Originally featured on BizJournal: https://www.bizjournals.com/columbus/inno/stories/news/2023/01/26/alignai-pivot-software-from-big-data-consulting.html
Sophia Mohr joined COTA in September 2019 in the newly created role of chief innovation and technology officer,charged with setting up the agency's data analytics group so it could improve service based on digital live updatesfrom its newly connected vehicles.
Five months later the pandemic swept into Ohio.
"Suddenly everybody wanted a lot of data," Mohr said. "We had to quickly modify and adapt our service as everything changed."
The Central Ohio Transit Agency became the first client of a Columbus consultancy that had just formed that same month: Ikonos Analytics LLC. The startup helped COTA create the standards and processes for how it collects and documents data to ensure its integrity and make it useable for queries, then set up the dashboards to monitor things like safety, on-time performance and shifts in ridership that indicate needs for service changes.
Renamed AlignAI in November, the startup has made its own "pretty hard transition," automating its consulting expertise as a software platform, co-founder and CEO Rehgan Avon said. The company bootstrapped on its consulting fees while building the product and validating its market.
"We've hit our stride," Avon said.
AlignAI offers a set of templates organizations can use to set standards and documentation for data, enabling them to more quickly adopt machine learning or other AI tools. Too often, knowledge of database architecture is kept in the brain of one or more founders and not passed on consistently and clearly as the team grows. Or companies simply don't know how to get started using their data.
"Everyone calls everything AI," Avon said. "Most companies are using basic statistical methods and it’s not as complicated as they make it appear to be."
Early on Avon brought on two fellow engineering graduates of Ohio State University as co-founders: President Alexandra Hagmeyer and Brendan Kelly, chief product officer.
A bigger company might have quickly pushed COTA to adopt dashboards without the needed foundation to maintain them, Mohr said. After the 2020 work, COTA approved a yearlong engagement with the consultancy for 2021, which has wrapped up.
"Having a smaller group work with us made a big difference," Mohr said. "Making sure we set it up properly from the beginning was important."
Other clients have included Columbus manufacturer Worthington Industries Inc., featured on AlignAI's website, andDrive Capital-backed Path Robotics Inc., which makes AI-powered autonomous welding robots.
The five-person company has reached the point where Avon can go full time, leaving her other gig. She recently hired a CEO and stepped back from operations for the fast-growing annual DataConnect conference in Columbus. Avon founded the event and professional organization as Women in Analytics in 2016, her senior year at OSU.
Before starting AlignAI, Avon worked remotely for a Chicago startup and Columbus-based Mobikit.
Avon also started OSU's student big data and analytics association, which has grown to 300 active members, said Theodore Allen, associate professor of integrated systems engineering and the group's faculty advisor.AlignAI has found "a valuable niche," Allen said. "It shows real creativity to find it."