The rate of students that emigrate from their native city to study is constantly increasing, whether for a year, a postgraduate degree or an entire university degree. Thus, these students must manage their academic needs, meet their deadlines, register for classes, find housing and identify entertainment options on their own, and almost blindly. But, what if instead of doing all of this, they had a friend that controlled all of this information and could help with all of these activities and any other doubts that may arise?
The young Frenchwoman Marjolaine Grondin had just this experience in 2009 when she began her studies at the University of California – Berkeley (USA). "There were so many things to do and it was really difficult to find everything I needed", she recalls. Upon returning to Paris (France), she realized that her situation wasn´t so uncommon and she decided to develop a solution. And thus, Jam was born: a virtual assistant specialized in resolving this type of situation. With this proposal, Grondin has been selected as one of MIT Technology Review´s Innovators Under 35 France 2016.
The young woman remembers her start: "At first, I thought 'c´est la vie' and that I´d better just accept it; I didn´t see it as a problem that could be solved." But Grondin was not going to just stand by idly, so she decided to create the first digital platform to connect students from her school to allow them to exchange advice.
On observing the students´ interactions during the first project, Grondin came to the conclusion that what they needed was a simple interface which would allow them to submit questions and receive clear and accurate responses personalized to their needs. The final result was Jam. This virtual assistant does not need to be installed on any device, but rather is always reachable via SMS or chat, just like a living, breathing contact.
Behind Jam´s inner workings is the team who developed an artificially intelligent and natural language processing software that digests the incoming questions. If the software identifies a clear topic, like searching for a room to rent in a shared apartment, the program proceeds to search for the solution online and summarize the available offers that most closely match the user´s requirements. Once this process has finalized, or in the event that the question has not been clearly understood, the company´s human team will be called to action, and will process the request and reply to the student with a message that contains the best options.
Grondin recognizes that this type of assistant exists in other arenas and that the software that her team has developed could be extended to other types of problems, but she prefers to focus on helping students. "There is real value in producing a customized product for students," she says, and this helps to avoid biting off more than one can chew or facing scalability problems. As a source of income, the French innovator has based her business model on agreements with companies interested in gaining access to student profiles, like recruiters to whom her company offers the best candidate for their job offerings from amongst the students registered on Jam´s platform.
"Concentrating on the student collective will help this start-up to focus on user experience and the associated services," says the director of Data Strategy and Analysis at IBM, Eric Brethenoux. This jury member for MIT Technology Review´s Innovators Under 35 France 2016 awards also believes that Jam "has ample potential for growth since student issues are similar everywhere [around the world] but finding solutions is a local endeavor."