The Fast & The Curious: Sindhu Joseph, founder & CEO of CogniCor

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Interested in reading our interviews with the other Fast & Curious honorees? Head over to the nominee hub to meet the rest of the Curious Six.

The Fast & The Curious: Sindhu Joseph, founder & CEO of CogniCor 1
CogniCor

“I work in Silicon Valley. I know there are a lot of accelerators here, and a lot of unicorns are being produced. In the Midwest and other parts of the country, there’s not as much support — there’s still talent, and great companies being born, but there’s simply not enough of a support system. 

What I appreciate about OnRamp is their mission to change that. To make sure there’s a good support system for talented entrepreneurs who are building companies with great potential.”

Every entrepreneur’s journey is, to say the least, unique. For Dr. Sindhu Joseph, founder and CEO of artificial intelligence startup CogniCor, to call her journey “unique” would be the understatement of the century.

Since founding CogniCor in 2018, Sindhu has graduated from not one, but three of the most intense and prestigious accelerator programs in the United States. Using cutting-edge AI to disrupt the financial services industry (she’s the holder of six patents and counting), Sindhu has built CogniCor into a national player on the wealth management stage.

Her most recent accelerator, Minnesota’s OnRamp Insurance Accelerator, helped propel her team past a key milestone: The elusive $1 million in ARR (annual recurring revenue). Nominated by OnRamp Insurance Accelerator for this year’s Fast & Curious list, Sindhu sat down with us to discuss the pros and cons of startup accelerators, and shared some hard-earned wisdom for other founders following a similar path.

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First off, Sindhu, congrats on being nominated!

Thank you! It’s a pleasure.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve been working in the field of artificial intelligence for 15-plus years now. My PhD is in artificial intelligence, having obtained six patents in machine learning and natural language processing. CogniCor was actually launched from my PhD thesis.

“You have to be pretty diligent in selecting which accelerator to attend. We’ve learned a few tricks along the way to help choose the right accelerators and make the best use of them.”

For those who don’t know, can you tell us what you do at CogniCor?

CogniCor was launched to revolutionize the operational efficiency of large enterprises, especially in the sectors of wealth management and insurance.

In the consumer space, if you want to order something simple, like a coffee maker, you just go to the company website or Amazon, and in a couple of clicks you can set the entire supply chain in motion. Within a few hours, you can have that coffee maker on your doorstep.

We’d like to create the same experience for consumers of financial services, insurance, wealth management, and so on.

“In many cases, founders enter accelerators without being ready to properly accelerate. The impact you receive depends on your team and the stage of your company itself. Be mindful of these points when going into an accelerator, and have a plan for what you will be focusing on.”

Today, our target users are financial advisors. Their main focus is to create wealth for investors and help investors attain their financial goals. Unfortunately, advisors spend around 60 to 70 percent of their time slogging through operational or administrative “back office” tasks, such as filling out forms, onboarding new customers, staying compliant and so on.

At CogniCor, we use AI, machine learning and natural language processing to create a digital assistant experience for every financial advisor. They have the onboarding assistant, which onboards new customers seamlessly. They have the compliance assistant, which provides recommendations and advice at the right time to make sure advisors comply with all relevant regulations. This can then be expanded to insurance brokerages, the financial sector, and so on. So that’s exactly what CogniCor does.

“I’m a female tech founder from a minority background. Of course, the world has come a long way, but even in this world, building credibility is really hard. That’s just the truth. So any way we can build that credibility through warm introductions and associations is beneficial to us.”

sindhu

Why did you choose to go the accelerator route?

We launched in 2018, and OnRamp is the third accelerator that we’ve joined since then. We’ve found a lot of benefit from the accelerator programs.

I’m a first-time founder, and I come from a purely academic world. I did work in the corporate world at one time, but my experience is limited in the world of business.

Accelerators really help us learn things quickly, connect with large networks and so on. That’s the general thesis around accelerators, and we’ve found them pretty helpful and interesting from that standpoint.

The one caveat for early-stage entrepreneurs is that they have to be diligent in selecting which accelerator to attend. We’ve learned a few tricks along the way to help choose the right accelerators and make the best use of them.

“We don’t have a dedicated sales organization yet. So each time we’ve picked an accelerator, meeting key customers has been part of our focus. That’s one of the secrets we’ve learned — if you choose your accelerator right, they are a really great way to meet those large, category-leading customers.”

Why did you choose OnRamp Insurance Accelerator specifically?

We chose OnRamp because we have an enterprise SaaS platform, which means our sales are driven by how well we build relationships with large, very sought-after enterprises.

We don’t have a dedicated sales organization yet. So each time we’ve picked an accelerator, meeting key customers has been our focus. That’s one of the secrets we’ve learned — if you choose your accelerator right, they are a really great way to meet those large, category-leading customers.

Although we’re sitting in Silicon Valley, most of our customers are in the Midwest or East Coast. When we found that OnRamp is one of the top accelerators to work with in the Midwest, we knew they could help us build connections and meet key customers in the right market.

The Microsofts and Salesforces of the world have privileged access, and many of their users stick to their products, so we have that challenge to confront as we go to market. On top of that, I’m a female tech founder from a minority background. Of course, the tech world has come a long way, but even in this day and age, building credibility is really hard. That’s just the truth. OnRamp was interesting to us because it was a way to build credibility through warm introductions and associations.

“Most importantly, you must know what your goals are. That will help you evaluate and pre-select the right accelerator to help you achieve those goals.”

What are the key criteria you look for when choosing an accelerator?

The first thing we ask is: Do they have quality commitments and partnerships on the customer side? That’s a big driver for us when assessing an accelerator.

Next, in our experience, we’ve seen accelerators take on companies and accelerate them over a three-month period, usually using a cookie-cutter course. We chose OnRamp because it’s more of a white-glove experience. Anytime I have a question, I can reach out to specific experts in my field, and they will either answer my question or connect me to a mentor who’s an expert in that area.

“We chose OnRamp because it’s more of a white-glove experience. Anytime I have a question, I can reach out to specific experts in my field, and they will either answer my question or connect me to a mentor who’s an expert in that area.”

Finally, a lot of accelerators have this “one size fits all” kind of contract. You give 10 percent of your company, and they make an investment, anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. For us, that kind of arrangement didn’t make sense. OnRamp had a very favorable, very simple agreement that we, as founders, could understand and agree with. It was a win/win for both parties.

There are other things we look for, of course, but these are the main three. Most importantly, you must know what your goals are. That will help you evaluate and select the right accelerator to help you achieve those goals.

“My mentors at OnRamp really helped us focus on founder-facing metrics. That was a big help. On a weekly basis, they challenged us to know specific metrics we were tracking in the organization.

It helped me greatly to prioritize, and it helped me remove the noise from all the other distractions that I had. It allowed me to focus on what was driving my business forward.”

What did you learn at OnRamp Insurance Accelerator that has helped you grow CogniCor?

My mentors at OnRamp really helped us focus on founder-facing metrics. On a weekly basis, they challenged us to stay abreast of specific metrics. This greatly helped me to prioritize and focus, and it helped me remove the noise from all the other distractions that I had. It allowed me to target what was driving my business forward.

“A core focus of mine is building unbiased, explainable AI, and figuring out how we can build diversity into these designs. That’s one of my life goals.”

Because OnRamp needed these metrics from me, I started having weekly meetings with my leadership team to ask for them, and the entire organization has now evolved to become more metrics-driven. Not that we weren’t doing this before, but the process became much more organized. That has been a direct result of OnRamp.

The best thing, though, has been OnRamp’s help with achieving our next funding round. We’re in the process of our Series A right now, and OnRamp not only connected us to around 60 or 70 angel investors and early-stage VCs, but also instilled in us a habit of keeping in touch with them.

This is something I regret not doing in the past, keeping in close touch with the VCs and continually updating them on our progress. Many founders don’t realize the importance of doing that. This was one thing that OnRamp very closely monitored with us, and it’s been instrumental toward helping us with our Series A.

“We’re in the process of raising a $5 million Series A round, and because we’re part of the OnRamp network, many angels and VCs have come to learn about CogniCor — many from Midwest and East Coast regions. We’re on track to close the round at the end of this quarter, and that will be one of my proudest moments this year.”

What mistakes did you make along the way? If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently?

I knew that we were going into the fundraising process, and I knew we’d have accelerator support through OnRamp. But we didn’t prepare a “wish list” of investors on our side.

We should have had a curated list of VCs that we wanted to reach out to. I didn’t do the proper amount of diligence before we started the fundraising, and as a result we ended up speaking to many investors who weren’t the right fit for CogniCor. If I’d done this work beforehand, I think we’d probably have already closed our Series A.

“I knew that we were going into the fundraising process, and I knew we’d have accelerator support through OnRamp. But we didn’t prepare a “wish list” of investors on our side. If I’d done this work beforehand, I think we’d probably have already closed our Series A.”

How have things been since you completed the program?

We’ve achieved a number of things since we graduated from OnRamp. One wonderful thing is that we recently crossed $1 million in ARR — that was a very proud moment, and one of the best moments in my CogniCor journey.

We’ve also won two incredible awards. She Loves Tech is one of the biggest platforms for women in technology — it’s a global award, and we won the global competition out of 3,000 startups. That was another very proud moment for us. We also won Entrepreneur of the Year at Microsoft’s Diversity In Tech Awards, which was a wonderful milestone to achieve.

We’re in the process of raising a $5 million Series A round, and because we’re part of the OnRamp network, many angels and VCs have come to learn about CogniCor — many from Midwest and East Coast regions. We’re on track to close the round at the end of this quarter, and that will be one of my proudest moments this year.

“What you gain from the program depends entirely on you. What preparation have you done? What’s the stage of your company? If we had entered OnRamp without a process in place and a ready product, we wouldn’t have been able to sign up the clients we have.”

What advice would you give to other founders who are thinking of applying to accelerators?

One thing we learned the hard way is that when you apply for an accelerator, you should be ready for acceleration.

What you gain from the program depends entirely on you. What preparation have you done? What’s the stage of your company? If we had entered OnRamp without a process in place and a ready product, we wouldn’t have been able to sign up the clients we have.

In many cases, founders enter accelerators without being ready to properly accelerate. The impact you receive depends on your team and the stage of your company itself. Be mindful of these points when going into an accelerator, and have a plan for what you will be focusing on.

Anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

Just that I’m very passionate about bringing diversity into the building of AI systems.

These tools are going to control most of our lives in the near future. We don’t need to translate and amplify our societal biases into these AI systems. A core focus of mine is building unbiased, explainable AI and figuring out how we can build diversity into these designs. That’s one of my life goals.

Thanks so much for your time, Sindhu. Congratulations again!

Thank you for the opportunity! It’s been wonderful.

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