Next Up in the Edtech Incubator Line: the University of Virginia


Next Up in the Edtech Incubator Line: the University of Virginia

Elevating the role of research in driving innovations that scale

By Tony Wan     Sep 24, 2013

Next Up in the Edtech Incubator Line: the University of Virginia

Research should have impact. But too often, well-intentioned projects and studies from university faculty only result in long, dry papers that end up in archives or locked behind paywalled academic journals.

Some universities are beginning to crack that mold by establishing pipelines that promise to turn research into business. The University of Toronto is host to the UTEST incubator in the city’s MaRS Discovery District. Recently, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education announced its inaugural group of edtech companies for its Education Design Studio.

Now, the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education wants to be next. On September 26, the school is inviting local edtech stakeholders and investors for an event to discuss the launch of its education accelerator.

Charlottesville may conjure up the image of a small, idyllic college town. But the region is also a hub for education companies, many of which were developed based on research at Curry: PALS (founded in 1997), CaseNEX (2001), and Teachstone (2008). Last fall, Mathalicious founder Karim Kai Ani decided to relocate there instead of the SF Bay Area. “The area is much more insulated from the technology hype that seems to characterize other regions of the country,” he says. “I had actually considered moving [back] to the Bay Area, but was concerned that the prevailing narrative would distract our focus. Charlottesville offers a nice buffer.”

According to Margaret Ann R. Bollmeier, Executive Director of the Curry School of Education Foundation, the university’s track record for spinning out education companies encouraged the foundation board to create a replicable model to support innovation in education. And there was growing interest from the investment community in the role of research in the edtech industry. After speaking with investors like Jack Biddle (Novak Biddle Venture Partners), Bollmeier says ,“what we keep hearing from VCs is ‘We know business plans and technology, but not education. It’d be great if we can have a partner.’”

The school sees a convergence of capital and research. “We think this is an opportunity for faculty who have good ideas but need support to market their research,” says Bollmeier. “You have faculty who get grants for studies, see really positive results with students, and then the grant is over. Then what you do? In academia, we move to the next project because there isn’t mechanism and support to fund the scaling of the project.”

The structure of the program is very much still in the works. Bollemeier says she is leaning towards a YCombinator model, after conversations with founders from Imagine K12 and Surge Accelerator (an energy software incubator in Texas). “The one piece that we feel strongly about is the residential component,” she shares. “We want them to be here for a 90-day period.”

Beyond that, the specifics of the program are still in the works. The Curry School Foundation is currently the only investor in the accelerator. Further investment solicitations are on hold until the foundation addresses its main priority: finding someone to fill the CEO position, preferably by early November. (Hint, hint.) Bollmeier hopes to recruit the first class of up to 10 startups next year, with the goal of beginning in Fall 2014.

The Curry School of Education got a firsthand look at the frenetic world of edtech startups when it helped organize a Startup Weekend EDU in Charlottesville back in April. (Check out our coverage.)

Education incubators seem like they’re a dime a dozen. EdSurge has chronicled the emergence of five incubators in February 2013 alone--and surely others have followed since. At this rate, there may well be over 100 new startups “graduating” from these programs each year.

But Bollmeier thinks there’s room for UVA--and other universities--to play. “We are confident that there is plenty of room in the market for us. We will attract a certain kind of company that wants to have the benefit of resources that an education school can provide.”

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