Guest Post: Fresh faces and ideas from the EdTech Entrepreneurs Lab

June 14, 2011

Melissa Wagasky and David Blake pitch their startup at Summit 2011

Summit attendees got a special treat this year: the opportunity to witness, participate in, and contribute to the next wave of entrepreneurial organizations poised to make a difference in the lives of America’s students at the EdTech Entrepreneurs Lab Pitch Session. Following the Summit’s theme of discovering what’s new and what’s next in education, the rapid-fire format gave entrepreneurs real-world experience pitching their ideas and raising capital—both essential to growing a successful start-up.

The EdTech Entrepreneurs Lab—a partnership between NewSchools Venture Fund, Teach for America, and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford—empowers entrepreneurs to design and start technology-based solutions to transform public education. Hailing from diverse backgrounds in private industry, teaching, and academia, four teams of EdTech entrepreneurs pitched their ideas for new start-ups aiming to revolutionize the education space before a panel of entrepreneurial experts, including Aileen Lee of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Rob Waldron of Curriculum Associates, and Kim Smith of Bellwether Education Partners.

The goals of the session went beyond the immediate participants. I was inspired to observe the energy and practices of Silicon Valley directed at helping students inside (and outside) the classroom. Not only did the session allow for a diverse set of innovative ideas to receive early feedback, it also broadened the notion of who can make an impact in education.

Over three hundred attendees filled the room to capacity. While the atmosphere was friendly, the budding entrepreneurs took the competition seriously: one clever team pre-empted its pitch by scattering its website URL on all the chairs. Each team had about five minutes to introduce its members, explain their solution, and ultimately persuade the judges to say, “I would invest in you.”

The ideas were as diverse as the entrepreneurs’ backgrounds: from dailypage, which aims to transform reading with social technology to, which aims to solve parents’ confusion over after-school activities with an online review website. Rounding out the line-up were two online crowdsourcing platform: Skoodio, a platform that gathers feedback on student work, and Scratica, which solicits and rates answers to students’ questions.

After each pitch, the judges gave their thoughts. Waldron admired dailypage’s spoken pitch: “I would want you to be my kids’ schoolteacher. People give to people and I think that part you nailed.” Addressing Skoodio, Lee also praised the delivery and challenged founder James Truong to address user adoption in a crowded space.

While the judges deliberated on the final winner, the audience shared its feedback by texting in its votes. Attendees also contributed their suggestions and questions to the teams, adding praise for their work. In the end, both the judges and the audience voted for, the website of after-school activity reviews, believing it addresses a clear need in the market.

In their closing comments, the judges shared valuable insight into the landscape of education entrepreneurship. Lee emphasized the need to stay data-driven throughout the launch process, adding that the digital nature of the four start-ups reduces the people and resources needed to launch. Smith advised the entrepreneurs to look beyond the most commercial ideas to the most revolutionary ones, saying, “If everyone’s clamoring for it, that’s not where it’s the most broken.”

Jean J. Lu, CFA, is a recent MBA graduate of the UC Berkeley-Haas School of Business, working as an investment consultant to endowments and foundations in Boston.