Join CIC’s Emma Wright as she explores Boston’s innovation community, interviewing local entrepreneurs about their trials and triumphs starting their companies. This episode features Nimit Sawhney, Co-Founder and CEO of Voatz. This up-and-coming startup is changing how we vote, by using blockchain security technology on their mobile elections platform.
Full Interview transcript:
Nimit Sawhney: I am the co-founder at Voatz, a new elections platform. Our focus is on making it easier and safer for people to vote with the help of a smartphone or tablet. But at the same time, providing cutting edge security. We are not just securing the election voting platform, but also all the peripheral infrastructure around it.
Emma Wright: Securing personal information is becoming more important with all of the problems we are seeing in the news, credit agencies, and companies being hacked.
One of the really interesting pieces of your platform, is that you are levering blockchain technology to provide this. One of the most common forms of blockchain technology is cryptocurrency like bitcoin. This application stands out as really different. What spurred the idea for Voatz?
Nimit Sawhney: So it was a bit of a personal experience, plus I'd say luck and being in the right place.
I grew up in India in the mid 80's, when the prime minister was assassinated. There were religious riots, it was a little bit of a tough time. There were elections immediately after, and while I was too young to vote, I did see people forced to vote at gunpoint. So that image kind of stuck. At that moment I didn't really know what it meant, I just knew it was something really bad and maybe someday we'll find a way to make sure that doesn't happen again.
So in 2014, me and my brother were at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. We were just starting to learn about blockchain and didn't know much about it. We wanted to look at the underlying technology, more than the speculative money aspect of it. So when we took a look at that, we were like, "Wow, this is very powerful." You can use it to secure any kind of digital data. And so elections and voting data seemed like a good fit.
My background is in mobile payments, mobile security. This was my first hackathon. We were having some difficult times in the family, so my brother and I decided to take a break on a whim. We always wanted to go to SXSW. It seemed like a really cool place, because it's a combination of music film and technology. We could really geek out there, that's why we went. One of the Sundays, it was raining, and we walked into this convention room and the hackathon was happening. It was completely unplanned.
So essentially, we made this prototype centrally focused on one particular use case: how to detect and prevent voter coercion when people vote from home. It kind of blossomed into a full fledged elections platform. We ended up winning first prize and won Bitcoin. It kind of kickstarted me and I ended up leaving my job in 2015. I'd say personal experience, luck, and being at the right place. If we hadn't been at the hackathon, we probably wouldn't be here.
Emma Wright: Throughout this journey, what have you found to be some of your biggest challenges so far?
Nimit Sawhney: There are other traditional challenges of fundraising, technology, and making sure you are bulletproof from a security perspective, but those are solvable. The toughest challenge we have is trust. Unlike any other use case, voting for the most part is less of a logical decision, it's more of an emotional decision and it's all based on trust.
If people don't trust you, they are not going to use your system. It could be the safest system in the world, the best system in the world, and they are not going to use it. You can't earn trust overnight. It's a hard long drawn out process.
I remember the first time we demonstrated the Voatz platform, nearly a year and a half ago. This elderly woman came up to us and said, 'I will make sure you guys never succeed, because I don't believe elections should ever be electronic. They should all be on paper, because that is the safest thing in the world.' It was very shocking comment, but it was a good thing to learn early on. Technology is one part of it, the other part is how do you earn trust.
So we've focused on the hyper local events, because that's that's a good place to build trust. The people who eventually are likely to oppose you end up using the system themselves and start to like it. Then it's unlikely that they will continue to oppose it. So that's been our focus and continues to be. So we are building trust by making sure all the elections we do are perfect and there's no problem from our end.
So that's our biggest challenge because the bar is so high. It's not like a payment use case. If you build a new payments platform, let's say your credit card or something get stolen, you always get the money back. There's a recourse there. One thing goes wrong and we are finished. It people don't trust us, we are finished. That is why the bar so high, that's what keeps us on our toes.
Emma Wright: Have recent voting controversies and a lack of trust in national elections influenced how people have received your platform?
Nimit Sawhney: Definitely, both in a good way and a bad way.
So the good side is it's top of mind. People realized that the existing infrastructure is not safe. Paper isn't actually as safe as we think it is. And so there are technologies available. We use the blockchain for securing the ballots, securing the votes, securing ID's, securing some of the infrastructure. This is something that didn't exist a few hours ago. So definitely, that's one of the game changers.
On negative side, because there's so much misinformation which is spread these days and there are multiple versions of the truth. Unfortunately, it also hurts us in some places where people have a different opinion of the truth. For the most part, it's been helpful for having conversations and showing people that there are new technology paradigms available. These can solve all the problems from the past and make it easier for more people to vote.
Emma Wright: That sounds like quite a start to your company's journey. It's interesting to hear about both the opportunities and challenges and voting technology market. So you went into this venture knowing that you had a difficult path forward. What has kept you motivated throughout this journey?
Nimit Sawhney: Until we actually released the beta platform and people actually used the system, it was hard. We needed to motivate ourselves. Now, I think what motivates us going forward is seeing the reaction of people using the system. We've had a full spectrum of users. Younger demographics who are very comfortable using the phone. Obviously for them, this comes very naturally to them. One demographic we were worried about was the elderly. How would they react? This is the 55, 60 plus group, there is a general perception that they don't work well with technology. And so, we have been working with a lot of smaller election events where the predominant demographic is elderly. We've been so surprised and humbled by the response, they just love it. The vast majority of people, we underestimate how savvy they are.
There's always the odd person who doesn't want to use it or has some trouble with it. But, for the most part, once they see how easy it is, they love it and don't want to use anything else. That feedback from people–that they want to use it in more and more higher risk events means more than a union or local government election–that feedback is very sort of enriching live.
Emma Wright: When I think of Voatz, I think of it as the poster child for all of the different Boston incubators and accelerators. Can you tell me a bit about what it's like as a startup in this ecosystem?
Nimit Sawhney: Yeah, it's been it's been amazing. I'd say it's life changing. We were sitting here at this time last year, wondering how we would survive. We had very little money. Just a handful of paying customers. And the future didn't look as promising from a sustainability side. Then we got selected for Techstars, which was a game changer for us. We got introduced to the the whole ecosystem both on the mentor side, but also on the angel investor side. It allowed us to start building a proper company, not just operating out of a basement... which is what you we doing until the beginning of this year. And so it been tremendously helpful and TechStars was an amazing experience. Through the summer, we focused on increasing our sales side and how to scale up the company, given the tough market we are in.
And then MassChallenge was helpful in expanding our offering and with some partnership opportunities. They got us access to a bigger network, more social impact focused. We're very grateful for the access to that ecosystem. You know, it kind of changed our clue, because prior to that we were feeling like it's almost like an old boys club or boys network. And if you're not in it, you've missed out on so much. Which is kind of unfortunate, because we've seen both sides.
But now, we feel the network expanding. Companies starting right now have so much more access to information and opportunity than those even a year back, which is really good. There's a tremendous pool of people in the Boston area who volunteer their time, goodwill, expertise without expecting too much or anything in return. I think that's really unique and powerful.
Emma Wright: So this past spring, CIC hosted the Techstars space in our CIC Boston location. We had 15 different companies operating out of the space until May. Why did you choose to stay at CIC after Techstars?
Nimit Sawhney: : We were already here so it was convenient, plus a few of the other companies decided to stay here as well. We thought we could continue to collaborate with them and on this nice little room on the 11th floor. So it was nice, it kind of felt like we were continuing the whole Techstars experience with six companies instead of twelve, it was very nice that way.
I'd say the biggest perk, besides the size and location - it's obviously very convenient for everybody, is the staff. The perks like the snacks, staff, the gym. The whole package is very nice. We love being here. So it's helpful knowing that you can have a banana instead of a 200-calorie energy bar.
It's been a great experience and hopefully we can continue. Thanks for your help and support so far.