Prolegis founder Brian Overland has a plan to make Congress smarter
On Thursday, September 14th, 2017, the San Francisco chapter of the Columbia Venture Community will host CVC’s biggest West Coast event of the year: Columbia Startup Demo Night! We always look forward to this opportunity to meet, mingle and shine the spotlight on innovative startups from the Bay Area. This time, six startups, all with at least one founder who graduated from Columbia, will take the stage to demo their startup and compete for a cash prize in front of a panel of experienced judges.
As we gear up for the event, we’re speaking with all our Demo Night founding teams so that we can share their diverse, inspiring stories with the CVC community.
Recently, I chatted with Brian Overland, co-founder and CEO of Prolegis, about his interesting and unusual career path and current plans to improve U.S. government by helping staffers understand complex topics more easily.
Brian started with a B.A. from Columbia University in Classics and Art History, a stint in the New York City art world working in galleries and museums, then earned an MBA from the Wharton School. Afterward, he made a purposeful shift toward working in clean energy and social action endeavors. In 2015, Brian founded Prolegis, a public policy technology company, which he will be presenting at CVC West Demo Night.
IM: Public policy technology is not something most people are deeply familiar with. Can you give us an introduction to Prolegis and the challenges you’re trying to address?
BO: Our mission is to make the public policy process more effective, dynamic, and transparent.
Public policy is an industry that has historically been really underserved by information technology. Simply put, the problem is that folks working in government, particularly the United States Congress, struggle to find information about complex policy topics. This is a sad state of affairs! Especially when you consider that our policy process depends on the hard work of a staff that finds it so difficult to find high quality info about what they are working on.
Unfortunately, Congress has been slow-moving when it comes to building and updating existing IT systems that serve the Capitol’s knowledge workers. It has actually cut its funding to servicing these systems as recently as 1995, when the Office of Technology Assessment was shut down. The Congressional Research Service has seen its staff and budget steadily decline over the last 30 years. Basically, there is a constant turnover of bright young people in Congress and no central repository of what they know and what challenges they face when it comes to policy development.
So you saw a real problem with how Congress works, and a way to provide help in the form of access to information for those knowledge workers.
Yes. We think that by providing a central site that aggregates, summarizes and serves information across the policy ecosystem, we can help make people more comprehensively informed on the policies that they are legislating around.
Prolegis is a platform that will ultimately contain multiple products. The first is a web-based service that allows a congressional staffer to log on and research what they are working on to get information from think tanks, researchers, advocacy groups. There’s a variety of high-quality sources and we are aggregating all of them. We are using natural language processing (NLP) to model out particular topics from the thousands of potential sources of policy information.
What is your long term vision for the full product? How are you getting there?
The longer term vision for this is that everyone in the policy ecosystem will have to adhere to a higher standard in terms of their understanding of topics, and by using artificial intelligence and NLP to make it easier to get smart on complex topics, it will be harder to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes on a complex issue.
To create Prolegis, I’ve personally met with 100 congressional staffers to learn about how they stay on top of complex topics…or don’t. The truth is that often, they are underwater in their jobs! They are oversubscribed in terms of what they need to cover for their members.
This means that there is a large asymmetry right now between what the staffers have and what lobbyists present as comprehensive. We hope to contribute to the creation of more rigorous, well-informed policymaking.
Switching gears a bit, we’d love to hear about your time at Columbia. Did it prepare you for becoming a startup founder? If so, what stands out?
I focused on liberal arts at Columbia and worked in the art world previously, so perhaps not the coursework. However, the Columbia network, especially the CU folks in the Bay Area have been very helpful and supportive as I took the leap into founding a company.
We’re in very heady times for entrepreneurship at CU and that coincides well with the trajectory that we’re on at Prolegis. I’m very excited about the long term direction that Columbia is taking when it comes to entrepreneurship.
What advice do you have for current students, or young people who are just beginning their careers and considering starting a company of their own?
I think nothing can replace the experience of working at an early stage startup. I would caution people who are thinking of starting a company to wait until they have actually worked at an early stage startup. There’s so much ambiguity and so much to learn.
When it comes to starting a company, what you’re constantly trying to do is increase your chance of success by decreasing your chance of failing; the more you know about the sheer constellation of problems you will face as an entrepreneur, the better prepared you will be.
Your entrepreneurial career is a longterm thing. You have to be prepared to fail more than once before achieving success, and that requires both personal resolve and some resources.
So, my advice is, get a job in an early stage company, try to learn and participate in that company’s success, then think about how difficult it can be and whether you actually want to do it first. With any career choice, practical experience under your belt is important. Everyone wants to fast forward to the happy ending but you must grapple with the hard work that it will take to get there. Go out there and get the experience!
Any last things you’d like to share with the community about Prolegis?
Yes! We are currently raising a second round of pre-seed capital and we still have some availability.
I’m eager to connect with more Columbia alums working in public policy and who are based in DC. Generally speaking, there aren’t many people with one foot in Washington and one foot in Silicon Valley, so I’d like to find more people who bridge those two worlds. If that’s you, please come talk to me, I would love to meet.
Thanks for the insights and solid advice, Brian! We’ll see you at CVC West Demo Night on September 14.
— Irene Malatesta is a writer, marketer and CVC West board member. You can find her @irenekaoru.