Accelerate, Innovate, Educate
USC Rossier’s EdVentures fosters tech innovators seeking to improve education
by Martha Groves
Imagine a medical resident in Maine watching a Hollywood-quality video featuring a surgical oncologist in California who has performed a complicated cancer procedure and provided narration explaining it.
Or picture learning via virtual reality how to order food or conduct business in parts of the world where Mandarin Chinese is the primary language.
Or visualize a music teacher who can keep tabs on students’ practice sessions via a smartphone or a math teacher whose students can use an app that eliminates the need for high-end calculators.
These are just a few of the ideas that USC’s Rossier School of Education and its Center for Engineering in Education (CEE) are nurturing in their new EdVentures, a recently formed incubator and accelerator for education-technology initiatives that is already making an international impact.
Education, done well, empowers individuals with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the modern economy. Yet, according to a 2017 study by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, about 262 million children and youth are not in school.
Meanwhile, a report by Humanium, an international organization dedicated to stopping violations of children’s rights, concluded that 759 million adults around the world are illiterate.
Hoping to improve the outlook for potentially millions of eager learners, Doug Lynch, a USC Rossier senior fellow who specializes in education innovation, and Dean Kline, a Pennsylvania- and L.A.-based venture capitalist, joined forces to develop EdVentures within CEE. The center is co-directed by USC Rossier and USC Viterbi School of Engineering professors Anthony B. Maddox and John Brooks Slaughter.
“We know that when education is done correctly, it is a perfect good,” Lynch says. “It impacts individuals, communities, countries, real estate prices. People live longer.”
Rather than make a big bet on a single promising company, USC Rossier’s CEE is “placing lots of small bets to develop innovative leaders and solutions and send them out to the world,” Lynch says.
In November, USC Rossier and CEE announced the selection of the first cohort of 16 startups, including operations in Mexico, Indonesia, Taipei and Rwanda. Some of the ventures rely on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality.
In keeping with USC Rossier’s and CEE’s mission of equity, EdVentures is focusing on ventures started by women and people of color.
“We’re tackling the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what it takes to educate human beings—thousands upon thousands of things are needed to support this effort,” Maddox says. “It’s like taking a jar and putting marbles in and pouring sand in to fill the spaces between the marbles. Small companies can fill those spaces, and EdVentures is supporting these creators of small companies.”
EdVentures assists the fledgling companies through mentoring, workshops, business-plan competitions and introductions to potential investors, clients and partners. And, for the most part, the EdVentures mentors work virtually with the startup founders.
“Everybody gets a personalized curriculum,” Lynch says of the entrepreneurs in the first cohort. “Depending on who you are as a company, you’re going to need different things. If you’re an educator, you might need more mentoring on financing and engineering. If you’re an engineer, you might need help on pedagogy.”
Like many of his fellow EdVentures entrepreneurs, Daniel Haiem, 25, a passionate “math geek” and AP physics teacher who graduated from UCLA in 2015, was inspired to address educational inequity. The seed was planted for ClassCalc, his app, when Haiem as a ninth-grader was forced to pay $140 for his first handheld calculator.
“I couldn’t use the calculator built into my iPhone,” says Haiem, “because the teachers didn’t want us using our iPhones. Ten years later, as a teacher, I saw many students struggling to afford the same calculator, which had barely improved.”
Using ClassCalc, teachers can lock students into the app, enabling them to use their smartphones as graphing and scientific calculators. The app prevents cheating; if students drop off the app, the teacher is notified.
“We’re looking at the big play: unlocking mobile access to education in the classroom,” says Todd Mackey, ClassCalc president and chief operating officer. The company is offering free trials and pilot programs, and it encourages any interested teachers to visit the company website for more information. For schools in economically challenged neighborhoods that are spending substantially more than $100 per calculator for students, the app promises huge savings.
“EdVentures was an excellent resource to help us navigate the vast landscape of education technology,” says Haiem, who lives with his parents because “any money I had was invested in ClassCalc.”
Another entrepreneur, Estella Chen ME ’08 EdD ’17, runs her startup, MandarinX, from an office in Taipei. She started the massive open online courses (MOOC) in 2015, in partnership with edX (a learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT), after raising $500,000. The course immediately attracted 47,000 students in 202 countries.
Chen, 39, was born in Taiwan but as a child attended school off and on in Los Angeles because her parents wanted her to be exposed to Western ways. She is capitalizing on a global interest in Mandarin Chinese, the language spoken by more people on Earth than any other.
“Mandarin is now taking the floor,” she says. “People all want to learn, but the structure is too difficult.”
MandarinX videos, which feature Chen instructing clients in basic Mandarin, Mandarin for tourists and visiting business people, and other fundamentals, has found a way to make the language accessible to more learners.
Along the way, Chen says, she has encountered her share of challenges and discrimination. It’s made it clear how much of a need there is for an incubator like EdVentures, with the resources to support women and people of color through many of the challenges a flawed world presents.
“I’m not a quitter,” Chen says. “If people say, ‘You can’t do this,’ it makes me want to do it more.”
Also making the global rounds to raise cash is Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, the chief executive and co-founder of the Akilah Institute, the only college for women in Rwanda. Akilah, which opened in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2010, prepares students to become leaders and entrepreneurs in the East African economy.
With EdVentures’ help, Hughes is now, from her Hong Kong base of operations, starting Davis College, a proposed global network of campuses aimed at offering affordable, competency-based degrees to a million female and male students in Africa and Asia by 2030.
“EdVentures was extremely helpful for us in the midst of this crucial transition phase,” says Hughes, 34. “Doug, Dean and Anthony provided so much wisdom and insight and coached me through a lot of strategic questions and decisions. They introduced us to education investors and funders.
“Entrepreneurship can be really lonely,” she adds, “and it’s always so helpful to connect with others who are going through the same challenges.”
For EdVentures and its entrepreneurs, challenges abound, with fundraising, reorienting of business strategies and demonstrating results at the top of the list. EdVentures has financial support from foundations and private entities, including the Northrop Grumman Foundation, Navitas Ventures, Michelson 20MM Foundation, Bisk Ventures and Blackstone LaunchPad USC. USC’s Marshall School of Business is also backing EdVentures, which is seen as part of a campuswide “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
That said, whereas most accelerators charge startups $100,000 to $150,000 to participate, EdVentures charges nothing. And, at least for now, EdVentures is taking no equity stake in any of the companies, another trait that differentiates it from peers.
One of EdVentures’ most promising ventures is GIBLIB, which co-founder and chief executive Brian Conyer MBA ’17 runs from a WeWork office in downtown Los Angeles. (He commutes via scooter, carrying Henry, his Maltese Yorkie, in a backpack.)
Dubbed the “Netflix of medical education,” GIBLIB creates and distributes videos of physicians performing surgeries and giving medical talks. Each doctor provides expert narration, talking about the patient’s condition and history. Subscribers pay $50 a month or $468 annually.
“Our subscribers can learn from the very best doctors streamed on demand or in virtual reality,” says Conyer, 35.
He runs the business with co-founder Jihye Shin MBA ’14, 35, whom he met at USC and who had worked at Paramount Pictures.
Conyer, who quit his job selling medical devices, envisioned applying best practices of creating and distributing content from entertainment to the medical education sector.
The company is filming surgical procedures in every specialty in ultra high-definition and 360 virtual reality because, Conyer says, “we know that every medical student and nursing student will wear a VR headset as part of his or her training, and we want to make sure it’s GIBLIB’s content they’re consuming.”
Medical professionals eager to keep pace with surgical developments have responded in strong numbers to GIBLIB’s offerings, Conyer says. Individual doctors comprise the biggest subscriber base.
“If you think about physicians, they’re out practicing in the real world,” Conyer says. “To get up to speed on new techniques, they have to go to conferences or visit other doctors. Ours is a modern approach to keeping them up to date in a pragmatic way.”
The company also plans to build the largest library of medical lectures in the world. It releases new content every week from partners such as Mayo Clinic.
Unlike many of the other startups, GIBLIB has serious funding behind it.
“We’ve raised about $2.5 million to date,” Conyer says, from investors including Mayo, Michelson 20MM, the Venture Reality Fund, the USC Venture Fund, Wavemaker 360, and Strong Ventures.
As EdVentures’ founders begin to think about identifying their next cohort, Conyer reflects on the help he and his partner received.
“Dean and Doug have been outstanding mentors,” he says. “We’ve been through other incubators, but what shines the most about this one is they care most about the personal relationship and genuinely want to help.”
Says Lynch of the first cohort: “We are their teachers for life.”
Song of Success
The youngest entrepreneur in the first EdVentures cohort is Ocean Salazar- Ferrer, 18, a USC sophomore who founded Studioso. It’s a mobile app that connects music teachers and students, allowing them to share assignments and track practices and progress in real time.
Salazar-Ferrer, who was born outside Paris to an American Vietnamese mother and a French father, started playing the violin around age 3. One lesson he has learned as an entrepreneur is that the best ideas result from identifying a problem and devising a solution.
“Music students spend the majority of time with their instruments at home, without instruction or guidance,” he says. “Most students feel lost and get frustrated because they’re not making the progress they want to. The goal of Studioso is to allow students to practice more efficiently.”
Students would be able to use the app for free, but schools or teachers would pay in price tiers. Based in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Studioso has six pilot schools in Minnesota with 1,500 users and is raising funding to move operations to Los Angeles.
The company previously won $10,000 by competing in the MN Cup, a public-private partnership supporting Minnesota’s entrepreneurs, but, otherwise, Salazar- Ferrer has used his own funds to bootstrap the company.
“Music is a universal language communicating emotion and beauty. Furthermore, music education has proven to improve student brain development, engagement and test scores,” he says. “However, the dropout rate in music education is still very high, about 50 percent after two years. Studioso addresses this by increasing student engagement and decreasing practice frustration, all while improving the lives of teachers.”
In November 2018, EdVentures unveiled its first cohort of 16 innovative startups
Opened in 2010, the Akilah Institute prepares women to become leaders and entrepreneurs. With EdVentures’ help, Akilah’s founder is now launching a global network of campuses to offer affordable, competency-based degrees to a million female and male students in Africa and Asia by 2030.
This L.A.-based company offers 4G communication tech that provides real-time, step-by-step math instruction from a fully automated “math expert,” courtesy of artificial intelligence.
This San Francisco-based company provides a tool that allows students (and faculty) to build profiles and establish reputations, while helping each person to navigate and engage with various communities, schools, departments, classes and working teams.
CollegeBacker, based in San Francisco, bills itself as the easiest way to save for college with help from family and friends.
This L.A.-based safe-for-tests calculator app is the future of educational math support.
This customizable WordPress plug-in, offered by a Los Angeles company, helps to create and provide online courses.
This San Francisco-based company’s DaVinci Club AR is an augmented reality game that entertains children while encouraging physical activity and exploration.
This L.A.-based company creates and curates high-quality educational videos featuring expert physicians speaking about patients and performing procedures.
Based in Irvine, this is the first virtual reality and 3-D ecosystem that invites users to practice the language they seek to learn in real-life locations with qualified teachers.
This data-driven adaptive intervention software, developed by a Houston-based engineer, helps low-performing students.
This analysis software from an L.A.-based company is a tool for financial advisers seeking to help clients manage student loan debt.
This Taipei-based startup, in partnership with edX, offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) to learners of Mandarin Chinese.
Based in Bandung, Indonesia, this company offers an app using augmented reality to help young students learn the STEM subjects.
This adaptive digital test-preparation platform, based in Mexico City, focuses on medical education in Latin America.
This Minnesota-based company links music teachers and students so that they can coordinate practice sessions and instruction.
With headquarters in Denver and Melbourne, Australia, this company offers a modern student portal that connects “everyone and everything” at a university.