Dan Wright has always been a risk taker—"calculated risks,” as he specified.
That’s how the seasoned entrepreneur became CEO of DataRobot, a booming artificial intelligence startup. In 2021, it completed a funding round with a $6.3 billion valuation and acquired three companies.
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As West Virginia transforms into a full-fledged startup state, DataRobot and Vantage Ventures—an initiative fueled by the John Chambers College of Business and Economics—are working together to strengthen and expand the community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors in West Virginia.
In October 2019, Vantage Ventures
opened its doors to entrepreneurs and startups who want to nurture their
dreams in the Mountain State, thanks to the support of John Chambers, the former
executive chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, current Founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures,
and an alumnus of the college that now bears his name.
Many of the people and companies at Vantage Ventures are, like Chambers, born and bred here, but DataRobot is one that’s just discovering West Virginia’s potential.
“We have found the people coming out of WVU and just West Virginia more broadly to be really willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard,” Wright said. “We’ve seen a lot of grit.”
“It’s exciting to see this educate-to-innovate bridge building, where now we're being embedded in the curriculum,” Wright continued. “We're starting to work with the students early on, and then that can be a bridge to innovate and solve some big problems.”
We have found the people coming out of WVU and just West Virginia more broadly to be really willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard. We’ve seen a lot of grit.- Dan Wright
Josh Hall, Milan Puskar Dean of the Chambers College, has seen the impact of DataRobot’s partnership first-hand from their work with business students.
“The DataRobot partnership gives our WVU students across disciplines tangible opportunities to work with a global technology company and apply concepts from their coursework to solve the problems of the state,” said Hall. “Working with innovators like DataRobot is also aspirational to students who dream of building their own companies and can see the possibilities when you embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.”
A pioneering spirit
Data is the new coal.- Dan Wright
Data scientists started DataRobot in 2012 so that they could break into the AI market as it was developing.
“We saw early on that the demand for AI and machine learning was going to explode,” Wright said.
To respond to that demand, they created a software platform that could increase data scientists’ productivity by a factor of 10 – and it didn’t require expertise in data science to leverage it.
“The platform has the ability to democratize AI so that you don’t have to be a data scientist to get value and create value to utilize the technology,” said Wright.
It is only fitting for a company that has pioneered AI to identify with West Virginia.
“I was talking to somebody recently about how data is the new coal. I think West Virginia is really pioneering a new future for itself,” Wright said.
In June 2021, DataRobot announced it was partnering with WVU to tap into West Virginia’s diverse talent pool to solve complex problems. They’ve set-up their offices in the Vantage Ventures space - known to local entrepreneurs as “Vantage Point”, a physical, unconventional office space where entrepreneurs have a tech-forward, collaborative and energetic environment that hums with the buzz of innovative ideas.
As they the settle into West Virginia, DataRobot’s AI toolkit is tackling entrenched problems including budgeting and financial fraud, pandemic and emergency response, pain and addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and more.
“We went from having no presence here—I’d never even been to West Virginia—to innovating here on those problems,” Wright said. “Maybe through good fortune, more than anything, we leaned in enough to actually see it for ourselves and become inspired and want to become part of it.”
The Appalachian Advantage
These issues aren’t unique to Appalachia, but Appalachia has a unique approach.
“At West Virginia University, there’s a particular advantage for AI,” said Wright. “It gives us the ability to move really fast. You have not just the problems, but you have the data related to them. And that’s sometimes a hard part of the whole battle, when you’re trying to innovate and apply AI to these different problems.”
West Virginia State Auditor JB McCuskey played an instrumental role in connecting DataRobot to some of those rich datasets. In a quest to improve government efficiency and accountability, McCuskey welcomed the AI software’s help “to build our economy in a technology and data-driven way,” as he said in June 2021.
Until people are actually spending time in West Virginia, a lot of people on the outside don’t appreciate how much can be done here.- Jay Schuren
Jay Schuren, DataRobot’s chief data science officer, envisions hiring WVU graduates to work on data analytics and data science, software engineering, marketing, customer support and beyond.
“Until people are actually spending time in West Virginia, a lot of people on the outside don’t appreciate how much can be done here,” Schuren said.
“When I think about why we're building so much in West Virginia, it’s because of the group of people that we've met, the leaders in the university and the broader state,” Schuren said. “We work in offices in 15 countries, but this group of people who are actively working to improve not only the lives of West Virginians, but also to then cascade that across the country—it’s not something that I've ever seen.”
Schuren praises the strong pipeline of students at WVU, in particular those in data analytics.
“Problem solving and creativity are key components,” said Schuren. “DataRobot works in all industries, solving problems that sometimes haven't had solutions in the past. So part of what we look for is that character or the ability to want to solve problems. And that group has really shown that.”
Schuren said this is just the beginning for the Mountaineers who intern and work with DataRobot.
“We’ll also have them in a startup environment where they can then start to get connected to other companies. We hope to hire and retain as many as we can; however, it's awesome to think of those students then embedding AI into other companies and then building the whole ecosystem around it.”
Realizing West Virginia’s potential
This energetic ecosystem is nourished by Chambers College alumna and fintech entrepreneur Sarah Biller, the founder and executive director of Vantage Ventures.
“She has been an innovator and a champion of ours at every step,” Wright said. “As somebody who had never been here before, it's hard typically to understand who to talk to, how to get things done, where we need to be and when, and Sarah was the person that helped us navigate all of that. She’s been indispensable.”
Bringing companies like DataRobot to West Virginia is Biller’s passion and charge as the fearless leader of the Vantage Ventures team. She is a tireless advocate to attract and retain new pools of talent to West Virginia – and to build the right environment for them to thrive and solve the core problems of the state.
DataRobot will open eyes to what you can build in West Virginia and what good you can do with technology.- Sarah Biller
And when a company like DataRobot comes to West Virginia and does just that, it turns doubters into believers.
“DataRobot will open eyes to what you can build in West Virginia and what good you can do with technology,” Biller said.
Biller, who believes that innovation really has its core in a University setting, says that DataRobot has accelerated West Virginia’s mission to become a start-up state.
“They believe the next generation of success in their company is founded right here in West Virginia by attracting and retaining great talent,” Biller said.
The magnetism of Biller and the team at Vantage Ventures is only increasing – as is the draw of living and working in West Virginia.
“I’ll tell you, we’ve had lots of people on our team who have come here, who’ve started working at Vantage Ventures and can’t wait to come back. We have people raising their hand looking to relocate here,” Wright said.
DataRobot believes the next generation of success in their company is founded right here in West Virginia by attracting and retaining great talent.- Sarah Biller
“We are continuing to grow very rapidly and becoming more and more prominent as a company. And our partnership with West Virginia is growing at the same time,” Wright said. “What we can do is be a part of the ecosystem here, helping to enable the students [by] giving them a career path where they can stay in West Virginia, and bringing other West Virginians back into the state. And I think another key part of it is us telling a story together about West Virginia and raising the profile of it.”
After six months in West Virginia, Wright already has an idea of how that story will read.
“In five years, we’ll be talking about the larger story of this transformation of West Virginia into a startup state,” Wright said. “I think you’re going to be talking about Morgantown the same way you talk about Austin, Silicon Valley, Miami and some of these different hubs around the country. I think you're going to be talking about West Virginia in that same breath.”