Education / Philly Tech Week / Startups

ApprenNet just hired a new CEO. Here’s why that’s a big deal

Drexel law professor Karl Okamoto has led the online learning company since its founding in 2011. The company's new full-time CEO, Rachel Jacobs, is eyeing the startup's first round of seed funding.

Update: It is with regret that we report Rachel Jacobs died in the Amtrak crash a month after this report was first published.

Rachel Jacobs has her eye on Philly.
Jacobs, 39, the newly-hired CEO of online learning startup ApprenNet, plans to leave her current hometown of Manhattan for Philly, but only once she gets the company to a point where it makes sense for her to move. That means closing the company’s first round of funding and growing the seven-person team.


Rachel Jacobs. (Courtesy photo)

A Detroit native and Swarthmore grad, Jacobs replaced cofounder and former CEO Karl Okamoto. Okamoto is still the chairman of the board but he’s also a full-time law professor at Drexel, and ApprenNet decided they needed to hire someone who could devote more time to the company.
It feels like a big step for the National Science Foundation-backed company, which has been led by Okamoto since its founding in 2011. (ApprenNet has received $1 million total in Small Business Innovation Research grants. Drexel does not own any equity in the startup, cofounder Emily Foote said.)
Jacob’s hire coincides with, as she puts it, the company finding the right product-market fit. ApprenNet had long focused on the legal education industry, where educators used the product to create video-based exercises. But the legal industry isn’t embracing of this type of innovation, Jacobs said. For example, if a law student takes an online class, it doesn’t count toward requirements on a legal transcript in many states, like New York.
“At the end of the day, lawyers aren’t moving online quite as fast as other segments of the market,” Jacobs said in a phone interview last week.
So ApprenNet pivoted to focus on healthcare, higher education and K-12 teacher training. Many of those fields — healthcare, especially — are hands-on and benefit from simulation and video-based learning, Jacobs said. Its customers include Walmart, which is using the product to train its pharmacy technicians, Newark Public Schools and Kaplan Open College. The company charges per exercise per user.
Jacobs was formerly the VP of Strategy and Business Development for edtech company Ascend Learning. She found ApprenNet at a conference while searching for an education solution for Walmart, her client at the time.
“When we saw them, it was like a light went on,” she said.
Other than raising capital, Jacobs plans to focus on building out “deeper employer analytics” for their customers and making a move into high-stakes assessments.
The seven-person team currently works out of the Innovation Center @ 3401 coworking space. Jacobs comes to Philly twice a week to be with the team. She said she’s looking forward to returning to the region because Philly reminds her of her hometown of Detroit: there’s a “hometown pride” both cities have, she said.

Companies: Instructure / Practice

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