Bill Naab and Akash Desai have big plans for their Buffalo-based startup

By Dan Miner
Buffalo Business First

Akash Desai, owner of Ink Labs in West Seneca
Akash Desai, owner of Ink Labs in West Seneca. (Buffalo Business First file photo)

Ink Labs was founded on the back of major ambitions this January.

The team included Bill Naab, an elementary teacher turned K-12 hardware salesman, who believed there was a more affordable way of putting technology into the hands of teachers.

Then there was Akash Desai, the former co-owner of IVR Technology Group, which was sold in 2019. Desai subsequently formed an investment entity, Redbridge, to look for opportunities to bring his experience to new companies. Desai committed more than a half-million dollars of his own money to start Ink Labs.

The initial gist of the West Seneca startup was to target overlooked customers in the K-12 market such as private, charter and small public schools.

The company works with Asian manufacturing partners to develop customized classroom smartboards and then sell them in the U.S. at a considerably lower cost than competitors, Desai and Naab said.

It’s a pathway to a significant commercial opportunity, where Ink Labs starts building software that can facilitate the different ways smartboards are used in teaching.

“There’s a lot of money being charged for these panels and we thought, ‘We can give the schools a great product and do the right thing because we don’t want to just squeeze them for every dime they’ve got," Desai said. "So we came up with a comparable product at a much lower price point.”

Ed-tech startups were born to fail at the altar of customer acquisition, which involves a brief annual buying window and a bureaucracy that makes decisions with a different psychology than in other industries.

Ink Labs has someone who knows the landscape. Naab started as a teacher in the Alden and Akron school districts, then went to Erie 1 BOCES and ultimately started selling ed-tech hardware on behalf of other companies.

He said he’s been waiting for an opportunity like Ink Labs to use his connections to beta test solutions for teachers and winning business as a result.

“We are saying to teachers, ‘Get out the magic wand, the crystal ball, and help us envision what kind of tech is going to be driving education going forward,' ” Naab said. “If we can put those things into practice and become a true incubator or laboratory devoted exclusively to education, it’s something I’ve been looking for my entire life.”

Covid-19 put a damper on the company’s expectations for 2020, but it still reached customers around the U.S. and has already surpassed $2 million in revenue. Desai’s loan to the company already has been repaid. And Desai and Naab said it’s only the beginning of an expansive vision.

“We are becoming much more software-centric, and we’re preparing to have a much larger channel footprint across the nation,” Desai said. “We are testing in the local market, and then we are handing our products over to resellers who see it working in New York.”

This article originally appeared in Buffalo Business First.