The Active Record By The Starter League

The Starter League, founded in 2011, is a small school in Chicago that teaches Rails, Ruby, HTML/CSS, and User Experience Design. The classes are intensive, three months long, one to three days a week, and taught in person.

Alumni Company Spotlight: HappiLabs

By Mike McGee on March 10, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting Starter League representation at MATTER, a new health-tech incubator located at the Merchandise Mart.

HappiLabs logo


I first learned about HappiLabs when Tom Ruginis was a student in our Spring 2013 HTML & CSS class. So I was happy (sorry, I had to) to hear that his startup is in MATTER's inaugural class! I caught up with him to see what was new.

What problem are you focused on solving at HappiLabs?

The big problem is a lack of transparency for information about lab supplies and equipment. This has a 2-fold effect on the industry and consumers (scientific and medical researchers):

1) Scientists are constantly overpaying because they don't know what a fair price is. They don't have a central site/resource to visit and find pricing data, and therefore suppliers have the advantage. This costs researchers around $50-$100 million dollars (per our estimates).

2) Scientists waste time searching the internet and interacting with customer service and sales reps to obtain pricing. They use Google and the very few other resources available. We estimate that scientists spend around 10 million hours per year searching for this information. Those are hours that could be spent doing research and advancing the health of our planet.

The other problem we're solving is creating a new job market (Virtual Lab Managers) for scientists where they don't have to work in a lab but can still utilize the knowledge and skills they have.

How did you identify this problem?

I worked in a cancer research lab as a Ph.D. student, so I understood the use of the products. Then I quit the Ph.D. and became a sales rep where I identified the problem as I was consistently charging very high prices for supplies, and my competitors were charging even higher prices! I'm a scientist at heart, so I was not cool with this.

I kept thinking, "Well if there was a Yelp or Kayak for lab supplies, scientists would spend their money much more efficiently and wouldn't have to spend hours per week shopping around." I quit the sales job and started developing HappiLabs.

I remember watching you present HappiLabs at our Starter League Demo Day. What has changed with HappiLabs since then?

Back then, we were working on the "Yelp for lab supplies." In fact, a few Starter Leaguers in the Spring class of 2013 built a decent MVP where you could review some basic lab supplies (pipette tips, PCR tubes, nitrile gloves, etc.). It's still accessible in the footer of our site, but not in use. It was very difficult to get scientists to write reviews, and we didn't have enough resources to make the UI excellent.

What changed? Like any smart startup, we pivoted. Instead of focusing on sharing pricing data and reviews on a website, which would save money, we realized that customers were also spending too much time on other tasks associated with the purchasing process. Too many hours were spent calling customer service and sales reps to get pricing info, product details, and shipping updates. Scientists shouldn't spend time doing this work.

We decided to create the Virtual Lab Manager to solve this problem. Today we offer a service that allows scientists to hire us hourly to do the purchasing in their lab (and other admin tasks like bookkeeping). Think of a personal assistant with a Ph.D. and who specializes in shopping for lab supplies and finance management.

Our tagline is: Focus on your science, let us manage your lab shopping and finances.

There are 59 other startups at MATTER, have you been able to create any partnerships since joining?

Not yet. I've been traveling a lot to San Francisco--land of biotech--and haven't been at Matter for more than two days/week. The rest of our team focuses on operations, not business development.

What's your vision for HappiLabs?

Every research lab in the world (academic and private) will hire a Virtual Lab Manager to do their shopping and purchasing (OK, realistically, I'll be happy with 15-25% of the market). We'll spend their money better than they could, and the researchers in the lab need to be doing more important things... like solving health problems!

Think about it, there are highly educated Ph.D. researchers, of which there are relatively few in the world, should they spend time searching Google for info about lab supplies or focus on their experiments? It's a no-brainer decision. The world will be healthier and happier if they are more productive with their experiments.

Smaller question, what's next for HappiLabs?

We'll continue to serve our current customers. And we look forward to finding new ones because, for every few customers, we create one new Virtual Lab Manager job for unhappy or unemployed scientists who want out of the lab.

We're also working on raising money and finding a strategic partner to build software to automate this process. These will help lower the cost to our customer (which is an hourly rate), and create an awesome virtual lab manager UX.

Beyond that, we continue to live our mission: to improve the happiness of scientists and the quality of their research.

If you want to learn more about HappiLabs impact on science research, check out this profile below.

Welcome to HappiLabs from HappiLabs.org on Vimeo.

Alumni Company Spotlight: Coeus Health

By Mike McGee on March 5, 2015

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting Starter League representation at MATTER, a new health-tech incubator located at the Merchandise Mart.

Coeus Health logo


Coeus Health was one of the first 10 companies accepted into MATTER and was co-founded by Kate Wolin, a 2014 Starter School graduate. I caught up with her to check-in on their progress!

What problem are you solving?

Obesity is one of the biggest, and most costly, problems facing our country. It extends beyond the health care system to schools and workplaces. Despite this, there are few clinically proven solutions out there. The few that exist are often expensive, or only serve a small segment of the population.

How did you identify this problem?

We’ve been working on health promotion, disease prevention, and disease management for over 15 years. We found that, over time, more and more organizations were asking us to help them identify a solution that they could easily implement, but that worked. When we couldn’t find one, we decided to build it!

Looking at the bios of your team members, it looks like the "Justice League for health." How was your team formed?

Since that analogy clearly makes me Wonder Woman, I’ll take it! I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with a lot of amazing scientists in my career. Gary had the (mis)fortune of being one of the ones who laughed at my jokes, so I kept finding ways to work with him. We shared a similar view on where our academic research should be leading and as we had more and more of those conversations realized we both wanted to do something in this space.

Why MATTER?

I have had some great mentors in my past life so the opportunity to work in space where mentorship and training are integral to the experience resonated with me. I’m a life-long learner and MATTER provides the opportunity to do that with people also working in healthcare.

How has the experience been so far?

Phenomenal. I’ve been able to attend workshops and meet with mentors. Each time those sessions end, I leave realizing every second of my time was well spent. MATTER was built with a focus on the start-ups and what we need to succeed. The MATTER team has taken the time to chat with the companies and learn what we need and have built everything (the space, the programming) around that.

What has been the main challenge in getting this startup off the ground?

Time and money. There never seems to be enough of either :)

Starter School hoodie sighting at MATTER!

A Starter School hoodie sighting at MATTER!


You've had the opportunity to work in the academic and startup environment. What are the main differences?

The approach to failure. I had never had a conversation about the benefits of failure before I entered the startup world. In academia, there is never a positive slant to failure. Related to that is the approach to when you plan and build. In academia, you have to design your whole study/program/platform before you begin and the result is typically a plan that requires lots of money. The lean approach is starting to make tiny breakthroughs in a few spaces, but it is still really rare.

You've gone through a great period of transition in the past two years, from professor to Starter School student, and now co-founder of a startup. What's the most important lesson you've learned in this time?

I have been blown away by the support I’ve received. I knew I had some phenomenal friends and great colleagues, but I didn’t anticipate how willing people would be to lend a hand, offer an introduction or drop everything for moral support cocktails. Practicing gratitude has been easy because I’ve been so fortunate.

What's the next step for Coeus?

Get out of the building!

To learn more about Coeus Health, visit their website at http://coeusapis.com and follow them on Twitter @coeushealth.

Get Zen Dude

By Mike McGee on February 25, 2015

This is the second guest post by Starter League alumnus Roneesh Vashisht. He's a professional web developer at Sears and a mentor for our Web Development program. He wrote this message for our current class of web development students, but I thought it was too good to keep in-house.

I've now been coding for over two years (prior to that I was an engineer). I've helped a lot of newbs (aka a beginner) and I've worked with a lot of veterans. In my experience (and this just my experience, so take it only as that!) there's only one thing that determines if you'll be a successful coder:

Can you be zen about errors?

Everyone handles adversity differently, for sure, but the only commonality is if when confronted with a coding problem, can you just step back, breathe and work on it calmly.

It doesn't matter if you're old or young, man or woman, black, white, brown or green. To code, you don't have be smart, you don't have to be clever, you don't have be bold, hell you don't even have to be particularly passionate (though that helps).

You just have to be able to be zen. When you encounter an error that won't go away, you can't start letting a part of you die. You can't let your pulse rise. You can't take it personally. You can't get embarrassed or feel dumb (I mean, you will I suppose, but fight it!). I see it happen to people all the time, and this why "getting zen" is the #1 piece of advice I give to young coders and those looking to get into the field.

Errors, they happen man. Honestly, just today I spent twenty minutes on a misnamed variable. I swear to God I checked everything but the most obvious thing, and I've been doing this two years. You just started, so you'll spend even more time. It's part of the fun!

It also helps remember one important thing: a computer is one of the most fundamentally different things than you that exists on Earth.

Let's look at just one example.

If I tell you to go make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can do it. Most of you will go make it from your cupboard. A few of you will be clever and call a restaurant. One or two of you will try and convince me a tortilla is a PB&J. No matter the method, you'll do it, with minimal instruction and tons of improvisation.

If I tell a computer "Go make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich", well, it will sit there and stare at me blankly like a dog. It will wag its tail, it won't even sit! However, if I give it detailed instructions, more detailed than you've ever imagined (like including coordinates of bread locations and stuff), it will eventually do it. And when there are finally the necessary pages and pages and pages of instructions required, it will make the sandwich perfectly.

If I give you 20 single-spaced pages of instructions to make this sandwich, you too will make it, but imperfectly. You'll miss a step or two inevitably. Humans just aren't meant to process 20 single-spaced pages of instructions perfectly, we're meant to improvise.

So don't feel bad, you're doing a hard thing that humans really aren't meant to do. You're meeting an alien life form half way. You're meticulously typing out the instructions and then letting the computer do them perfectly (bugs are when you got the instructions wrong).

This is an illustration of what is actually the only true error that exists in programming: You weren't clear enough on what the computer should do.

Errors are a computers way of saying "Hey man, this list of instructions isn't complete!" and when the errors aren't as helpful as the ones in Rails, well that's kinda like the computer saying "Hey man, I know something is off in this big list of instructions, but I'm not sure what."

So don't get mad, don't get defeated, you gotta get zen. You also gotta get your butt up and go ask for help ;-)

P.S. And don't feel bad about feeling bad! It's all one journey!

Missed Roneesh's first post? No worries, just click on this link - "What is a Web Application?"

Immerse yourself the right way

By Vince Cabansag on February 24, 2015

Bootcamps. There’s plenty of buzz around them these days. And for good reason. Who wouldn’t want the promise of a programming job after 3 months of immersive learning? It’s a honeypot that bootcamps use to attract anyone who’s looking for a career change. It’s also a path that’s become dogmatic — immersive learning has become more about sheer hours instead of a culture that promotes learning with a work-life balance.

Spending 80+ hours a week on anything will be disruptive to the rest of your life. If you’re considering a program that teaches you how to build web applications, and you’re devoid of any responsibilities or relationships, then a bootcamp is right up your alley. But there’s better ways to immerse yourself without sacrificing the other parts of your life. If you have a beloved pet, significant other, kids, spouse, or responsibilities that can’t be put on hold, then you owe it to yourself and to them to find a culture that fits your life, not the other way around.

A question that I’ll get when I interview students is, “Why does The Starter League have less class time than XXX bootcamp?”. My response is somewhere along the lines of this: “While we could increase the class hours and teach you everything about web development, there’s only so much knowledge that you can consume at a given time”. A study at UCLA found that cramming can be harmful to a student’s learning outcomes. They concluded that students perform better when they space their study sessions. We plan our classes so that our students have the proper time to implement the concepts we introduce. That’s important for long-term learning outcomes.

We also don’t set expectations where our students should stay up late at night or even sleep in the space because they’re exhausted from coding all night. Working longer, late at night or when you're exhausted doesn't teach you more or produce better work. We intentionally schedule non-class days where students can come in for office hours, review sessions and get help from instructors on their projects. We do this so that they can absorb the concepts from class, work through any issues on their projects, and make themselves better developers through good work flow practice. Our students’ schedule is more consistent with a 9 to 5 business day.

Alex Payne wrote a candid blog post to anyone who is considering a career as a programmer in a startup. After reading that post, I didn’t realize how many mom’s have taken our classes. For example, one of our Starter School students commutes from Libertyville five days a week. Her schedule is like clockwork — she’s in by 8am and out by 4:30pm. She’s also a mother and wife. If we scheduled classes later in the day or asked our students to stay late, then we wouldn’t have students like Amy.

Learning how to code is fun and as addictive as your latest Netflix season binge. If you’re looking at programs that teach you how to build web applications, consider the sacrifices that you’ll be asked to make. You don’t have to give everything up to make an impact on your life.

What is a Web Application?

By Mike McGee on February 13, 2015

This is a guest post by Starter League alumnus Roneesh Vashisht. He's a professional web developer at Sears and is a mentor for our Web Development program. Our current class has just started to type out their first lines of code, and Roneesh sent this message to remind them of what they're building.

Web Applications are in the running for world's simplest computer programs.

You've learned how to communicate with a computer program.

It's also interesting to realize how little we've come.

From about 1970-1990, a computer program was a thing you bought, probably in a Micro Center or hobbyist store, that displayed and manipulated text. You only communicated with it via text.

From 1990-2005, a computer program became a thing you bought, probably in a Best Buy, but it lived in a graphical world, where pretty soon your typing only became about the content. All other manipulations were graphical, and there was no database. When, how, why or in what way data was accessed was completely obscured. Programming them was hard (believe me I tried). They didn't share data, or play with other people, or do anything other than sit on your computer.

Then from 2005 or so onward, we started entering the world of web applications, and data started to live on the web, and it played nicely with other people, since the data was in the same pool, and now it was in a database, and even a lay person with an analytical mind could guess how that data was structured (hint: it was all forms).

What's interesting is that we've sort of returned to the world of 1970-1990, we only communicate with these programs via text. That text is your params hash and routes tables.

And so when I say that Web Applications are the world's smallest computer programs, I really mean it.

A web application is a computer program designed to respond to one input, a URL.

And since all URL's are just HTTP requests, we get this:

A web application is a computer program that just does one thing: respond to an HTTP request.

I'm not being dramatic or histrionic when I say that the above statement contains all the truth of a web application. It's kind of your North star. When I transitioned from student to full-time developer, I routinely found myself in meetings where I had to discuss technologies I had no clue about. What kept me sane was realizing that I was working on a web application, and it had just one job to do. From there I could riff.

It doesn't matter what your stack is, what language you use or what framework. A web application running Java, with no Ruby whatsoever still needs to be able to parse a URL, run some code, and return a response (a web page). A web application has just one job, and best of all, we can do it with just one thing, an address bar.

So go on, party like it's 1990. It still is.

Alumni Company Spotlight: Reliefwatch

By Mike McGee on February 11, 2015

Relief Watch logo

Due to limited computer and internet access, it's difficult for health organizations working in developing countries to track medical supplies and diseases. Starter League alumni Daniel Yu (Web Development - Winter 2013), Stelios Constantinides (Starter School - Class of 2014), and the rest of the Reliefwatch team are solving this problem.

Old School is The New Black

No, Reliefwatch is not trying to be Comcast and provide internet access to the entire world (the world doesn't deserve such horror), they've designed their application to work with the super-complicated technology of...

Nokia dumb phone

Yes, those year 2000 era phones you used to rock in junior high (and what your parents might still use now) are now being used by health workers to track medical supply inventory and monitor diseases all around the world. This is a genius idea since over 90% of people in developing countries have mobile phones.

The Rise of ReliefWatch

In the last five years Chicago has transformed into a startup city, and Reliefwatch has taken advantage of pretty much every resource available. Daniel started ReliefWatch (formerly known as Project Sam) while at the University of Chicago through their College New Venture Challenge. Last Fall, ReliefWatch was accepted into Impact Engine, a 16-week accelerator program for companies that address societal and environmental problems. While in Impact Engine (which is located in 1871), Reliefwatch was one of five Chicago companies to qualify for the 2015 Challenge Cup finals run by 1776, a startup tech center located in Washington, DC.

To top it all off, Daniel went over to the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards in London and won the Prince of Wales Young Sustainability Entrepreneur Prize.

And yes, he did get to meet Prince Charles.

Reliefwatch's Global Impact

In May 2014, Reliefwatch created its first partnership with Global Brigades, a not-for-profit organization with healthcare operations in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. This partnership has resulted in a 90% reduction in drug expiration and almost fourteen million units of medicine digitized.

Reliefwatch has just launched a new version of their platform, which allows them to track inventory & diseases in over 180 countries and has support for 12 different languages.

What's next for Reliefwatch

While the new year is young Reliefwatch has already added a new partner! They recently joined forces with RTI International and the government of Benin (sandwiched between the countries of Togo & Nigeria if you're wondering #themoreyouknow) to start tracking their vaccine distribution process.

Their goal is to create 10 new partnerships before the end of the year, so if you know of any NGOs that need assistance with medical supply and disease tracking this is your startup!

If you are an investor: invest in this startup!

If you are a developer (especially with Ruby on Rails experience): Contact Daniel Yu (daniel@reliefwatch.com)!

If you don't know Ruby on Rails but want to: We have applications open for our Spring Web Development program. Starts Monday, April 6th :)