Software Meets Science

How the co-founders of a tech start-up are bringing scientific thinking to business.

Anna Powell Denton

Conversation comes easily when you’re talking with Luke Jacobs (B.S. ’15, Environmental Science) and Dan Smedema (B.S. ’15, Cognitive Science). They’re affable and relaxed, quick to laugh and careful to listen, and just a few minutes into our interview the pair already feels familiar to me, as if they’re old acquaintances from high school or a bygone job. Dressed in jeans and plain t-shirts, they answer questions with an easygoing air, though the topics at hand are hardly simple.

Jacobs and Smedema are two of the three founders of Encamp, an Indianapolis-based software company. Built from the ground up — “I wrote every line of code myself until we hired our first engineer,” Smedema says — their software-as-a-service platform helps companies understand and manage environmental compliance requirements. Theirs is a service that may sound like a niche product at first, but the companies that need such software range from big-box stores to grocery chains to food and beverage companies and chemical plants.

“People have no idea how much reporting there is to be done,” Smedema says. “It’s a sector that’s almost completely invisible to the people outside of it. If a company has more than two or three forklifts, for instance, there’s enough sulfuric acid and lead in the batteries of those forklifts that it has to be reported to agencies. If you have a big parking lot, you have to sample rainwater runoff. There are things you have to file monthly, things you have to file yearly, things you have to report when certain events happen. It’s a much larger space than most people realize.”

Smedema (left) and Jacobs (right) pose in the hallway of Encamp's office in Indianapolis.

In many ways, Encamp is a consummate start-up tech company — Silicon Valley comes to the Hoosier State — but at the heart of its software is an earnest passion for conservation and combatting climate change.

“We want to create a world where ‘good for business’ also means ‘good for the environment,’” Jacobs says. “The central thesis is that the easier it is for companies to ensure they’re in compliance, the more likely it is that additional companies will put those systems in place to make sure they’re in compliance, as well.”

Our interview is only an hour and a half, but again and again we return to topics just like this: talk of hypotheses and testing, trial and error, a happy willingness to admit when something’s not working in an effort to learn and change. With Jacobs as the company’s chief executive officer and Smedema architecting its software, the very DNA of Encamp is built from this kind of analytical thinking.

“We do hypothesis testing with basically everything,” Jacobs says. “Sales. Engineering. Functionality. We work hard to avoid being dogmatic about the way we do things. It’s that Elon Musk heuristic, you know? ‘Your only goal is to be less wrong.’”

Starting up

To a large extent, the pair’s nonchalance belies the incredible success they’ve achieved with their company. Founded in 2017, Encamp recently raised $12 million in Series B funding, marking one of the biggest rounds raised in Indiana this year, according to the Indiana Business Journal. Their revenue grew by 800 percent in 2020, and the company now includes more than 50 full-time employees and is still growing rapidly. That’s a far cry from four years ago, when Jacobs and Smedema first started hashing out their idea for the software platform and its related business.

“I’m sure a lot of young people would feel daunted by the prospect of starting their own company,” I say, “but it doesn’t seem like that was the case for you two.”

“Well, no, I definitely felt daunted,” Smedema says with a laugh. “But you have to deal with that, right? You just have to work through it.”

The pair first met as freshmen at IU, when they were both selected to be part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Integrated Freshmen Learning Experience. Jacobs worked in a bio-geochemistry lab, and by his senior year had a budget to run his own research project in environmental science, a project that eventually led to a publication in the Journal of Ecology. After graduating, Jacobs worked as a research associate for a Department of Energy ecosystem monitoring project while Smedema worked in Madison, Wisc., as a programmer for the healthcare software company Epic.

But the pair had become close friends in undergrad, and they continued to keep in touch. While visiting his parents in Indianapolis, Smedema caught up with Jacobs one afternoon and the pair began idly exploring business ideas.

“Luke must have thrown out six different start-up ideas that were all terrible,” Smedema says.

“Some of them were tongue-in-cheek, to be fair,” Jacobs adds.

“Yes, that’s true. It was just conversation. It was just fun. But a couple months passed, and then he started telling me about his idea for Encamp, and I did my own research and it all checked out.”

"We do hypothesis testing with basically everything," Jacobs says. "Sales. Engineering. Functionality. We work hard to avoid being dogmatic about the way we do things."

Together with Luke’s brother — Arizona State alumnus Sam Jacobs, who had experience in human resources software — the pair started considering how their combined backgrounds in environmental science, programming, and HR could be applied to a company in the environmental health and safety space. The Jacobs brothers went on a weeklong backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon and spent the whole time discussing how they could make the company work. Soon after, all three took a leap and quit their jobs to found Encamp, and Smedema moved from Wisconsin back to Indiana.

“When else would I get the chance to take this opportunity?” he says now. “I knew there was no better time in my life.”

For almost a year, Encamp consisted solely of the Jacobs brothers and Smedema.

“We started the company with $12,000 in the bank and figured, if we each paid ourselves $900 a month, we could run it for three months and see where we got,” Luke says. “And at the end of those three months, we knew that we were onto something. We cobbled together another $10,000 and kept working at it, until after about eight months we closed a bunch of customers and finally were at a point where the business was attractive to venture capitalists and ready to grow and raise an actual round.” 

Doors and decisions

So much of Encamp’s success, it seems to me, comes from Smedema and Jacobs’ scientific backgrounds. Their specific areas of expertise are certainly a boon, but even more than this, Encamp’s growth is clearly the result of certain analytical tendencies: that willingness to experiment, to course-correct, to strive to be less wrong.

“Someone not doubting themselves,” Smedema says, “or not being open to criticism is the strongest indicator to me that they actually have no idea what they’re doing. Disproving a hypothesis is still progress. If things are going along with the model that you have, sure, that’s good because you’re being successful, but you’re not necessarily learning anything. You only learn when you get something wrong, or when someone teaches you something.”

We talk a lot about the operation of the company itself and the pair’s approach to guiding Encamp from its inception to its current size. When it comes to decision-making in all its varied forms, Jacobs and Smedema often think in terms of one-way doors and two-way doors.

“If I’m making a given decision,” Jacobs says, “and it doesn’t work, can I quickly go back out that door? Or is it something that, once we commit to that route, that’s it? You know, we’ve burned the boats and we’re on the new shore.”

“And something that goes along with that,” Smedema adds, sitting a little straighter in his seat, “if you have the opportunity to defer on walking through a one-way door, always do it. Sometimes, yes, you have to pick a door and go through it, but you’re only going to have more and better information in the future, so whenever you can defer on a one-way door, do it.”

"Someone not doubting themselves," Smedema says, "or not being open to criticism is the strongest indicator to me that they actually have no idea what they’re doing. Disproving a hypothesis is still progress."

There’s a kind of elegance to this brand of thinking, a simple sensibility that stands in stark contrast to so many of the qualities often associated with tech start-ups: blustery wunderkinds full of hubris and certainty, vying to be king of the silicon hill.

“Culturally,” Jacobs says, “I think Indiana is a place where asking someone, ‘Can you help me understand this better?’ isn’t frowned upon. It’s smart. You’re seen as prudent enough to ask questions and get advice, but in the Valley, I think there’s a bit more posturing. You know, ‘Why would I ever ask you a question? I can figure it out on my own.’”

Indiana — and specifically Indianapolis — has been good to Encamp. A portion of their Series A funding was provided by the IU Philanthropic Venture Fund, and Smedema and Jacobs are quick to thank the support they’ve received from Indianapolis’ local business network.

“People are really trying to create an ecosystem and a culture here,” Jacobs says. “High Alpha, Allos Ventures, the different accelerator networks that are growing here — these venture firms and programs are really invested in making the entire city and its tech ecosystem grow. I’ve been amazed at how much free mentorship we’ve gotten from skilled people.”

Chalk that up to Midwestern camaraderie, or perhaps the fact that Encamp’s work feels truly necessary, even urgent. I ask Smedema and Jacobs what they fear — what keeps them up at night — and not surprisingly climate change is the first thing that’s mentioned.

“What we’re actually doing to the Earth’s systems,” Jacobs says, “climate change, habitat loss: It’s terrified me ever since I first started reading about the data.”

He thinks for a moment, looking away, and it seems fitting that Jacobs’ next thought is one rooted in scientific analogy.

“We’re essentially running a gigantic experiment that we’ve never tested before,” he says, “and we have one sample. That’s Earth, and we get one try.”

Raymond Fleischmann

Raymond Fleischmann is director of advancement communications for the College of Arts and Sciences and serves as the primary editor for The College magazine. He holds a B.A. in English and the Individualized Major Program from Indiana University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Ohio State University. His first novel, How Quickly She Disappears, was published by Penguin Random House in January 2020, and his short fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, The Pinch, River Styx, and Los Angeles Review, among many others. Reach him at rfleisch@indiana.edu or through his website raymondfleischmann.com.