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A fresh start to fight poverty

Student startup seeks to streamline debt-elimination process

Upsolve software engineer Milton Syed, A.B. '18, an applied mathematics and computer science concentrator, Upsolve co-founder Rohan Pavuluri, A.B. '18, a statistics concentrator, and Harvard President Drew Faust celebrate the startup's award during the 2017 President's Innovation Challenge.

For millions of low-income Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck, all it takes is one unexpected life event to set off a downward spiral into crushing debt.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, which wipes out certain types of debt for individuals, presents a viable option for many who struggle through financial turmoil. But the complicated filing process often seems overwhelming.

Upsolve, a nonprofit startup co-founded by Rohan Pavuluri, A.B. ’18, a statistics concentrator pursuing a secondary in computer science, uses technology to streamline the Chapter 7 Bankruptcy filing process. Upsolve’s goal is to empower the underserved individuals this form of financial protection is intended to help.

“Chapter 7 Bankruptcy is a valuable government benefit for people who face sudden financial shocks,” Pavuluri said. “The same way that unemployment insurance or subsidized housing are government benefits available for those who have hit hard times, Chapter 7 Bankruptcy helps people get back on their feet.”

The startup was born out of Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab in 2016. Pavuluri, who had an interest in the intersection between tech and government, developed the concept after conducting research for a financial distress project. He enrolled in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) course Startup R&D (ES 95r), taught by Paul Bottino, Executive Director of TECH and Lecturer on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to develop the skills he would need to refine his idea and launch the company. That initiative paid off; in May, Upsolve claimed the grand prize in the Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise category of the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge, earning $75,000 in prize money.

That seed funding will be critical for Upsolve’s future growth, Pavuluri said, but equally important is the vote of confidence for the business concept, which offers a user-friendly web application to help people get back on their financial feet faster.

Typically, those who file for Chapter 7 protection face a three-month wait for an appointment at a legal aid clinic, followed by a series of meetings with an attorney, who fills out and files court paperwork. The overcomplicated process takes about five to 10 hours of an attorney’s time and requires an individual to take two or three days off work for meetings and court appearances, Pavuluri explained.

Upsolve removes several steps from the process. Individuals use the website to complete Chapter 7 forms, guided by questions carefully crafted to simplify legalese. A legal aid clinic attorney reviews completed paperwork, contacts the individual to flesh out any additional details, and then files in court.

Because Upsolve works with nonprofit legal aid clinics, the startup’s services, which are offered free of charge to clients, will not result in lost income for attorneys, Pavuluri said.

“By making a five- to 10-hour process a one-hour process for these legal aid attorneys, we can enable them to help five to 10 times as many individuals,” Pavuluri said.

The website also provides educational resources that explain the basics of Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, the method and consequences involved in filing, and advice to help individuals determine their best option.

The startup has partnered with legal aid clinics in New York and, since its inception, has helped erase $2 million in debt for more than 40 low-income residents.

The biggest challenge Pavuluri faced as he developed the web-based tool was ensuring that questions would be easy to understand, especially for underserved individuals who have limited knowledge of financial jargon or the U.S. court system.

In order to maintain a user-centric approach, Pavuluri relied on lessons from ES 95r, which offers undergraduate entrepreneurs support, advice from business experts, and a close-knit network of startup-minded peers.

He is grateful for the support of that network as he opens a new chapter for Upsolve. Pavuluri has applied for government funding to fuel a major expansion, with the vision of partnering with legal aid clinics and serving clients in all 50 states.

“I am obsessed with impact; it is what gets me up in the morning and what gives me purpose each day,” he said. “In my mind, Upsolve is making the best kind of impact. We are comforting the uncomfortable, serving people who are vulnerable, and providing value to the underserved.”

Topics: Entrepreneurship

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