(Photo via Arthur Smith, Digital Content Manager at Towson University)
No one in the room at the Towson University EdTech Innovation Showcase last week was there by mistake.
Frank Bonsal III, director of entrepreneurship at Towson and David Cross, assistant director of entrepreneurship, curated a thoughtful and intimate event to support a dozen edtech companies that are making big waves in the industry.
They intentionally sought out the companies that participated, as well as the attendees.
“[For the participating companies] we wanted companies that had early-stage innovative education solutions that are ready for the marketplace and looking to develop leads, sales and investment,” Cross told Technical.ly. “For the attendees, we invited representatives from the K-12 and higher ed sectors that are influencers and key decision-makers that could be potential customers for the companies. We also invited larger education companies that could be channel partners or otherwise help the younger companies market their products.”
Eight companies each shared a two-minute pitch in the hopes of gaining customers, investors and rapport with the event attendees. Here’s the lowdown on each:
Getting good college counseling can be hard for students. So Eric Allen, president and founder of Admit.me, identified a solution to matching more counselors to students preparing for college. The site links applicants directly to college students or alums who can give them actionable feedback and insights at an affordable price. Launched in 2016, Admit.me currently serves 10,000 students.
Campus ESP, which stands for Campus Experience for Students and Parents, is a parent and family engagement platform to help student success at colleges and universities. CEO Dave Becker stated that “the average college parent interacts with their students 13 times per week. For African American and Latinx families, those statistics are way higher. There are a lot of platforms that are all about nudging students. We’re all about nudging the nudgers.” Their mission is to boost retention and graduation rate, reduce the administrative burden and to keep parents informed and happy.
When it comes to learning vocabulary, the typical method is one that resembles an index card with the word on the front, and the definition on the back. The problem with this is that often a 6th grade vocabulary word is defined using 11th and 12th grade words. Communication APPtitude cofounders Beth Lawrence and Deena Seifert have created a unique visual method for learning vocab through which “students analyze the common images to figure out for themselves what the word means.”
“Bakesale 2.0” is how PledgeCents CEO and cofounder Andyshea Saberioon describes his company. Pledgecents is democratizing educational funding by essentially allowing teachers to crowdfund for their in-classroom needs.
We chatted with Saberioon prior to the event and asked what to expect in 2017. “We just launched our Preferred Partner Program which allows teachers to crowdfund for their favorite edtech tools through a streamlined and efficient way,” he said. “We’re adding some larger partners for 2017 and have some tricks up our sleeve to make the process even easier for a teacher to raise money.”
After countless conversations with parents who are concerned with how their kids are doing in school, SmartyReader founder and CEO Ian Siegel realized that they aren’t getting all of the feedback that they need early on. SmartyReader takes stories from online magazines like the New York Times and The Atlantic and asks questions from these articles that mirror the logic of the SAT. “We’re trying to capitalize on psychological mechanisms and reward centers and meeting kids where they are with short form, critical reading exercises,” Siegel said.
“We have 5 million English language learners in this country and 2 million of them are not going to graduate high school,” Ben Grimley, CEO of Speak Agent, said. Grimley and his team are dedicated to closing the English language learner achievement gap. They provide highly engaging games that they build in house and learning analytics that gives real time feedback.
The dream team behind Speak Agent includes Katie Cunningham — a literal rocket scientist — as CTO; Grimley, who has spent 12 years building a language learning app for PBS Kids; COO Vijay Lakshman, who produced over $1 billion in retail sales for franchises like Lord of the Rings; VP of sales Mike Huckaby who has spent the past 15 years selling ESL products; and VP of marketing Dan LaFountain, who started the LEGO education brand. The entire software development team in itself is 80 percent bilingual.
One of the most influential people in Workbench CEO Chris Sleat’s life was his 6th grade life science teacher, Mrs. Bomen, who taught class using a wet cell battery. He remembers nearly everything from that class, which is primarily why Workbench does what it does. “We’re using project-based learning because kids retain information better when they demonstrate the product,” Sleat said. “Kids are engaged when you use tech in the classroom, whether you’re a science teacher, art teacher or teaching STEM projects. It’s because of [this excitement] that kids will be set up for future jobs that are going to be using these tools.”
Lessoncast is a simple platform for teacher prep. Founded in 2011, Lessoncast is helping schools transform the typical “sit and get” professional development for teachers into a more personalized, action-oriented variety. In January 2017 the company plans to expand its services to include a video portfolio technology for teachers, as well as student portfolio technology.
Aside from the eight companies that pitched, four emerging companies (Mandrel, OgStar Reading, Spiral Math and Voice Vibes) were also present. Debra Bond Cancro, founder and CEO of Voice Vibes, works with schools like Stanford, Penn State and Ohio State to help students improve their public speaking. “We just finished our free pilot program and we’re looking to work with more schools and students in 2017.”
Among the attendees was Bret Schreiber, director of Education and Innovation of the Department of Commerce. The Department is trying to create programs that will support entrepreneurs like those in the room, Schriver said. “We’re looking to connect the customer to an established business, help established businesses innovate and create access to talent for companies by launching an internship program.”
So what’s ahead in 2017 for the TU Incubator?
“Given the interest in the EdTech Innovation Showcase to date, [I] would expect us to hold another one in 2017. Other workshop ideas are customer discovery, funding, investor presentations and events with later-stage/established edtech companies,” David Cross said.