Education Innovation Returns to Chicago

Written by the organizers of Chicago Startup Weekend Education (September 26th-28th)

On September 26th, Startup Weekend Education returns to Chicago seeking to build on last year’s phenomenal success.

One of the most successful start-ups to come out of Chicago last year did not even crack the final top three, Fantasy Geopolitics.  Minnesota school teacher Eric Nelson remained undeterred and leveraged the strong technical and business support from his Startup Weekend experience to launch successful Kickstarter campaigns and trips to New Orleans for 4.0 Schools and Nashville for EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit.


Eric Nelson, Fantasy Geopolitics

We are exciting to bring back together the Midwest’s educators, entrepreneurs, designers, developers, and other business professionals through their passion to make a positive impact on education. We have added to our roster of coaches and mentors with the technical and design talent behind successful edtech start-ups like Benchprep, GetSet, LearnMetrics, Packback Books, RedShelf, Starter League.  And, in a further learning opportunity, our friends at Educelerate have organized a conference on Education Startups in Success for the Friday of the Weekend (with a discounted ticket that gets you into both events).Whether you RSVP for the separate Conference or not, its final panel also serves as the unofficial welcome to Startup Weekend Education with edtech luminaries Ron Packard and Jack Larson speaking on the future of education innovation.


Ron Packard


Jack Larson


1871 DeVry Incubator

Additionally, Educelerate has sponsored a special Challenge and prize for the team that best addresses the unique needs of Non-traditional Students.  Additional prizes will come from our sponsors like DeVry and 1871, which are rolling out a new EdTech incubator. The first step takes place the weekend of September 26th in downtown Chicago at National Louis University.  Purchase your ticket at Chicago Startup Weekend Education to join a team and work with our mentors, coaches and organizational team.


How To Design Great EdTech Tools

This article is written by Katrina Stevens, educational consultant and journalist with over 20 years experience as a teacher and administrator and was originally posted on EdSurge

The 3-day LeanUX NYC event held April 11-13, 2013 at NYU was a mix of hands-on workshops and short presentations, all led by folks from different industries who have successfully applied lean and agile principles to designing better UX experiences. (Particularly impressive was the diverse mix of men and women presenting.)

Many startups religiously follow lean advice from the likes of Eric Ries (Lean Startup), Steve Blank (Customer Development), and others that focus on continuous cycles of building, measuring, and learning through testing assumptions, validating learning, and building MVPs (Minimally Viable Products).

But edtech companies are idiosyncratic.


As Heather Gilchrist, Founder of Socratic Labs shared in her joint presentation, “Accelerating EdTech Innovation with Lean Startup,” with Katie Palenscar, CEO and Founder of Unbound Concepts, they have longer cycles of development and sales, the user is often not the same as the customer, and there are often multiple stakeholders to consider. Heather also shared that it’s important to recognize that many schools and programs worry that if they adopt a relatively new tool, the start-up could either fail or pivot, leaving them to scramble.

Much of traditional education technology has been clunky, difficult to use, and often unable to address the problems of most concern to educators. With increased pressures and workloads, teachers and administrators need solutions that are immediately easy to use and that solve real problems. In this context, it makes sense for edtech solutions to begin applying lean thinking to improving the user experience (UX).

Who is the User? Who is the ‘Client’?

Fundamental to the process of developing an effective UX is building an understanding of the client’s needs–a process made even more complicated in edtech because the client is not always the same as the user. For example, solutions for students are often bought by parents or schools, not the students. A teacher may love the ease of use of a tool, but if that tool doesn’t generate the data that an administrator needs, it won’t be adopted. Edtech companies must understand the roles and needs of each stakeholder.

Test Assumptions: Research, Interviews, and Personas

One aspect of understanding client needs is to test assumptions– even if members of the team are prototypical users (former teachers, administrators, etc.).

Too often education as a whole fights the mistaken belief that just because people have experienced a classroom, they believe they understand education and can provide solutions.  I loved the comparison shared by Heather Gilchrist: Most people have visited a medical doctor’s office, yet they don’t feel they have medical expertise.

Even when edtech startups have education experts on the team, though, they still run the danger of assuming that all educator experiences are similar.  For example, I was surprised at the striking differences in needs and budgets of many districts with fewer than 1,000 students in contrast with large districts such as the one where I worked most recently that had a whopping 107,000 students. Independent and charter schools operate differently, as do urban versus rural schools.


Delving into client needs can take multiple forms: traditional research,
observations, and interviews. As has been mentioned many times here at Edsurge, go where the users and clients are: schools, conferences, after-school programs, malls– really, anywhere!

Ideally, the best learning occurs through observation, thoughinterviews can be effective as long as they’re not leading. Face-to-face is best, but virtual can work as long as the technical connection is tested thoroughly in advance. Running Lean offers some nice templates for both problem and solution interviews.

Personas, or representations of different users, can be one method of developing and sharing insight into customer profiles. Another way to think about this is developing user stories.  Adrian Howardcautioned that to be effective though, personas should be continually updated as more information is learned or as a product pivots.

Sketch Often

Sketching was a hot topic at the conference. Ray Dela Pena’s excellent sketching across the design process workshop can be found here.

The essence of the role of sketching is to get ideas down on paper (or digital paper) at all stages of development without worrying about perfection. These sketches create a vehicle for visual communication that is more effective and efficient and a means for gathering feedback. Speaking of visual communication, check out this periodic table of ways to visualize information—great formats to share data!

Build an MVP

There really is no better (or cheaper!) way to test a solution before building the real product than building an MVP.  Ariadna Font Llitjos’ workshop, Designing an MVP That Works For Your Users, walks through the whole process of understanding client needs, developing empathy maps, user stories, and finally, the MVP — it’s a worthwhile exercise to go through the slides if you’ve no experience with the process.

One frequently asked question during the workshop: How many times should you conduct an experiment with an MVP? The answer was always, “it depends on the situation.” If something isn’t working, then you shouldn’t continue to interview or observe people using the product or process. How many people need to trip over a tear in the carpet before you realize that the rug needs to be repaired?  You don’t need 30 – 40 people to validate that something’s not working. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the more successful the experiment appears to be, the more times one should run it to keep fine tuning.

All presenters stressed the importance of continually validating each piece of learning, and looping through the process of build-measure-learn.

Don’t stop at the MVP: Good Enough is Not Good Enough

Several LeanUX presenters, such as Melissa Perri and Grace Ngcommented that people frequently use the concept of an MVP incorrectly. Creating an MVP should be an experiment, a proof of concept. Too often people forget to go back and build a full product. In education technology, this can be particularly painful. Early adopters will tolerate “glitch” software but the busy teacher, rushed administrator, or easily distracted student will not.  An edtech startup can gain initial traction and attain proof of concept, but if they can’t quickly move to a product that provides a smooth user experience, they’ll lose momentum.

Good enough is not good enough for adoption of edtech solutions. The stakes are too high for educators.

This is a lot to track!

A whole series of workshops was devoted to managing these processes. Kanban, a method for developing software products and processes with a focus on agile development, was the most popular and participants left with a wealth of online resources to support a Kanban model. Another method, Lean Canvas, also helps organize these continual learning and development cycles, and here’s a free digital validation board from LeanStartupMachine, a sponsor for this event.

Spilling Some Secret Sauce to Winning Startup Weekend Education

Written by Nick Arnold, Startup Weekend Education San Francisco Alumni

I’m a huge fan of Startup Weekend. It’s one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It also helps that each time I have participated, I was part of the first place team (TinkerED and Hired Education).

There is no magical formula or checklist to follow, but after my two (very different) experiences, I believe there are some general rules and guidelines to follow which will drastically increase your chances of having a successful weekend.


Hit the Ground Running

The biggest benefit to the weekend is networking with a group of like-minded, equally passionate creative and innovative minds. Arrive early, and make sure to mingle and meet as many people as possible. The first time out, I arrived late (granted, it was my 30th birthday) and lost out on this benefit. Not only could it help you assemble or round out your team later in the evening, but the connections you make will be far more useful after the competition than any individual success. Come with business cards and be willing to gab!

Gone in 60 Seconds

The first time I didn’t pitch, the second time I did—although I totally winged it. Doing the idea pitch is great for the experience, but don’t be afraid to participate in SW without pitching. If you do pitch, you should be really passionate about it; this comes across in the pitch and will help people rally behind your idea. Make sure you practice. Yes, we’re talking about practice! Sixty seconds is way less time than you think. Identify your problem, succinctly lay out your solution and how you will accomplish it, and leave time to request specifically what type of skills/people you need to help. That’s it. If you have a great story, save it for the real competition on Sunday.

Team Formation

Meanwhile, make sure to pay attention to all pitches and take notes, so that if your idea isn’t selected or you didn’t pitch, you can join a team that you’re passionate about. Be mindful of where you think you can provide help. It’s redundant to have a team of 4 business people, or a bunch of designers. And hey, if things don’t work out, don’t be afraid to switch teams! During my first experience, I switched on Saturday morning, going from a team with a pre-planned, fully developed idea and little for me to contribute, to a struggling team lacking direction, not to mention business and strategy expertise. By filling that vacuum, I was able to really get behind the idea and push the ball forward, all the way to 1st place.

Lean Into Startup Thinking

Your key goal is to develop a value proposition and devise competitive advantages over competitors already in the marketplace or even similar teams at your event. Hit ‘em in the mouth with something short and memorable. As for your product, don’t waste too much time developing something great. You need time to validate, iterate, and refine. There’s a reason it’s called a “minimum viable product”—emphasis on the minimum. Also think in terms of your competition at the event. If you are similar to a bunch of other groups, how are you different/better? If you’re unique, are you actually solving a serious problem or fully addressing the theme of the weekend? Incorporate mentor and coach feedback, but time is money. Don’t be afraid to shoo away coaches to be productive!

Team Work-n-Harmony

Given the little amount of time to work (a couple hours on Friday, about 12-14 on Saturday, and 6 on Sunday), it is always important to stay on task. You must divvy up assignments and delegate. After individual work time, return and get feedback from the group to iterate.  If you don’t form a diverse and complete team, this will fail—so you see why team forming is very crucial. Make sure to recognize your team’s strengths and weaknesses and attack those weaknesses as early as possible. Fill in the gaps through coach advice or other teams if you have to. Remember, Startup Weekend is collaborative! Some of my favorite moments aside from winning involved when I stepped away and had conversations with other teams and even contributed ideas to their pitch and ultimate success.

It’s the Pitch, Stupid

Never lose sight of the ultimate goal—the pitch competition. This is my main skill and how I most contributed to my teams. The best advice I can give is keep it simple. Limited number of slides, limited number of words. Anything really long and complex will fall flat. Awesome ideas with poor presentations fail. Don’t spend so much time fleshing out every scenario and feature that you have zero time left to craft your pitch. Conversely, awesome presentations with poor ideas fail. Don’t spend a lot of time on theatrics and gimmicky stunts; they won’t cover up idea and execution flaws. It helps to have a fun and engaging theme or anecdote to grab the audience and drive your value prop home, but you need a healthy balance of steak and sizzle. Like with the idea pitch above, practice, practice, practice—every word and phrase is crucial in the 4-5 minutes you have. Anticipate probable questions and pain points that the judges may ask about—and have quality answers, even if they’re only verbal through Q&A and not on your slides.

I can’t give away all my secrets, but hopefully these tips will help put you on the right path. If you don’t end up winning, that’s okay—the real value of the weekend is to educate yourself, meet people, and have a blast!

Nick looks forward to the next Startup Weekend EDU event in the Bay Area (9/12/14 in Oakland) where he hopes to meet more passionate educators and innovators. If you’re sitting on a great but undeveloped idea, go find him and perhaps he can be your good luck charm.

Bring the Battle to Improve Education Home To Your Community

On November 14-23th, 2014, startup communities around the world and UP Global are joining forces to create the largest startup competition in the entire world- the Global Startup Battle! Last year we had 15,000 participants at 167 events across 40 countries and more than $500,000 in prizes.

This year, UP Global and the Startup Education team are working on some exciting opportunities to support education entrepreneurs during the Global Startup Battle.  So far, 11 communities have stepped up to organize Startup Weekend Education events during Global Startup Battle 2014. We want your community’s education entrepreneurs to have the opportunity to share their education innovation with the world and be the education leaders that the world needs! With more than 1000 education entrepreneurs and 100 teams solving the world’s obstacles in education, who will have the greatest impact on today’s education system?

Why organize a Startup Weekend Education event during GSB? As a Startup Weekend Education organizer, you’ll have the opportunity to:

  • Showcase your education innovation community to the world
  • Provide your teams with the opportunity to compete at the regional and global level for prizes that will help them build their startup
  • Play a vital role in building startup culture and creating impact in your local education community
  • Grow your edtech network in your city by engaging with and building valuable relationships with education technology leaders, CEO of edtech companies, & investors from throughout the Bay Area to serve as judges, mentors & sponsors
  • Empower your community’s educators to collaborate with developers, designers, business experts, & other entrepreneurs passionate about education to build the next generation of education startups
  • Build a newfound sense of community among those who are passionate about improving educational outcomes for millions of learners
  • Change the conversation in your community to not just be about identifying problems in education but become action-oriented by designing & developing real solutions to today’s education problems
  • Spread the love for Startup Weekend Education while having fun with an awesome organizing team of emerging edtech leaders


What types of problems will my community solve this weekend?

Here’s some videos of the 4 Startup Weekend Education teams that competed in the 2013 vGlobal Startup Battle. Last year, the top 2 teams from every Startup Weekend and Startup Weekend Education event had the opportunity to submit 1 minute video pitches to compete in the epic battle for the $500,000 of prizes. You can be a part of bringing your community’s education ideas like this to life!

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Join These 13 Communities and Bring the Battle to Improve Education to Your Community

  • Arequipa, Peru
  • Aspen, Colorado
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Curitiba, Brazil
  • Dallas, Texas
  • Houston, Texas
  • Mumbai, India
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Pristina, Kosovo
  • Rochester, New York
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Zagreb, Croatia


Ready to organize a Startup Weekend Education event in your community?

Apply to Organize before August 31st! 
Or, introduce us to someone in your city that would be a great Startup Weekend Education Organizer! Simply send an intro email to

Help Startup Education Get To SXSWedu!

Startup Education needs your help to get to the biggest edtech conference in the world! We submitted 3 panel proposals to SXSWedu, which offers a huge opportunity for us to showcase our mission and impact. 30% of the selection process is from community voting, so we need your help to vote for all 3 sessions below and share on your social media networks.

Here’s What You Need to Do

  1. Visit
  2. Create an account
  3. Search for our talk, Closing Achievement Gaps Through Games
  4. Vote by clicking on the thumbs up
  5. Voting closes on September 6

Here’s our 3 panels!

Growing an Education Innovation Community

Is there more to education innovation than edtech startups and accelerators? This panel is actively building community of innovators solving challenges in education within their respective parts of the world. No matter where you live, learn how to launch your own education innovation community to bring together individuals creating change in education. Hear about their triumphs and failures along the way and take away some tactics and ideas you can use in your own backyard.
Featuring Jessica Falkenthal- Marketing Coordinator of Startup Education and Gerson Riberio- Startup Weekend Education Recife Brazil Organizer
Vote to support Jess!

Redesigning School As We Know It

Why does school mean four walls, one teacher, and 20 students? Ever had an idea for how to reinvent a school from the ground up? This panel will discuss how to design schools of the future that create opportunities for students and teachers to thrive. What are the frameworks for thinking about what is needed in a new school model? If you’re interested in designing personalized learning and competency-based education, then this panel is for you.
Featuring Mandela Schumacher-Hodge- Director of Startup Education and Christine Ortiz, Startup Weekend Education Orlando Organizer & Global Facilitator
Vote to support Mandela!

Understanding and Empathizing with Education Users

How well do you think you know your users? Whether you’re a teacher trying to understand the needs of students in your classroom or an entrepreneur trying to understand the needs of teachers and students who use your product, empathy and understanding is the secret weapon of successful entrepreneurs. In this workshop, you will discover and practice techniques for understanding your user’s needs.
Featuring John Baldo, Program Manager of Startup Education
Vote to support John!


Panels by Our Community

We also have some amazing panels submitted by members of our community. We’d love for everyone to help support them too!

Getting even more ‘ED’ into ‘EDtech development’
Last year, we focused on the big hurdles in getting educators more involved in the development of edtech tools and programs in the classroom . Through moderated group discussion, we will construct solutions to the challenges facing educators and edtech developers with an eye to implementing these solutions in our members’ respective localities. We’ll look to teacher experts and successful startups for solutions that can be implemented in incubators, meetup communities and beyond.
This panel features Sean Duffy, Startup Weekend Education Austin Lead Organizer
Vote for Sean’s panel at

SchoolAsAService: Supporting Student Success@Scale
Over the past few years, institutions of higher education have increasingly sought to move and expand their degree programs online as well as to integrate more new technology and methodologies into their student services. Most attendees will be familiar with large turnkey partnership models like 2U and Pearson (Embanet/eCollege), but this panel will cover the range of more targeted partners with specific focus around student recruiting and retention services, all available “as a service”.
This panel features Chris Nyren- Startup Weekend Education Organizer for Startup Weekend Education Chicago , SWEDU LA , SWEDU Phoenix  and SWEDU Twin Cities .
Vote for Chris’s panel at

Redefining EdTech Innovation: NYC as Case Study
With over a million kids in NYC schools, educators are piloting new prototypes, bootcamps are teaching new skills, and maker spaces are igniting new builders. How might this wave of innovation in NYC (with strong district participation and for-/non-profit startup partnership) impact the U.S. edtech ecosystem? Is it time to redefine edtech to include unusual suspects? This panel discusses how creatives of all types are collaborating to accelerate the pace of innovation in & out of our classrooms.
This panel features David Fu, Startup Weekend Education NYC Organizer
Vote for David’s panel at

12 Superb Tools to Add to Your EdTech Utility Belt
Various multimedia tools to engage, excite, and educate students on a budget!
This panel features Josh Murdock, Startup Weekend Education Orlando Organizer
Vote for Josh’s panel at

Teacher to Techie: Tackling the Transition
Anyone working at an edtech company full-time cannot know what’s happening in the classroom first-hand. Therefore, all edtech companies need strategies for engaging continuously with current classroom teachers, even though teachers are busy, have other priorities, & work in difficult-to-understand contexts. Come to this panel to learn how teachers & companies can work together successfully, inside & outside the classroom, from four people who’ve tackled the transition from teacher to techie.
This panel features Deborah Chang, Startup Weekend Education NYC Organizer
Vote for Deborah’s panel at

EdTech: Classrooms in Start-up Mode
EdTech: Classrooms in Start-up Mode Tech allows for an opportunity to move beyond the traditional classroom and towards a more dynamic experience. This chaotic shift couldn’t come at a better time. The needs are great and the solutions are experimental. This panel will convene practitioners, experts and entrepreneurs to explore innovative technologies and ways to foster a more open educational landscape.
This panel features Sean Duffy, Startup Weekend Education Austin Lead Organizer
Vote for Sean’s panel at

Building an Edtech Bill of Rights
Educators and entrepreneurs seeking to partner together in piloting new products and technologies face several challenges, including different industry cultures, business processes, and expectations. In this session we’ll share our experiences with successful educator/edtech entrepreneur partnerships in different regions, sharing lessons learned and best practices for collaboration success.
This panel features Katrina Stevens, Startup Weekend Education Global Facilitator
Vote for Katrina’s panel at

After Studying Education Innovation for 6000 Hours
From launching thirty companies across ten Launch cohorts, we’ve gleaned some good insight on what the future of school in the U.S. may look like. Join this Future15 to get expert insight into the top trends and opportunities in education innovation in the U.S.
This Panel features Katie Beck, organizer of Startup Weekend Education New School Models SF and Startup Weekend Education NYC Teens
Vote for Katie’s panel at

In Touch: Tactile Learning for Chemistry
My (organic) chemistry games will be teaching the concepts of bond-making and breaking events, acidity, and molecular manipulation with data-based user interaction of mobile games. Incorporating tactile learning into chemistry education could reach students who may not have succeeded or had difficulty with the subject in the past. Our beautiful puzzle games also make learning chemistry intuitive and fun, so more youngsters may be inspired to continue with the study of chemistry and other STEM subjects.
This panel features Julia Winter, Startup Weekend Education Twin Cities Participant & Founder of OChemPrep
Vote for Julia’s panel at 

UX Design for Education

This blog post was written by Chris Nyren, Founder of Educated Ventures and a Startup Education Weekend Community Leader from Chicago. It was originally posted on the Educelerate Channel on EdReach.

This Educelerate Event was recorded on July 25th, 2013 and presented by Christopher Nyren, Founder of Educelerate.  Educelerate holds a gathering space for Ed Tech leaders in the industry with the educators and entrepreneurs who share their interests. This next episode, taken from Educelerate 13.5: UX for EDU digs deep into the user experience for online education.  This Educelerate workshop was be facilitated by our friends at DesignCloud and was set amidst their new media show planned for August. 

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Panelists included:

  • Patrick Cunningham – an artist, educator, designer, actor and technical consultant at the design studio/art gallery Design Cloud.  Patrick also serves as an Archeworks’ Research Fellow exploring human-machine interface for stroke survivors and persons with cognitive disabilities. His experience within the education includes developing the first ever BioArt studio class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago teaching the basics of genetic manipulation and biotechnology within an arts framework.
  • Chris Peterson – Web designer at AllCampus, a leading outsourced provider of online student recruitment and enrollment services, and previously at Alloy Education, a higher education marketing and recruitment agency founded in 1985 (and the former parent at AllCampus).  Chris started his career in education as a web content assistant at eCollege and previously worked as an independent web developer and graphic designer with a variety of technology companies after graduating from the Art Institute of Colorado.
  • Danielle Chutinthranond – Danielle arrived at User Experience by way of software and web development. She’s currently the Lead UI/UX Engineer at a Chicago-based education startup. Danielle previously served as a UX Designer/Developer at onPeak and as a web and software developer at McMaster-Carr. Danielle received her bachelors from the University of Chicago with subsequent studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Julian Miller – Julian Miller is a former high school teacher / department head turned technologist. After leaving the classroom, he spent a few years as a teaching artist/ curriculum consultant before going to work for companies like the SunTimes Group and HP as a UI/UX developer. He is currently the cofounder and CEO of Learnmetrics, where he is grateful for the opportunity to merge his passions, education and technology, as the startup builds a platform integrating big data, machine learning and human capital to increase the capacity and opportunities for student success.

The panel was moderated by Daniel Rezac, Editor in Chief of

What Happens When 70 Entrepreneurs Gather in Austin to Innovate on Education?

To say that the first ever Startup Weekend Education event to be held in Austin was a smashing success would be a total understatement. The energy from participants, the support from the community and the high caliber of execution of ideas on the part of all of the teams involved really sets the bar high for our first go at a SWEdu event in Austin. Setting the bar high, of course, is a really good thing. We’ve come to expect nothing less from the edtech community here in Austin, and the students who count on us deserve our collective efforts. That said, let’s recap this first awesome weekend of pitching ideas, forming teams, consuming lots of caffeine, working through the night, drinking some more caffeine, practicing said pitches again, and again, and again and of course, presenting those pitches to our rather impressive panel of judges.


Brian Lukoff, Program Director of Learning Catalytics for Pearson.

To kick things off, Brian Lukoff, Program Director for Learning Catalytics at Pearson, spoke to our group about his experience in education and the process of creating a startup. He shared some extremely valuable insights with our soon-to-be startups, including:

  • Find the right people – make sure that you “click”
  • Eat your own dog food and iterate often (in other words, be your own customer)
  • Don’t forget your educational (not business) goal
  • And last, but certainly not least, don’t leave Austin

After our opening speaker, participants pitched their initial ideas that would provide the framework for the whole weekend. We had over 30 participants pitch an idea, but only 12 of them made the final cut. It’s said that the initial idea becomes only a small part of the eventual team and startup, and this weekend certainly proved that to be true. Teams formed around 10 of these ideas, and before the weekend was finished, only nine teams remained. Nine OUTSTANDING teams, that is.  Here’s a look at some of the teams in action:

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Jake Nathan, our youngest participant at 16, pitches his idea that would eventually become “FeedBack Now.”

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After hours of hard work overnight and during the morning Saturday, coaches arrived on Saturday afternoon to offer tips and advice to help steer teams in the right direction. We had representative from various sectors relevant to our startups, including developers, marketing professionals, designers, and of course, educators. The teams, working nearly non-stop, continued to develop logos, websites, mobile apps and back-end services in order to present working models of their proposed solutions to the challenges they sought to tackle.

Photos courtesy Holp Photography.

Photos courtesy Holp Photography.

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Scott Lipton, left, talks with Ryan Lynch, right.

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By Sunday, teams ratcheted up their efforts toward the final phase of the weekend: judging. Our judges represented some of the most prominent organizations in Austin from education-specific companies to investment firms, with nearly everything in between. To put some more context around our esteemed judging panel, Charles Thornburgh, Founder and CEO of Civitas Learning, is listed on “16 People Changing the Landscape of Online Education Forever” by Find Education Online. Nancy Giordano, another star of our judging panel, is the founder of TEDxAustin, among her many accomplishments. Clearly, our participant teams had to bring their A-game in order to impress our judges. When all was said and done, the judges were more than impressed with the assembled talent and collective hard work.  Here are some of the highlights of the final pitches:

Gavin kicks things off before teams deliver pitches.

Gavin kicks things off before teams deliver pitches.

Judges consider all of the pitches before tallying scores.

Judges consider all of the pitches before tallying scores.

Clifford Chiu helped drive conversations from the judges to participants.

Clifford Chiu helped drive conversations from the judges to participants.

Alyssa presents with her team.

Alyssa presents with her team.

Photos courtesy of Holp Photography.

Photos courtesy of Holp Photography.

Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography.

Catherine Greenlaw weighs in during team pitches.

Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography.

Charles Thornburgh, Civitas Learning.

Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography.

Christa Clark of 401Kids presents their startup.

Photos courtesy of Holp Photography. Photos courtesy of Holp Photography.

Judges deliberated in the “secret conference room” at the Capital Factory (don’t even think about asking us to divulge the secret location…):


Ultimately,  three teams were selected to represent our first event as the front-runners, but all of the teams should be commended. Here’s a run down of winners, participants and prizes, courtesy of Ed Valdez of Technorati (see his piece here):

  1. 401 Kids: With 7 out of 10 college students graduating with debt (over $1 trillion of collective debt in the US) and more states requiring financial literacy in order to graduate high school, this service teaches the financial seeds of success to students who range from six to thirteen years old.
  2. OnBoard: This service allows HigherEd educators and students to connect with non-profit companies who need marketing/communications projects completed at a cost that is significantly lower than market rate while enabling students to receive course credit for their completed projects by solving real-world problems.
  3. BookAround: A gamification platform that enables students to upload 20-second videos that are book reviews/commentaries that they share with their peers to motivate them to read more and have fun in the process.

Other team participants included Evalumate, Curriculine, Language Links,, Hogwarts Education and Feedback Now, the latter of which has a 16-year-old Jake Nathan as “co-founder” of a team that built a mobile app to help students ask questions in class in an anonymous way without having to feel “stupid” or uncomfortable (see video, courtesy of KXAN-TV).

Thanks to the donations of several sponsors, 401 Kids, the overall winner, will receive:

  • $1000 hosting credit from Rackspace;
  • One-year subscription to Foundersuite;
  • A Playlab demo space at the Thinkery (Children’s Museum in Austin);
  • $1200 off of an immersive course from Makersquare;
  • A team demo at EdTech Austin; and
  • Invitation to join the Capital Factory (last, but not least).

Special thanks to all of our sponsors and organizers for making this weekend possible! First, thanks to Mike Holp of Holp Photography. Check him out here, and be sure to book him for your next event! We’d especially like to thank our gold and platinum sponsors Capital FactoryMakerSquare and Pearson who helped make this event possible! See all of our sponsors, coaches and judges here:

We’ve got a few great events in the works for the upcoming months before SXSWEdu. We may even have time to squeeze in another Startup Weekend Education, so stay tuned, y’all!

EdTech Unicorns: Learning from the (Half) Billion-Dollar Startups

This blog post was written by Chris Nyren, Founder of Educated Ventures and a Startup Education Weekend Community Leader from Chicago. It was originally posted on the Educelerate Channel on EdReach.

Following upon Educelerate’s November post The First Crack of the EdTech Hype Bubble of 2011-2013,

I wanted to step back and take a longer term view over the past three investment cycles of 1998-2014 and assess what might be learned about those edtech startups to successfully scale, or at least achieve outsized liquidity events.  In so doing, I have borrowed upon Aileen Lee’s Unicorn Club post from Techcrunch.  Speaking of TechCrunch, a blogger there recently sought to rebut our “First Crack” post in citing Knewton’s massive raise, however, we could just as easily point to more recent firesales of notable start-ups like Bain Capital Venture’s MyEdu or reactionary pivots from Bessemer’s Flatworld and Andreessen Horowitz’s Udacity.

And still, with massive raises from Knewton and Coursera bringing their respective valuations to $400 million and $200 million (or, nearly 200x revenue) and 2U filing for a $100mm IPO which should value the company at $400 million (at least), the level of investment momentum in the education markets is undeniable and merits further study.  Yet, with the education “sector” only recently exceeding $1 billion in annual investment flow, the data set on exits and average deal size greatly lags that of the original “Unicorn Club”: indeed, just 11 EdTech start-ups founded since 1996 have achieved $1 billion valuations (and for several of those, it was a brief achievement).  Therefore, I have reached back all the way to the 1960s (Datatel, Plato, SCT) while also lowering the valuation threshold to $300 million in cash or $500 million on paper (public or private).  (Also, it should go without saying, but I have excluded non-Tech paper publishing and classroom-based instruction models here.)

While none of the above mentioned “hot” start-ups (2U, Knewton, Coursera) qualify yet, the US IPO and M&A markets have managed to spawn 50 of these so-defined “EdTech Unicorns”, of which 28 crawled up through the public markets, 14 through mergers and 8 through private valuations.  Laid out along the investment cycles, we can better gauge the lean years of 2001-2008 with just 6 scaled public companies and 3 acquisitions, while the more exuberant current five year period starting in 2008 has already brought 16 scaled exits through the public markets and 9 through M&A.  Of course, exits are also the product of investment cycles at founding and the education industry requires a far greater gestation period as fully two-thirds of these companies were established before 1996 (40% before 1990 even!) while just 12 were founded in the 1996 – 2000 dotCom Bubble and only 3 after 2001 (and it could be argued that one of those, Grand Canyon, was actually founded in 1949 and its basketball team might disqualify it as “edtech”).  EdTech Unicorns have taken a median of 14 years from their founding to achieve scaled exits.  An historical timeline of these exits is presented below:

EdTech Unicorns Over Time

EdTech Unicorns Timeline
  1. Most of the IPO valuations above did not occur in the IPO itself, but subsequently as a public company, while many of these companies achieved higher valuations later still as acquisition targets (i.e., Blackboard, NCS, TLC, Skillsoft); conversely, certain M&A exits were already public, but only exceeded threshold valuations through a buyout (i.e., eCollege, Edmentum).
  2. There have actually been over 60 edtech IPOs since 1994, however, the IPO markets were very different before the dotCom fallout and Sarbanes Oxley.  Indeed, 1996-2000 saw such unforgettable IPOs as,, N2H2,, YouthStream Media, VCampus (University Online) and ZapMe!
EdTech Unicorns by Model

EdTech Unicorns by Business Model

As a further line of taxonomy, I have analyzed the EdTech Unicorns by business model and place.  It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that over two thirds (67%) of these businesses rely on B2B marketing, with just one-third based upon B2C models.  Moreover, half of these B2C models are actually Online Schools with just a quarter representing educational software sold direct to consumers (Davidson / The Learning Co., Leapfrog, and Rosetta Stone) and another quarter from online consumer marketplaces (, Chegg, Quora, School Specialty).  While neither nor Quora are really EdTech, I have included them to illustrate the strong investor interest today in capital efficient, ad-driven Web 2.0 models.  Additionally, while there were other proprietary schools that created well in excess of  $500mm in stock value over the 2000s from their online divisions (e.g., CEC, Strayer), these predominantly ground-based classroom businesses have been excluded here.

EdTech Unicorns by Geography

EdTech Unicorns by Market

In tracking these exits by geography, we can now unequivocally state toTom Van der Ark that the leading hotspot for scaling in edtech is the Bay — the Chesapeake Bay (9 scaled companies).  Furthermore, this analysis confirms my long-argued thesis that EdTech “hotspots” Silicon Valley and New York (not to mention, New England) are over-hyped related to the over-looked markets of the Midwest (namely, the Twin Cities with 5.5 and Chicago with 4) and Southern California (5), coincidentally all markets served by Educelerate.  While its 7 EdTech Unicorns are nothing to dismiss, the vast majority of these Silicon Valley companies of scale were formerly high-flying dotCom era start-ups (DigitalThink, Saba, SumTotal) or more recent under-performing stocks (Chegg, Quin Street).  By broader region, it appears that the Midwest is Best with 13.5 EdTech Unicorns, followed by California, the Mid-Atlantic, the Rockies (through Phoenix) and the “SXSE” region of Texas through Florida, by way of Nashville.

Most interestingly, and despite claiming the vast majority of the $1 billion invested into this sector annually, the lesser Bay (i.e., Silicon Valley) has been unable to spin investor gold into scaled EdTech exits.  This is covered further in a separate post, but I believe this is because preferred business models and practices favored by investors and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley (as well as Silicon Alley in NY) run counter to the demands of education, namely: 1) the lack of applicability / acceptability for B2C ad-supported and freemium social web apps; 2) an over-reliance upon often over-engineered product and a general disdain for services;  and 3) Enterprise SaaS likely outdraws talent from Corporate eLearning SaaS (an area of relative success for the Valley in the last Bubble).

Notes: given data limitations, the above analysis likely understates the number of EdTech Unicorns created on “paper” under parent companies (see Discovery Education, Hobsons, Ingram, etc.) or private investors.  This is especially the case for the 1998-2000 dotCom Bubble, however, the author’s long memory and research has turned up such historical “Paper Unicorns” as DigitalThink (public market), Lightspan (public), UNext (private), NetLibrary (private), Provant (public), and Saba (public).  Depending upon current market trends, 2U, Knewton, Lynda and OpenEnglish are likely to join the ranks of EdTech Unicorns (at least, on paper).

A full report is available from the author.  This is the second in a three part series on education technology investment markets: part 1 “The First Crack of the EdTech Hype Bubble of 2011-2013″ can be accessed here, while Part 3 “Where to Invest: EdTech Building Blocks” is available from the author.

Educator Turned Entrepreneur- How I Found my Entrepreneurial Spark

“Never give up.  Always follow your dreams. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

As educators, parents, friends, colleagues, and human beings, we consistently use these words as ways to motivate, even inspire, others. However, without the ability to back the words up with concrete steps, actions, and movement, the vagueness of these “inspiring” phrases often do very little. Yes, it is important to keep going and persist in the face of challenges; however, it must be done in a thoughtful, smart way. Without purpose behind the perseverance, the words are just that—words. 

Startup Weekend Education focuses on solving some of education’s most persistent challenges.  The motto of the weekend—no talk, all action—is exactly the type of smart determination that allows dreams to become realities.  Three years ago, an educator and graduate student blissfully unaware of the language and philosophies of entrepreneurship, I went to a Startup Weekend Education in Washington, DC.  My intention was to observe and see what this whole “startup weekend” madness was about; I figured that I might meet some cool people and, if nothing else, get a free meal.  I had no intention of pitching an idea and figured that I would probably just attend Friday and maybe, if I had time, Sunday.  However, something magical happened in the car on the way to Georgetown.  I was riding with three other teachers, talking about our days and expectations for the weekend.  The driver, a “techie” teacher already using cutting-edge technology in his classroom, was planning on pitching a platform to better organize real time student data.  The other teachers talked about some ideas and hopes that they had for the weekend.  I sat quietly and began to think about an idea I had had for some time.

As a middle school literacy teacher, I saw that my students struggled to sit still for my extended block.  I also knew, from a background in studying childhood obesity, that my students did not get enough physical movement.  Then, I began thinking about what motivated me to stay active.  I am by no means an athlete by design but have made a choice to continually sign up for races to keep myself active, even with my hectic lifestyle. I desired to find a way to bring purposeful fitness education to schools so that all students could experience the transformative power of fitness in their lives as I had in my own.  So, in the back seat of a car filled with educators on the way to our first Startup Weekend experience, I gained the courage to conceptualize my idea and pitch it to a room of 100 strangers.  It wasn’t the most polished pitch, but I did it. And I am so glad that I did.

KidFit Picture_2012My idea, KidFit, made it to the top 10!  I was beyond ecstatic.  I went from being a casual observer to a full-on participant in the weekend. However, as I tried to persuade people to join my team, things became more challenging.  I ended up joining forces with another team and was excited to figure out how to incorporate my idea with others.  However, pretty soon into our Friday night brainstorming, it was obvious to me that my notion of KidFit was getting lost.  I became incredibly disheartened and even contemplated leaving.  But I didn’t.  I kept at it.  And, again, I am so glad that I did.  KidFit did not necessarily take shape that weekend, but I did.  I learned the power of entrepreneurship and the ability of a few committed people to join together and turn dreams into realities.Kids using KidFit Academy

That weekend was the spark that grew into what is now my “full-time” job as founder of KidFit Academy.  It is not an easy journey; every day requires patient perseverance with a clear focus and constant reflection.  But I could not imagine doing anything else.

Maggie Croushore, founder of KidFit Academy.
This post was originally published on KidFit Academy’s blog.

Startup Weekend Education DC is July 25-27 at Union Market in DC. There’s still a few tickets left if you register soon

Orlando Startup Weekend Education Helps Solve Problems in Education

This post was written by Josh Murdock, Orlando Startup Weekend Education Organizer and was originally posted on his Professor Josh blog.

Many of us have 8am-5pm jobs. But there are always these things called weekends that give us an extra 54 hours of time to explore, relax, learn, and build. What can you do in 54 hours? How about creating a startup business that solves a problem in education. That’s what happened July 11-13, 2014 at Valencia College’s Collaborative Design Center on the West Campus. Fifty designers, developers, entrepreneurs, and educators came together over a weekend to create seven amazing companies in 54 hours at Orlando Startup Weekend Education. Many of the participants were from Central Florida but one came from Honduras and another from New Jersey to participate.


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Friday night both friends and strangers kicked off a weekend long journey to create a startup business from just an idea. Over 24 participants pitched their own ideas that would solve educational problems. Afterwards all the 60 second pitches, came a vote by all those participating on which ideas were their favorites. Educators votes were worth double, since it was education focused Startup Weekend. Narrowed down to form seven teams ranging from ideas that would attempt to solve a national problem concerning the lack of girls going into STEM careers to a solution that tries to connect teachers and potential guest speakers in an easier way.

Orlando Startup Weekend Education SWORLEDU Voting on Ideas

I was the main organizers for this weekend. It’s my ninth time attending a Startup Weekend, typically attending as a mentor in the past. It was the third Startup Weekend Education hosted in Orlando, one of the few in the southeast. I’m always amazed at the journey these teams go through from just an idea to a potential business that could have a huge impact on education.

The seven pitches that formed teams included:

  • Inspire Us: eHarmony for connecting guest speakers and teachers.
  • Party Time: Time management app for college students.
  • OE Scope: Turing optical microscopes into digital microscopes with a smartphone app and unique 3D printed adapter with lots of sharable features.
  • Telling Tales: A storybook development website for developing reading skills.
  • Learn Like a Girl: After school program for girls to get invovled and interested in STEM careers.
  • Lab Safety: Digital lab safety courses for both students and teachers to prevent accidents from happening.
  • Global Glass: Non-profit connecting Honduras (or other countries students/teachers) to teachers or retired teachers in the United States digitally for assistance and tutoring.

Saturday the seven teams focused on defining their problem, solution, and users. They went out to validate their ideas with those who are impacted by these problems or could be potential users or customers of their solutions. As each team moved along their journey, they are guided by various mentors from the community who volunteered their time to ask the tough questions and give guidance when needed. Many teams pivot in response to validation, competition, and lessons learned along their weekend journey. Dr. Lisa Macon, Dean at Valencia College was one of the mentors over the entire weekend and helped bring Startup Weekend Education to Valencia. “Watching the teams progress from “idea” to “product” was eye-opening. The teams with members who asked questions and kept an open mind progressed quickly which should be a lesson to the others who came in with hard and fast ideas. All of the participants learned something about product development, business models, and teamwork. I am looking forward to the next Startup Weekend event.”

Mentors working with teams at Orlando Startup Weekend Education

Sunday is the final push to develop a quality pitch that will impress the judges. Teams continue to build, validate, and get assistance for mentors along the way. Practicing pitches and being comfortable sharing your ideas in a simple to understand format is a key to success. Areas the judges focus on are customer business validation, education impact, user experience design, and product execution. The winner of July’s Orlando Startup Weekend Education was Inspire Us, bringing professionals into the classroom.

Orlando Startup Weekend Education SWORLEDU Group Photo

Everyone walks away with new lessons learned from others, including the mentors, judges, and organizers. One mentor Rob McCaffery, a Professor at Valencia College, said, “In addition to learning more about business, I find a lot of techniques during Startup Weekend that I can use to engage my classrooms and get students interacting with each other.”

Dr. Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia College was one of the judges. “Not many one-weekend co-curricular experiences are genuinely transformational. But Startup Weekend truly is.” stated Shugart.

Orlando Startup Weekend Education SWORLEDU Judges including Carlos Carbonell, TD Haines, Dr Sandy Shugart

After the weekend is over, it’s not the end for the winning and losing teams. It’s a chance to decide if they want to continue their journey in entrepreneurship and educational change. It’s an opportunity to connect again with those friends you met for the first time over the weekend. It’s a time to get involved in local meetups, such as EdTech Orlando ( that talk about the need for change in education year around.

Interested in learning more about Startup Weekend Education? Visit and search for #SWORLEDU on Twitter to see what happened at this weekend’s Startup Weekend Education Orlando event.