From Ideas to Learners' Hands: Startl Boosts The Next Generation of Ed-Tech Startups
11.22.11 | In addition to the tributes to Steve Jobs and his contributions to the world that his passing occasioned, several articles and editorials focused on the longtime Apple CEO’s embodiment of the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Writers such as Steve Lohr of The New York Times and business leaders such as Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt weighed in on how Jobs expanded a scrappy startup into an international juggernaut.
While Jobs’ success would be difficult to replicate, young entrepreneurs can learn a lot from his confidence and drive for innovation. They can also learn how to turn their own personalities “quirks and all” into valuable assets as they develop their own companies.
A look at two nascent education software and platform developers, both of whom have received capital, guidance and office space through Startl, a technology accelerator funded in part by the MacArthur, Hewlett and Gates foundations, it’s possible to see how personality just may be the “x-factor” when it comes developing a potentially far-reaching idea.
A Study in Contrasts
Before even allowing me to open my notebook at our interview, Bharanidharan Rajakumar, the 29-year-old founder of LearnBop, has a question of his own: “There are seven girls on a bus. Each girl has seven backpacks. In each backpack, there are seven big cats. For every big cat there are seven little cats. Question: How many legs are there on the bus?”
This complicated question prompts a far simpler one in response: Huh?
They’ve been in the industry, they know what it looks like. They’ve been able to guide us at every step of the way.
– Michael Koetting, Hoot.Me co-founder
Rajakumar, who goes by Bharani, explains that this is the first demo question for LearnBop, a website designed to help teachers break down complex math and science problems into simpler, smaller problems that students can tackle more easily.
“What LearnBop does is it walks you through how to solve a problem step by step,” Rajakumar explains. And, indeed, given the right prompts and hints, the question becomes a lot less daunting. (To figure out how many legs there on the bus for yourself, try Learnbop’s demo.)
Rajakumar has an undergraduate degree in finance from University of Florida and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon. Before cofounding LearnBop with Carnegie Mellon computer science graduate Arthur Tu, Rajakumar spent a few years working at Lehman Brothers, and there’s an echo of the casual, ingratiating finance guy in his demeanor. At one point, as I managed to solve one section of the “legs on the bus” question, Rajakumar shouted, “Good, lad!” With that, what might have been an overwhelmingly challenging math puzzle became a bit of fun between friends.
In contrast to Rajakumar’s playfulness, Michael Koetting, the 21-year-old cofounder of Hoot.Me, cuts a serious profile. Koetting, like his Hoot.Me cofounder Sid Upadhay, is still an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, but he has the laser focus (and love of golf analogies) of a veteran businessman.
Koetting, whose work with Hoot.Me is part of a credited independent study at UTexas, says his entrepreneurial impulse started early: As a middle schooler, he created his own mobile DJ business, and, he says, “Before the DJing, it was lemonade stands.”
“Some of this, I think, may just be intrinsic. I just had a passion for that,” he adds.
Hoot.Me, which Koetting and Upadhay created as part of a weekend-long startup development workshop, is a study app for Facebook that allows students to share their work and remotely assist one another with assignments. As the Hoot.Me website states, the app aims to “switch Facebook into study mode”—not an easy task given the distractions vying for users’ attention on that all-encompassing platform.
The Startl Connection
Both Hoot.Me and LearnBop have benefited from their relationships with Startl. Composed of three partner organizations, DreamIt Ventures, IDEO and Education Growth Advisors, Startl aims to be “a ‘network of networks’ that responds quickly to the most promising technological, pedagogical, and market opportunities,” according to its website .
Read more about Startl on Spotlight.
Startl has provided Rajakumar and Koetting with desks in DreamIt’s crowded, bustling loft space in Manhattan. (During a recent visit, a reporter shared the elevator with someone riding a Segway.) More than providing a desk and internet access, Startl also gave both entrepreneurs an invaluable creative community in which to develop their respective companies and the kind of guidance a startup needs in those tentative early days.
“If there’s anything related to education technology and trying to really change the game in the classroom, Startl’s on the cutting edge of that,” Koetting says.
For Hoot.Me, Startl provided know-how and connections. “They know that market, they’ve built the relationships there… The resources like IDEO are great, but at the end of the day, it’s [Startl’s] team that really adds that value. They’ve been in the industry, they know what it looks like. They’ve been able to guide us at every step of the way,” adds Koetting. “You know, I can call them up at any point and say, ‘Hey, what are your thoughts on this? Where do you think this should go?’ They’ve been invaluable.”
Rajakumar’s company has benefited immensely as well. This past summer, Carnegie Mellon agreed to use LearnBop as a teaching device for its MBA students, and City University of New York (CUNY) employed it as a training tool for elementary school math teachers. Startl helped LearnBop improve its program and interface through an exercise called disruptED, during which teachers and students, tried to, in Rajakumar’s words, “break it and give us feedback.” Among the suggestions: That LearnBop add more social elements, something Rajakumar took under advisement.
“In order to get widespread adoption, we realized that we needed to have all these social and data-driven features,” he says. Now, “It’s much more of a social learning experience.”
Speaking of the development of his own learning tool on the world’s foremost social network, Hoot.Me’s Koetting sees Facebook as a growing education platform in the future, even though, he says, “I haven’t seen a whole lot of people really try to target education on Facebook.”
At present, Facebook’s education profile may just be scattered Facebook groups for classes or teachers creating their own pages, but according to Koetting, education is an area of interest for the network’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Witness, for example, the 27-year-old mogul’s $100 million donation to the Newark, N.J. school system last year.
Zuckerberg, America’s most successful college dropouts since Steve Jobs himself, has expressed a willingness to open his platform to developers with expertise outside of his site’s core competency, according to Koetting. This could create a space for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses on the shoulders of the giant network"a great thing for Hoot.Me, should it become widely adopted among the roughly 45 percent of Facebook users between the ages of 13-25.
“For us,” Koetting says confidently, “we get education.”
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