Launching @ Northwestern: Optimail

While the transition from academia to industry is always fraught with uncertainty and unique challenges, two recent graduates from Northwestern’s Psychology department have discovered that the demands and toolset of entrepreneurship closely parallel those of their Ph.D. training. Since completing their Ph.D.’s, Brock Ferguson (Northwestern ‘16) and Jacob Zweig (Northwestern ‘17) have gone on to form two new ventures in the industry: a data science consulting and development firm, Strong Analytics, and a product that uses AI to make email marketing campaigns more effective, Optimail.

Co-Founders of Optimail; Brock Ferguson (’16) & Jacob Zweig (’17)

The team’s interest in data science was fostered at Northwestern. They first collaborated on a data science project when competing in a Datathon hosted by the Computational Social Science Summit at the Kellogg School of Management. Applying the experimental and statistical techniques they used extensively in their graduate work, they won second place and unlocked an excitement for data science that would ultimately lead them to their two ventures.

Following this experience, they began to seek out new opportunities to hone their skills — from building a ride-sharing sharing optimization algorithm over coffee breaks in Food for Thought to competing in numerous Kaggle data competitions and meeting weekly to discuss the newest machine learning papers. Brock Ferguson also jumped at the opportunity to develop his business skills with a Certificate in Management for Scientists and Engineers at Kellogg.

Since first launching Strong Analytics, the team has enjoyed the challenges of translating their academic training into valuable business offerings. “We had a ton of fun applying what we’ve learned through a different, more applied lens,” says Brock. “When we began to see potential for this to turn into something, it was an easy next step to start a business doing this for other people!”

Moreover, their excitement around learning about new problems and about the statistical tools used to address them have only grown in industry. “Consulting in different industries and with different organizations means you’re always learning something new. It’s challenging but, at the same time, it can be just as energizing as learning in a more academic setting.” This excitement about new ideas has led the team to build a new product based on a recurring problem their clients were experiencing.

They noticed that many of their customers weren’t getting the most out of their email marketing campaigns, and decided to build a solution for the problem. Their solution, Optimail, uses artificial intelligence to automatically adapt and personalize email campaigns based on a customer’s behavior and preferences. It learns what and when to message clients based on what they’re likely to respond to. Optimail was just launched in February 2017 and Brock says they’re continually working to learn from their customers and improve the platform.

“It’s been a really rewarding and challenging experience,” says Jacob. “Doing a Ph.D. requires the ability to be self-motivated and to learn at a really rapid pace. Building a business requires so many of the same skills – I can’t think of another training program that would have prepared me better!”