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TechVibe Talks to General Counsel Online and Fourth River Solutions

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting


TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.

Get a front row seat on how tech is making professional services more cost-effective, convenient and accessible.

Discover how General Counsel Online is leveraging a composite of technology solutions to bring the price and access of solid legal help to companies of all sizes.

We're also talking to Fourth River Solutions to see how they leverage graduate students to provide high-end consulting services to start-up companies. The formula helps startups and gives grad students new potential career opportunities.

So tune in and geek out with us!


It is time for some TechVibe Radio. You know how much I love getting behind the mic, talking to the women in the men making it happen here in Pittsburgh tech sector that is for sure.

Absolutely. So much fun. And we're so glad to have today's guest Yeah, we always jump right into it because we feel like every second Yeah, there's not enough. We can't. There's never enough time, every guest we talked to like, man, we could have 10 more minutes to talk to you. So we're gonna jump right into this today. Really, really excited to have Nicole Martucci here from Fourth River Solutions hanging out with us today. Welcome.

Thanks. Thanks for being here.

Yeah, of course.

Thank you so much for having me.

I'm always like starting off with, you know, who is Nicole? Like, you gotta you're busy person, man. You're juggling a lot of things right now. tells the drip tube we jump into a fourth rep is all about?

Absolutely. So. I am currently the CEO of Fourth River Solutions. I am also a fourth year PhD student at the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Wow, you're such a slacker.


I try I try pretty hard.

Today, HD for crying out loud, much. Being the CEO of a consulting setup, like four years.

Yeah, it's, it's a pretty, it's a pretty cool gig to have. It is a lot to juggle. But you know, I think fourth rivers is such a unique opportunity to have especially for for being a student and a graduate student. It just offers people opportunities that we wouldn't normally have access to as graduate students. So it's Yeah, it's a it's an amazing opportunity.

Can you tell us a little bit about about the PhD you're working? Sure. I am studying liver and or I guess the how the liver is injured and what causes it to regenerate? It's a pretty cool project. And the liver is a pretty it's it's pretty awesome Oregon, to be honest. It's the only internal organ that's able to regenerate completely on its own doesn't ever really regenerate.

Yeah, yeah. So you can cut out up to about 80% of your liver and it'll just grow back within a couple of months.

And it'll come back.

Yeah, it will come back. And so I'm, I'm studying that process of how it regenerates and kind of the molecular mechanisms of how can it regenerate without removal.

Can I get if he gets injured, it will regenerate and then that's kind of where if you have repeated injury with like alcohol abuse or drug abuse or any types of virus that's how your liver gets injured because it's constantly regenerating and then it becomes scarred so it's constantly trying to heal itself and then once it becomes scarred, it becomes pretty injured and doesn't really function very well. How did you get interested in liver? I kind of just fell into it To be honest, I mean, I guess it was it was a mix of both of falling into it but also I guess some family connections to liver disease, which is kind of how I first learned about the liver and how cool of an organ it was. And then the more I learned about it, the more I was like this is amazing work and I really just wanted to be involved with it. And then also at the University of Pittsburgh, you will find yourself doing liver work even if you don't want to do liver work.

Nicole, tell us tell us about Fourth River. Give us what you guys do cuz we're, we're big fans what you guys do it's it's a cool concept.

Absolutely. So we are a registered nonprofit in the state of Pennsylvania that is dedicated to educating PhD students about alternative career paths outside of academia. And so we use consultancy as a platform to do this. And so we take on graduate students as well as postdocs at various different universities across a pencil or across Pittsburgh, and we teach them basic business concepts. And then we throw them out and try to, you know, like, get them involved with the startup culture. And we work with clients on customer discovery and market research, market sizing, things like that. And we have some really cool partnerships that we've kind of developed over the past years. And so we bring in roughly about 10, to 12 engagements a year. And once our students are kind of trained in these concepts of how to how to do some of this business analysis work, you know, they work with the clients. And it's great, because, you know, not only are you, you know, making connections with the startup world in Pittsburgh, but you're also just learning about an entirely new field that you wouldn't normally have exposure to as a graduate student, because, you know, it's just it's so difficult to get outside of the academia mindset when you're a student, because that's our academics. That's all they know. So, so if who's, who's your customer, people who are running companies?

Yes, yeah. So we, we primarily work with early stage startups. And so they're normally a, I guess, maybe five, six people, companies that, you know, they usually already have an established idea, sometimes all they have is an idea. One of our clients actually just came out of New York City. And so that was really fun, because we're trying to broaden our reach a little bit. Um, and they were, their company was three people. They have been established for maybe about a year, and had this really awesome idea. And we're just kind of stuck with how to proceed. And so we kind of helped them make connections, we did customer discovery with them.

They pay you they pay?

Yes, yeah. So our engagements are paid, although it is a lot cheaper than a normal consultant firm, because we are students. But we also have some really cool contracts set up with life x and PLSG. Yeah, yeah. And so they have, you know, a specific client base that comes to them and do work with them. And then they kind of outsource us to do some of the work for some of their clients. And so that's been a really fantastic partnership, because it's, you know, mutually beneficial for both of us.

So do only work with life sciences and health kind of companies. We primarily do, I don't want to say we only do, I would say probably about 95% of the projects we do are in the life science and biotech field, the project that I was talking about in out of New York was actually in like plastic use, they were they were trying to, like reduce the single use plastics. And so that was kind of outside of our scope a little bit. And also just a lot of fun. Because sometimes a scientist, you don't want to always do science.

You probably bring a lot of rigor, don't have that don't have that. That they don't necessarily need the subject matter expertise. They need a little bit of rigor. Absolutely. Absolutely. Do people ever get a chance to after they graduate work with any of these companies? Yeah, actually. So we have one of our actually, most recent alumni. She recently finished up her postdoc a couple of weeks ago, actually, she just started working full time for one of the companies that she was doing an engagement with.

So fun. Yeah. I mean, that's the best way to build relationships. That's the best way through internships through real engagement, where you can really demonstrate your value and figure out what your interest level is. So that's awesome. Totally. There's a website. Is there a website?

Okay, out. Yes, exactly how it sounds.

That's really amazing. And so how does it How does the organization be kept up after everything? Among graduates, like how do you pass the baton? It's, it's I think that is, that's probably one of the hardest things to kind of balance in our organizations because there is such high turnover rate with. But I think, you know, the people who get involved a little bit earlier on in their education tend to have more of the leadership opportunity. So, you know, I, myself have been a member for three ever since early 2019. And I became CEO back in January, and I plan on saying, at least another year and a half. And so by the time I graduate, you know, I will have dedicated about three and a half to four years to fourth rivers. Um, and you have a guesser, do you have a successor or not yet?

But it's kind of just, it's really based on, you know, the people who put in the time and energy and everything like they want to be involved. Yeah, what's been the biggest thing you've gotten out of it? Because obviously, I mean, with with you being as long as you have and stepping up to the role CEO, you know, passion behind it, what is it that really fires you up with? kind of getting out of the lab? It has absolutely completely changed my career aspirations? 100%. I think when I first joined, I didn't really know what consultants do. I was like, I don't understand what do they consult on? You know, and it just completely opened up this world of just excitement. And you know, it's constantly evolving, I think the business world when it kind of overlaps with biotech and science, and yeah, so it's, it's completely changed my perspective on how I kind of view the business world. And really just, it's educated me, to be honest, you know, I've learned so much and so many different skills that I normally would not have been able to learn being a graduate student working in the lab.

That's amazing. I hear that. I'm like, Man, that's just gonna, that's just rounds you out, like, it's gonna make you do different things you weren't even thinking about before is opening doors.

And it's just, it's cool, you know, being a part of an actual company to as a student, because that's also something that you don't really normally have access to, you know, it's who who does a PhD, but also helps, you know, run a company. That's exactly, that's why we introduced you like, you're kind of busy.

So what's next for you?

For me? Um, I will I have about a year and a half to two years of my PhD left, so I'll be you know, chugging along in the lab still, but, um, you know, what's next for fourth rivers, I guess is we're really trying to work on our training of our members. And so we're trying to implement a micro MBA program for our members to get it kind of get certified rather than going through our own self self training, with business concepts. So that's something that I've been working on is a development of a micro MBA program, which is pretty cool. And then we're trying to also expand, you know, both out of life science and also primarily out of Pittsburgh, we're trying to recruit more from CMU and you can and Chatham and some other schools in the area.

I tell you what, Nicole, thank you so much for hanging out with us today. Everybody in the pool marcucci from fourth river solutions does love what you're up to and we wish you continued success. And if you're out there and you need their help, go to the website. Check them out at fourth river solutions calm and yeah, what a great way to get some great insight, great business building advice and help and also open some students minds to the business world as far as that goes. Great stuff Nicole.

So glad you're spending your Saturday morning here with us on tech vibe radio. This is Jonathan Kersting.

And this is Audrey Russo. We always talk some of the coolest people across Pittsburgh's tech sector people do an alternate types of things with technology. And today, I'm really excited for us to be talking to Rob Kost of General Counsel Online.

Yeah, what a cool model. I can't wait to talk to him about that. I mean, it's not necessarily it's in some ways, it's like lawyer as a service.

I think that's but it would be it's fun to talk to rob and see what he's doing with all this. Because I think it's such a cool solution. He can give us all the best details. That's for sure.

That's great. So let's talk about what you're up to coming to Pittsburgh here.

I began to think what the future held for me, given my past. And my past really is this combination of law. I've been a, I've been a lawyer for 35 years. I've practiced in DC and Maryland. And in New York, I worked for a big corporation for IBM. As a lawyer, I've been involved in a whole bunch of things. So law is one aspect of what I come to this with the other was a long history of entrepreneurship, where I've been involved in tech startups, since the early 90s. took one of them public on the NASDAQ, and another one with a an institutional couple of institutional rounds of investment. So I've been involved in, in entrepreneurship, and especially in tech entrepreneurship for a long time. And over the course of the last five or 10 years, I've been involved in a company dealing at the high level in matters of strategy and marketing. So I thought I'd told these different strands of experience together into an offering that I think at any rate is fairly compelling. General Counsel online, he's an online on demand legal service, whose primary audience is small business, as a small business person over the years, I've been neglected by the law. They're uninterested in me because I didn't have beaucoup money to spend. And that was usually only in the case of an emergency, or in the case of a highly specialized need, where I called on a lawyer, not that I didn't need and wouldn't have won at a lawyer. I just couldn't afford what I'm pitching myself very much at the small business person who could use help in day to day legal matters. But those needs are sporadic. Rob, you know, I'm wondering what to do about this letter, the cease and desist letter that I got wondering what to do about the lease payments that I can't make next month? I'm wondering, should I file for a trademark or a patent? Or should I register my copyright on these on these things? Those kinds of issues? I think I'm particularly adept at dealing in and I and I'd love to help people with that. Those kind of day to day legal issues.

So Rob, it seems to me that like these are some general types of problems that like if you don't get them solved properly, early on, they can really haunt you later down the road. So if you don't get that trademark, when you should have, it can be two years later and all of a suddenly you're in trouble because it's not trademarks. So the idea that you can access and get the right advice early, I think can really help people with their successes, they build their their venture moving forward, right.

I think that's right, Jonathan, I think, you know, most people just like, if you said to me, You only contacted your doctor, when you were in serious medical problems, I'd say you're foolish, you really ought to be dealing with some of these health issues on a day to day to day basis to avoid the problems, the acute problems that come on later. It's really the same thing in law. If you don't do things right in the first place, they may well come back to haunt you. And I want to totally do I want to address that, that kind of market.

So if people are listening now, right, and they're all firm, how my like, think about think of a situation where you might easily be able to swoop in and be helpful. Sure, a decent one. That's good. I think every business, the lifeblood of a business, sort of the business program, if you will, analogous to a computer program is a contract. And every business person thinks they're an expert at contracts, until something like a pandemic comes around or on Till you figure out the other party's breached, or done something wrong here, but it wasn't in the agreement, because you didn't think it's true, or, you know, it was it was highly informal, we were going to end up going to the state of Washington, I had to do this to litigate this matter, and it's gonna cost me two more to litigate it in Washington than the matters worth. You know, could we have solved these issues right up front? is, I think I can't I think what's a little bit unique here is coming at these kinds of issues, from a business perspective, primarily, and asking about business priorities, business objectives, and then letting the living the legal matters flow as they will. I think lawyers, most lawyers, by and large, begin from a very law centric point of view of the universe, and aren't really concerned with how this fits in with an overall business strategy, or how this fits in with an overall business branding and marketing approach, or whether this patent that you want to pursue has any real business value to it? Or who's going to be looking at those sorts of things. We're, you know, so my primary concerns here.

So Rob, tell us about about the platform and how it works, because you've got a neat way of combining some technologies and making this very cost efficient. Can you give us an overview how it works? Yeah, sure.

This, I saw no point in trying to invent new technology here, because I don't want any adoption curve issues. So online at General Counsel dot online (, it's It's dot online, which is also my name, which is also a trademark that I've applied for, for the first time. First time ever just this year. got a trademark on The trademark office had been saying no, no, no, no, no, that's your domain name. That's not your trademark. That's, that's changed. So I'm online at General Counsel online, every client who comes to me, including those I've met in person, the relatively few that I've met in person, signs up, signs a retainer agreement online, and has their own personal portal web portal, where we're sharing all of the documents, we're going to trade back and forth here in a highly secure environment. I'm using slack as the backbone for this. And every client comes into my website into a single sign on enters the slack application. I'm using Office 365, for document storage, document markup, document, versioning, etc, etc. I'm using zoom for conferencing, not because I have to, because slack has that built in. But people are comfortable with zoom, and I wanted to do things that people were comfortable with. And then again, there's a single sign on document signatures, contracts, and document filings are all done online. So what I've tried to do is assemble piece parts that make sense and unite them into a harmonious harmonious whole.

It's a nice composite man, I like the way you're taking the the key pieces and making it the one solid application.

Yeah, that's right. It's it's really one roof. There's no, download this and add this to the configuration and, and do this, you know, it all happens under one roof. The business model is a subscription based business model. This starts out at a fairly affordable rate for small businesses. And for that you get me I don't really count hours very seriously. Now you can see that you're a lawyer, you count every hour, come on. I'm not thinking in terms of hour, I'm thinking of, you know, client objectives and the achievement of those objectives. But whatever I end up charging, it's always a fixed price charge. So there's none of this. Well, okay, so you think you want to say you think we need to write the client a letter? Fine. I'll write you a letter. How much will that be? Well, I can't really tell you right now, because I may have to do some research. And I'll do a number of drafts on this letter. And at the end of that surprise, it's cost you 17 $100 at a rate of $350 an hour. I instead take this as a fixed price quote. And I try and be very, very serious about, you know, how much time I'm likely to spend on this. But if I ended up end up doubling the time on this, because of some unforeseen act on my own part. Well, that's just I swallow that. And most businesses, most real world businesses, with the exception of law, sort of adhere To that approach, you know, I bid on on what it will cost you to file a trademark, I think it's cool, cuz you're making it very approachable as well, too. So, you know, obviously using technology that startups and so forth are accustomed to, and then having some simple pricing structure as well allow the tour, you know what this is going to cost, and allows you to do some of that really important work upfront, so you don't get haunted later and had as emergency calls that cost lots of money. Right.

Exactly, exactly. Right. So yeah, I'm, I'm right now, you know, I have several clients more than I had actually planned on at this point in time. It has more work to do. I, you know, this was actually conceived before COVID. And then COVID came on his load, like my, my marketing buddy here.

Yeah, exactly.

I hadn't planned on that. So. So it's maturing pretty nicely. And I'm having a lot of fun. And I think supplying clients with a lot of good sound, legal advice and assistance.

I think that i think that's interesting. And I do think attorneys are going through, you know, their own shift in terms of what it means to be an attorney and billable hours. And I net, I think there's a lot of questioning about, you know, what I mean, they're dragging and screaming into the 21st century. Every other profession, every other major commercial enterprise is already online, whether it's insurance, or even my doctor, or banking brokerage, the list goes on, it's all migrated online, to where the vehicle for providing the value, and the advertising and all of the commercial relationships are all handled as online relationships.

You know, with artificial intelligence, there's going to be a shift anyway, through pattern recognition, through contracts and things that are thriving.

I think that's right. I'm aware of some of the Pittsburgh based startups here, and eventually do want to work together with them to kind of see what synergies when my Hey, hey, you know, that's great. So what's the website?

It's it's a general counsel, all one word. A general counsel, by the way, is, is a common title. in the corporate world. It's not so common in the small business world. As a matter of fact, most people don't know what a general counsel is. But as the name suggests, it's a it's a person who is typically one of senior management, supplying day to day counsel on legal matters. General Counsel dot online is the URL for this awesome stuff. Rob, thank you so much for hanging out with us today and wish you success with the new venture. We think it's fantastic. leveraging a whole suite of technologies to bring the price point of legal services down and help out some of the startups and those in need with it. So great stuff all the way around. Rob, you are the best. Thanks for being part of the show today.

Hey, thank you, Jonathan. Thank you, Audrey. Great, I appreciate it.

Absolutely. I'll be another tech vibe under our belt. And next Saturday. We're back with more great stories like Rob's out there and how they're using technology to innovate. do great work right here in Pittsburgh. This has been Jonathan Kersting. And we are from the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Learn more about us at PGH And after you do that, it's time to have yourself a really good weekend. Thanks, everybody.

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