Education Business Competition Awards $140K in Prizes to Ed-Tech Startups

By guest blogger Audrey Armitage 

An app to improve school communication, an interactive cartoon character who uses scientific thinking to solve mysteries, and an onling gaming site that teaches students to code were among the ed-tech startup ideas to garner financial awards in a Philadelphia entreprenurship competition sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

More than 10 education technology startup companies in various stages of growth won prizes totaling $140,000 Wednesday at the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition. The program, in its sixth year, aims to support—both financially and through mentorships and advice—new education companies as they start out. The competition was started by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School in Education and the Milken Family Foundation, a philanthropic group focused on education and public health research.

This year, the competition was divided into two categories: ideas and ventures. The ideas division focused on startups in their early stages and is intended to give entrepreneurs “a chance to share their ideas with a larger audience and be rewarded for thinking outside the box,” explained Bobbi Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

While the ventures category recognizes startups that are still relatively new, these companies tend to be more established than idea applicants and may have more expansive resources and funding, she said.

This year’s $40,000 venture grand prize went to Kinvolved, maker of an app designed to improve communication of school information between teachers, students, and families. The app, currently used in 135 schools in five cities across the country, allows teachers to efficiently discuss attendance, behavior, and course performance with parents via text, phone call, or email, said cofounder Alexandra Meis.

“Persistence really does pay off,” added Meis, as this year marked Kinvolved’s third entry in the contest since the company’s launch in 2012.

Yenko, a New York startup that provides mobile tools for college students to help manage their financial aid information, won the idea grand prize of $10,000. The prize money will be used to develop a mobile app to ensure students can keep track of their financial aid and ultimately graduate, said Margo Wright, founder of Yenko.

In addition to the financial rewards, the contest was an opportunity to meet and build connections with startups and “learn from the experiences of other entrepreneurs,” Wright noted.

Four other startups won venture prizes that come with $20,000 each. They are:

  • AdapTac Games, which focuses on behavioral health education tools for children and a research-based game app to help children with ADHD improve attention and planning skills.
  • Byndr, a mobile learning management system for higher education that allows faculty and students to collaborate in a way that is similar to social networking platforms.
  • Code Monkey, teaches students ages 9 to 16 to code using online gaming and real-world programming language.
  • Mosa Mack Science, a digital platform for middle school science instruction that uses an interactive cartoon charcter who employs scienctific thinking to solve mysteries.

Kurshan highlighted four trends in the type of ed-tech startups evaluated this year—content, digital tools and apps, platforms and learning management systems, and student engagement and access.

In another ed-tech industry contest, 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator that helps fund and provide resources to startups, will announce winners this weekend for its Challenge Cup competition recognizing startups tackling global challenges. Ed-tech startups Cognotion, which uses gaming and videos to train entry-level employees; LearnLux, a personal finance education site; and Handsfree Learning, which supports instruction for technical skills in areas like dentistry, culinary arts, and cosmetology, were named as finalists, and will compete for $650,000 in prizes.

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