Milken-Penn GSE Competition Roundup


Milken-Penn GSE Competition Roundup

Women represent at the richest competition for edtech startps. And another edtech incubator is on its way!

By Katrina Stevens     May 7, 2013

Milken-Penn GSE Competition Roundup

Women dominated at this year’s Milken-Penn GSE Business Plan Competition summit in Philadelphia.

For starters, the event was the first one led by executive director of academic innovation, Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, formerly the executive director of nonprofit Curriki. Kurshan knows what entrepreneurs want--funds and networking support--but is aiming to provide those carrots in an atmosphere that stresses the importance of academic research.

On Wednesday morning, Kurshan planned to unveil what she calls an “Education Design Studio Fund” (EDSF) program, a sort of edtech incubator and investment fund that is built on collaboration between Penn GSE, several corporate supporters and a host of venture capitalists. The EDSF plans to soon start accepting applications for a cohort slated to begin August 1.

And then there was this year’s competition: 10 companies, eight of which were led by women, competed for $145,000 in seven prizes. Those prizes, which will be awarded later on Wednesday, will be worth between $10,000 and $25,000 apiece, making the Milken-Penn competition the richest competition for edtech startups. (Check out specific prize categories here.)

Each finalist had about 15 minutes to present and answer Q&A, a welcome change of pace from the 3-minute “elevator” pitches that often dominate such events.

Crowded Spaces

Many finalists are trying to break into increasingly crowded spaces. For example, the judges immediately asked Scrible how it differentiated itself from competitors like Evernote, EasyBib and Citelighter (a Day 2 panelist). Scrible’s Victor Karkar contended that his service’s annotation features and execution distinguish the product from others.

Edfolio, a startup that aims to have a beta out in a few weeks, directs job candidates to recommended courses to fill in skill gaps for the jobs they want and then connects them to potential employers--another crowded, albeit needed, service offering.

Gingkotree, which launched its beta in October 2012, allows instructors to build online curriculum from any resource--either OER or not--complete with automated copyright clearance and digital sourcing.

Keep ‘em in School

Two finalists tackled attrition in different ways: Persistence Plus “nudges” students to do what it takes to get through school (think WeightWatchers meets your homework). AspirEDU takes an approach like online risk credit analysis, crunching through data on online students to create a red-green-yellow light signal on which students aren’t meeting expectations so counselors can reach out quickly. AspirEDU’s main challenge may be how to prevent other companies from simply adding a similar algorithm to existing products.

Narrow Pain Points, Pragmatic Solutions

In a panel discussion, RenaissanceLearning founder, Jack Lynch, argued that successful edtech companies focus on a narrow pain point and provide a pragmatic solution. Similarly ImagineK12 founder Geoff Ralston advocates founders focusing on something they care about passionately and then building. Autism Expressed appears to fit these descriptions. Michelle Keone has developed a truly unique program that teaches social media literacy to students with autism, helping them learn to use digital tools. Autism Expressed’s curriculum could easily be adjusted to help ELL students learn similar skills, she proposed.

When Marjan Ghara invited her two BiblioNasium “cofounders,” her two elementary school children, on stage with her, Ghara’s son explained that when he gets more Biblio prizes than his friends, he can brag about how many books he’s read. BiblioNasium, which has been a hit with librarians, appears to be filling a particular need for a COPPA-compliant, safe space to crowdsource reading recommendations for K8.

If awarded funds, BYKids plans to develop curriculum around the four student-created films they’ve produced over the past five years. BYkids want to bring a global perspective to American classrooms through videos produced by children in other parts of the world.

Raising Money for College and Training

Raise Labs, a company that got its start in the ImagineK12 accelerator, has raised $30 million that it aims to award in micro-scholarships to students throughout their high school years to both motivate them to get through school and to help them pay for college. UpSkill Capital is launching a pilot in India where they will lend workers relatively small amounts of money for job training that will increase their earnings six fold within six months.

Where Are We Headed?

Dialogue about where education is headed--and the role research should play--was brisk. (EdSurge’s Betsy Corcoran moderated the event.)

Even as ImagineK12 cofounder Geoff Ralston has seen a surge in capital for edtech, for example, he isn’t certain how long it will last. Connections Education cofounder, Mickey Revenaugh, who was beamed into the Philadelphia conference from her spot on stage at the ongoing San Francisco SIIA conference, argued that the real fragility in the ecosystem is less about edtech and really about how fragile our schools are both individually and collectively.

Torch Lytle, former Trenton Public Schools superintendent and current faculty at Penn GSE, believes we’re in the process of “de-schooling schooling,” moving away from traditional diplomas and degrees towards a set of badges that represent competencies.

Lord David Puttnam, Chancellor of the UK Open University, who also beamed in via a video conference link from the UK, described how he feels the education world is at a significant inflection point. He pointed to the skyrocketing usage of Britain’s TES, a site where teachers are sharing and seeking lessons. (TES is affiliated in the US with ShareMyLesson.) Some 84% of UK teachers downloaded resources from TES last year, he said. And just last year, teachers (from the UK and elsewhere) used 130 million TES resources, he added.


At the conclusion of the Milken-UPenn business plan competition, $145K was awarded in prize money to entrepreneurs. Here's who got what:

  • Raise Labs (Preston Silverman and George Kirkland/San Francisco, Imagine K12 alumni) won the Milken Family Foundation First Prize ($25,000), the Startl Prize for Open Educational Resources ($25,000) and the K12 Prize for Online Learning in Grades K-12 ($25,000).
  • Persistence Plus (Jill Frankfort and Dr. Kenny Salim/Boston) won both the Milken Family Foundation Second Prize ($15,000) as well as the American Public University System Prize for Innovation in Online Education ($25,000).
  • Autism Expressed (Michele McKeone/Philadelphia) garnered the Educational Services of America Prize for Innovation in the Fields of Special Education and At-Risk Students ($20,000)
  • BiblioNasium (Marjan Ghara and Adele Schwartz/New York) earned the Erudient Education Prize for Innovation in Borderless Education ($10,000)

Two of the judges also said they would contribute $10,000 to sponsor Indian students served by UpSkill Capital.

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