In the summer of 2011 I was working at an EPA laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio mathematically modeling biofilms. I was frustrated with the way I had to do this research. One of the major problems was that all of the formulas, constants and data for modeling were locked away in journal articles. This meant that I needed to manually comb through hundreds of articles and summarize them before I could implement any part of my model. And there were a lot of parts. To make matters worse, in these specialized areas of study there was no standardization of units, or even standardization of unit conversions, so I was spending many hours just trying to interpret what I was finding.
I had been thinking a lot about this problem when I flew to Tuscon Arizona for the National Udall Conference. After a number of conversations late into the night, I realized that this problem was not just mine. Upon my return to Ohio, I decided that I was going to do it—create a standardized repository of scientific models, later named The Numerical Network. I spent the next week with my head buried in a basic web programming book and by the time I was headed back to school in September, I had begun to build what would become FastFig.
I threw out most of that early code, but it was the start of a wonderful journey into the world of software and startups. I was obsessed with the project my Senior Year of College, where I was studying Civil Engineering. I would code in class. I would code before going to parties. I would code instead of doing homework. I eventually ended up dropping my Senior Thesis to keep working on FastFig.
By the end of the summer of 2012 the first version of the site was ready to launch and I did it live (with a big red button) at the Lehigh Valley Tech Meetup. After the launch I decided that I needed a partner in the venture and so I recruited Jay Hotaling, a friend from high school who remains the CEO to this day. He and I applied to the startup accelerator DreamIt and were miraculously accepted into the Austin class that winter. DreamIt asked us if we could find another programmer to bring down to Austin, so we called up another friend from high school Alex Potts and he put aside his studies to join up. We also invited Greg Heller-LaBelle to join on. I had met Greg through Lehigh Valley Tech and he had a knack for business development.
Jay, Alex and I loaded in my Subaru Outback on New Years Day to drive strait for 26 hours down to Austin. We arrived there just in time for 4 hours of sleep before we reported for the start of DreamIt. We realized immediately we had a lot of work to do. The current application wasn’t going over tremendously well and we were a little unclear on exactly what we were selling. In addition, we were quickly realizing how tricky the academic market really was. We spent the first week brainstorming, finally realizing that our best option was to build an application that could be used by students in High School and College as a way to do math work digitally and more expressively than the ancient pencil-paper-calculator combination.
We presented this idea to the DreamIt partners and told them that we expected to have a prototype to test with in about three weeks, a time-frame we thought was ambitious. Steve Welch simply said do it faster. We said two weeks and he eventually convinced us that we could do it in one. Alex and I didn’t sleep at all that week but by the end of it shore enough we had a prototype.
Before we knew it Demo Day was rolling around. We still didn’t have our messaging quite down—it was too verbose and too confusing. Jay and Greg went to SXSWedu and pitched non-stop while I tried to smith a decent presentation. The partners had me doing the presentation once a day in the week up to demo day but it wasn’t quite right. It all changed when Jay and Greg came back one day ecstatic. All they had to say was “The Word Processor for Math” and I was sold. We filed a trademark that evening and I rewrote the presentation for the fifth time. At that point we were two days away from Demo Day and I was doing the presenting twice a day to the partners, memorizing a new presentation every time.
We were required to have a booth for after the pitch and Jay took the lead on that. We got a big banner printed up and made a cardboard cutout of our mascot Dr. Fig. The night before was a scramble of rubber cement, x-acto knives and hack-saws to get it all together. We finished around 1AM but no one could fall asleep with the excitement. So instead, Alex and I hacked together a monitor mounted on the arm of a desk lamp that would sit behind Dr. Fig and display humorous thought bubbles. We finally got to bed around 2AM.
The next morning we woke at 6AM and made our way to the venue to get setup. There was a lot of nervous energy in the room so I went and prepared with my pre-presentation play list, walking among displays of Texas History. I sat and watched as others presented and before me Michael from Hoot.me gave a presentation with tremendous energy. So I bolted up and gave it my best and it felt very good.
The day was not complete with the demo though. We had a meeting scheduled with Steven Wolfram and got a frantic call from a scheduler at the Capital Factory asking where we were just an hour after the demo. For those who don’t know, Stephen Wolfram is the inventor of Wolfram Mathematica, one of our biggest competitors. Apparently someone had mixed up the schedule and we were supposed to meet right then. We sped across town only to wait 15 minutes before we were able to meet. We sat down and introduced our selves and what we were doing. Jay started a demo and within 20 seconds Stephen had pulled the Chromebook out of his hands and started messing with FastFig. Within another 30 seconds he had found something wrong in an obscure area of mathematics, a bug I’m sure in early versions of Mathematica. After playing with it he didn’t know what to say. He was meeting with startups to give advice but he never imagined meeting a direct competitor. Finally he mused, “All I can say is that this is the first reasonable math program that I’ve seen in 16 years.”
We returned to Philadelphia after Austin where we raised a small Angel round of financing and worked hard through the summer to turn FastFig into a real business. We eventually settled that FastFig would be a free product but we would sell license the technology to businesses that needed it such as tutoring sites, learning management systems and on-line education. This winter we expanded the FastFig offerings to include a chat client called FigChat that makes digital math communication simple and intuitive. It continues to be a thrilling project.