When Jackson native Nashlie Sephus was working on her doctorate degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), she met Jewel Burks. Burks had a startup business idea that came out of her work in customer service at the parts department of a manufacturing company.
The idea came from a common problem Burks had dealt with—people call the parts department of manufacturers and try to describe the part to a customer service representative. It’s often a time-consuming process, made even worse if the wrong part shows up days later.
Burks, a business professional who saw the market potential, asked Sephus if she could help solve this problem with technology. Sephus, who was studying machine learning and image recognition for her Ph.D., thought it was a great idea for a company.
She also liked the idea of working with another ambitious African American woman on the project.
“I decided to help her even though we were facing a big challenge,” Sephus said, about both the problem they were trying to solve and Sephus’ own responsibilities academically. “We were able to build prototypes to take a picture and recognize the image. We would put a penny next to the part and use it as a point of reference to measure the part… that was different from what people where doing at the time.”
Partpic was born, and based on the prototype work, it met with success, especially by way of pitch competitions. Partpic got to the finals at TechCrunch SF 2014, won Nashville’s 36/86 in 2015, won the SXSW 2016 Accelerator Pitch and won $100,000 from Revolution’s “Best of the Rest” competition in 2015.
Over time, the company was able to raise $1.5 million and the team grew from three people to 10.
Early in the company’s life, Sephus turned to a childhood friend, Ivan Walker, for help. Both had been in the APAC program in Jackson Public Schools as middle schoolers, and both had graduated from Murrah High School. Sephus got her bachelor’s from Mississippi State; Walker got a bachelor’s and master’s from Jackson State University.
Walker moved to Georgia Tech for Ph.D work, starting his studies focused on “real-time” big data aggregation, but then changing fields to the study of behavior-based robotics. Ultimately, he settled on work to advance neurological interfaces for computing.
Sephus got Walker involved at Partpic on a contract basis in 2013; later, once the company was more fully funded, Walker came on board full-time in 2015. Sephus left a consulting job in New York and moved back to Atlanta around that same time to serve as CTO for the company full-time.
Pitch competitions and conferences played a strong part in the success of Partpic; at a conference in Boston in May of 2016, where Sephus gave a presentation about Partpic, a man approached her and gave her a business card; he worked at Amazon and—unlike a lot of the business card exchanges that happen at conferences—he actually called after the conference.
Once Partpic proved that the product worked and it cleared the legal and accounting hurdles, the company was acquired in November of 2016 by Amazon, retaining its Atlanta location and much of its team.
Sephus points to the many different pitch competitions and conferences they attended with Partpic as an important part of growing the company and building awareness for it. She notes that winning the “Best of the Rest” competition put them on the radar of Steve Case (founding CEO of AOL), who wrote about Partpic in his book “The Third Wave.”