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Startup Aiming to Help Prisoners Return to Society Pulls in $3M Seed Round

Acivilate's funding round includes money from a public-private venture firm that the state of Georgia has capital invested in.

After three years of user research, networking and good old-fashioned bootstrapping, a Georgia startup focused on helping people successfully return from prison to society has its first venture capital funding.

That’s not always how it goes in the world of tech startups. Many young outfits shoot for investment money on aggressive timetables, or build products and start signing up customers quickly with plans to build out better functionality later.

Acivilate isn’t most startups. After co-founding the company in 2014, Chief Executive Officer Louise Wasilewski spent time interviewing the people who would be using the company’s flagship product — returning citizens, nonprofits, court administrators, corrections workers — in Maryland, Ga., and Washington, D.C. They wanted to make sure those people would use the product once they built it.

“We spent a long time making sure we were headed in the right direction before hiring developers,” Wasilewski said.

Now the company has wrapped up a $3 million seed round, led by Atlanta-based BIP Capital with participation from the public-private venture firm GRA Ventures. That is to say, a venture firm with capital from the state of Georgia itself is putting resources behind Acivilate. That helps, Wasilewski said, because it can be hard for companies outside tech hot spots to attract investors.

“There are great ideas outside New York and Silicon Valley that may lack capital,” she said.

There might be more money on the way — the seed round has a “rolling close,” meaning certain other investors will have a chance to jump in before the end of the year.

The seed round’s first close actually follows a grant GRA gave to a Kennesaw State University researcher in early 2017 in order to measure the effectiveness of Acivilate’s product, called Pokket. It’s signed up three jurisdictions, including about 130 people in Gwinnett County, Ga., and will run metrics on things like recidivism rates as people use the tool more.

“Human services, corrections — everyone is interested now in having interventions be evidence-based,” Wasilewski said.

Pokket is, in so many words, a case management system designed with departments of corrections and other government agencies in mind as customers. But it’s a CMS for an exceedingly tricky and involved area of government work. As a person in prison transitions back to regular life, they might be working with an employment agency, a housing agency, a parole officer and other government points of contact. But those people all tend to work separately.

Acivilate’s software brings a person’s information into one place.

“There’s no way to see how those things fit together to identify if these agencies are actually requiring a person to be in two different places at the same time on Tuesday afternoon each week,” she said.

Even more than that, she said, Pokket lets returning citizens see their own data more easily. Most CMS software is designed for the case worker, but Wasilewski wants to make Acivilate’s software work just as well for the people whose names are in those case files.

“It is a way to gradually empower and gradually transfer responsibility to an individual who has been institutionalized,” she said. “The sort of behaviors that make you successful in prison — be quiet and do what you’re told — are the opposite in some ways from what it takes to be successful on the outside.”

Now that the company has investment capital, Wasilewski said it will hire more customer support staff and more developers. One piece of functionality it wants to add to Pokket is the ability to write resumés. Whereas many people wait until they leave prison to start searching for jobs, Wasilewski thinks she can help them apply before they get out.

“Having a resumé when you walk out the door will make a huge difference,” she said. “If you’re not really ready to look for work until 30 days after you’re released, you’re already behind.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.