UPenn Innovation Event Features Ed. Industry Players

Executive Editor

By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis

Ten education startup companies vied for $145,000 in business funding at an entrepreneurship competition in Philadelphia Tuesday, kicking off a two-day conference focused on the role of technology and research in business, as well as the role of for-profit companies in education.

Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and the Milken Family Foundation, the conference highlighted finalists for seven financial awards ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. The startups ranged from Autism Expressed, a company that has developed online curricula to help teach autistic students to use digital tools, particularly those that emphasize social interaction such as email and social networking; BiblioNasium, a social reading site for children, schools, and teachers that allows students to review, recommend, and discuss books with each other; and Raise Labs, Inc., which hopes to raise college scholarship funds for students starting in 9th grade to reward students for everything from attendance to good grades and provide them with incentives to graduate and go on to higher education.

The conference is bringing together funders, startups, and more experienced entrepreneurs, as well as researchers from Penn’s education school and its Networking Entrepreneurs for Social Transformation, or NEST, created to catalyze innovation in education. The goal, said Bobbi Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, was to bring all the players together to form a sort of “ecosystem” to spur innovative solutions to education problems.

For example, Michele McKeone, the founder of Autism Expressed, who is currently a special education and autistic support teacher at South Philadelphia High School, said she hoped to use any money she was awarded to scale her business up, because she currently has a waiting list of those who want to use her product.

Others, like Jill Frankfort from Persistence Plus, a company that partners with higher education institutions to digitally “nudge” students to complete coursework or visit tutors and allows students to compare their progress to their peers anonymously, said she would use the money to invest in software developers. Frankfort said her company aims to help get students to complete college and is striving to be the “Weight Watchers of college completion.”

The two-day conference continues Wednesday when Education Week‘s Sean Cavanagh will moderate a panel that takes a deeper look at some of the education startups in the running for financial awards.

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