If you build it, will they come? A homegrown data analytics startup just raised over half a million dollars in seed funding to help companies answer that question.
Founded in 2016 out of a pitch idea during one of Carnegie Mellon University’s CONNECTS seminars, BlastPoint provides artificial intelligence-powered and data-driven insights to businesses looking to improve sales, customer engagement, revenue benchmarks and other goals. While using data for these purposes isn’t new, cofounder and CEO Alison Alvarez said BlastPoint’s patented technology is catered not only to IT or high-level professionals at a given company, but also to sales representatives or people in customer service in more accessible and palatable ways.
This week, BlastPoint announced a $750,000 seed round in convertible notes. The raise was initially planned for $500,000 but was eventually oversubscribed by investors, the company said. New local investors include the CMU alumni fund 99 Tartans and Alicia McGinnis of North Side-based private equity firm Audrey’s Kitchen, joining a growing list that also includes 412 Venture Fund and Innovation Works.
Though the target for this seed round was relatively small, the raise is significant for Pittsburgh’s still-growing tech community that has struggled to attract venture capital so far this year.
Having Pittsburgh as both an origin and headquarters was an obvious choice to Alvarez, who is a graduate of both CMU’s Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science. Though an early advisor questioned her decision to grow BlastPoint here, her experience working with another data analytics firm in Silicon Valley made her know she wanted a different experience.
"I'd rather build a team here in Pittsburgh. It makes it a lot more cash efficient, it means that I have a lot more access to talent, because I've got universities like Carnegie Mellon nearby. And I've also got a really supportive community."
“I’d rather build a team here in Pittsburgh,” she said. “It makes it a lot more cash efficient, it means that I have a lot more access to talent, because I’ve got universities like Carnegie Mellon nearby. And I’ve also got a really supportive community.” Blastpoint’s investors from the Pittsburgh area have felt like “extra moms and dads” through their guidance as the company grows, Alvarez added.
BlastPoint is based around technology that doesn’t merely feed customer data into its system and provide insights. Instead, the data analytics firm wants to help its more than a dozen clients turn those findings into real action.
Take, for example, BlastPoint’s work with utility companies throughout the pandemic. The recession and widespread layoffs left many unable to pay bills, leading to eviction and utility shutoff moratoriums from state and federal governments.
But the utility companies that Alvarez and her cofounder and CTO Tomer Borenstein (who is also a CMU grad and met Alvarez through CONNECTS) worked with wanted to make sure their at-risk customers knew about assistance options ahead of the moratorium’s end. BlastPoint’s platform allowed the team to identify households where someone was likely to have been laid off during the pandemic.
“If you’re a utility that might be really important [to know],” Alvarez said. “Because you have assistance programs that can help keep households current, even if it means lowering their payments to something that’s more affordable, while their household’s experiencing economic distress.”
The versatility of the platform means that it can be tailored to fit almost any industry looking to improve customer-related concerns.
“I think the place where we end up being the most helpful is anybody with a lot of risk governance they have to account for,” Alvarez said, mentioning cybersecurity, utilities, energy and retail as examples.
Beyond helping clients forecast business trends and make the best decisions possible, another priority of Alvarez and BlastPoint is to make sure the pathways to the decisions and insights the platform provides are clear and understandable. When using data to identify customer targets goes unchecked, it can sometimes lead to discrimination that can both prolong and worsen systemic issues based on the bias within a given platform.
“Being able to say, ‘Here’s why my algorithm made this decision,’ and being able to audit for bias, is extremely important,” Alvarez said. She and her team also try to predict potential unintended consequences of data-driven decisions by thinking not only about who those decisions benefit, but also who they don’t. “You should make sure to treat those cases with equity and make sure you have something else in place,” she said.
The new funding will enable BlastPoint to continue growing its foundational platform around these ideas, but also to develop a new one with a planned launch this fall that will provide clients with insights on current customers, rather than just forecasting trends of future and potential ones. Alvarez added that BlastPoint is also focused on expanding its team, and is now hiring for a software engineer in front-end development. But most of all, this seed round provides the company with “cash and resources that just mean so much because it means we can plan for the long term.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-