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UBC alumni develop platform to help small businesses navigate financial aid during COVID-19 pandemic

“We’re not first-line responders. We don’t have any medical expertise [but] what we do have are tech skills,” said Ali Serag, a UBC computer science alumnus in an interview with The Ubyssey. “So, how can we help?”

A line of reasoning echoed by UBC students and faculty alike, this question has spurred a group of UBC alumni to put their financial and technological skills to work in an effort to help local small businesses suffering from the effects of COVID-19.

CovidImpact was built with the intention of helping small businesses navigate the dense network of news and government programs that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic.

The application, developed by four UBC alumni — Ali Serag, Alberto Cevallos, Salman Alam and Kelso Curtis — aims to curate government aid and news applicable to impacted small businesses. CovidImpact also contains a business assessment tool to simulate a company’s runway— the amount of time left before a business runs out of money.

Serag and Cevallos met during their undergrad, where they began working on personal projects together and found they had a complementary workflow. All four students eventually founded a startup in the financial technology sector, which has proven to be invaluable throughout the development of CovidImpact. The business connections the team members have garnered through their work in the sector gave them insight into the issues local small businesses were encountering, which have only been heightened after the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.

“[We] kept hearing the same thing again and again from local business owners,” said Serag. “Like, ‘When are they going to announce relevant support for us?’ or ‘When is the government going to create a funding program that’s targeting me? How am I supposed to pay my rent?’ … People kept on saying ‘My revenue is going down and I’m losing everything.’ For us it was absolutely disheartening.”

The team hopes that CovidImpact can satisfy the need for a single platform that streamlines current information available to suffering small businesses. The website offers information on applicable financial aid from Canadian provincial and federal governments and utilizes News API to curate headlines relevant to small businesses.

While the team claims the response to the application so far has been great, they have big plans for building on and expanding it in the near future. They hope to expand the platform so that business owners can apply for aid directly from their site— eliminating the need for them to sort through complex and oftentimes confusing government applications.

The outpouring of volunteers in response to the site has made these plans a lot more feasible.

“Some people just came up to us and said, ‘We want to add a chatbot functionality to it.’ So they’re working on that,” said Cevallos. “That’s one of the ones I’m really personally interested in.”

Since the platform was launched, people from all backgrounds of the UBC community have contacted the team hoping to contribute their time and skills to building the platform.

“We were absolutely blown away by the response. Within a day of launching, messages just started pouring in with people from all backgrounds wanting to jump in and help, from code ninjas to wordsmiths that didn’t know how to write a line of code … but were talented at writing or making posts on social media,” said Serag. “We even got some messages from professors and startups wanting to contribute.”

“It was super heartwarming seeing how everyone was coming together. Although we’re socially distancing, all sorts of people virtually are converging and that was really beautiful to see,” he added.