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Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor
Steve Alexander, Associate Editor
Bud Wayne, Marketing
& Production Manager
Christy Rivers -
Jason Fife, Director of Marketing -
Interview conducted by:
Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor
Published – August 17, 2020
CEOCFO: Mr. McNasby, what is Ivy.ai Inc?
Mr. McNasby: Ivy.ai is an artificial intelligence (AI) powered communications platform. We provide chatbots and related solutions for colleges and universities. Ivy.ai helps schools connect with students in nearly every facet of higher education including, admissions, enrollment, the IT helpdesk, student services, and more. Our goal is to help students succeed and empower schools to create seamless opportunities to connect digitally with their students, faculty, and, staff.
CEOCFO: What are some of the special needs of universities and students that require a more specific or more specialized chatbot?
Mr. McNasby: Prospective students are looking to interact and engage with universities using the same modern tools they experience using in consumer services. For example, a college admissions department may need a chatbot to help with student outreach and communication, 24/7/365. The university financial aid office, or the IT help desk, might need to enhance customer service by instantly answering simple student questions. Ivy.ai’s services are designed to help universities personalize student service by automating simple tasks so support staff can focus on providing one-
CEOCFO: What goes into creating a chatbot that works well? Does one size fit all?
Mr. McNasby: The fact is that one size does not fit all. We build chatbots using a proprietary, AI-
The other thing that is important when you are building a chatbot is to be able to deliver personalized information, at scale. For example, if a student asks the questions, “what is my class schedule” or “What is my account balance,” you often need to integrate with another system on campus. In this case, we connect to a student information system or an ERP. The chatbot will have a “handshake” with these institutional systems and then deliver precise, personalized information directly back to the student. You need a real-
A chatbot is only as powerful as its ability to answer questions perfectly and quickly. The combination of dynamically, integrating with other on-
CEOCFO: Would it be typical for a college to have one chatbot throughout or has that been somewhat fragmented -
Mr. McNasby: That is a good question. We see some fragmentation in higher education where for example, a university is using a financial aid bot is using one vendor and then you have another part of the school that has maybe built their own. This is less than ideal for students as the experience is not seamless and intuitive. The challenge is students, faculty, and staff, do not know where one bot starts and the other begins. What happens in that scenario is information drops off to a dead-
CEOCFO: What is involved in implementation?
Mr. McNasby: Our implementation is a simple, three-
Additionally, we make every effort to integrate other systems that power the student experience. These can be CRMs, student information systems, learning management systems, ERPs; and others that impact the value and reach of the chatbot. We build the integrations and have an integration library, empowering our clients to use these integrations as they grow into building more seamless student services. From day one, we knew the implementation process needed to be fast and simple. At Ivy.ai, it takes about one week per department to build a bot. The whole process, from contract sign to launch, takes on average thirty days.
CEOCFO: What has changed in your approach over time? What have you learned?
Mr. McNasby: Every college and university is unique. Because of that, we have adapted our process to include our innovative web crawler, instead of going with a more standardized, non-
CEOCFO: Would you tell us about distributed maintenance and re-
Mr. McNasby: Basically, one of the challenges with chatbots is keeping the bot information always consistent with the underlying data; whether it is a website or other data source. There are a couple of things that we do. The first is that we crawl the website every day. As content changes on the website, added, or deleted; we will automatically, adjust the knowledge in the bot’s brain, in real-
Additionally, we have what we call, “distributed maintenance.” Sometimes, a website does not have the information students need. If a question is being asked that cannot be answered, we help track and alert stakeholders to that problem. Distributed maintenance alerts everyone responsible for the success of the bot and helps keeps information up to date. Time is precious, rather than putting all of the maintenance work on one person, we can distribute it to five people or ten people or fifty. If you are going enterprise-
CEOCFO: Are schools turning to you at this point? How are you reaching out, so they understand worldwide what you are doing?
Mr. McNasby: I think that higher education is starting to get comfortable with chatbots and AI. For the first couple of years, we invested a lot of outreach for general AI education. Back then, it was about demonstrating the value of AI. Today, colleges and universities reach out to us directly. We don't invest a lot in marketing. Most of our partners come from a positive reference from their peer institutions which, sparked interest in Ivy.ai. We make our largest investments in R&D and focus on making the most value for our clients as possible. That said, now that we feel we have achieved a product-
CEOCFO: What about healthcare? Why and why now?
Mr. McNasby: Two places AI is having a considerable impact is in higher-
Our technology can be applied to making the process a patient uses to navigate a complex environment like healthcare much easier. Similar to helping students way-
CEOCFO: Where, in the range of healthcare, are you looking?
Mr. McNasby: Based on what we have learned, we will likely start working with providers first. I do think there is an opportunity for AI solutions to be applied by hospitals and healthcare systems, really anyplace in the constellation of services provided in the healthcare arena. I am sure most CEOs are already considering how AI can help improve payment processing, navigating insurance, improving HR functions, and other areas. I am very excited and eager to demonstrate where Ivy.ai’s technology can provide value.
I started Ivy.ai to help people by applying technology to common problems. It is my passion in life. So, when I look at healthcare and through the different facets of healthcare, almost as an analog to higher ed. For example, for an admissions office, there is an analog for hospitals. Therefore, people who are visiting the hospital's website, people who want to engage, hospitals also have a very comprehensive and complex billing process. In the bursar’s office, in Higher-
CEOCFO: Where do HIPPA and some of the other regulatory issues come into play when you are developing a health-
Mr. McNasby: It is critical to be HIPPA compliant. Our team has been HIPPA certified. That is an essential component in capturing any data related to PHI. In general, in our system the default infrastructure and settings are anonymous, and we do not capture any PII or PHI. We do not look at working in healthcare as an opportunity to build new diagnostic tools for hospitals. We have an incredible technology that can help with communication and navigation, in areas such as, the policies of the hospital; the visitor hours, the COVID policies, things like that.
Typically, the opportunities that we will pursue new business within are not necessarily going to be HIPPA centric. We have the technology and the experience to help better address questions such as, “how do I pay my bill?” and to simplify billing. One risk we do mitigate often is, when you have a chatbot conversation, you cannot control the things that people are going to say to the bot. Therefore, someone might share information like, “I have a medical condition and I need to see doctor X, Y, and Z," and so we do keep the HIPPA compliance at the forefront for that reason.
CEOCFO: Why do you think healthcare is ready for this your chatbot now?
Mr. McNasby: Mostly because we are getting demand for it! We are getting inbound traffic on our website expressing this. We also have a partner in this space that is growing considerably in healthcare. They manage payments for hospitals and medical facilities, and they are getting a lot of interest from their customers about the services that Ivy.ai offers. Therefore, it is the news of what we are hearing in the marketplace that suggests that hospitals are transitioning into this service model.
CEOCFO: Are you seeking investment, funding, or additional partnerships as you move forward?
Mr. McNasby: We are in the process of exploring external investment opportunities. We have done everything bootstrapped until this point and we have created a profitable company just by doing it on our own. However, that being said, what we want is to accelerate and money happens to be a pretty good source of fuel for generating growth. As you can market more, and grow, you could hire more people, and do all of the things that would lead to revenue accretion. Therefore, I am very seriously considering it. Like most founders, I also see the flip side of losing control, the risk of losing touch with our vision and guiding mission, which is an unattractive scenario, because we have done everything very well, so far, without any help.
CEOCFO: Why is Ivy.ai an important company?
Mr. McNasby: I think it is important at both the micro and the macroeconomic level. At the microeconomic level, even at the individual level, the bot is extraordinarily useful for helping people get unstuck. For first-
At the school level or institutional level, we also help in many different ways. We have shown the ability to dramatically increase enrollment numbers and we also have dramatically decreased call volume and inbound traffic volume, because the bot is handling these customer support issues. That means for the institution at that sort of micro-
Then, at the macroeconomic level, the type of technology that we have built, I think can move markets. Therefore, we are at this inflection point with our business where we are in Higher-
“When we help a university reduce overhead, and lower costs for students, that is a win we are very proud of.” Mark McNasby