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'Ed. Design Studio' Tries to Link Entrepreneurs to Researchers

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Philadelphia

A new project at the University of Pennsylvania will attempt to give promising education startups and entrepreneurs targeted advice and other help, including access to academic researchers, so that those organizations grow and succeed.

The university's graduate school of education unveiled plans to launch the program, known as the "Education Design Studio Fund," here on Penn's campus on Wednesday. The announcement came on the same day the graduate program announced the winners of a competition that will provide a combined $145,000 to education-focused entrepreneurs, money designed to help them either get off the ground or build on what they already have. (See the list of winners, below.)

The graduate school says the design studio fund is meant to create an "ecosystem" of entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, and education practitioners, with the goal of fostering innovations that can help schools.

The fund is one part of the Penn school of education's overall effort to bridge the gaps that separate K-12 entrepreneurs, academic scholars who could potentially inform their work, and school officials who might benefit from new ideas and products.

Startups and other companies and organizations who are selected for the program will be given access to researchers from the graduate school, who will receive honorariums for time spent helping the entrepreneurs refine their ideas in the studio, said Bobbi Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at the graduate school. Faculty could end up serving on the boards of companies or consulting with them on an ongoing basis, she said.

The design studio fund is likely to provide less upfront money to entrepreneurs' efforts than traditional accelerator or incubator programs, Kurshan said. But the rewards to entrepreneurs will come in other ways. Startups and other participants will take part in intensive reviews of their work lasting several weeks and provided through the studio, in which they'll receive advice on myriad aspects of their operations, from legal and financial issues to analyses of their overall business models.

During the first year of the design studio, only finalists in 2013 Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition will be eligible to take part, Kurshan said, but that could change in the future.

She predicts that the studio will eventually partner with schools of education at other institutions, which can bring additional expertise to the project and to the entrepreneurs served by it. A substantial portion of the design studio's work will be conducted and made available online, Kurshan added.

Penn officials announced the winners on the second day of an event that brought together the finalists, faculty at the graduate schools, and judges of the competition, among others.

Four entrepreneurial efforts won seven prizes during this year's competition, after being whittled down from a pool of 250 applications from 17 countries.

• The big winner was Raise Labs, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that envisions a system for offering students "micro-scholarships" for college, which they can begin earning as early as 9th grade through various accomplishments. The organization won three prizes worth a combined $75,000.

• Persistence Plus, based in Boston, won two prizes worth a total of $40,000. The for-profit company is creating a mobile technology platform designed to use behavioral research to "nudge" students to acquire a variety of skills, including increased resilience, in pursuing a college degree.

• Autism Expressed, based in Philadelphia, won $20,000 to support its creation of a "highly synthesized learning system" to engage autistic students, give them marketable skills, and increase their independence.

• And finally, BiblioNasium, located in New York, won $10,000 to support its creation of a free, protected social network for children ages 6-12 to build their interest in reading. The system links teachers, students, and parents.

Marjan Ghara, the founder of BiblioNasium, said the prize would help on several fronts.

"Every penny helps, but I see the recognition as more important," Ghara said not long after the prizes were announced. "It's a validation of an idea, to make it through a competition involving so many people."

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