Madison-based Ionic, cofounded by CS alumnus, supercharges mobile app development

A view of the Ionic offices

Not long ago, the boom in mobile apps might have been hard to predict.  But with approximately two-thirds of Americans now owning a smartphone according to data from the Pew Research Center, there is an app for everything, it seems.

We use apps to shop, track fitness goals or finances and message our friends, among countless other tasks.  According to Flurry Analytics, app usage grew by 76% in 2014 alone.

Despite strong demand for convenient new apps, one challenge in the marketplace has been the difficulty of developing them.  Given the differing skills needed by website developers and mobile-app makers, many web programmers were effectively shut out of the game.

Madison-based Ionic (formerly known as Drifty) saw an important niche to fill.  Its software package—also called Ionic—streamlines the building of mobile apps and has become a huge hit. According to Forbes magazine, “In less than a year, Drifty's Ionic Framework has become one of the top 50 most popular open source projects in the world."

Max LynchIonic has deep Wisconsin roots.  It was founded by two friends from Shorewood, Wis., who have known each other since childhood.  Computer sciences alumnus Max Lynch (BS ’10, pictured at left) and fellow UW-Madison graduate Ben Sperry, an art major, founded the company in 2012.

Together, they’ve built a thriving enterprise based in downtown Madison, nestled between the Capitol Square and Lake Monona.  They have raised $3.7 million in capital, and Lynch was recently named to Forbes'30 under 30” list in the area of enterprise technology.  

Explaining the company’s trajectory, Lynch says, "We have a history of taking technology that’s hard to use and making it easier.  With mobile, the market was growing faster, so we said, 'Let's focus on it.' What excited us was people who knew how to build websites, but making apps would require them to become very different programmers.  We wanted to build on what they knew, and capitalize on untapped energy" in the mobile-development space.

The company currently employs a team of 15, including four UW-Madison computer sciences alumni.  Lynch finds satisfaction in running his own business.  "I enjoy the creative independence," he says.  "It's great to work hard on something that’s yours."

His UW-Madison education helped Lynch learn to think like an entrepreneur.  He competed in the first CS NEST contest, an annual software competition organized by computer sciences professor Jignesh Patel, taking second place.

The NEST contest made him realize that, by putting his nose to the grindstone, “I could build something that could become a real product.  It was very empowering and made me more confident.”  The contest also helped Lynch learn how to market an idea.  Successful business executives volunteer as contest judges, giving students pointed feedback about their ideas and how to best pitch them.

Inside the classroom, Professor Patel’s database course and Professor Tom Reps' compiler course gave Lynch a foundation that has direct relevance in his day-to-day work.

Both Lynch and his business partner Sperry got their professional start at another young, local tech company founded by Badgers, the mobile gaming company PerBlue, founded in 2008.

Building a growing company as a young CEO has been like a second college education for Lynch, now 27.  He urges other CS grads entering the workforce to think broadly and boldly.  “Try to work on having empathy and an understanding of industries and jobs outside programming; try to understand how non-developers work.  And have confidence that you can create something valuable.”