Successful Startup Provides Park with a Perspective on Balancing Academic Research with Entrepreneurial Energy

11/17/2022 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Illinois CS professor Yongjoo Park reflected upon his experience as a co-founder of the data learning company Keebo, which recently earned $10.5 million in Series A funding.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

When Yongjoo Park joined the Illinois Computer Science faculty two years ago, he held the title of co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) with a startup company called Keebo. He also had a firm grasp of how a passion for entrepreneurship can combine with a grounding in academic research to move projects forward the right way.

Yongjoo Park
Yongjoo Park

This past month, Keebo found further validation through $10.5 million in Series A funding.

From its origin as a startup in Ann Arbor, Michigan – where Park received his PhD from the University of Michigan – to the moment Keebo received its Series A funding, Park played an integral role. Now, he has decided to take a step back with the company – where he still serves as chief scientist – to allow the company a chance to staff up appropriately due to the funding increase and to focus on his faculty responsibilities here at Illinois CS.

“What I’ve learned along the way as co-founder of Keebo is that you can begin an entrepreneurial idea based on academic research with the benefit of time,” Park said. “Rather than feeling rushed, we had the time to incubate and test an idea properly through our research and publications. We brought the expertise from our research experience to make even broader impacts with a business.

“Receiving this Series A funding is a great moment, because it’s the signal that we have, again, proven ourselves at Keebo in terms of a product market fit.”

Barzan Mozafari
Barzan Mozafari

The idea for Keebo sparked from research that Park was conducting as PhD student with his advisor, Barzan Mozafari, focused on building intelligent data-intensive systems using statistical and Artificial Intelligence techniques.

The company’s description, according to the Keebo website focuses on its technology:

“Keebo’s data learning technology is a turn-key cloud solution that automates and accelerates analytics efforts and delivers significant time and cost savings. Keebo integrates seamlessly into existing infrastructure and ensures sub-second latencies for both dashboard and ad hoc queries, regardless of which BI or data warehouse/lake technology is in use. Keebo’s technology has allowed enterprise teams to successfully accelerate their analytical queries by up to 100x and significantly reduce their manual efforts without requiring any modifications to their existing applications.”

Prior to Keebo’s founding, Park said it was an amazing and organic moment when companies reached out to him and Mozafari, expressing an interest in their ideas.

It was at that point the duo formed Keebo, even though they hadn’t promoted the concept.

“We published some papers related to the idea of how we can improve the systems outside of the existing systems,” Park said. “And then some people found out about our data repositories and sent us emails, expressing interest in the concept in general. This included companies like, Dunnhumby – which is a UK DSS company – and then The Score was a local AEO. Then a big one was Walmart.

“I then got pretty excited that our research project could draw the interest of a few notable entities without even marketing it or attempting to spread the word.”

Park became responsible for developing the system to make sure it was of sound quality and something they could present to prospective clients.

Mozafari helped guide the technology while also working as CEO to bring in new business and manage clients.

As CTO, Park said he was responsible for the big picture with the technology, while also serving as a “handyman” – problem shooting any issues that came up. Because it was a small startup, he enjoyed being very hands-on with the product.

Over time, that initial interest turned into some financial support and eventually the first customer. Keebo now has many customers, and the reliability of its product helped deliver the Series A funding.

The growth from academic research to business idea to a full-fledged business engrossed Park.

“When this process began, we received seed funding as a sign that a few others have belief in your concept. Series A expands upon that belief to fortify your company’s ability to secure investment based on a business plan,” Park said. “As a founder, I viewed it as a quantum leap to go from zero customers to our first customer. Going from one to many more customers is relatively easy, but that initial customer – that is the hardest part.

“So, the fact that we have achieved this milestone with Series A funding is significant.”

By helping see Keebo through to this point before stepping aside from the company a bit for a lesser role was important to Park, too.

Now, he plans to bring that same energy and focus, combined with more experience, to his academic and entrepreneurial activities right here at Illinois CS.

“There is an energy here from the very top, as our department head, Nancy Amato, implores us to find the impact in our work,” Park said. “And at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign we have resources at our disposal across the university to do so.

“I’m still incubating other ideas that tie in naturally with the research capabilities here at UIUC. And I look forward to pursuing those ideas that I’m sure will benefit from the collaborative and supportive system in place.”

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This story was published November 17, 2022.