William Leonard

Ladies and gentlemen welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. I’m William Leonard, your host, and investor at Valor Ventures, a leading seed-stage venture capital firm here in Atlanta, Georgia. Today, I’m really excited to have the CEO of Vacmobile, Jennifer Sparks. Jennifer, thank you for joining me today.

Jennifer Sparks

Thank you, William. So glad to be here.

William Leonard

Awesome. Well, Jennifer, would love to dive right in here and have you educate our listeners on what Vacmobile corporation is doing. What is the genesis behind the company?

Jennifer Sparks

Well, Vacmobile is all about helping patients keep track of their vaccination records and any other kind of COVID-19 test results. We actually started the company before the pandemic. I can talk a little more about that, but really, we had to pivot quickly during the pandemic to make sure we were meeting this very critical need because, as you may or may not know, most people have been accessing their vaccination records on paper and in person with a provider and during the pandemic, obviously, digital end to end experiences were preferred.

William Leonard

Yeah, totally. Jennifer, you mentioned something there, you started the business prior to the pandemic, can you educate our listeners on some of the newer things that you were doing before COVID really inserted itself and, and really flipped the world upside down and kind of how you are maintaining and continuing to innovate during the pandemic and after the pandemic as well?

Jennifer Sparks

Absolutely. The genesis of the company came from the experience of moving from New Mexico to Georgia and learning that my children’s shot records from New Mexico were not valid here in Georgia for registering them for school. And at that point, I started thinking about how inconvenient this was and actually the thought process to how we could streamline people’s ability to obtain, store, and transmit their vaccination records from their smartphone started. As you may or may not know, typically, any shot that you get has to be recorded to an immunization registry within 24 hours. But the problem is that if you’ve lived in multiple different states, the registries don’t talk to one another. You have to go back to the location where you received that immunization to get that record if you don’t have it in your possession. Many people lose track of these things. Getting a complete immunization record for yourself or your children, or maybe even a parent that might be living with you can be tricky if you’ve lived in multiple different jurisdictions. So that was where the idea was born for Vacmobile. But again, as I said, during the pandemic, when we saw the obvious need for folks to be able to provide proof of initially a COVID-19 test result, but we knew where the hockey puck was going, which was ultimately being able to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. That’s where we’ve been focusing in the last six months.

William Leonard

Awesome. You mentioned relocation from New Mexico to the Metro Atlanta area, can you kind of talk to us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey and how you really got the bug to become a founder?

Jennifer Sparks

Well, when we moved here, I had the good fortune to work in a healthcare IT firm. My eyes were really opened up to the power stack developers at that point. My unpleasant experience with trying to track down vaccination records coincided with my revelation about what was possible in the world of IT. Sadly, I lost both of my parents in the space of about eight months. I guess there’s really nothing like losing one’s parents to have you come face to face with your own mortality and realize how important doing something that matters, making a difference in this world, leaving some kind of a legacy is. That was really where that nagging idea had been in my head in 2017. In 2019, I started to really hear those murmurings in my head louder. And then by 2020, the beginning of 2020 was when we began the whole process, incorporation, and all the things that a founder does. And then like I said, by March of 2020, we all know what happened with the pandemic. 

William Leonard

Totally. As you were thinking about the initial problem that you faced when trying to locate your children’s vaccine records. there were no solutions on the market currently correct?

Jennifer Sparks

Well, actually, the maddening part was I had my children’s vaccine records, they just weren’t valid here in Georgia. There really wasn’t a solution. The only solution was to get those to work with the Georgia Department of Public Health office and wait for them to be integrated into the system. The maddening part was that we had just gone to the pediatricians in New Mexico right before we moved, because of course, I wanted them all nice and up to date on all their records because I thought that’s what I needed before we register them for school that they have to be up to date vaccination workers. Being able to go to a doctor here in Georgia wasn’t an option unless I wanted to pay very large sums of money for my three kids. Because we had insurance and we had just used the preventive care appointment for all three kiddos to get them their shots back in New Mexico. Insurance wasn’t gonna pay for me to get them all another round of annual checkups. Does that make sense? I’m trying to give you real-world information that no, there really wasn’t another solution. And if you talk to, for example, military spouses, they’ll tell you, it’s a nightmare. Because the military takes mental tracks of the actual person in the military. And by the way, there’s all this paper too. But the spouses, they’re the ones who have to go and keep trying to keep track of all the different states they may have lived in, and people obviously in the military often get moved around quite a bit. So this is not unique to just a handful of people. Pew Center indicates that Americans on average move every five years. There’s a lot of movement in this country and interestingly enough, in the first 90 days of the pandemic, fully 20% of the American population moved to try to be either safer, or because they lost their employment or for whatever reason, but literally one in five Americans moved within the first 90 days of the pandemic.

William Leonard

You’ve been building the company now for just over a year. Can you talk to us about how robust and in some of the use cases pertaining to COVID, outside of COVID, that the Vacmobile solution can really help simplify and make a process more efficient for prospective customers?

Jennifer Sparks

Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Obviously, the first use case that we dealt with, where we did initial beta testers with Arizona State University in their Luminosity Lab. And so higher ed is one use case that is very, very right for Vacmobile because what Vacmobile has evolved to now is really being able to use our app to create safe bubbles. Basically, if everybody within the ecosystem is using the app, which in the app simply tells you that somebody is up to date on their COVID-19 test, meaning they have a valid negative COVID-19 test result. And when I say valid, I mean valid in terms of the rules that that particular ecosystem has in place, as far as how often they want people to be tested and to allow them to be in a congregant setting and or has been vaccinated for COVID-19. That’s how you create the safe bubble. If everybody does that, then you know, every single time you’re in a room, nothing’s perfect, but it’s much better than not knowing anything and having no data. Higher Ed was the first use case that we piloted, but safe return to work is where we really think is going to be very, very important. We’re also putting a considerable emphasis on travel and hospitality because obviously, there’s a lot of focus right now on getting that industry back up and running to pre-pandemic volumes. Interestingly enough, you know, our energy is less on sort of leisure travel than on returning the business in the group traveler, which is where, obviously, it’s a little bit different because when a business does this for its employees or asks an employee, for example, to go and attend a conference or whatever, it’s a different level of liability, right? They have a different threshold. That’s the piece that we’re working on very aggressively right now is restoring confidence for business in group travel. Because obviously, on leisure, you decide to take the risk, you do that with yourself or your family, that’s your business, but it’s kind of a different story from corporate and group travel. 

William Leonard

So you test it out first across higher ed, can you provide some maybe success stories of how Vacmobile solution really was implemented and made a difference for your customer?

Jennifer Sparks

Again, we just worked with Luminosity Lab at Arizona State University and what they did was they had a number of students working with us on this project. They looked at how important this technology was to restore all of the various components of higher education that actually are the drivers for why people attend university, meaning, what percentage of your students are just simply not going to be interested in continuing their education if they have to keep doing this from their parent’s basement, right? So things like sports, things like Greek life, things like being able to do internships for potential future employment, right? What are the real drivers? Why do people actually pursue all the time at the expense of getting a higher education? Those were the things that the students were looking at and looking at how important it was going to be to be able to restore on campus, and in-person instruction. For those reasons, there was just a resounding final report that they gave, which included, by the way, economic impact, that was another piece that they looked at in terms of the two-mile radius of campuses, all the businesses that are impacted by students, and how devastating it had been to not have that economic impact. I thought that was a very interesting piece that was studied by one of the masters’ students in economics at Arizona State University. Luminosity Lab spent quite a bit of time putting together a report on the economic impact and it was staggering how much economic impact the loss of in-campus instruction has meant for countless college towns all across the country.

William Leonard

When you think about your kind of go-to-market strategies, you have higher education, and then corporate travel, which are really some of the primary drivers of the economic engine, so it’s great that you were able to test and validate the Vacmobile solution there. As you continue to build the company and think about this year 2021, what does success look like for Vacmobile and how do you practically achieve that?

Jennifer Sparks

Well, success looks like some really extraordinary channel partnerships. We’re in the middle of papering a deal right now so I can’t say the name of the company. But we’re really excited to be working with a company that has dedicated over a decade to workplace safety. We think that that is the name of the game as we move forward. And for us being able to have several existing large corporate clients out there, being able to start pushing out our solution in terms of very large enterprises that have very well-known brands, is something that we’re very excited about with regards to this partnership. That’s being papered as we speak. So that for us success looks like really having quite a few users of the solution. But I’m also happy to tell you that you’ll be able to go to the App Store or Google Play as early as June and download our patient vaccination record logging app and that’s going to be the first step because you’re going to be able to use that to keep your vaccination records safe and secure. You’ll find, as I said through many public announcements, more and more places will accept that credential. Vacmobile will validate that credential and will provide that verification for lots of different entities. And that to us is going to be the most important thing is that people start using the app to keep their vaccination credentials safe and secure. What we think is really important, and the CDC has been saying this, but we are continuing to see people not heeding their advice, is that we want to have people stop doing things like taking photos of the vaccine card and posting it on social media. We want people to if, for example, a private school or public school or anywhere asks you to email a PDF of your card, we think that that is just a terrifically bad idea. Does that make sense? What I’m telling you, as far as success is helping people have a secure way to manage their vaccination credentials.

William Leonard

Yeah, certainly. I can agree with the need for a secure, safe way to really show that you’ve been vaccinated. I’ve seen it all the time on social media, people are posting their vaccination cards, it has their birthday, and it has all types of sensitive information which is just a recipe for disaster. The fact that you all are creating a safe, more efficient, expedited way to compact and really transmit this data is great. I really want to pivot here a tad bit. You know this is not your first entrepreneurial journey. You’ve been a consultant in the past of your own business but that was in a different part of the country. My question to you is, what is the difference between building a startup here in the Metro Atlanta area? Why did you choose to build Vacmobile here and what are some of the network effects that you’re seeing across the Metro Atlanta ecosystem?

Jennifer Sparks

Atlanta is a very exciting place. Atlanta is not too dismissive but I love New Mexico. Atlanta is the public health capital of the world. And having the CDC headquartered here, obviously, we hired a VP of public health. We did that to really put our money where our mouth was, meaning we’re very committed for the long term, to make sure that everything that we do is, if you will, blessed by leading health public health experts. We have been extraordinarily grateful for the guidance we’ve received from folks at the Emory Vaccine Center. The immediate past president of Emory University, President Emerita Claire Sterk, has guided all of our public health conversations, and we’re very grateful to her for her leadership. She chairs our board. We’re also grateful to the President and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, William Pate, who also serves on our board. He has been instrumental and I did not know this until he joined our board, but that the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau is actually the third largest site for conventions worldwide. We are having international business meetings here all year long, obviously, outside of a pandemic. But that’s something that he has a very strong vested interest in seeing those pre-pandemic volumes return. That’s why he was so excited to get involved with Vacmobile because he’s a believer, as we all are, that we need to leverage data, technology, and we need to be smart. We need to create these safe spaces for us to be able to get back to working and interacting with our colleagues the way that we did before the pandemic.

William Leonard

That is great. I really think it speaks to the true benefits and the value add to being in a city like Atlanta. You’ve got as you said, the CDC is headquartered here. You have a great tech infrastructure already in the city. You have robust healthcare networks, like Grady, Wellstar, Piedmont Healthcare that can really serve as partners and in what you’re trying to build. Pivoting here a tad bit more, you know, entrepreneurship is difficult, right? But you really started your business right before the world changed. What are some of the lessons that you learned in building a business through the onset of a pandemic?

Jennifer Sparks

The main thing that I have learned is that it’s so important to do extensive customer discovery conversations and talk to everybody and anybody that will give you the time of day because you learn so much all the time from your customers and understanding what someone will pay you to solve their problem is really, really important. So that product-market fit is crucial. I think that when you’re working during a pandemic, it can be viewed, obviously, as a disadvantage, but I encourage entrepreneurs to look on the bright side. I feel we’ve had access, and been able to have meetings with very high-level decision-makers that I think there might have been more extensive gatekeepers outside of the pandemic, but because everybody’s using Zoom now, and people are used to that format, I think there’s been a greater willingness to explore ideas and have meetings. If you have a good idea, people are willing to listen to you. I encourage entrepreneurs to not be afraid to ask for meetings because my experience has been through the pandemic’s if you have the courage to ask for 30 minutes, a lot of times you’ll get it. 

William Leonard

I agree with that. Having a sense of boldness, as a founder, is something that can really yield success in the pandemic, outside of the pandemic, pre-pandemic. Boldness is a character trait that can certainly open so many doors for an individual. And you know, Jennifer, you are a leader of a team that is really growing right now. Can you provide some of the listeners who are maybe also building early-stage startups some advice around company building, team building, and advice for finding the right people to help join you, and really join the mission of building an early-stage company?

Jennifer Sparks

That’s a great question, William. I mean, it’s sort of cliched, but everybody who joins your organization really needs to believe in what you’re trying to achieve. And if everybody truly believes in what you’re trying to achieve and thinks that it is a significant problem that needs to be solved, you’re going to be in good shape. I think a lot of times, there’s camaraderie or what have you, that can develop among founders and some of the early-stage employees. It’s like a marriage, right? You have to evolve and you have to get beyond just that you like each other, right? You have to actually truly be very, very committed to seeing that end result, seeing that vision come to fruition, and it’s got to drive everybody in the organization, not just the founder or the co-founders, everybody in the organization really has to wake up every day, wanting to see the mission achieved. And in this case, with doc mobile, you know, everybody recognizes that we are going to need to have access to not just our COVID-19 vaccination records, but all our vaccination records. As we move into the future, that reliance on paper is a very archaic method. We live in a digital world. Contact solutions are all the rage and you just need only pick up the Atlanta Business Chronicle to see every day there’s some new company that is looking at an end-to-end digital experience that they’re offering their customers. So I can’t think of anything more important, really, than being able to protect your family from highly contagious diseases, which is what vaccinations are all about. 

William Leonard

Right. I think that’s excellent advice. And building a team is not easy. You probably have to go through so many interviews and it’s really all about the fit in the culture that you set as a leader at the firm. You brought on some great people from great organizations. It’s clear the culture at VacMobile is one that is attributed to success and growth. Kudos to you and the team, Jennifer. Lastly, as I said, you’re a leader, you’re building an early-stage startup, your days are filled with meetings. What are some of the tips or tricks that are helping you, as an early-stage founder, stay successful and stay on top of your game?

Jennifer Sparks

Well, funny. There’s a gentleman named Jim Kwik, who does quite a few courses, and things. I must confess, I have not taken his course but I have watched a few YouTube videos. I think he has a lot of really valuable advice with regards to the habits that are important for keeping your mind is operating at the best possible level of efficiency, because you hit the nail on the head when you said you’re busy, your days are packed, you have endless Zooms, calls, meetings, decisions, and you have to make lots of decisions in rapid succession. You have to turn around responses, proposals, different decks, whatever you’re constantly in this type of environment. But I think it’s critical. I’m really religious about exercising. I think you got to manage stress. Exercising is really important. Trying to get proper sleep and rest, especially during the pandemic. I know I’m not alone but I have teenagers who are keeping very weird sleeping hours. That’s important to keeping track of the fundamentals. Eating right and trying to avoid a lot of fast food. In my case, that means using a crockpot or something because you know, you’ll go in and you’ll go then all of a sudden, you’re like, wait a minute. I do think just trying to take good care of yourself is critical because it is stressful. That’s the other advice I would just give to founders is if you feel like, “Wow, I didn’t realize this was going to take over my life.” You know, you’re not alone.

William Leonard

Yeah, no, I definitely agree. As investors, we’re, like you said, very busy as well. We’re on back-to-back calls and it’s just the easy thing to go grab something, frozen dinner or some lunch or something like that. But really taking care of your body, your mind, your soul can really attribute to higher levels of productivity. That’s great advice there, Jennifer. It’s been a really good, insightful conversation for our listeners. I think they’ll find some true value out of your advice to other founders, building companies, building teams, and building products that are really changing how we think about healthcare. Jennifer, it’s been excellent. I really appreciate you joining me today.

Jennifer Sparks

Thank you.

William Leonard

Awesome, awesome. Take care, Jennifer, we’ll be in touch, okay?

Jennifer Sparks

I appreciate the opportunity to be part of the podcast. Thank you.

William Leonard

Awesome. 

Jennifer Sparks

Bye.

Lisa

Thank you for listening to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. You know, we’re not just a podcast, we’re a community, and we’d love to see you at one of our digital or physical events, go to valor.VC and sign up for an event that makes sense for you. We have events for founders and the investors who back them. Another event you might enjoy is Startup Runway. The Startup Runway Foundation is a Valor organization that provides $10,000 grants to founders who are women or people of color building next-generation software products. Applications are free and we’d love to hear from you at startuprunway.org. And as always, thank you so much to the organizations that make this podcast possible. Not only Valor Ventures, but also Write2Market, a tech marketing and PR agency in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Startup Runway Foundation and Atlanta Tech Park Valley’s headquarters, and also headquarters for over 100 local entrepreneurs, building global businesses. See you next week. Please bookmark the podcast and join us.