Innovation Ecosystem

The next big idea comes to fruition

The winner of the 2019 Brown Venture Prize, Formally, has won venture backing to scale up its legal business on the global market

Image courtesy of Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship website/File photo

The winning team of Formally is awarded the 2019 Brown Venture Prize pitch night on March 6, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Formally

The team at Formally. from left: Noah Picard, Briana Das, Emma Catlin, and Amelie Sophie Vavrovsky, the firm's founder

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/30/22
A winner for the Brown Venture pitch night from 2019 finds traction with venture backing for Formally, a new legal platform focused on overcoming immigration hurdles.
Is there a ready-made opportunity for Formally to jump into the massive immigration legal hurdles facing millions of refugees from Ukraine? Given the complexities of immigration law at the U.S. southern border, is there a way for Formally to change the way that legal claims for asylum are handled? When will the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship highlight the recent success of Formally in its newsletter? How does the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island recognize and honor disruptive startup companies such as Formally?
When ConvergenceRI asked Vavrovsky the question, quoting a line from Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “The longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme,” the reference seemed to elude her.
Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner, had written about the troubles in Northern Ireland, with the famous refrain, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” He had also written poems describing the findings of archaeological digs uncovering the remains of people preserved in the bogs of Ireland, where history seemed to go down, not outward. “We have no prairies/to slice the sun at evening,” Heaney began “Bogland,” followed by the realization that “Our pioneers keep striking/Inwards and downwards,” suggesting that “the bogholes might be Atlantic seepage” with a bottomless wet center.
The interdisciplinary nature of our existence depends on our ability to make leaps of innovation, a convergence of disparate ideas. It is not about rote learning to perform well on standardized tests.

PROVIDENCE – Three years ago, on a cold, snowy night in March, the startup Formally won first place in 2019 Brown Venture Prize, earning a check for $25,000.

The winning idea was based upon the frustrations of an international student confronting the convoluted U.S. immigration.

The firm’s founder, Amelie Sophie Vavrovsky, described the spark of her innovation: “As an international student, I have experienced just how convoluted the U.S. immigration process can be. From finding a credible immigration attorney to navigating outdated software and complex forms, the whole process is painstakingly slow and filled with frustration.”

The scene at the Brown Venture Prize in 2019 was one where serendipity seemed to reign. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Brown Venture Pitch Night draws an overflow crowd.”]

As ConvergenceRI reported: Nearly 500 folks crowded into the social hall on the first floor at the Hillel Center at Brown University on Wednesday evening, March 6, for the annual Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night, under the slogan, “Empowering the Next Big Idea,” sponsored by the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship.

For the past few years, Hillel has been serving as the temporary oasis for the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, which is scheduled to move in the next few weeks into its gleaming new home on Thayer Street, across from the Brown Bookstore and next to Shake Shack. [Indeed, as one attendee noted, it may have been one of the biggest crowds at Hillel since the High Holy Days.]

Like I always say, our methodology is teaching a structured process for [solving] problems,” said Danny Warshay, the executive director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, in an interview after the event, saying it was the biggest ever Venture Pitch Night. “The tagline we always use for what we do is: Solutions with impact. I think all the teams [that competed tonight] are good examples of that.”

The pitch night featured eight finalists – teams of young entrepreneurs affiliated with Brown, competing for $50,000 in prizes to jumpstart their startup business platforms, winnowed from 27 initial competitors.

The winner of the $25,000 first-place prize was Formally, which has created a platform to make applications in the immigration world for asylum, immigration and citizenship easier to fill out, having created an intuitive form filler process to empower both applicants and attorneys.

Fast forward to 2022
Formally, now calling itself a legal collaboration platform, has secured $2.3 million in funding, in a pre-seed round of financing led by Bessemer Venture Partners.

ConvergenceRI recently caught up with Amelie Sophie Vavrovsky, the CEO of the Formally, and asked her to describe in her own entrepreneurial journey.

ConvergenceRI: The last time we talked, you had just won the 2019 Brown Venture Prize with Formally. Describe the process of how Formally has now emerged into a new equity- backed firm, looking to transform the way that immigration law is practiced.
VAVROVSKY: We learned incredibly valuable lessons from our work with public interest groups, including how to make a complex legal process truly accessible.

This sharp focus on learning from users has allowed us to see the gaps in existing systems and how to best position Formally in the market.

Additionally, we discovered that other areas of the law also urgently needed a product like Formally, dramatically increasing the size of our total addressable market. While we still want to transform immigration, we also have ambitions to truly revolutionize the entire legal experience in other areas.

ConvergenceRI: Given the crisis in immigration and the many legal barriers, how does Formally change the playing field?
VAVROVSKY: Figuring out immigration typically involves a lot of resources, endless Google searches, and frustration. There just does not seem to be a good source of truth when it comes to finding credible information about different visas. That’s where Formally comes in.

For applicants, Formally helps you understand your immigration options, connect with a trustworthy attorney, and manage the entire process with workflows that just make sense.

ConvergenceRI: How does your entrepreneurial experience show how progressive business startups can succeed?
VAVROVSKY: I strongly believe that socially impactful companies are the future. As companies come under deeper scrutiny as it pertains to their social and environmental footprints, showing that you can do good by doing well will become more and more important.

From attracting top talent to building meaningful connections with customers, building companies in a socially intentional way is key, and investors agree.

ConvergenceRI: How did your experience at Brown and then at Stanford show you the way that, to quote the poet Seamus Heaney, “The longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme?”
VAVROVSKY: [admitting that she did not fully understand what was meant by the question] My work at both Stanford and Brown was deeply interdisciplinary and helped me understand problems from multiple different perspectives and initiate conversations between disciplines.

ConvergenceRI: At a time when diversity is under attack, how important is it for the legal voices of immigrants be heard and be represented?
VAVROVSKY: Including a diverse set of voices enriches any organization. The immigrant communities I belong to and work with tend to share American values around innovation, prosperity, and hard work.

Many of the most successful companies in the United States were built by immigrants. Including them in conversations is not charity but smart business and everyone benefits.

ConvergenceRI: What are the best metrics to use to measure your firm’s success moving forward?
VAVROVSKY: Aside from more traditional business metrics, we are also thinking carefully about how to measure customer experience.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
VAVROVSKY: These were great questions—nothing major to add here. You can also read our recent blog post here.

[Editor’s Note: Here is an excerpt from the blog post, describing the company’s journey..]

VAVROVSKY: At Formally, we’re on a mission to make legal processes accessible for everyone. Innovation has been slow in the legal industry, especially when it comes to leveraging technology for clients and consumers.

It’s 2022, and there’s still no easy way to find, hire, and collaborate with a lawyer, creating often insurmountable barriers for people seeking legal help.

That’s why today, we're excited to announce that we’ve raised a pre-seed round to further our mission, led by Bessemer Venture Partners [for $2.3 million], and joined by some of the most diverse funds and brightest minds in legal tech.

We first built Formally in response to a need we saw for thousands of asylum seekers. The first question on the U.S. asylum application reads: “Check this box if you also want to apply for withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture” – a question that is almost impossible to answer for anyone who is not an experienced attorney. This form, only available in English, is the first of many barriers that asylum seekers have to jump through for fundamental access to safety and security.

As we witness yet another refugee crisis in Ukraine, we know that creating more compassionate immigration experiences is more important than ever.

Most importantly, asylum is not the only area that needs Formally. Whether you’re applying for a founder visa, looking to file a personal protective order, or reviewing a simple contract, any interaction with the legal ecosystem can feel impossibly difficult, draining and expensive.

We believe that the entire legal buying and collaboration experience needs to be disrupted through empathic design and workflows that just make sense.

That’s why we built Formally: Our vision for the future is to build a legal collaboration and data sharing platform that makes legal work simple, transparent, and secure.

We believe in supercharging the critical work lawyers do: they went to law school to be change-makers and advocates, not to be stuck with task management, paperwork, or endless inboxes.

With Formally, we imagine a future where everyone has access to justice, lawyers can focus on problems that matter, and we take care of the rest.

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