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INTERview





Higher-ed and Healthcare are transforming customer service with Ivy.ai


Mark McNasby

CEO

ivy.ai, Inc.

www.Ivy.ai


Contact:

Jason Fife, Director of Marketing - Ivy.ai

559-618-4760

Jason@ivy.ai


Interview conducted by:

Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor

CEOCFO Magazine

Published – August 17, 2020


CEOCFO: Mr. McNasby, what is Ivy.ai Inc?  

Mr. McNasby: Ivy.ai is an artificial intelligence (AI) powered communications platform. We provide chatbots and related solutions for colleges and universities. Ivy.ai helps schools connect with students in nearly every facet of higher education including, admissions, enrollment, the IT helpdesk, student services, and more. Our goal is to help students succeed and empower schools to create seamless opportunities to connect digitally with their students, faculty, and, staff.   


CEOCFO: What are some of the special needs of universities and students that require a more specific or more specialized chatbot?  

Mr. McNasby: Prospective students are looking to interact and engage with universities using the same modern tools they experience using in consumer services. For example, a college admissions department may need a chatbot to help with student outreach and communication, 24/7/365. The university financial aid office, or the IT help desk, might need to enhance customer service by instantly answering simple student questions. Ivy.ai’s services are designed to help universities personalize student service by automating simple tasks so support staff can focus on providing one-to-one student support more often. Our technology doesn’t replace people, it helps people provide faster, better service at scale. There are different needs in each part of the school you are working with. Every university, college, school, and department has unique needs. Ivy.ai helps save time, reduce costs, and is fully customized for every one of our partners.    

CEOCFO: What goes into creating a chatbot that works well? Does one size fit all?   

Mr. McNasby: The fact is that one size does not fit all. We build chatbots using a proprietary, AI-powered web crawler that collects and index’s content within the university’s web pages or other online resources. This technology that we have built dynamically sorts all of the webpage content and looks for semantic (conversational) meaning on those pages that are needed to answer student questions.


The other thing that is important when you are building a chatbot is to be able to deliver personalized information, at scale. For example, if a student asks the questions, “what is my class schedule” or “What is my account balance,” you often need to integrate with another system on campus. In this case, we connect to a student information system or an ERP. The chatbot will have a “handshake” with these institutional systems and then deliver precise, personalized information directly back to the student. You need a real-time, dynamic data exchange to engage students well.


A chatbot is only as powerful as its ability to answer questions perfectly and quickly. The combination of dynamically, integrating with other on-campus systems, and then importing data (structured or unstructured) is critical. It is the combination of these three factors that enable our chatbot to be deployed in any use case and support all of the nuances within.


CEOCFO: Would it be typical for a college to have one chatbot throughout or has that been somewhat fragmented - different departments might have their own and you can put it all together?

Mr. McNasby: That is a good question. We see some fragmentation in higher education where for example, a university is using a financial aid bot is using one vendor and then you have another part of the school that has maybe built their own. This is less than ideal for students as the experience is not seamless and intuitive. The challenge is students, faculty, and staff, do not know where one bot starts and the other begins. What happens in that scenario is information drops off to a dead-end. For example, a student tries to get information from a financial aid bot and then needs information on a related topic, such as admissions or the registrar. There’s no cohesive connection, so the student gets a poor experience. Therefore, what that ultimately means is that chatbots need to be enterprise wise. They cannot be fragmented because just logically a bot should cover all of the resources a student needs.


CEOCFO: What is involved in implementation?

Mr. McNasby: Our implementation is a simple, three-step process. What is important is, we help universities by getting their data "AI-ready". Step one is we build a collaborative strategy on what kind of content students need. Step two, we define where to start with our AI-powered web crawlers to index and classify information. Third, we conduct an intensive quality assurance process before the bot is launched. Ivy.ai uses human-guided machine learning, so we have a team of experts at Ivy.ai that ensure the content is captured, and easy to understand, presented as conversational dialog.


Additionally, we make every effort to integrate other systems that power the student experience. These can be CRMs, student information systems, learning management systems, ERPs; and others that impact the value and reach of the chatbot. We build the integrations and have an integration library, empowering our clients to use these integrations as they grow into building more seamless student services. From day one, we knew the implementation process needed to be fast and simple. At Ivy.ai, it takes about one week per department to build a bot. The whole process, from contract sign to launch, takes on average thirty days.    


CEOCFO: What has changed in your approach over time? What have you learned?

Mr. McNasby: Every college and university is unique. Because of that, we have adapted our process to include our innovative web crawler, instead of going with a more standardized, non-personal approach to building the chatbot. This means every school's content is specific, custom tailed, and relevant for their students. Listening carefully to students and higher-ed leaders also opened the door to new approaches to communications. Chatbots have been just the beginning for us. Over time we built a full suite of omnichannel communications features. Students requested being able to communicate via, text messages, live chat, social media, Amazon Echo (Alexa), and other platforms. The seamless experience is what was needed and what sets Ivy.ai apart from other solutions. Ivy.ai communicates in different languages and even has a built-in video-tutorial maker. So, the bot can help in a very compelling number of ways.


CEOCFO: Would you tell us about distributed maintenance and re-crawling sites every day?

Mr. McNasby: Basically, one of the challenges with chatbots is keeping the bot information always consistent with the underlying data; whether it is a website or other data source. There are a couple of things that we do. The first is that we crawl the website every day. As content changes on the website, added, or deleted; we will automatically, adjust the knowledge in the bot’s brain, in real-time. We detect changes on a website or content source and we get alerted because we know what it was the day before and then we can determine what changes were made.  


Additionally, we have what we call, “distributed maintenance.” Sometimes, a website does not have the information students need. If a question is being asked that cannot be answered, we help track and alert stakeholders to that problem. Distributed maintenance alerts everyone responsible for the success of the bot and helps keeps information up to date. Time is precious, rather than putting all of the maintenance work on one person, we can distribute it to five people or ten people or fifty. If you are going enterprise-wide at a school, this is critical to ensure the correct answers to student questions get routed to the best subject matter experts.     


CEOCFO: Are schools turning to you at this point? How are you reaching out, so they understand worldwide what you are doing?

Mr. McNasby: I think that higher education is starting to get comfortable with chatbots and AI. For the first couple of years, we invested a lot of outreach for general AI education. Back then, it was about demonstrating the value of AI. Today, colleges and universities reach out to us directly. We don't invest a lot in marketing. Most of our partners come from a positive reference from their peer institutions which, sparked interest in Ivy.ai. We make our largest investments in R&D and focus on making the most value for our clients as possible. That said, now that we feel we have achieved a product-market fit for higher education, you can expect to see more outreach from Ivy.ai in 2020.


CEOCFO: What about healthcare? Why and why now?

Mr. McNasby: Two places AI is having a considerable impact is in higher-ed and healthcare. As a CEO, it is important for me to continually consider where our technology can provide clients with the most value. It is never a bad idea to focus on growth and diversification for our business. A lot of universities we work with have partnerships with health care systems and providers. This stems from health sciences research colorations and the partnerships for educating health care providers.


Our technology can be applied to making the process a patient uses to navigate a complex environment like healthcare much easier. Similar to helping students way-find in a complex university setting. After we received some initial inquiries from peers and partners, we put up some very simple text on our website, saying that “we are open for business for healthcare companies” and we got an immediate response. I am confident you’ll see some awesome innovations from Ivy.ai applied for healthcare patients and providers very soon.  


CEOCFO: Where, in the range of healthcare, are you looking?

Mr. McNasby: Based on what we have learned, we will likely start working with providers first. I do think there is an opportunity for AI solutions to be applied by hospitals and healthcare systems, really anyplace in the constellation of services provided in the healthcare arena. I am sure most CEOs are already considering how AI can help improve payment processing, navigating insurance, improving HR functions, and other areas. I am very excited and eager to demonstrate where Ivy.ai’s technology can provide value.


I started Ivy.ai to help people by applying technology to common problems. It is my passion in life. So, when I look at healthcare and through the different facets of healthcare, almost as an analog to higher ed. For example, for an admissions office, there is an analog for hospitals. Therefore, people who are visiting the hospital's website, people who want to engage, hospitals also have a very comprehensive and complex billing process. In the bursar’s office, in Higher-Ed, it is very similar. Hospitals, like Higher-Ed, will have adjacent similar needs and we can repurpose our software easily from one to the other.    


CEOCFO: Where do HIPPA and some of the other regulatory issues come into play when you are developing a health-related solution?

Mr. McNasby: It is critical to be HIPPA compliant. Our team has been HIPPA certified. That is an essential component in capturing any data related to PHI. In general, in our system the default infrastructure and settings are anonymous, and we do not capture any PII or PHI. We do not look at working in healthcare as an opportunity to build new diagnostic tools for hospitals. We have an incredible technology that can help with communication and navigation, in areas such as, the policies of the hospital; the visitor hours, the COVID policies, things like that.


Typically, the opportunities that we will pursue new business within are not necessarily going to be HIPPA centric. We have the technology and the experience to help better address questions such as, “how do I pay my bill?” and to simplify billing. One risk we do mitigate often is, when you have a chatbot conversation, you cannot control the things that people are going to say to the bot. Therefore, someone might share information like, “I have a medical condition and I need to see doctor X, Y, and Z," and so we do keep the HIPPA compliance at the forefront for that reason.    


CEOCFO: Why do you think healthcare is ready for this your chatbot now?

Mr. McNasby: Mostly because we are getting demand for it! We are getting inbound traffic on our website expressing this. We also have a partner in this space that is growing considerably in healthcare. They manage payments for hospitals and medical facilities, and they are getting a lot of interest from their customers about the services that Ivy.ai offers. Therefore, it is the news of what we are hearing in the marketplace that suggests that hospitals are transitioning into this service model.


CEOCFO: Are you seeking investment, funding, or additional partnerships as you move forward?

Mr. McNasby: We are in the process of exploring external investment opportunities. We have done everything bootstrapped until this point and we have created a profitable company just by doing it on our own. However, that being said, what we want is to accelerate and money happens to be a pretty good source of fuel for generating growth. As you can market more, and grow, you could hire more people, and do all of the things that would lead to revenue accretion. Therefore, I am very seriously considering it. Like most founders, I also see the flip side of losing control, the risk of losing touch with our vision and guiding mission, which is an unattractive scenario, because we have done everything very well, so far, without any help.   


CEOCFO: Why is Ivy.ai an important company?

Mr. McNasby: I think it is important at both the micro and the macroeconomic level. At the microeconomic level, even at the individual level, the bot is extraordinarily useful for helping people get unstuck. For first-generation students dealing with a problem like financial aid; the chatbot can help prevent them from dropping out of school because they were unable to complete the process. As I expressed earlier, my entire career has been focused on helping people. We feel great about what we do because of how connected we are with that mission.  


At the school level or institutional level, we also help in many different ways. We have shown the ability to dramatically increase enrollment numbers and we also have dramatically decreased call volume and inbound traffic volume, because the bot is handling these customer support issues. That means for the institution at that sort of micro-level, is that we can help them operate their institution more efficiently so that they can repurpose their human staff for more valuable activities. When we help a university reduce overhead, and lower costs for students, that is a win we are very proud of.


Then, at the macroeconomic level, the type of technology that we have built, I think can move markets. Therefore, we are at this inflection point with our business where we are in Higher-Ed, we have got really good traction, but the fundamental technology could be repurposed in many, many different verticals. Ivy.ai’s destiny is that it is going to be a major player in the chatbot and knowledge-based economies.


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“When we help a university reduce overhead, and lower costs for students, that is a win we are very proud of.” Mark McNasby

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