WashU Olin prepares scores of students each year to be consultants, armed with data and state-of-the-art best practices to advise managers on streamlining business operations, staying ahead of the curve and remaining relevant.
Well, listen up, consultants. Ryan Richt also has a WashU Olin degree—and his latest startup might render your industry irrelevant using artificial intelligence and the combined wisdom of 30 years’ worth of academic business research.
Not only that, a few key investors have bet on it to the tune of about $2.6 million so far.
“I think the problem with management consultants is you get this single point-in-time analysis. We’ve developed software that’s always running,” said Richt, MBA ’08, BA ’08. “We’re coming for those high-paying, white-collar consulting jobs.”
Richt is coming after those jobs by way of Well Principled, his St. Louis-based startup that creates real-time business applications to actively manage a company’s supply chain logistics, pricing strategies, product development roadmaps and marketing expenditures. Those AI models are effectively consultants who are always working, always available and always adjusting as data rolls in.
But the magic comes from what’s behind those applications: Using artificial intelligence and good old-fashioned elbow grease, Richt and his team have translated decades of academic business school research into algorithms that actively adjust the knobs, levers and dials required to run a business.
Serial startup founder
Richt prepared for entrepreneurship while working on both his undergraduate degree and MBA at the same time—and working four years at WashU’s St. Louis Genome Sequencing Center in the mid-2000s. That led to two years as CEO of a firm he co-founded called Cofactor Genomics, a DNA sequencing services firm.
Richt was recruited away to Monsanto in St. Louis, where he worked for nearly six years leading computational biology and cloud roles before he was recruited as employee No. 5 at CiBO Technologies. There he built a 70-person team to mine farming research literature to optimize farms. That experience planted the seeds for his latest startup.
All the while, Richt stayed in closed contact with his faculty mentor, Anne Marie Knott, Olin’s Robert and Barbara Frick Professor of Business and an expert in business innovation.
And when the door on the CiBO opportunity closed, Knott wasn’t surprised by how quickly Richt dusted himself off. “He immediately started working on Well Principled,” she said. “Within three months, he had a working prototype.”
Richt also recruited Knott to invest and chair his new startup’s science advisory board. She views her role as one of availability: When Richt needs counsel, introductions and advice, she’s there. But based on his past performance, she’s not concerned. “He plans perfectly, and he actually executes to plan.”
Optimized operational decisions
Is your company introducing a new automated espresso coffeemaker? Should you supply coffee pods with the machine when it’s sold? How many would you have to give away before the customer is hooked? What flavors should you include? Can you adjust the flavor mix based on what you know about the customer? How often should you remind the customer to buy more pods? If you introduce a new flavor, will that boost sales or draw sales from products you already sell?
The Well Principled technology is designed to answer and act on questions like these thanks to real-world data from an individual company—and years of accumulated wisdom from management experts in academia.
“It’s really so exciting to bring the academic work that we value so much into practice,” said Richt. And the concept has drawn investor attention. Well Principled closed a $1.6 million seed round with Global Founders Capital on August 30 following a $1 million pre-seed round with investments from Knott, Liquid 2 Ventures, Founders Fund, Cultivation Capital and Y Combinator.
Richt expects to use some new capital on an MBA-level engagement manager to work with clients and two additional software engineers. Richt’s colleagues at Well Principled include two other WashU alums: Kate DeWulf, PMBA ’19, vice president of product and customer experience; and Joe Wingbermuehle, Eng PhD ’15, cofounder and principal platform engineer.
At the moment, Richt’s customers include several Fortune 500 companies that are piloting projects with early versions of Well Principled’s suite of applications.
One of them is bringing a new product to market. The Well Principled engine will provide guidance on the segmentation of product varieties, stimulating enough trials to get customers hooked and predicting and preventing churn—the kind of work a flesh-and-blood consultant might be tasked with solving.
“These algorithms can not only spit out answers, but run the business,” Richt said. “They can send the orders out. Our thesis is that by using the academic literature, we know which dials to go turn because we have that theoretical foundation.”