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Education Startups: Learning, Technology, Innovation, and Small Business


By Melissa Venable

A growing focus of small businesses and incubator groups, technology solutions created by new companies can fill the voids left by colleges, universities, and school districts facing shrinking budgets. This is crucial because those same schools are also working to meet technology requirements and initiatives driven by agencies concerned about quality education. Entrepreneurs are developing innovative educational products and services that incorporate the use of technology.

What is an education startup?

The recent EDUCAUSE conference featured a new forum to connect schools and businesses called "Start-Up Alley." Billed as an opportunity to get customer feedback, build awareness, and develop relationships, this event encouraged small businesses to attend and present their products and services to college and university representatives who attended the larger conference. In order to participate, these companies had to meet the following criteria:

  • Employ 50 or fewer people
  • Generate less than $1 million in annual revenue
  • Market a product or service less than 5 years old
  • Commit half of the company's resources to research and development of their products and services
  • Have less than 10% of the institutional market share or less than 10% of the target customer audience for their products or services.
What kinds of services and products are emerging on the marketplace for use in educational environments? Take a closer look at some of the companies that are gaining recognition as education startups.
  • Intellidemia, Inc.: This small company, a participant at EDUCAUSE's Start-Up Alley, focuses on syllabus management products and services designed for "making it easy to organize, share, and analyze course information" online.
  • Profology.com: Another Start-Up Alley participant, this social networking platform is "exclusively for higher education faculty, staff, and administrators." While there are other forums for higher education professionals to connect via social media, this company adds the feature of being closed to undergraduate students. 
  • Text2Teach: The winning project from Seattle's recent EDU Startup Weekend, Text2Teach provides a solution for teachers to reach at-risk students via text messaging. They recently tweeted that they are looking for teachers to participate in their pilot.

Getting an Idea Off the Ground

Whether you have an idea for a new education technology service or product, want to track emerging trends in the marketplace, or have the resources to support a new venture, there are local and national opportunities to find out more. Which ideas are the best and have the most potential to succeed in helping students reach learning goals?

Startup Weekend EDU is a series of events focused on discovering these ideas and providing initial mentorship and resources for further development. A panel of experts, including educators, computer programmers, graphic designers, and business people, reviews ideas presented by entrepreneurs who have a specified time to give their pitch. MindShift provides more details about the weekend agenda, in which "entrepreneurs have 54 hours … to pitch an idea, assemble a team, and build a demo product." In the last several months, three Startup Weekends have convened, in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Take a look at these sites to find out more about the startups identified as winners at each event.

SCORE is a nonprofit group with over 350 locations nationwide that provides free advice on small business topics. Associated with the U.S. Small Business Administration, the services provided include face-to-face and email mentoring, workshops and networking events, and an online resource library. If you have a business idea and are looking for a sounding board and suggestions, reach out and explore the services offered by this group. If you are an experienced business person, especially in the education industry, consider becoming a SCORE volunteer and help to mentor future education startup projects.

Challenges Ahead

While the general public might identify education as a major issue of concern, it often seems to take a lower spot on the nation's priority list when competing with other issues, such as the economy, health care, and election coverage. And even an idea that is garnering attention needs resources, especially funding, to get the service or product ready for potential customers. The education marketplace also presents networking difficulties as well as complexities often encountered when applying a business model to an educational goal. Being aware of these potential challenges and potential resources for support is critical for those leading education startups.

  • Gaining attention. Audrey Watters, a freelance education technology journalist, has been following education startups for a while now and recently posted an article on her Hack Education blog about the lack of mainstream media coverage for education technology businesses and innovations. Startups should be involved in marketing and outreach to journalists to help bring attention to their work.
  • Finding funding and support. The Founder Institute, "a global network of startups and mentors that helps entrepreneurs launch meaningful and enduring technology companies," is just one resource for finding out more about the funding process and getting ideas in front of potential investors. AngelList and EdSurge.com have established online communities for the exchange of information among peers, as well as a place for potential dissemination of information to funding sources.
  • Connecting schools with startups. There are institutions at all levels of education that could benefit from startup products and services, but how do they find out about these organizations? The EDUCAUSE Start-Up Alley event I mentioned above is just one way to network with colleges and universities. According to the conference site, 18 young companies participated in this event.
  • Taking a realistic approach. Applying a business model to an educational product or service can be problematic. Even with the most altruistic intentions at the start, profit margins and cost savings can quickly take over as the primary focus. Avichal Garg, an experienced education entrepreneur, advises that "Building in education does not follow an Internet company's growth curve. Do it because you want to fix problems in education for the next 20 years." This approach requires everyone involved – entrepreneurs, schools, and investors – to be on board with a long term vision.

Do you have an idea for a new education technology business? Explore the local resources in your area and look for online support as well. For more information about education startups, follow some of the ongoing conversations via Quora's Education Startup topics and subscribe to Startup Digest from the Kauffman Foundation for weekly news and reading lists in the fields of education technology and business.

October 26th, 2011 written by (learn more about our authors)

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