Pigeonly, a data company that empowers connections between the disfranchised and the free world, has secured a $1 million dollar seed round of financing from a leading group of technology investors that include Mitch Kapor (Kapor Capital), Erik Moore (Base VC), and Kesha Cash (Jalia Ventures). The company, which participated in the fourth cycle of NewME Accelerator, serves a unique audience that typically goes ignored, the prison population. “When people are locked away you kind of forget they exist, it’s and out of sight out of mind kind of thing” said Frederick Hutson, Founder & CEO of the company.
Currently, there are about 7000 prison institutions spread across the US in county, state, and federal institutions; it’s home to about 2.3 million inmates. While information about these inmates are public record most people can’t access or make use of this information because it is hard to find and no central repository to search exists. Pigeonly indexes all the prison and inmate related databases it can find, then algorithmically finds connections between various data points to create a knowledge graph of the prison population. One might think there’s little value in this type of data however, the company builds consumer facing products on top of it’s data platform to help facilitate communication between inmates and the outside world. Two of it’s products, Fotopigeon and Telepigeon, connect digital photos (mostly from cell phones) to inmates living in an analog world and lowers phone calls (recently a hot topic in the FCC) using VoIP technology. “We’re going to continue to build products and services that help inmates stay connected. It’s the difference between someone coming out of jail and seeing that he has options to succeed in society and re-committing a crime.”
The prison industry is an unlikely candidate for a tech startup to focus on. Hutson explains his big vision for Pigeonly as “bringing technology into an antiquated business market that hasn’t innovated for years.” He goes on to say, “The industry has gotten away with lackluster, over priced products and hasn’t evolved into the 21st century.” The $2 billion market spent on inmate related services each year is virtually untapped primarily because inmates are hard to reach. Inmates control about $500 million of that market directly with the other $1.5 billion being controlled by people in their networks, like friends and family. Any way you slice it the idea that there is little value in this market becomes moot.
Hutson came up with the idea based on his own experience of being incarcerated for over 4 years for trafficking marijuana. “Being in prison sucks, it forces you to slow down since your day-to-day schedule is literally out of your hands. During that time I became more aware of things that were happening around me like how hard it was for people in prison, like me, to stay connected to what was happening in life in the outside world. Pictures are huge part of that but in the 21st century it can be inconvenient for people to go to drugstores to print photos and the post office to ship them, so what happens is family and inmates slowly begin to lose touch. The same goes for inmate phone calls that are unnecessarily expensive. I wouldn’t have been able to solve these problems if I hadn’t experienced it for myself.”
The biggest thing Hutson says he’s learned since launching Pigeonly is to embrace your background rather than hiding it and t spend your time on the people who do get what you are trying to build rather than people who don’t.
The Pigeonly team plans to use the seed funding to hire additional team members, scale it’s existing user base, and launch additional products.