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Education tech start-ups: No longer the 'sleepy' crowd

Ed tech start-up companies are creating serious buzz and investments for a serious problem: education. But can innovative tech lead to innovative education?

By / September 20, 2013

Parul Singh presents Gradeable at the 2013 LearnLaunchX demo day. Gradeable offers a way for teachers to upload assignments, and maintain a digital portfolio and database of students' work.

LearnLaunchX

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A recent start-up event showcased something not everyone associates with business or technology: education.

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Ben Levy, a former Teach For America teacher, showed off eduCanon, an interactive video program that aims to eliminate the classroom “zone-out effect." Monica Brady-Myerov, a former public radio reporter, introduced Listen Edition, classroom lessons that use public radio to teach the National Governors Association's Common Core standards. Dee Kanejiya, a speech recognition researcher, demonstrated Cognii, a program that uses speech recognition to guide students to answer complex questions without the help of a tutor. And they all were aiming to do something truly innovative: make education beneficial to students and profitable to investors.

Welcome to the new intersection of technology, education, and business: start-ups that focus on education technology, or ed tech. These “edupreneurs” chip away at the massive issue of education reform one byte at a time. Investments in the ed tech industry are booming, but it remains to be seen what this means for the future of education.

Most anything that combines technology and education falls under the ed tech umbrella – from iPads in K-12 classrooms to MOOCs (massive online open courses) to an app that sells textbooks.

Jean Hammond is a co-founder of the ed tech accelerator LearnLaunchX, which gives young start-ups an infusion of money, training, and networking – and hosted the recent start-up event. She attributes the current interest in ed tech to the digital shift, the United States' lagging education performance, and a focus on accountability, especially with 45 states adopting the new Common Core standards this year.

Ms. Hammond recalls a recent ed tech start-up competition at Harvard. “It was no longer like the sleepy crowd was over in education,” she says. “There was tons of energy. It’s just an [industry] who’s time has come.”

The number of ed tech-specific accelerators has recently spiked. In 2011, there was only one accelerator specifically devoted to education, Imagine K12. Today, there are more than 15.

One of these is Hammond’s company, LearnLaunchX. Accelerators help build the groundwork for start-ups in exchange for equity in the companies. LearnLaunchX kicked off in September 2012 and in January picked its first round of “cohorts” (start-ups) who were offered three months of intensive training in Boston, $18,000 in funds, six months’ of office space, and access to LearnLaunchX’s network of more than 50 industry experts.

And it all came down to Demo Day, an event where the start-ups showcased the fruits of their labor in hopes that investors would take a bite. The event, held at a new center designed for Boston’s innovation community by the Mayor's office, was bustling with investors and start-up fans praising the use of technology to innovate for good. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick even stopped by to take a peek.

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