by William Sweet
Like many members of the recently graduated Class of 2013, Eric Lax is starting the summer in a new job. Unlike many of his counterparts, he’s starting at the top.
Putting aside his original plans to find an entry-level job for two years and go on to an economics Ph.D. program or business school, Lax is starting the summer as chief executive officer of Trext, Inc., a software firm that he founded with three students from Hampshire College.
It’s not the kind of path one might expect one taking so soon upon graduating from a liberal arts college, but Amherst is no stranger to entrepreneurship. Parker Holcomb ’11 founded AllCollegeStorage.com and AllCollegeLaundry.com while a student at Amherst. Lax joined two Amherst alums—Alex Widen ’09 of Sumeria Group and Nigel Carr ’10 of Qorax Energy—in receiving spirit awards from the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation's Entrepreneurship Initiative.
“Students who are less risk averse are getting the business experience firsthand,” said Ursula Olender, director of Amherst’s career center. Olender coordinates activities undertaken by the Amherst College Entrepreneur’s Society (ACES), the Association of Amherst Students Enterprise Committee, and the Social Innovation Leadership Team (SILT). She praised Lax's exemplary skill and determination to see this project start.
“A year ago, I did not know this was a possibility,” Lax said. “Originally, I was applying to finance jobs, and none of them felt right. I wasn’t sure where I would be. … Ultimately it came down to that I woke up excited about working on Trext.”
Lax and his business partners, Jamie Matheson, Zeke Nierenberg and Kira McCoy, have developed the interface for a simple tool that allows businesses and nonprofits to engage in interactive, automated conversations with customers via text messaging.
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Decision-tree texting—“trexting,” for short—involves texting multiple recipients (who have opted in, as unsolicited texting of this sort is illegal) with a pre-programmed text that asks questions and leads a conversation along a flowchart of responses.
This summer, the partners intend to hit the ground running to further develop the platform, build a client base and accumulate investors. They have completed test cases with two potential clients and have three test cases in the works. Talks are under way with some potential clients and funders, but nothing firm enough to name, Lax said. From professional investors, friends and family, they have already secured the first $75,000 of seed capital and have additional conditional commitments.
Lax has been close friends with programmer and business partner Matheson since grammar school in Concord, Mass.
“In fifth grade we said we should go into business together,” Lax said. “It actually looks like it’s happening.”
While his business partners handle more of the code, Lax, who triple-majored in math, economics and behavioral economics at Amherst, considers his strength to be in business strategy and negotiations.
Trext came together last year at a “hackathon” hosted by MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital, where competitors were challenged to come up with a way to provide remote assistance to health care workers in countries such as Rwanda.
“We did a little research, and we found out that most of the community health workers have cell phones,” Lax said. “We decided to build a platform that allowed them to text in a question and have the doctor, who is massively overworked, write a series of decision trees based on his expertise, which could guide the community health workers down whatever treatment path he thought was best.”
“You can send a text out to a large number of people or let people text in,” he explained. “You can really get in-depth conversations going, and all the data gets stored.”
Despite being the only team with no medical professionals and the only team composed solely of undergraduates, the Trext team won a prize at the hackathon.
Later, Trext got picked up for use by Hampshire’s alumni office to poll alums about their needs for this year’s reunion. Hampshire might soon begin trexting admitted students.
“We think trexting is great for that, because it’s the way a lot of people communicate right now,” Lax said. “It feels personal. … You can actually sit down with the software and gather data from thousands of people, and each person feels like they’re having a conversation.”
The decision trees can be used to add external intelligence to decisions and, at the extreme, can become a form of artificial intelligence. “We have been having this debate within our company. The more artificial intelligence you add, the harder it is for a user with no programming experience to sit down and create whatever conversation they want,” Lax said. “We found that people really have enjoyed being in control of their own message.”
The platform is still being developed, but the firm’s goal is that a customer will be able to download an app and begin designing decision trees. They have been running tests with an ophthalmology practice group, and Trext has been used to simulate conversations for a game show that is in development.
The ramping up to launch has meant some sleepless nights, especially as finals approached this past spring. “I’d be doing some schoolwork, and I would get this email saying such-and-such is interested in contacting us. Sleeping less seems like a fair trade,” Lax said.
Lax knew, from the time he was in high school, that he needed to find a college that operated in a flexible way. “I’m very dyslexic, and so when I interviewed [at colleges], I said, ‘There are a couple things that I need to function academically,’” he recalled. “I sat down with Dean [Allen] Hart [at Amherst], and he said, ‘Tell us what you need to succeed here, and we will make sure that you have it.’ I felt, if they are that committed to making sure that students really can thrive, then this is the place for me.”
Amherst delivered on its commitment, and so did Lax. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with three awards for academic excellence and a 3.96 GPA.
“Amherst provided me with the flexibility to really pursue the things I was passionate about,” he said. “I’ve done independent study almost every semester. … It’s absolutely amazing to work closely with the professors. When I get excited about something, they would be really willing to help me pursue whatever that was.”
“People here take your ideas seriously,” he added. “Professors are willing to listen to my point of view, even if they totally disagree with me, and really engage in argumentation. My ability was respected. I think that can give you a lot of faith, and you can go out into the world and try something like this.”