This November, Sault Ste. Marie resident Melissa Kargiannakis will be one of nine women entrepreneurs attending a startup accelerator program in Silicon Valley, Calif. — if she can afford to get there.
Kargiannakis, 26, is the only Canadian to be accepted into the Women’s Startup Lab (WSL) Accelerator Program, and she has until Nov. 1 to come up with 65 per cent of the $20,000 cost of tuition so she and her head of development, Naomi Freeman, can attend.
The program will provide the two women with business guidance, as well as access to mentors and investors, to help start up their tech enterprise, Heuristext.
“The Women’s Startup Lab is going to amplify our ability to bring Heuristext to fruition because it focuses on founders as much as company,” Kargiannakis said. “The WSL will prepare us for and provide us with opportunities to pitch to investors who have an appetite for risk, which makes it more likely that we will get the capital we need to take Heuristext to the next level and beyond.”
Heuristext is an online application that allows people with low literacy to more easily understand information on the internet, while gradually increasing their reading proficiency.
Kargiannakis compares it to Google Translate, but instead of translating text into different languages, Heuristext adapts information to different reading levels. The app is anticipated to reduce misinformation, while slowly increasing literacy levels amongst users, all with the click of a button.
Initially, it will be marketed to health-care providers to get information to their stakeholders, but Kargiannakis believes it has a wider application.
“Eventually, I would like everyone who has an internet connection to have access to the technology, and we do have a detailed go-to-market strategy for how we can get it into the hands of everyone with an internet connection,” she said.
Born and raised in the Sault, Kargiannakis first envisioned the idea for Heuristext in 2013 while studying for her Master’s degree in Health Information Science at Western University.
“What if you could just click a button to make anything you are reading online easier to understand?” she wondered.
By the end of 2015, Kargiannakis had incorporated her company and has since raised $50,000 in grant money for research and development from the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp. and the AGE-WELL Network Strategic Impact Program. She additionally has a partnership in place with the University of Toronto.
Currently a tenant at the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, Kargiannakis is in the process of filing her first provincial patent, and the app, developed at the University of Alberta, is now in the testing phase.
“We’re in the very early stages of putting it into users’ hands and getting user testing with our first prototype,” said Kargiannakis, noting that testers will be students from the University of Toronto.
From there, the company aims to raise $500,000 in capital from private investors, and its goal is to start generating revenue this year.
But first, to get the appropriate training and exposure, Kargiannakis wants to get to California. After exhausting all other financing options to raise the tuition money — money raised so far cannot be applied to the accelerator program — she’s turned to crowdfunding in hopes of meeting the Nov. 1 tuition deadline.
It’s hard to ask for help, Kargiannakis said, but her belief in her product is what keeps her moving forward. She’s set up a crowdfunding page at www.gofundme.com/helpheuristext to solicit donations.
“This is a really big undertaking and it’s going to impact so many people,” she said. “We’ve come so far in less than a year.”
Statistics show that access to funding is difficult for entrepreneurs who are women especially, Kargiannakis said.
“Women only receive four per cent of venture capitalist funding, despite starting businesses at a rate of one and a half times that of men, despite being 20 per cent more revenue-generating, and despite investors making a 35 per cent higher return on investment when they finance female founders,” she noted.
The California accelerator program could be the ideal platform for Heuristext to be seen, and funded, to get to the next level of development.
“I really feel like this is the beginning,” Kargiannakis said. “We’re at the horizon right now, and we’re pushing forward.”