LightLabs Inc

    • lightlabs

While Ph.D. candidates at Carnegie Mellon University, Elijah Mayfield and David Adamson collaborated to develop a computer platform using state-of-the-art machine learning for writing education. The goal was to create a software platform to support students and teachers in middle and high schools, thereby improving the quality of writing education in the United States. 

In 2013, Mayfield made the decision to leave CMU to form the company and teamed with Rajiv Enand to launch LightSide. While Mayfield and Adamson were first-time entrepreneurs, this was Enand’s sixth software company. Enand, a serial tech entrepreneur, had had success in securing funding from government agencies for his previous companies, so they decided to contact the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) at the U.S. Department of Education (DoED). During that conversation, the program manager recommended a fast-track application in response to the organization’s SBIR solicitation. While the team had extensive experience writing National Science Foundation proposals and other highly technical proposals, they had never written an SBIR proposal. 

Challenges or Obstacles Faced

To attract professional funding from venture capitalists, they first needed to develop and demonstrate feasibility of their software or idea. That required hiring expensive software developers before any incoming product revenues. Traditional banks and even the SBA are not well equipped to provide loans for software companies as they have no leverageable assets. Therefore, software companies have to be more innovative to find the early funding sources. 

Assistance by the Center and Other Agencies

With the encouragement of a senior official at the DoED, the team decided to submit a fast-track SBIR proposal. Through conversations with Innovation Works, Enand was connected with the Duquesne University Small Business Development Center (SBDC), a regional contact for the Pennsylvania Innovation Partnership (IPart) program. Their SBDC consultant recommended that the team engage a consultant with expertise in writing and winning SBIR proposals. IPart, a consortium of economic development and business assistance organizations throughout Pennsylvania, has the mission of increasing the success rate of Pennsylvania businesses applying for SBIR/STTR funding. Businesses can receive pre-submission expert feedback on a proposal and often a small grant to defray the expenses of preparing the proposal.    

Impact and Results

With the SBDCs help, Enand received feedback from two national  experts to improve the chances of winning the SBIR grant. The SBDC also helped the team get an IPart grant to fund the work of the private consultant. Through the process of submission of the application, the team learned first hand how unique SBIR proposals were in their format and goals. The consultant made numerous recommendations, which eventually led to the award of a $150K Phase I grant. The team now had much of the needed funding to hire engineers to develop their ideas. The team credits the SBDC and IPart for their success in winning the government contract. “Without the SBDC’s and IPart’s support, we would never have engaged a highly skilled consultant, and I believe, likely never won the award,” says Enand. “Beyond simply the advice to engage a consultant, the SBDC connected us with the IPart program to fund this work of the consultant, which proved invaluable in the process.” Since its humble start in 2013 with three co-founders, the company has grown to twelve full-time employees in Pittsburgh and plans to double its staff in the next year. After successful pilots in Southwestern Pennsylvania-based schools in 2014, the company plans to launch their web-based writing platform across the United States in 2015.