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Education Startups Vie for Attention at SXSWedu

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Two dozen education startups—half of them in the K-12 marketplace—showcased their digital products in some fast-paced pitch sessions as part of the LAUNCHedu competition at South by Southwest (SXSWedu) this week, hoping to make connections and get exposure among an audience of educators, angel investors, foundation leaders, and corporate reps.

Many of the finalists are looking to build on successes they've had in piloting their programs and to scale up to the larger education market. For several of the entrepreneurs, that success was built on their own experience in the classroom, where they saw a need for more effective tools for instruction, data analysis, or managing all the digital resources they needed to be good teachers.

That was the case with Clever, a San Francisco-based startup that helps teachers integrate various online databases in school information systems to allow quick access to a range of student records and accounts. Clever was named the K-12 winner in the competition last night. (Speaking Pal was the higher ed winner.)

"I realized that every time we add technology to the classroom, we create more work for the teachers, not less," Dan Carroll, one of the founders of Clever, said in his pitch at LAUNCHedu. As a middle school teacher and technology leader, Carroll was frustrated by all the time he spent in class logging in to student tech accounts before he could begin his lesson. Earlier, co-founder Tyler Bosmeny explained the company's work in the Jefferson County, Colo., public schools, through the inBloom initiative, a growing effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to helps states and districts manage an array of student data. (The Gates Foundation provides funding support for Education Week's coverage of K-12 industry and innovation issues.)

The fledgling and more established companies in the contest won't suffer from lack of notoriety though. They spent hours demonstrating their products in a showcase lounge making connections and perfecting their pitches.

Spreading the word to teachers and students in a crowded and underfunded market has been the biggest challenge for instaGrok, a site that is the brainchild of CTO Kirill Kireyev that creates visual concept maps from research on any number of topics. The LAUNCHedu contest, though, has already helped on that front, according to CEO Andrew Bender.

"The education space is an area of severe underinvestment, so at a conference like this people can see the product in action and give you instant ideas and feedback," he said.

That kind of experience brought Ben Barton and Wayne Holmes across the pond to pitch zondle, a site that provides searchable and customizable study tools for students in the United States and the U.K.

For Candice Meyers and Pat Kirtland of the Teaching Channel, an Edweek content partner that offers thousands of videos documenting best teaching practices from around the country, every word counted in describing their work to the judges and audience.

"I had to give a good overview of two products in three minutes," said Meyers, adding that the timing was right as they get ready to launch a new product, Teaching Channel Teams, this spring. "This has given us a lot of exposure, and also we've gotten a lot of information about the mechanics of running a sustainable ed-tech business."


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