Startup Weaving Music Into Literacy Takes Top Prize in Education Competition

Seven Finalists Pitched Their Startups to Judges

Staff Writer
The Penn-GSE Program announces winners of its competition, EdWeek Market Brief

Words Liive, an ed-tech startup that aims to integrate music into K-12 literacy lessons, has taken the top prize in one of the nation’s best-known awards competitions for fledging education businesses.

The Washington, D.C.-based startup will receive $40,000 through the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, the organization announced this week.

The annual competition, which has continued to be held virtually since the pandemic, is hosted by the Catalyst program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in partnership with the Michael and Lori Milken Family Foundation. Now in its thirteenth year, the competition is aimed at providing education entrepreneurs with an opportunity to win funding without diluting their own equity in their companies. 

Since its inception, the competition has awarded more than $1.8 million in cash and prizes and finalists have gone on to raise over $150 million in funding.

Four early-stage startups received a total of $150,000 in cash and prizes Wednesday, when the top seven finalists selected to present made their pitches and fielded questions from the judges. This year, the competition focused on companies that “specifically and proactively” address equity issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, including learning loss, concerns about mental and emotional health, widespread staffing concerns, and political and social disagreements.

“We need innovation more than ever,” said Michael Golden, executive director of the Catalyst program at Penn GSE, as he kicked off the competition.

“Education has the power to create boundless opportunities for all our learners, particularly those most underserved by society. We believe that education equity comes from empowering students, leaders, and changemakers at all levels. Through innovation, collaboration, and shared accountability to spark real positive change and equitable opportunities for learners from all communities.”

During Words Liive founder and CEO Sage Salvo’s pitch, he described how he taught a guest lesson on the concept of personification to 8th grade students in Washington D.C. using his company’s app The Opus.

Salvo used lyrics from songs like Nas’ “I Gave You Power,” J. Cole’s “95 South,” Polo G’s “Broken Guitars,” and H.E.R.’s “Bloody Waters,” to connect to James Berry’s book “The Banana Tree” and engage students in discussing the concept of personification. The result, he said, was an “electric” conversation with students.

Beyond Incremental Change

Salvo’s aim with Words Liive is to improve lackluster reading skills for students in the U.S., citing a 2019 figure from the National Center for Education Statistics that only 34 percent of eight graders performed at or above proficiency level for reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, down from 36 percent in 2017.

“For me, this challenge doesn’t call for incremental change,” Salvo said. “It requires bold, innovative, and sometimes radical educators willing to do whatever it takes to reach students.”

By using music students already listen to to connect with texts and concepts, he said his company can provide culturally responsive lessons that he hopes can especially help Black and Latino students bridge gaps in literacy achievement.

The Opus app, which he describes as a digital lesson builder for core literacy instruction, includes more than 50 literacy competencies, 2,000 songs, and 500 vocabulary words in its library.

Words Liive is currently working with three charter schools in D.C., two counties in Maryland, and hundreds of individual teachers across the U.S.

“I’m appreciative for you just recognizing both the path that’s already been walked down and how the political climate, in the way that we’re trying to help people, is becoming increasingly difficult. It just means so much to recognize the work,” Salvo said after being awarded the Foundations of the Milken Families Grand Prize.

The other winners include HeyKiddo, a Philadelphia-based startup that won the $25,000 Globant, Inc. prize. HeyKiddo offers two social-emotional learning apps, one for parents and one for educators, that are focused on helping them monitor and address students’ life skill-building, habits, and mental health issues in real-time.

The company was founded by psychologist Nicole Lipkin.

“We are convinced that this organization, this person, and this team have a great future,” said Agustin David, senior client partner for education for Globant’s U.S. market and a judge for the competition, as he presented the award to Lipkin.

Fellow judges included Osage Venture Partners Principal Emily Foote, EJ Milken from the Foundation of the Milken Families, founder and CEO of Cascade Communications Josh Chernikoff, and Shayla Adams-Stafford, founder and CEO of AdaptiveX.

Arbol, a Buffalo-based startup that focuses on connecting college students in need of financial support with resources and support from educational sponsors, took home the $10,000 Cascade Communications prize.

Companies Focus on ADHD, Special Services

The Osage Venture Capital Audience Choice Prize, which included a $5,000 cash prize, went to Clarifi, which aims to help students with ADHD reduce distractions to completing homework and learn executive functioning skills.

The other finalists included Trestle Labs, Kabara, and Hire Cause.

Trestle Labs is an India-based startup behind the app Kibo, which aims to help blind or low-vision students listen to, translate, or digitize printed, handwritten, or digital content in 60 different languages.

Kabara, another finalist, is a Nigerian-based nonprofit that connects girls in northern Nigeria with STEM-based learning in an effort to combat the low literacy levels and restrictive access to secular education in the region.

Hire Cause, based in Brooklyn, is a startup that works to create career-readiness programs with social impact for middle and high schools students who may not have access to traditional internships or are seeking project-based experiences.

In addition to the cash prizes for the four winners, all seven finalists also received a portion of $50,000 in Amazon Web Services credits, a Padcaster video production system, grant consulting from TurboSBIR, and $1,000 cash and an iPad bundle from Penn GSE’s Catalyst program

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