Ask Aarik Gulaya why he chose the University of Notre Dame for his MBA, and he says the big draw was the Idea Center. “My background is primarily in startups and innovation organizations, so having a strong entrepreneur community was very important.”
Once on campus, Gulaya got involved with IDEA Center’s donor-supported Innovation Gold Fund that pairs students with faculty with technology to commercialize. He was connected with faculty founder Jane Cleland-Huang, a professor in the College of Engineering, whose company, SAFA, was using natural language processing and deep learning to enable teams to quickly validate operational safety in complex and evolving systems.
Gulaya, an avid gamer, was immediately drawn to SAFA. “Proving the safety of emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles, connected factories, and drones is incredibly difficult. My interest in SAFA stems from my time at a machine learning startup where artificial intelligence had an impact on the company's operating efficiency. I was excited by SAFA's ability to automate and optimize manual safety processes involved with society's future technologies. We are not only increasing the pace of technological innovation, but also allowing companies to build safer, more robust technology.”
Since joining SAFA in January 2021, Gulaya has served as an operational lead. In this role, he has validated product-market fit, secured potential development partners following MVP completion, collaborated with the tech team to understand the implementation of required functionality, built initial financial and market sizing models, and created marketing materials and strategies. Gulaya has also been involved with fundraising, including interfacing with venture capital firms.
To say Gulaya and the SAFA team have excelled in fundraising may be an understatement. SAFA has raised more than $440,000, including a $250,000 non-dilutive Partnerships for Innovation grant from the National Science Foundation. SAFA is currently in the midst of a $200,000 pre-seed round and has secured $125,000 in commitments.
Gulaya’s time with SAFA forced him to grow in ways he didn’t expect. While the experience has not been easy, he views each challenge as an opportunity. “The early days of getting my head around the technology was a pain point,” Gulaya admits. “The process of validating safety within a technology's operation, let alone applying machine learning to it, is very complex. My first conversations around this topic with industry professionals were painful. Determining if people would pay to use our solution was tough, too. I found that managing expectations, timelines, and finding alignment are difficult tasks but very important to the commercialization process.”
Following graduation in May, Gulaya will become CEO of SAFA. Though optimistic, he feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. “As much as I want success for myself, I feel a sense of duty to Jane, our engineering team, board of directors, the IDEA Center, and our investors. There is a constant push for perfection, but rarely do things go according to plan. How one copes can ultimately decide a startup’s fate.”