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Colleges Join the Ed-Tech Revolution by Nurturing Young Companies

Andy Thomason, The Chronicle of Higher Education

The next so-called disruption poised to remake higher education may soon be born at a university near you. That is thanks to a growing number of colleges' creation of in-house education-technology incubators that they say could turn them a profit while letting their students and faculty members in on the ground floor of the next innovation.

In one of the largest efforts of its kind to date, the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education has announced the creation of a $2.1-million incubator specifically geared toward education start-up companies. The University of Virginia and George Mason University are among a handful of institutions nationwide already operating similar programs or planning to open them in the near future.

Such programs follow the lead of education-focused business incubators and accelerators that have sprung up across the country, including LearnLaunchX in Boston and Socratic Labs in New York City. Their aim is to help start-ups survive by providing mentorship and the opportunity to collaborate with one another.

Universities are looking to capitalize on the role they can play in familiarizing would-be innovators with the landscape of education. Many ed-tech entrepreneurs have made money in successful technology start-ups and are looking to be part of a more mission-based operation, said Bobbi L. Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at Penn's school of education and leader of its ed-tech project. "The problem is, they don't speak the language of education, and they don't understand it," she said.

A university can help by providing the research necessary to get an idea off the ground—for a price. For faculty members in Penn's education school, for example, using their research to be a consultant for an ed-tech company—and thereby having a stake in the business—can be a more lucrative prospect than simply publishing the work. If a business takes off under the incubator model, the school itself will also get a cut of the profits.

"This is a potentially large revenue stream if the companies do well," Ms. Kurshan said.

'Two-Way Conversation'

Beyond financial incentives, consulting with start-ups is a way for universities to get a closer look at what's in the works, said David W. Andrews, dean of the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University, which has begun consulting with start-ups.

"It's a revenue source at one level, and it allows us to be aware of some of the most cutting-edge technologies that are coming out," Mr. Andrews said.

For the start-ups, an incubator means a better chance of survival. Chris Vento got his start in educational technology about 12 years ago as Blackboard's chief technology officer, and now serves as entrepreneur in residence for LearnLaunchX. "By banding together at the early stages in a segment like ed tech, there is some efficiency as a small company," he said.

For example, incorporating pieces of another start-up's business model or sharing the same office resources temporarily can cut costs, Mr. Vento said.

LearnLaunchX, like many other incubator programs, prides itself on its intensive nature, said Eileen Rudden, one of its founders. The incubator, which formed this year, offers a small cohort of companies a three-month residential program in Boston. Even after the companies pitch to investors, some of them may stay in the space for several months, Ms. Rudden said. "You can't just throw seeds on the ground and water them and come back two months later," she said.

Penn's incubator, called Education Design Studio Inc., will have participants come to Philadelphia one week per month for six months and stay in contact for more than a year after that, Ms. Kurshan said. Another key component will be involving the school's faculty, she said, because Penn is a research institution.

"Our professors are looking to get their work out there more than just in a traditional research journal," she said. They are very interested "in looking at new things that will have an impact in teaching and learning."

Involving faculty members in business incubation is also in line with the mission of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, which plans to open a program in the coming months, said its dean, Robert C. Pianta. "We view this as really an incredible opportunity for this two-way conversation between industry" and the kind of experience and knowledge that the faculty, "and increasingly the younger faculty," brings to bear, he said.

Mr. Pianta said Virginia's program was not aimed at creating disruption through a new, industry-changing company. Maybe some of what the program produces "will be disruptive to higher ed, but in some sense we hope it is constructive to all of ed," he said.

'On Dual Tracks'

A constructive relationship between educators and entrepreneurs would have been less likely about a decade ago.

Mr. Vento said that when he started at Blackboard, the idea of increased technology in education was met with skepticism. "Faculty were completely threatened by technology taking over," he said. "There's still some of that," he acknowledged, but now faculty members and students realize that because technology is all over their lives, "it's just inevitable."

George Mason's new program, called the Education Design Lab, will be less focused on technology, attempting to innovate not by supporting ideas proposed by entrepreneurs but by starting with an educational problem and designing a solution in collaboration with industry, said Kathleen M. deLaski, leader of the effort. She is also president of the deLaski Family Foundation, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that is providing initial funds for the program.

Universities must seek out ways to actively disrupt themselves, Ms. deLaski said, while also continuing to "deliver the package" of an education.

"Universities have to think about themselves as solving the issues that are creating what some people are calling the broken system," Ms. deLaski said. "And that requires a lot of entrepreneurship. You almost have to think about it as if you're on dual tracks."