Never count Paul Freedman out. After his last venture to create an online higher-ed program closed shop after facing regulatory hurdles, the serial entrepreneur, who previously built and sold a student recruiting company to Hobsons, found a way back in the game.
His latest gig is Entangled Ventures, a self-described “studio” backed by $2.5 million in funding that builds and invests in startups targeting the higher-ed market. One has already notched a major deal: Handsfree Learning, which Freedman co-founded with Josh Salcman (whose previous company, Virtual Nerd, sold to Pearson), will merge with ApprenNet, a provider of video-based learning platform used in colleges, hospitals, restaurants and school districts for teacher professional development.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, with Freedman only sharing that “it’s an equity-based merger.”
The wheels were set in motion this past spring when Freedman met with Rachel Jacobs, then CEO of ApprenNet, at the ASU+GSV Summit, the annual confab of button-down education entrepreneurs, investors and private equity managers. “It became very apparent that our missions were aligned and we have very complementary solutions,” recalls Emily Foote, co-founder and Chief Customer Officer at ApprenNet.
One key feature in Handsfree Learning can be teased from the company’s name. The mobile learning platform allows learners to play, pause and control instructional videos via voice commands, thus freeing them to practice physical tasks with their hands. Users can also record and share a video to get feedback from mentors and peers. The company claims the tool can serve any field where muscle memory is important, from auto repair to cooking and even to surgery.
Handsfree Learning, says Freedman, was first developed and used in partnership with UC San Francisco, whose faculty helped create and test the tool with students in their surgery skills lab and dental program. Freedman believes this co-design process is fundamental to building products that practitioners need—not just solutions searching for a market. “Our core belief is that the best higher-ed startups have been launched in partnership with a higher education institution,” he asserts.
And that would be a good description, too, of ApprenNet, which was founded in 2010 by Karl Okamoto, a law professor at Drexel University, as a legal education tool for students to practice exercises and simulations. The Philadelphia-based company has since won three National Science Foundation grants through the Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) program to support developing its tool for adult learners in healthcare, higher-ed and K-12. Like Handsfree Learning, ApprenNet encourages users to record videos of themselves, assess one another and get feedback from experts.
“Over the next six to nine months, we will combine the two products,” predicts Foote. She adds: “Handsfree is very much about teaching hands-on, technical skills whereas ApprenNet focuses on soft skills like communication.” Freedman sees future clients in the number of companies that “are now focused on practice-based competencies.”
After the merger, ApprenNet will maintain offices in Philadelphia as well as San Francisco, where the Handsfree Learning team is based. The combined company will have 14 full-time employees and serve 38 higher-ed institutions and eight companies, including WalMart’s pharmacy program.
Freedman will serve as CEO although that was not the original plan: Jacobs tragically passed away in the fatal Amtrak accident outside Philadelphia this past May. “I am honored to have this opportunity to carry out former CEO Rachel Jacobs’ vision, and I look forward to working with the innovative team at ApprenNet,” he said in a prepared statement.