Big Boost from UPENN

By Mark Scherzer

This past summer, Ironwill Kids was excited to learn we were among 9 companies chosen to participate in an ed-tech incubator run by Education Design Studio, Inc. (EDSi), an organization based in Philadelphia. If the words “ed-tech incubator” are foreign to you, think of it as a place where education companies go to speed up the growth of their businesses by getting support and guidance from ed-tech pros, as well as access to investors and partners. Some incubators have more muscle than others, and that’s certainly true of EDSi, a collaboration with the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and a very influential group of investors.

Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan Executive Director of Academic Innovation at the Graduate School of Education University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan
Executive Director of Academic Innovation at the Graduate School of Education University of Pennsylvania

The 9 companies in our incubator range from an early child care startup to a syllabus creation platform for college professors. We all head to Philly for four intense days once a month for 5 months, traveling from places as far away as Nairobi Kenya which, in case you’re wondering, is a 30 hour trip. (That kicks our two hour drive’s butt!).

At our last intensive I sat down with Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, Chairman of the Board. Dr. Kurshan is Executive Director of Academic Innovation at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania. Here is what she had to say.

IWK: Talk to me about the genesis of EDSi. How did it all start?

BK: I’ve been an academic, an investor, an entrepreneur, a teacher and a professor, and I figured that there had to be a better way to connect these groups together, so I came to Penn with the strong belief that I could start an incubator. I basically went to the Dean and said I’m going to raise a fund and we’re going to start this incubator. And I also wanted to start a Masters program in entrepreneurship and education. Since I’ve been at GSE (Graduate School of Education), we’ve graduated two EDSi cohorts, we’ve invested in two companies from our first cohort and we’re pretty close to investment in two companies from our second cohort.

IWK: What do you look for in companies that you accept into the program?

BK: We look for great teams and great ideas. And we look for ideas that we think can be scalable and are fundable. So, we first look at the team and see how committed they are and how much work they’re going to do. For example, in this cohort we have a lot of people who are working on other things full time. That was a consideration because that changed the sort of commitment time, when they’re available to work and when they’re available to get online. We also look for companies that we think have unique ideas, what’s really going to disrupt education and what is innovative. Now those are really hard terms. If I had a crystal ball I wouldn’t be sitting here running these, I’d be very wealthy because I would have already picked the one big winner.

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IWK: At the risk of fishing for a compliment, what did you see in Ironwill that you liked?

BK: What I saw was a company that has revenue and has already built product. You know what your market is. Now you need to capture more of the market and migrate your product to a digital solution.

IWK: What do you think of our product?

BK: I think it’s really really good. We believe that we can help you because you have the basis of a good company, and if you look around the table you’ll notice that we picked unique teams with really unusual ideas. And of course, we looked at whether we thought it was scalable or not.

IWK: What do you hope that we’ll take away from this program?

BK: We hope you’re taking a set of tools that will improve the way you operate your business. It’s obvious you take seriously what we do and you go back and try to apply it. So we hope every month you’re taking away something that you can apply. We also hope that you’ll understand the market better by being in a room full of other people trying to traverse the education market. And we hope that you’ll learn to build a network, because that’s what we’re sharing. Our value is our network, and I don’t share my network with just anybody. We think access to our network is one of the things you should take away, and know how to use it.

IWK: Trust me, we will! (Laughter). Finally, what advice do you have for someone with that “Million Dollar Idea?”

BK: I think they should one, apply to a business plan competition and two, they should really do their homework. There are three reasons why early stage education companies fail. One, they don’t know the academic research. They come in and tell me they’re going to build this product to teach reading. And they build it in blue and all the research says red. I’m not against that, that’s how innovation occurs. But I want to know why they think their red model will be better than the blue model. Second, they fail because they don’t know their competitive market. And third, they don’t understand their economic or financial model. They underestimate the amount of money they’ll need, the amount of time they’ll need to do it and the costs for development. That’s why we spend so much time on the financial model, even though people come to us and say we only want to spend time working on our product. We want to take it digital. That’s an easy thing to do. Tomorrow, you can have your product in a digital solution, or at least pieces of it. So those are the three reasons.


IWK: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything I’ve left out?

BK: One of the things we hope we’re building is a community of people, because in being part of EDSi for the next 12 months you can have access to our space, to our network and to our help. We’re trying to build an ecosystem around this, and one of the next things we’re going to be doing is connecting incubators around the world. It’s nice that you meet the 9 companies that come here, but what if you were in an ecosystem of 100 companies? So that’s what we hope.

IWK: We look forward to being part of that ecosystem and to a long and prosperous collaboration. Thanks for your time, Bobbi.

BK: You’re welcome.

To learn more about EDSi: http://www.e-designstudio.com/

Photos courtesy of EDSi