The pressure was on.
The entrepreneurs arrived at the Education Design Studio January 30 knowing a 20-minute presentation could change the trajectory of their fledgling companies.
It was Demo Day, the culmination of six-months of intensive work in this unique incubator for education startups. When they began the program, none of the entrepreneurs had formal business training. Working with their advisors and each other, the people behind these eight companies were able to transform their ideas into robust business models.
At Demo Day, they would reveal their work to a crowd of researchers, teachers, fellow entrepreneurs, and potential investors.
“This is a place where you’re meeting people who can make it happen,” said Will Morris, CEO of teacher evaluation company EdConnective. “If the presentation goes well, it could really move your business forward.”
The Education Design Studio, Inc. (EDSi) is a $2.1 million hybrid incubator and seed fund built specifically for education ventures. A one-of-a-kind collaboration between Penn GSE and a host of seasoned venture capitalists and investors, EDSi represents a new paradigm for investors, with a model that blends the best elements of an incubator, design studio, seed fund and social impact company. The fund specifically emphasizes the importance of good research for any education business.
EDSi’s current cohort received invitations to the prestigious incubator after entering last year’s Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition. They are all early-stage startups, creating everything from learning platforms to original content, for customers in Philadelphia, across the country, and around the world. Though still in the early stages, many of the companies have already generated customers and produced revenue, key milestones for startups.
One company, Ubongo, created a series of interactive educational cartoons that have already become a hit television show in Tanzania and drawn sponsorships from the United Nations, among others. Expansion plans are already in the works across east Africa, with other markets likely to follow.
As the cohort’s entrepreneurs refined their products and their business plans, they also re-worked their pitches. The presentation EdConnective gave was at least the 15th version, Morris said, with each designed to be more clear and concise than the last.
“You might have the best thing since sliced bread, but if people have never seen bread before, and you can’t clearly articulate what it is, it won’t help you,” Morris said.
The entrepreneurs noted how they, and their companies, had been transformed by the experience.
“My company developed wings here,” said Open Assembly CEO Domi Enders. “This is a very, very special place for people who really care about education, and I feel privileged to be a part of it.”
Ubongo's founders present at Demo Day, with Penn GSE Innovation Director Barbara Kurshan
The entrepreneurs can work at EDSi’s Oxford Mills studio and continue to meet with their advisors for another 12 months. Here’s a look at their companies and what they want to accomplish:
321 eLearning: Entrepreneur Jennifer Smolka has developed a platform for personalized online learning for members of the Down Syndrome Community. 321 eLearning’s member community also provides a networking forum for parents, teachers, and researchers. The Texas-based company is continuing to develop new content for students and their families.
Curious Bee: CEO Sarah Huebscher and COO Anna Vresilovic are creating an online marketplace where adult learners can research, schedule, and review personal development courses for skills like cooking, art, and music. Launching in Philadelphia, their goal is to create an interface “cool enough for millennials, and easy enough for grandpas,” Huebscher said. When a student takes a class through Curious Bee, the class provider will pay the website a commission.
EdConnective: Partners Morris and Marcus Singleton are creating a system that can perform teacher evaluations effectively and efficiently from anywhere in the country. Teachers film themselves in front of a class, and EdConnective coaches watch the recorded videos online. The coaches then provide specific recommendations for how teachers can improve their performance. The Richmond-based company is conducting pilots in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, with an aim toward scaling nationally.
Edumize: CEO Tanbo Guo said he could have used a service like Edumize when he was preparing to leave China to study in the U.S. The social platform will address both the big and small problems that international students encounter: What school is right for me? How do I prepare for the entrance exam? How do I get a visa? How do I find an off-campus apartment? How do I meet friends in this new place? Students still in China, where accurate information can be hard to come by, will especially benefit, Guo said.
JustMaybeCo: Chris Rogers’ progressive education startup is aimed at igniting the relationship between schools and communities through collaborative inquiry. The Philadelphia-based publishing imprint serves as a K-12 literacy intervention program, based on the lived experiences of the students. Rogers expects JustMaybeCo will eventually become a nonprofit.
Open Assembly: CEO Domi Enders is a former adjunct instructor at the community college level. The biggest challenge adjuncts and students face, she found, is the lack of access to campus-based supports and the inability to port their digital materials to another class at another school. Open Assembly offers an e-learning toolset that subscribers can access anytime, anywhere. Instructors are already using Open Assembly software at a number of higher education institutions, including Berkley City College.
Propagate, Inc.: Entrepreneurs Frank Freeman and Emily Shu created this online platform to both help students with vocabulary expansion and give teachers real-time feedback about their students’ reading comprehension needs. The system is based on a browser plugin and a web app. The San Francisco-based company says it can be used for K-12 support, preparation for standardized tests, higher education, and in corporate training.
Ubongo: The biggest success from this cohort to date, Ubongo created a series of interactive educational cartoons that draw more than 1.5 million weekly viewers in five east African countries. Entrepreneurs Nisha Ligon and Doreen Kessy’s loveable cartoon characters and catchy jingles teach math and reading in their show, which is the highest-rated program in Tanzania. Viewers check their answers by sending a simple text message to a number that appears on the screen.