Spokane Journal of Business

Startup Minapsys set to bolster services, staff

Company's platform designed to assist group discussions, foster project collaborations

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 Startup Minapsys set to bolster services, staff
-–Staff photo by Katie Ross
Minapsys employee Yoko Colby, owner Mark Colby, and employees, Aaron Colby, Sergei Krutov, and Collin Atherton have launched a new online service aimed at collaboration and problem-solving.

Minapsys Inc., a startup company that has developed proprietary Internet-based platform designed for private group discussions and project collaborations, has moved to Spokane from Japan and is looking to triple its workforce in the next year, says CEO Mark Colby.

    The company currently has six staff members and expects to increase that number to 18.

    The company, founded by Colby in September of 2012, enables users to engage in discussions with a number of other individuals, all responding to the same prompt, or inquiry. The user leading the discussion then can use the responses they receive from discussion participants in any of various desired ways, such as to help chart corporate strategy, improve business, hold class discussions, or plan company events.

    "What we're really trying to do is engage people in critical thinking," Colby says.

    The company is marketing its service to corporations of all sizes, especially those with multiple sites that need to communicate with one another, and to the educational sector, Colby says. He says that within education, the program can be used for long-distance, or online, learning, and traditional classroom settings. Minapsys offers a simpler way to host these kinds of discussions than e-mail, because of the way it groups responses and allows users to tailor the response parameters.

    In the future, Colby says, the company will also be targeting social media users with large audiences, such as celebrities with Twitter accounts.

    "Somebody with a Twitter following, a well-known person, for example, may have millions of followers," Colby says. "So rather than having this one-way dialogue with a posting, they could actually pose a question to their followers and turn it into a back-and-forth conversation."

    However, Colby says the company has more work to do on its software algorithms before it can launch that aspect of the product.  

    Minapsys, which moved into the McKinstry Innovation Center at 850 E. Spokane Falls Blvd. on Dec. 1 from the Spokane Valley, enables a registered user, what Minapsys calls a "mind master," to ask a question to a group of other users, or "minds." The system groups people into pods of no more than seven.

    The company has run about 2,000 test groups, Colby says, and found that seven or fewer participants in a pod was the best number to enable group members to view each other's answers, but not be overwhelmed by too many responses.  

     Once each person in a pod has answered the discussion question, they rank each other's responses. The highest-ranked response is then sent back to the mind master as representing that pod. The mind master can then choose to end the discussion or ask another question.

    "It allows a group to really drill down and come to a consensus," Colby says. "The process is the most important part."

    The mind master sets the time limit for responses and ranking, anywhere from five minutes to seven days. The responses are always anonymous from the perspective of the respondents, Colby says, and the mind master also can opt to make the entire process anonymous to everyone. The mind master also sets the character limit for responses, which can range from 25 to 400 characters.

    Colby says the company sent the program out for testing to other companies and university professors.

    "We've had a number of university professors use it," Colby says. "They have their class go through the process before a class; it's a way to turn lecture into a conversation."

    Colby says that the company also uses Minapsys itself, to schedule meetings and other business tasks that require input from all employees. In another example, he says a Minapsys board member used the program to help solve an issue in his own company by sending a question out via Minapsys to the managers of the company and then showing and discussing the results in a meeting.

    Right now, Colby says, Minapsys is a free service. It soon will be launching its second version, a subscription-based service, which probably will run about $7 a month, and will allow both a company to have one subscription for all its employees as well as continuing to offer individual subscriptions.

    Colby says that for now, the business is self-funded. He says that he's learned from other products he's launched that if a software company initially offers its product for free, a certain percentage of users will return once it becomes a paid service.

    The second version of Minapsys, which the company expects to launch in the next few months, Colby says, will offer a mind master three options: Ask a question to a group and receive responses with no ratings, or ask a question once and receive rated answers. The third option is automatic elaboration, which would allow people to view, elaborate and rewrite answers after viewing their peers' responses before the ranking process begins. The automatic elaboration feature isn't offered in the current version, Colby says.

    "Our system will show when people change their answers," Colby says. "It shows their thinking."

    Aaron Colby, Mark Colby's nephew and lead system engineer at Minapsys, says that the new product also will have a more precise rating algorithm.

    Operations leader and engineer Colin Atherton says that the second version of Minapsys will offer large companies more industry-specific features and will be able to be installed behind a firewall, as well as new visual effects.

    "Currently there's no limit for how many minds can participate," Atherton says. "With the current product, it's hard to visualize that. The new product will have some new cool visualization features."

    Colby and Atherton say the company will still keep the free services available to customers, even after the launch of the subscription-based version, and although that version will have more features, the free version will still be beneficial for users.  

    "The base product will stay free," Atherton says. "We take a lot of pride that our free product is pretty damn useful."

    Colby was raised in Japan, he says, but came back to the U.S. to attend college at Eastern Washington University and the University of Washington. He then returned to Japan for about 25 years, where he says he started 14 health care-based businesses in the Asian market.

    Colby got the idea for Minapsys while still in Japan, he says, after his company at the time branched into the online learning industry. Once in that business, Colby says he realized that remote programs had problems engaging and keeping learners' attention.

    "It's not a really engaging way to learn," he says. "That's been our experience. I was really wracking my brain about what could we do to make e-learning more engaging."

    Colby says the basic idea for the company then came to him in an epiphany, and he began to work toward filing a patent for the program, which he did 2 1/2 years ago through one of his Japanese companies, he says.

    "We initially decided to launch in the Japanese health care market, but then realized it was really beyond that market" in terms of the range of industries that likely would find it useful, Colby says. "At that point, I decided to start Minapsys."

    Colby came up with the name for the company, he says, by merging the words "mind" and "synapse."

    He decided to move the business back here, and the company officially launched the program in the states about five weeks ago at a trade show in Las Vegas, he says. The company is being funded by employee investments, Colby says, adding that its current employees were hired here in the U.S.

    Colby says that when Minapsys was first testing its software, the patent protocol it was considering called for 32 people per inquiry. For one test run, he says, it was four people short, so he asked Aaron Colby, a freshman at Washington State University at the time, and some of his friends to help out.

    "They participated in three inquiry sessions about issues like gun control along with lawyers, doctors, etc.," Colby says. "And three for three, the consensus chosen was from the same person. Not the lawyers or the academics, it was an 18-year-old freshman. This product gives a voice to everyone."

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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