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Up and Running: UC Alumni Included in Local Startup Accelerator's Class of 2016

Four alumni enrolled in The Brandery are hoping to shape the future of science with their startups.

Date: 7/25/2016 1:00:00 PM
By: Zack Hatfield
Phone: (513) 556-5087
Photos By: Zack Hatfield
Four University of Cincinnati alumni — three from the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences and one from the Carl H. Lindner College of Business — have already broken into one of the world’s top 10 tech business accelerators within a year of leaving college and before reaching the age of 30. They’ve scored hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments in their budding companies with products they believe will shape the future of science and data. And they haven’t even left town. 

Olivier Lemaitre and Andrew Carl from chemistry, Aman Tsegai from physics and Brian Back from marketing are all apart of local startup accelerator The Brandery’s class of 2016, which includes 10 new businesses as they take part in a four-month program dedicated to helping them develop a branding strategy and evolve their companies from nuts and bolts to fleshed-out prototypes. 

This is all with a little help from the $50,000 in seed money each company is given throughout their tenure in The Brandery’s Over-the-Rhine office, an open-floor workspace rinsed in natural light. It’s an environment where the spaciousness mimics the minds it welcomes and nurtures—open and incredibly bright. For these UC grads, setting up shop for a summer in The Brandery presents an opportunity—and gives them the required time and resources—to get their products to the next level. 

The Brandery is primarily a marketing incubator, where startups can hone their origin story into a consistent narrative their brand can use to captivate investors, users and potential employees. Companies are mentored on ramping up their web presence as well, perhaps the most important way to connect with their intended audiences. But the accelerator also provides a highly collaborative space where, as Lemaitre says, “you’re surrounded by the smartest people you’ve ever met.” The atmosphere inspires the class to succeed, or, in Silicon Valley has it, “fail fast, fail often,” a maxim Datazar and Atumsoft embrace. 

Lemaitre, 23, is CEO of Atumsoft, a company working on a bridge device that “replaces the big, bulky computer attached to each instrument in a chemistry lab.” Having each individual instrument connected to the Atumsoft bridge will allow the hub to sync data to chemists’ laptops, tablets or smartphones. Lemaitre and Carl, 26, hatched the idea after growing tired of spending precious hours interacting with outdated technology in the lab. Carl taught Lemaitre to code, and the startup was born. 

“I was never happy in a corporate environment where you waste a lot of time everyday,” Carl, CTO of Atumsoft and a former IT worker, says. “I want to do something that means something to me and to work on my own terms.” 

Lemaitre shares this mindset, and has been passionate about chemistry since he first took the class in high school. “We got to burn stuff and play with things,” he explains. 

Lemaitre moved to the United States from Belgium when he was 14. He transferred to UC from Virginia Commonwealth University during his junior year and quickly immersed himself into campus activities, joining ChemCats as a treasurer and conducting research under the late Joe Caruso, a faculty member.

“I fell in love with the technology side of chemistry,” he says. “The massive instruments that break down food and chemicals to an atomic level—it’s beautiful.” 

Taking Risks 

Anyone who’s seen an episode of Silicon Valley—which Lemaitre admits is pretty accurate— knows building your own company includes taking on all kinds of different roles and weathering more than your share of surprises. The co-founders all agree it can be hard to devote time to other things. Risks must be taken. After a trip to San Francisco, where Lemaitre and Andrew won $100,000 from Lab360 and office hours from the seed accelerator that helped spawn Airbnb and Dropbox (Y Combinator) they quit their jobs to pursue Atumsoft full-time. For startups, that’s closer to all-time. 

For 21-year-old Tsegai, who grew up in Eritrea and moved to Cincinnati in 2013, taking chances is the only way to move forward. Last November, he found himself at a crossroads: put all of his energy into Datazar or complete his physics degree. He opted to take a year off. This isn’t surprising. For emerging entrepreneurs, successful startup ventures often begin by defying traditional trajectories. 

Both former interns at The Brandery, Tsegai met 22-year-old Back, who graduated from the College of Business, through Bearcat Launchpad, UC’s startup accelerator and the first student-led business accelerator in the nation. The two clicked immediately. 

Datazar operates under the premise that information should be free. As an open-source website that collects and curates data already in the public domain, the project aims to help users visualize objective, raw numbers. A project manager has already dubbed it the “Wikipedia, for research,” and it’s only in beta. 

Tsegai and Back say the website, or “ecosystem,” will allow scientists, journalists, academics—anyone who researches—easy, organized access to data online, whether it’s census data, crime statistics or programming code. The possibilities are endless.

“If you want to get nerdy about it, I see it as the perfect embodiment of the scientific method,” says Tsegai, who was one of the only undergraduates to conduct research with post-docs during his time at the university. 

Lemaitre remembers briefly meeting Tsegai for the first time last year at Cincinnati’s Angelhack hackathon, an event where coders collaborate to build a demo of usable software in the span of 24 hours (we have our own, Revolution UC). “He had been working alone for 12 hours straight,” Lemaitre recalls with appreciative awe. 

But collaboration is a vital component of entrepreneurship, one the members of Atumsoft and Datazar say they learned at UC. “The professors at UC are really great with one-on-one mentoring,” says Lemaitre. “It doesn’t feel like you’re a number.” 

The four enterprisers, all admittedly self-taught in most ways, agree that UC acted as a space where they could experiment to find what they truly wanted to do in life. 

“You learn how to deal with people in a professional environment,” Carl says. 

Lemaitre adds, “I also learned who I was as a person.” 

Focused on the Future 

Tsegai, Back, Lemaitre and Carl are learning quickly that although startup culture is conducive to how they want to work, it’s not without its challenges (“Like figuring out how to pay yourself,” Carl half-joked). Working within an ethos that values undying ambition, imagination and countless hours can be overwhelming. Still, the founders of Atumsoft and Datazar—two projects with goals that include democratizing data—remain excited about the future. Like so many startup founders before them, all are convinced that they can change the world. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true,” they say. It’s hard not to believe them.

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