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Lion Profiles: Mathew Pregasen

Meet Mathew Pregasen. Mathew is a sophomore in the Engineering College and a Computer Science major from Orlando, Florida. He is the founder of The Undergraduate Times, a worldwide, student-run undergraduate publication; co-founder of UProspie, a matching service for prospective undergrads and current students; co-founder of Podira, a smart flashcard-learning tool; and other tech startups. The Lion sat down with him to talk about his work and entrepreneurship at Columbia.

You’re currently a comp sci major and do a great deal of web design and development on your projects. What first drew you to this line of work?

In ninth grade, we built a study guide platform. It was really simple—it was mostly just uploading things to a public website so people could access collaborative study guides. Toward the eleventh and twelfth grades, we started working on a more responsive login system design. But I would say that only after I graduated high school I became much more involved in doing production-level design. And over the years I’ve become more and more involved with web design, be it on the back-end side or the front-end side. So it’s been an evolving process for maybe four, five years.

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?

My favorite project is currently private. I’m working on a math-to-text process, so you can tell it an equation and it will write it out for you. But since that’s not done, I would say my favorite project to this date would be UProspie and the work we’re doing there, just because we built a framework from scratch. There’s no tools we used, just raw Javascript, raw PHP, and raw SQL data. There was a really interesting summer experience going to San Francisco, starting up an office, having a few interns. We built the framework and changed the product multiple times. It definitely was the most startup-ish experience I’ve had, because you had people working for you, people on a payroll, while at the same time it was a very new: a new idea and a new, new project.

How can Columbia better support its student entrepreneurs?

I think they’ve already started with doing things like AlmaWorks—it’s an incubator-like program, but instead of focusing on investment and giving money right away, it’s mostly based on giving advice. At the same time, startups that go to AlmaWorks have been proven to get investment at the end of their tenure there, so it shows that there has been success coming out of that. I think also that it might make sense to add it [entrepreneurship] to the curriculum in a limited sense. Perhaps, in every major CS class, talk about how one new company is utilizing this technology to some end. That brings up interest in how new startups are using this technology, as opposed to the main tech companies.

What are some of your long-term goals for your current and future projects?

In the future, I want to push for projects that contribute to open-source code, either for education or non-profit use, while also having market value. With UProspie, for instance, we believe we are serving some form of social good, while creating a strong business strategy moving on to the future. My math-to-text converters are also something; I can open-source code for educational and non-profit use, and, at the same time, use to it build a more versatile notebook question-and-answer type platform, so you could easily type math on the web or math on your laptop without having to drag and drop symbols.

What can we look forward to from you in the future?

Mostly, as of the last few weeks, natural language processing. To give an example, you could say, “Draw me a circuit that has two resistors in parallel, a battery, and a capacitor,” and it will draw the circuit for you based on the way the sentence is structured. The same extends to math—something along the lines of “You have a double integral in region D of 2x2 dy dx plus the limit of x approaching infinity.” It would be able to write that out for you, just by you describing it in plain English. That’s my latest focus—making it easy for us to take our English constructs and apply them on the web, either in symbols or in graphs.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs at Columbia and elsewhere?

It is OK if your project does not succeed right away. At least 90 percent of the time, you have to pivot the idea in some respect, because now you understand the market better, you understand what people want better. Be very versatile in doing that. Definitely find people that will help you in the project—and give them their fair due.

Also make sure you find people who get the jobs done that the project specifically needs. For instance, if your project is very heavy on design, find someone who wants to contribute in the design as opposed to hiring out other developers. You should not approach something thinking you will just hire out people to do it because, at that stage, you never have a strong conception of the idea in the first place, which drags the project to the bottom.

I think that’s actually a very common problem—you have a lot of people saying, “I want to pay a few developers $10,000 to build this app for me. I will own the app in entirety and then I will move forward and hire developers along the way.” But the problem with that business model is if you don’t have a technical cofounder, you usually end up just having to constantly pay people to build on the application. Your future vision of the application becomes crippled, because you don’t understand the technology behind it. Definitely get your hands deep. Even if you’re not a developer, learn some of the code, some of the HTML and CSS. Whatever you’re building the application in, don’t entirely offload it to a few technical people.

Lastly, don’t buy into the idea that startups have to be an app or a website. It could be a small business, or something that already exists where you just want to take a certain part of the market. I would consider a small grocery store or a small coffee shop a startup in that they’re trying to push a very ordinary concept into a new light or a new brand. It’s not on a global app market, but it still has local customers and is still trying to take a specific part of the market. While college students are probably not going to open coffee shops, definitely broaden your horizons—don’t think that everything has to be an app or website.

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