The Innovation Challenge

September 21, 2012

Today marks the start of the Citi Innovation Challenge, which will culminate in a live pitch session at NBC News’ “Education Nation” Summit on Tuesday, September 25th. For a second year, NewSchools is partnering with NBC and Citi to design and carry out the Innovation Challenge. This year’s Challenge will feature three startups: ReadImagine, Pathbrite and NoRedInk. I’m excited about this year’s Challenge because now more then ever, we need the optimism and innovation that these young entrepreneurs represent. 

Our public education system is facing incredibly difficult times with severe budget cuts, labor disputes, and a persistent achievement gap. Yet, I’m encouraged by the spirit of American ingenuity always seeking out new solutions to our problems.   Since our nation’s founding the impulse to create, build, and solve our way through obstacles has remained constant. The education technology sector is a great example – it’s booming with ideas to help us find ways to better support our students and this year’s Innovation Challenge gives us a small snapshot. 

I’m inspired by the personal stories of this year’s entrepreneurs. So often, entrepreneurial callings are personal – they are scratching their own itch. One of the founders of ReadImagine, Phat Phuong, is the youngest of nine children, came to the US as a refugee, and spent a lot of time hanging out in public libraries. ReadImagine was his solution to bridging the beauty of books with the interactivity of technology to encourage reading. Chicago public school teacher Jeff Scheur built NoRedInk  (while teaching full-time) to help his students improve their grammar skills faster. Heather Hiles wanted to start an education company to help every person find greater clarity of purpose.

With Citi and NBC News, we launched the Innovation Challenge last year with three intrepid startups: Kickboard, TruantToday, and Class Dojo. What a year it’s been for these inaugural entrepreneurs: Class Dojo has gone from a few thousand teachers to millions of students and teachers across 30+ countries.  Last week their mobile app debuted #2 on the edu app store. Kickboard has grown considerably, and is now serving thousands of students. They are a truly pioneering company in teacher-led development. Zak Kukoff continues to run TruantToday, but is busy starting his senior year at Westlake High School.  🙂

To watch the Innovation Challenge as it progresses, check out www.educationnation or follow on twitter at @citi, @nsvf, and @educationnation (hashtag #innovationchallenge).