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Live From SXSWedu: Evaluation Tool Wins K-12 Startup-Pitch Contest

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Updated with info on contest prize.
Like many educational technology conferences, SXSWedu, in Austin, Texas, holds a pitch contest for startup companies looking to make a name. LAUNCHedu pitted six companies in higher education and six companies in K-12 education, which were admitted to the contest through a screening process, then pitched their companies in front of judges and conference-goers.

In the K-12 contest, BloomBoard, a digital professional-development tool, took home the top prize, a "modest cash stipend" and consulting from the LAUNCHedu advisory board, which includes some big name education investors. Here are the three K-12 finalists.

  • BloomBoard - This Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is a digital teacher-evaluation and professional-development tool. BloomBoard relies heavily on classroom data to help teachers determine what to teach, how to teach it, and whether it worked. The company offers free and paid products to districts and is working with Oakland, Calif., public schools and Rocketship Education charter schools.
  • LearnBoost - Another Bay Area company, this one is a classroom-management tool for teachers, parents, and students (though time constraints limited the presentation to the teacher tool). It's comprehensive, allowing teachers to manage attendance, seating charts, calendars, and a gradebook through one dashboard. LearnBoost employs a "freemium" model, in which some products are initially offered for free and advanced features come at a cost. Rafael Corrales, LearnBoost's CEO and a Harvard Business School graduate, said the company is currently pushing its products toward teachers and individual schools, with hopes of opening the pipeline to districts.
  • Success Highways - Founded by a former juvenile prosecutor, this company offers curriculum assessment and support for at-risk and disengaged students. Organizations can purchase Success Highways' 108-question assessment tool, with the resulting data used to diagnose student-engagement problems. Success Highways also sells a curriculum and professional-development tools to address those issues. It is the rare print startup at SXSWedu (that means it uses paper, yes, paper), but funding from the U.S. Department of Education will help it offer online products, said founder Steven Weigler.

These companies represent some of the overarching themes I'm hearing at SXSWedu: data, classroom management, and, ultimately, cost savings. If the product can make a teacher's or administrator's job easier and collect reams of valuable performance and behavioral data at the same time, it streamlines typically costly processes like teacher evaluation, professional development, or student intervention. Selling to consumers is a whole other story, though, and the three companies faced questions from judges about how to scale.

All three companies were curious selections for the LAUNCHedu competition, not because they weren't promising companies, but because the "launch" portion of the contest seems misleading. All three offered a fairly complete suite of products and had already established an early customer base. I was told these kind of startups were closer to the initial series A round of funding than launch phase (though I was told the higher education content winner, LearningJar, was in earlier stages). BloomBoard, for instance, is backed by a well-known education venture capital firm, Learn Capital, and is in its second iteration as a company. (Learn Capital is also the competition's sponsor.)

There's certainly no shortage of education startups that deserve the recognition, but it would be interesting to see a more nascent idea be formed and shaped at the conference and then watch it grow from there.

(You can read more about the K-12 education startup world in this story by my colleague Nirvi Shah, part of our "Accelerating Innovation" special report.)

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