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It was a case of mis-information that led Patrick Utz ’20 to realize Americans were missing information.
In the spring 2019 semester, Utz was an LMU computer engineering major and residential hall advisor. In the nation’s capital, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., introduced the Green New Deal. A student in Utz’s building insisted that the legislation would ban airplanes.
“I thought, wait a second, that sounds off,” Utz says. “I went to congress.gov and I read the entire bill and I found no mention of airplanes at all.”
The truth wasn’t complicated, but Utz realized that the fact-finding process was. Searching for and utilizing the texts of pending and proposed laws across a hodge-podge of federal and state government websites was an opaque and outdated mess.
The entrepreneur had his eureka moment. He raced out to meet electrical engineer Mohammed Hayat ’20 and connect with his childhood friend Matthew Chang. “I called Matt and put him on speaker phone,” Utz says. “We’re like, ‘Oh my God, we just had the most incredible problem occur. We’re frustrated. This is the perfect thing to solve with software.’”
And thus the idea for a new business was born. “Washington Abstract is a modern, accessible and collaborative tool that helps experts track, organize and impact legislation. We’re building a community where people and organizations can annotate legislation, share resources and act on pressing issues,” says Utz, the company’s co-founder and CEO. (Hayat is co-founder and CTO and Chang, co-founder and CPO.)
On Jan. 27, Washington Abstract launched to a select group of users from the likes of chambers of commerce, trade associations, labor unions, non-profits, universities and corporations.
David Choi, professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Fred Kiesner Center for Entrepreneurship in the LMU College of Business Administration, helped the founders get to this moment. Washington Abstract blossomed in Choi’s fall 2019 LMU Business Incubator course, and he knows how committed the founders are.
“I introduced Patrick to one chamber of commerce,” Choi says. “And then a week later, he was talking to 20 of them, and then 60 organizations. This is the kind of crazy work ethic you need to have.” Choi believes Washington Abstract has a “very good chance” of becoming successful. “The idea of doing good and doing well is a very common thought for people these days,” he says.
“Patrick was not thinking about how to monetize Washington Abstract,” Herbst says. “He was thinking about a problem to solve: transparency in democracy.”
David Herbst ’91 is the founder and managing partner of Vectis Strategies, a national public relations and public affairs consulting firm, as well as a member of the LMU Board of Regents and a Washington Abstract investor. Herbst says his first impression of Utz was ofearnestness and sincerity, as well as concern not just for creating a product but answering a need. “Patrick was not thinking about how to monetize Washington Abstract,” Herbst says. “He was thinking about a problem to solve: transparency in democracy.”
Herbst sees a win-win scenario. “It’s going to give nonprofits access they didn’t have before, and it’s going to help government staff. And for lobbyists like me, it’s going to be a collaboration tool as we review and mark up bills.” Herbst says. “At the same time, it’s all about making better, faster access to government. And that is a fundamentally good thing.”
Some other big-name Washington Abstract backers include Stage Venture Partners, Amplify.LA and Tony Coelho ’64. Among his career highlights, Coelho served in Congress as House Majority Whip, chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, authored the American with Disabilities Act and funded The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at LMU Loyola Law School.
In 1978, when Coelho first ran for Congress, he depended on newspapers for information about bills. Later, at the DCCC, staff would seek out material from congressional committee staff. Even today, Utz hears stories of people printing out bills that are hundreds or thousands of pages long, editing by hand, scanning the pages and emailing the pages to peers.
“Whereas with Washington Abstract, it’s constant and current,” Coelho says. “The quicker you get it and the more accurate it is, that makes your whole day easier. It’s a tremendous tool.”
Jeremy Rosenberg, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and consultant. His “Under Spring, Voices + Art + Los Angeles” received the first California Historical Society Book Award in 2013. Rosenberg’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the OC Weekly, at KCET.org and elsewhere. Follow him @LosJeremy.