Technology

Where Are They Now? The Latest From Some Education Innovators

March 29, 2016

Several contestants in The Chronicle’s 2015 "Shark Tank: Edu Edition" have made significant progress in developing their ideas over the past year. Here’s an update on a few of them since their appearance last March at the South by Southwest Edu conference.

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Patrick Jones, founder and chief executive of a company that is developing a web-based platform to help young people identify their skills and career passions says his company has spent the last year honing the look and content of its website to best appeal to the millennial and Gen Z markets. The Atlanta-based company, now known as Vocatio, has been testing the site with hundreds of 16- to 24-year-old students, including some at a half-dozen-plus colleges, and recruiting employers to sign on. Last June the company was accepted into GSV Labs, an incubator program, and it has been selected as one of a dozen ventures to present before potential investors at the ASU+GSV Summit, next month in San Diego. Mr. Jones says the company is looking to raise $1.2 million in capital.

Dale J. Stephens, founder of a gap-year program called UnCollege, reports that enrollment more than doubled, to 31, in the fall of 2015, and he expects 70 to 80 next fall. The company, based in San Francisco, has grown from six to 10 employees, and has received commitments for an additional $1.2 million, on top of the $150,000 it received before SXSWedu in 2015. That conference also marked a milestone for the company. "It was the first time that people didn’t have a negative reaction to the name," says Mr. Stephens. "It ceased to be a barrier when talking to colleges." UnCollege is in talks now with several colleges about partnerships that would allow students to take the UnCollege program for college credit.

Gregor Freund, chief executive of Versal, a San Francisco company that makes digital teaching tools that professors can insert into their online lectures and teaching platforms, says the company has spent the last year beefing up offerings "to make it frictionless for people" to share the tools. In October it opened the Versal Gadget Store on its website, where users can post their tools and download others, and in early 2016 it added a site where commercial publishers can feature their apps. While higher education is still a focus for the company, Mr. Freund says high-school teachers tend to be bigger users of the gadget market. A few weeks ago, it also began Versal Business, a product with teaching tools aimed at the corporate-training market.

Mike Shannon, co-founder of Packback, which has been marketing short-term rentals of digital textbooks to students, reports that his company, too, has shifted direction. It has refocused its business toward getting professors to use its new digital platform, Packback Answers, which is designed for students who use the same textbook to share questions and resources with one another, whether they’re in the same class or even at the same college. The new platform has about 8,000 users at 50 colleges, he says. Last summer the Chicago-based company raised about $2 million, on top of the initial $1 million it had raised, and has grown from a staff of nine to more than 20 over the past year.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.


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