how to explain how we were going to make money out of this.” When it comes to pitching investors, “you only get one chance, and you can’t mess it up,” he said.
The team went back to the drawing board to simplify their pitch and explain how their concept could turn into a profitable business. After several rounds of judging, Mountain Labs took home The Most Successful Undergraduate Team award and used the money to legally form the company. They also received a Mayleben Venture Shaping grant, which they used to interview customers and attend industry conferences.
Alex credits his Zell Lurie advisors, especially Len Middleton and Sarika Gupta, with helping the team stay focused and offering them access to the professors’ local networks. “It was a huge help to not have to build them on our own,” he said. The team also attended a workshop led by Jim Price, who had experience working with the healthcare industry and could share his knowledge of potential roadblocks the team would face.
Mountain Labs certainly appears to have taken their lessons from the MBC to heart. After raising $350,000 during their first round of funding, they will close on a $750,000 second round of funding this summer. Other goals for the company over the next few months include scaling their sales force and marketing efforts, and expanding throughout Michigan.
With all the resources at hand in Ann Arbor—including access to the University of Michigan, one of the best research universities in the country—Alex, a Michigan native, has no plans to relocate his fledgling business elsewhere. “It’s a great city for entrepreneurs, and it’s a great city to live in,” he said. “The entrepreneur ecosystem has exploded over the last year. Being able to work with new startups and share resources and best practices is one of the most valuable parts of being a young business. It’s been incredible to watch it develop, and it’s been incredible to take advantage of it.”