In part three of our series on Canadian startups, we profile Altus Assessments whose business is incubated at the DMZ at Ryerson University and where he obtained expert help with bookkeeping and accounting at Intuit’s #FinanceHub.
The great late Steve Jobs was a business visionary who advocated finding a problem and solving it. Entrepreneur Rich Emrich has done just that, helping launch Altus Assessments, which has improved the way academic programs, including medical schools, in Canada and the US assess applicants.
“Most programs either only consider cognitive traits such as scores on standardized tests, or utilize unreliable methods like reference letters or personal statements,” says Emrich.
“Our tool allows academic programs to look beyond just book smarts. Does the best nurse, doctor, educator or even engineer have the highest marks possible? Of course not,” he says.
McMaster University researchers developed the CASPer test, for the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, to screen for personal characteristics such as communication skills, empathy and ethics – important traits to consider in the next generation of doctors and nurses.
“They’ll be not only technically skilled but they’ll also have traits that contribute to a strong bedside manner.”
Check out our snapshot of Rich Emrich…
Business description: We help academic programs choose holistically better applicants by delivering robust personal/professional characteristic admissions screening tests.
How did you come up with your business idea? The CASPer test was initially developed by McMaster Medicine five years ago to include more robust measures of an applicant’s non-academic characteristics in the pre-screen stage of the application process. In 2014, I stepped in to help create Altus, and took over the development and delivery of CASPer, offering the assessment to academic programs worldwide.
What makes your business unique? Our tool allows academic programs to easily and defensibly look beyond just academic scores.
What has been your greatest business achievement to date: In the 12 months from July 2015, we have screened 21,000 of US and Canadian medical school applicants.
And your biggest challenge? We went from forming the company to running our first test for 2000 applicants quite quickly, which was an enormous feat.
Did you seek funding? We have benefited greatly from government grant and debt programs, which support fast growing companies like Altus Assessments.
Name one finance question/issue you needed answered when you started? Oh, there are still so many. I guess one was the correct collection of taxes for applicants in different states and provinces.
How did the Intuit #FinanceHub help? In the early days, I spent an incredible amount of energy doing expense reports, and doing basic bookkeeping very badly. We utilized a foreign contractor through Elance originally but had many issues, not the least of which was communication. #FinanceHub and Scalability have helped me focus on growing the business, knowing that my books were being kept up to date and structured properly.
Top tip for aspiring entrepreneurs to keep overheads low? Pass on the fancy office space. It’s not what defines culture. Culture is the collective set of rules that you make decisions by, how you treat each other, and define what is important.
What business leader or company has inspired you? I find I’m most aligned with Netflix in terms of their culture of balancing autonomy and responsibility. Curating a team of A-players like a good sports team. In other ways, I found that tree-planting early in university was informative. The best crew bosses were the ones who supported their crew and made sure they never ran out of trees. A great leader lifts up their team and makes sure they have what they need to be their best selves. They remove barriers and help everyone grow, regardless of their role.
What technology has made the biggest difference to your business? I’d have to say Slack. Communication is so important.
Two apps you rely on in business? Slack for internal team communication, and Intercom for communication with applicants and giving them the best experience.
Two apps you couldn’t live without for personal use? Uber, Twitter.
How do you relax in your spare time? Spending time with my family, including my four and seven year olds!
Must-read business publications? Blogs – Tomasz Tunguz writes some great stuff that is thought provoking. Firstround and Mattermark articles are always high on my list too. Books: Scaling Up by Verne Harnish.
One piece of advice you would give to an aspiring startup? Spend a crazy amount of time thinking and talking to potential customers. Pre-revenue, pre-launch and beyond. It pays dividends at all stages of the company!
Where would you like your business to be in two years? We’d like to be serving a wide swath of academic programs across the world, helping them do a meaningfully better job of finding stronger applicants.