Learn. Link. Launch.

 

 

The Silicon Valley Education Foundation recently hosted their 5th annual #iHubPitchGames at Google. Through this home-grown version of an edtech accelerator, they have been iterating on the process of matching rising education startups with local schools to conduct ~3 month pilots, empowering teachers and students to provide direct and meaningful product feedback. In some ways this experience is a natural follow-on to more well established incubator programs, as several of the teams (Sown to Grow, Bird Brain, Peekapak and MathGames) are alumni of ImagineK12.

My favorite aspect of this event is the authentic focus on educator perspectives. School teams that applied for the fellowship were required to submit a ~60 sec video explaining how they believe technology can be used to improve a specific learning challenge they face in their classrooms. The event started off by sharing these videos to set the context for the 10 startups that then presented their products.

After watching the educator videos the entrepreneurs had 20 min to prepare a 2-minute pitch on how their products can address those learning challenges. The teams clearly knew how to present to an audience of educators, connecting their tools to the educators needs in the participating schools. After the pitch event, a subset of the companies are matched with more than 40 teachers selected from 11 districts across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.  

While I haven’t had a chance to try out all the products, I was personally impressed with the project-based approach of Cashtivity (real world math challenges) and Cignition (neuroscience based math lessons). The flashiest software tool was clearly HSTRY (create interactive timelines), while MakersEmpire is helping schools unlock the power of their makerspaces.

The iHub program is one of the few structured opportunities for edtech startups to work directly with educators to get meaningful feedback during the early stages of product development. I’ll check back in with the teams in a couple months to see how the pilots are progressing.

Creating Learning Innovation Hubs

Building Bridges Between Educators and Edtech

SVEF NSVF

The Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) and New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) Seed Fund have constantly been exploring ways to deepen relationships and meaningful exchanges between educators and the edtech community. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they teamed up to launch the iHub program earlier this year. (Many regions are testing different approaches with similar programs being piloted in NYC and San Mateo County.) Curious to hear how these efforts were progressing and provide insights for others trying to connect these communities, I recently caught up with Ritu Tandon and Jennifer Li who are leading the efforts for the SVEF team.

 

While the broader goal is bridging the gap between educators and edtech, the more specific mission of this pilot is to “facilitate collaboration and product feedback for more effective and impactful edtech tools,” according to SVEF.
iHub Pilot Group

Pilot Group: Educators and entrepreneurs focused on middle school math

Pilot Group
The four teams and eight fellows, all with a focus on middle-school math, are approximately half-way through the pilot now, capturing results through case studies, video reflections and measuring student engagement.  The iHub team was very thoughtful in their approach to identify and pair up the educators and entrepreneurs. Once the eight fellows were identified, their school and classroom details were shared with the NSVF team who looked to their portfolio and beyond to identify the startups.  “In selecting the startups it was important to look at the stage of development of their tool, would their product work on the platform/devices for the schools they had chosen, as well as if they had rich content for teachers to delve in to,” Tandon explains. She goes on to share, “one of the main selection criteria was the ability of the entrepreneurs to work with teachers.” The group of semi-finalists went through a ‘shark-tank’ style competition where the winners were chosen by a panel of school administrators, educators and business leaders.

 

With the selection process complete the match-making began, pairing teachers with the startups in regionalized groups to meet regularly, mentor each other and talk about product implementation feedback and strategies. The pilot culminates in May with a collaborative session to reflect back on the experience and redesign certain aspects of the program to be implemented for the fall cohort. Tandon shares they have been “extremely cautious about jumping to any assumptions about impact on student achievement because the pilot is only three months long and classrooms differ on pacing and structure.”

 

In designing the program, there were a few key factors that have led to the positive results so far, including compensating the educators (each receive a $1750 stipend), incorporating their feedback in iterating on the pilot and the timing of the selection process. “We were looking for educators that had more experience teaching, previously worked with tech and excited to try new things,” shares Tandon. She adds, “it was also essential that the schools we chose have capacity to support this type of work and have a philosophy for embracing tech in their classroom.”
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One of the fellows, Gabriela Rios, clearly embodied this philosophy, as she was already open to experimenting with new tools. (One of her students learned about Knowre, an adaptive math platform, while attending a MouseSquad conference and spoke so passionately about this product that they decided to pilot it in their classroom.) That culture set the perfect stage for a successful iHub experience implementing Blendspace to organize content and create personalized lesson plans for students. Rios shares that using this tool has improved her ability to flip her classroom more effectively, which “allowed me to have more conversations with my students, more often. This experience has made my students more comfortable with math and has taught them to be more independent and proactive around their learning.”

 

In reflecting back on the experience so far, the main critique Rios shares is how she wished fellows were more involved in the first round of the selection process. She explains that, “the (judging) panel was impressive but many of them are not in the classroom and it would have been useful to have someone who is in the classroom give their input.”

 

Beyond Silicon Valley
When efforts like this see pockets of positive results we often think about how that can scale to other communities. Many startups (BetaMatch and TinkerEd are the two most recent that come to mind) have explored how software can possibly support this type of match making to bridge the educator and edtech divide, however no one has been successful, yet. SVEF and NSVF clearly see value in the early results and are looking for ways to scale this type of program by emphasizing the local and centralized approach. According to Li, “rather than run the program ourselves in other locales, our thought is to engage others and provide support for them to execute this model. This is similar to our approach in scaling our Elevate [Math] program to Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties over the past two years.”

 

The team has been very happy with the progress so far. “For me it has been really exciting to see the community reaction to this project as it is something we’ve been trying to launch and facilitate for a while,” says Li. “One area we are looking to improve the next time around is to draw from a more diverse pool of teachers.”

 

Hear that, Bay Area educators? If you’re a local educator or edtech entrepreneur and want to get involved you can apply for the next round of the fellowship (applications open later in April) and attend the next pitch event slated for this summer.

Supporting Edtech Newbies

My latest project was working with the Highlander Institute and the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology to create a guide for developers and others who are interested in the edtech space. This is a natural extension of the curation and editorial work I’ve done with the Edtech Handbook, and you can see an example of some of the overlapping content in this recent post on edtech business models.

We are looking for feedback before creating a finished product so please read through the Table of Contents and let us know what’s missing.(A formatted PDF of the draft is here.) Please let us know what topics are important, whether there are missing pieces, or if you know of success stories or challenges to use as examples. When you leave a comment, please provide your name and affiliation.

Lastly, if you are at SXSW Edu this week and want to share some thoughts in person, track down Shawn Rubin. Thanks!

Embracing Schools as Customers

Often times the various demo days and edtech press all tends to blur together in a cloud of buzz words (a la adaptive platforms, flipped classroom), however, Imagine K12’s recent batch of edtech startups sounded distinctly different. With 13 teams presenting, one of their largest batches to-date, there was a noticeable shift in tone as many of the startups were not afraid to say they are selling to schools and are actually generating revenue. From the “ramen profitable” startup DeansList kicking off the day to YC and Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Education closing the show sharing they have “4,500 schools using their product, all of which are paying customers.”

As someone who has been following and working in this space for the past few years, hearing these stats are a welcome change. This not only indicates that the investor side of the ecosystem has matured and has a better understanding of the K12 market, but it also demonstrates that more and more schools are deciding to purchase and pilot new edtech tools.

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As for the teams themselves, the pragmatist in me likes more enterprise oriented startups like SchoolMint, while the optimistic side is drawn to efforts like Kodable. SchoolMint’s appeal comes from the basic idea that they are saving schools/admins hundreds of hours by digitizing a process that is currently entirely offline. (And the fact they are already on track to $100k annual revenue is a sign they are addressing a real pain point for schools.) Similar to another IK12 alum, Chalk Schools, these products seem obvious and I think in several years we’ll look back and wonder why schools took so long to adopt these more streamlined and efficient systems.

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Kodable believes that even before kids learn to read they can learn the basic elements of programming. My 3.5 year old and I have tried out the app and I hope more schools and parents will find engaging ways like this to introduce loops and conditional statements to their kids. Kudos to Imagine K12 and the teams for kicking off the year on this impressive note.

No VC, No Problem: How TeachBoost Built a Sustainable Business

A Successful Bootstrapping Journey

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Upon graduating from Imagine K12’s Winter 2012 program, TeachBoostfounder and CEO, Jason DeRoner, was faced with the challenge that most early-stage founders face: spend time raising money or continue building the product?

His meetings with VCs on Sand Hill Road were unfruitful, but he did learn one thing: “I realized pretty quickly that investors who aren’t familiar with the K12 space were looking for consumer type growth and not necessarily revenue…We assumed showing a bit of revenue was our ticket to investment when really it was about hockey stick curves and big markets.” Many investors suggested that he circumvent the cumbersome process of selling to schools.

But avoiding schools is a bad way to go about building an education product. And DeRoner knew he had to get in front of principals and teachers in order for TeachBoost, an observation platform that helps schools and districts differentiate PD for educators, to make the greatest impact. So he decided to return to his hometown in New York City in June 2012 and bootstrap his way to a self-sustaining business.

Doubling Down on the Customer

Many startups, especially in education, strive for the grassroots upsell (sometimes referred to as the “Yammer model”) where early adopters influence higher decision-makers to purchase the product. This model has so far worked for TeachBoost, whose target customers are principals. As more schools in a district sign up, district officials create and manage professional learning communities across schools using the tool. From an initial 8 pilot schools in 2011-2012, TeachBoost has grown its customer base to hundreds of schools in NYC and other districts (including six KIPP regions) across 17 states. And yes, these are paying customers.

“The intra-district mentoring and coaching that TeachBoost enables is very powerful” for increasing exposure, according to Jillian Lubow, the Director of Marketing and Educational Partnerships who formerly worked at Wireless Generation and Virtual Nerd. “We’ve seen principals literally drag their colleagues to our booth at various events to talk about how great the product is and exactly how TeachBoost is addressing a real problem for them.”

TeachBoost also turned to partners for help to expand its network and outreach. This summer, it worked with the Arkansas-based Principal Centerto launch the Instructional Leadership Challenge. The idea was based on the notion that school leaders want to be in the classroom more often but need tools, skills and time to make that a reality.

Through the Challenge, the Principal Center offered a variety of PD sessions to the selected participants and TeachBoost complemented that with free product training and licenses to their full product offering. The results were impressive. In just 2 months 550 schools participated, conducting hundreds of observations–with one school racking up an impressive 110 observations.

“This type of collaboration is a fantastic way to build national exposure while keeping with our customer-focused strategy and supporting school leaders who are looking to improve their teacher evaluation process,” said Lubow. “They immediately see the value, which makes them extremely willing to pay and share with others.”

All Hands on Deck

Another aspect that keeps the team customer-focused is that no one is 100% focused on sales. TeachBoost embodies a hybrid-role approach where everyone on the seven-member team spends time with both the product and customer, fostering collaboration and creativity.

The decision to have everyone spend time with schools established a deeply customer-centric culture, says DeRoner. “We spoke with principals day in and day out and the schools we worked with from the beginning became our advisory board. We ran prototypes and worked side-by-side to refine the product. That level of engagement drove this authentic customer evangelism that has fueled our growth. It is that authentic word-of-mouth marketing from trusted members of our principals’ networks that drives sales and adoptions in schools.”

Adds Lubow: “We have a very clear vision on how we can help schools and that sincere focus comes across very strong,” she adds. I’m not sure if we’d have that luxury if we had raised capital from the start and had to answer to multiple stakeholders.”

Overcoming the Bootstrapping Blues

But bootstrapping is not without its challenges. DeRoner says trying to run a company solely off revenue is “a bit like playing chicken with [financial] runway.” Lubow admits that her sales efforts are hampered by lack of resources: “It would be ideal to meet all my customers in person, but since that is not an option, we’ve developed some creative ways to train and connect with our customers.”

On the marketing side, there is no budget for PR, events, or videos, so all those efforts take longer. Lubow adds, “Given our customer base, it would be great to have one or two more folks on the team supporting marketing so that we can deepen our level of engagement with teachers.” Teacher engagement is a critical piece given the stigma around teacher observations and evaluations.

Despite limited resources, TeachBoost has built a network not only in the U.S. but overseas as well. In October, it received the GREAT Tech Award, an international startup competition organized by UK Trade & Investment that will help bring their platform to U.K. schools.

Looking ahead, DeRoner is thinking about giving Sand Hill a second go. “The thinking was not to avoid fundraising forever, but rather spend the first year or so focused on product and customers,” says DeRoner. “We’ve been able to grow and sustain a team of 7 and could continue to bootstrap, but now that our fundamentals are in place we’re thinking about ways to strategically step on the gas pedal, and that could include outside capital.”

(This article was also published by my friends over at EdSurge.)

The Meet Education Project

Kudos to Nick DiNardo, member of the Pearson Online Learning team, on launching the Meet Education Project. This podcast series showcases educators and edtech innovators from around the country and I’m honored he invited me to share my experiences building bridges in the edtech community through TeacherSquare.  In our ~30 min chat we discuss the edtech ecosystem in the Bay Area and beyond, highlighting some of my favorite players Imagine K12, 4.0 Schools, EdTechRI and more.

MeetEducationProjectLogo

While podcasts may seem dated, I am actually a fan and find they are a great way to directly hear from some of the thought leaders in this space.  My favorite is Audrey Watters’s Hack Education series with Steve Hargadon, which I hope they’ll bring back sometime soon. (Their most recent one is from Feb 11, 2013.)  I put one on during a run and find it’s a great way to learn from others doing inspiring work in education. If you have any feedback for Nick or me, send it our way.

Building a ‘Perspectful’ Edtech Ecosystem in India

teach her to read SA copyrighted

India’s education technology industry is poised for explosive growth over the next few years. Over the past 20 years, India has enjoyed an annual average GDP growth rate of 5.8%. Although recent months have seen a slowdown, analysts estimate a growth increase of up to 7.5% within a year. The mobile industry is slated to be the second largest market by 2016, and half of its 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25.

So if you want to make an impact in education at scale, India is the the place to be. Just ask serial entrepreneur John Danner, who co-founded Rocketship Education and devoted a 4-part series on his blog outlining the insights from his travels there last winter.

While the opportunities seem exciting, there are many challenges in connecting Indian startups with investors around the world. Enter Perspectful, a newly launched advisory firm that helps investors make more meaningful and effective edtech investments. I recently caught up with one of the founders, Shabnam Aggarwal, to learn more about her take on the Indian education ecosystem.

What drew you to working in education in India?

I am a Bay Area native, and after studying electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon and working stateside, I realized there were more opportunities to make an impact abroad. In 2008 I moved to Cambodia to dive into the world of social impact. A year later I moved to India to work with a professor from Carnegie Mellon to build English games on low-cost mobile phones for children in rural areas.

This is when I became obsessed with the potential of technology to make an impact on student learning. In April 2012 I joined Pearson in India as the Head of Strategic Partnerships, where I spent a year working with local edtech entrepreneurs to determine how Pearson could support their work. During that time I crossed paths with Josh Engel, who became my co-founder.

What is the problem that you’re trying to solve?

Perspectful wants to channel more investment dollars to promising entrepreneurs in India by enabling more risk-tolerant foreign investors to enter the market and make an impact. Our efforts are focused on 3 core areas:

  • Sourcing: Identify education ventures that increase access and offer high quality learning opportunities

  • Diligence: Align and mobilize capital

  • Mentorship: Provide assistance to entrepreneurs on content, team, product, processes and technology

What are the challenges for edtech investors in India?

One of the biggest problems is finding the right entrepreneurs that meet their investment philosophy and are at the right stage for funding. Through numerous conversations with investors who were curious about the Indian edtech market, a common concern was being able to identify and support the right entrepreneurs, given their limited travel to this region. And even after the investment, support for entrepreneurs require more hands-on attention that can’t come from Silicon Valley.

From our research, there are hundreds of investors for whom “education in India” is a portfolio they’d like to pursue over the next five years. We’ve personally spoken with at least 50 of them, with a good majority looking to make investments this year.

The most well-known education investment firm in India is Sandeep Aneja’s Kaizen, which focuses on later stage ventures to mitigate risk. The latest philanthropic fund is Ashish Dhawan’s Central Square Foundation, which solely focuses on nonprofit ventures. These two firms are just the tip of the iceberg when you think about the increase in VC investments and actual dollars going into education over the past decade.

The edtech ecosystem is just starting to develop. There have been a few social entrepreneurship pitchfests, and Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund, in partnership with Village Capital, just kicked off the first education-focused incubator.

What is one of your current projects?

In April 2013, Atlanta-based Gray Ghost Ventures First Light Fund invested in Sudiksha to build a chain of affordable private preschools. They then decided to hire us to help scale that model to support another 50+ schools. Building, recruiting and creating processes for that type of growth is a daunting task, so Josh is in Hyderabad right now working with that team.

What do you feel are the main challenges to the effective adoption of education technologies in India?

India’s education technology ecosystem today is where the U.S. was about 15 years ago. We don’t have centralized systems for teachers and educators to connect, streamline systems and share best practices.

In terms of actual tech adoption, the challenges aren’t that different from any other region in the world. Currently, almost all the attention is focused on hardware sales–mainly Android tablets/phones–and there is very little software or programmatic support to ensure effective implementation. There is huge potential for products on the Android platform for teachers, parents, administrators to manage and improve learning outcomes.

Which edtech companies have caught your attention out there?

TutorVista is heralded as the darling of edtech in India. It was one of the first Indian edtech companies to expand services to U.S. and Europe, and in 2009 was acquired by Pearson for $127 million. This acquisition also included the subsidiary company, Edurite, a school management company that provides private schools with services to revamp infrastructure, technology, and teacher training.

On the flip side, all the buzz and growth potential don’t always lead to positive outcomes. The case in example is Educomp, which went public in 2006 but has spent the last 5 years in a downward spiral. Despite the fact that the adoption numbers for its most touted edtech product, Smart Class, grew from 100 to 6,550 schools in 2012, net profit margins have fallen 61% in the last four years. The stock has fallen 91% over the last three years. This has created quite a few disgruntled schools, parents–and investors.

What we’re seeing today are smaller efforts targeted at parents-as-payers, such as after-school tutoring products, informal “educational” (often used more for marketing than actual learning) gaming apps and test prep for IIT entrance exams.

Lastly, where exactly do you see the brightest spots for innovation in edtech in India?

The areas that excite me most from an entrepreneurial perspective are the unregulated markets: preschools (a $2 billion market projected to grow at an annual rate of 40-45%), supplemental tools for K-12 classrooms, tutoring, assessments and test prep.

Over the next few years, I think we will see services that empower students to play a more active role in their learning process. We will see more and more students in India gaining access, via mobile devices, to tools like Coursera and Khan Academy that are better tailored to the Indian culture and context.

It’s an insanely exciting time to be at the front line with such innovative entrepreneurs. I’m meeting entrepreneurs who are able to put adaptive learning tools in the hands of poor children at just $2/month. And companies such as FunToot can show a 20% improvement on learning outcomes at that cost. I don’t know anywhere else in the world you can achieve that kind of cost-benefit ratio in education for the poor.

Learn more about Shabnam and follow her on Twitter @shubbless.

This article also appeared on EdSurge.

LDT Expo: Keeps Getting Better

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything as I’ve spent the past couple months enjoying time at home after the birth of my second daughter. However, I decided to venture out last week to check out the masters projects from this year’s Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) cohort. Every August Stanford hosts their LDT Expo and I’m increasingly impressed with the level of sophistication of the event as well as the ways in which the students approach their learning challenges and solutions. Last year I had the honor of attending as one of the reviewers so I had the chance to get a deeper look into many of the projects. This year I just saw the teams at expo and it was interesting to see that none of the teams chose to tackle a traditional K12 topic, but rather focused more on informal learning.

Kirti & DesignDuo

Kirti Patel sharing her project- DesignDuo

I was particularly motivated to attend to see DesignDuo, a DIY toolkit designed to get dads and daughters to build things together to drive engagement and interest in STEM, which was created by a friend of mine. You can read about all 12 of the projects in this nice overview piece from EdSurge. It was also great (for both the LDT Program and the Stanford School of Education) to see this press coverage (~2min video) from ABC Local News. I hope all these teams will continue this work in some way and am curious if any will launch this as a real product.

Meograph: Storytelling as a Service

Meograph for Edu
Storytelling is the oldest form of communication and such an essential aspect of our communities. While anyone can tell a story, as an art form, it significantly improves as the storyteller is coached and inspired. Meograph seeks to empower each of us to tell our stories in a digitally rich way without requiring deep knowledge of complex and expensive creative products. Current SF resident and founder Misha Leybovich has always been a natural storyteller (at one point in his career he was a clown at kids’ parties), but struggled using the existing creative tools.  So he founded Meograph, which he refers to as ‘Adobe for anybody,’ to help tell his own stories and make this rich digital storytelling process accessible to everyone. (You may recognize him from his pitch at the January SF Edtech Meetup- Teacher Tank.)

With the surge of interest in the ‘flipped classroom,’ Meograph saw many teachers bringing this tool to their classrooms, creating content themselves as well as assigning projects for students to craft their own stories. This student created story on the ‘Causes of the Civil War‘ is a cool example of some of the projects created using Meograph.

This step of simplifying the creation process is critical to ensuring widespread adoption of project-based learning strategies, where studente take control of their own learning, document their progress and demonstrate understanding. While Meograph didn’t intend to be an ‘edtech’ startup they have responded well to the significant interest and feedback from the educator community on how this can be used as a learning tool.

Beyond bringing life back to current presentation methods, the larger vision is to power some of the Maker Movement rhetoric by simplifying the creation and sharing process. Striving to be the next suite of creative tools, Meograph is working on creating an authoring tool that can be embedded on other websites. Next steps for the team is to figure out deeper classroom support such as connecting these stories/projects to lesson plans and creating a rubric for grading and assigning project. You can learn more and connect with the team on Twitter @Meograph or email them at meograph@meograph.com.

(And if you happen to be at SXSW this week check out their pitch during the Startup Accelerator on Monday March 11th. Good luck!)

Connecting Silicon Valley and the Ivory Tower

Since 2005 Columbia University’s Teachers College has been quietly developing their EdLab which internally incubates some promising ideas and in their words, “engages in work that has the potential to contribute to the improvement of educational institutions today and the broader evolution and reconfiguration of future educational services.”

One of their projects that recently caught my attention is ResearchBroker, a tool to connect startups to skilled researchers who are passionate about validating new ideas in industry. While these efforts can be applied to multiple verticals, I think the edtech implications are extremely exciting. (Perhaps because I’m always drawn to efforts that bring together edtech founders with education practitioners in hopes that this exchange will lead to better product development and implementation.) In case you missed it, EdSurge just wrote their own profile on the product and team.

I recently spoke with Megha Agarwala and Janice Joo, Innovation Fellows at EdLab who created this tool, to learn more about their progress & vision and help engage users in the Bay Area.

What problem is ResearchBroker trying to address?

A number of educational startups are looking for researchers who can help validate product ideas and determine the effectiveness of their product for different users, including instructors, students and program administrators. The startups need researchers to identify metrics to track and collect data, design and conduct studies, analyze data and also potentially publish the results within their community.  

On the other side are Doctoral and Masters degree researchers who are looking for real-world projects where they can gain valuable experience collecting and analyzing data and also use that experience towards their academic pursuits. ResearchBroker is a free platform that has been designed to connect these two parties. Instead of waiting for introductions, startups can directly connect with researchers by creating their research projects on ResearchBroker.

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What has been the response from early users? What are you looking for from your next set of users?

So far, users on ResearchBroker are educational startups in New York City and researchers at Teachers College Columbia University. Startups have shown a commitment to using the ResearchBroker platform to define their projects and bring a researcher onto their team. EdLab has been offering guidance to startups on how to define their research questions, and will create learning resources to help startups leverage existing research.
Because EdLab is uniquely positioned within Teachers College, we have been able to plug startups into a network of researchers. We were able to connect the founders of the language learning platform, Instreamia to a researcher and they are already discussing their research direction.
 
Moving forward, we would like to expand beyond the New York City tri-state area to include Silicon Valley educational startups and researchers at schools beyond Teachers College.  We would also like to organize events to bring researchers, startups, teachers and learners together to brainstorm and solve research problems and share their work.

How can people learn more or share feedback?

Please feel free to contact us directly at researchbroker@tc.columbia.edu if you have any further questions.