PhillyInc: Phila. well-positioned to foster education tech start-ups

Bobbi Kurshan (University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education)
Bobbi Kurshan (University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education)
Posted: May 07, 2013

With its top-flight medical schools, hospitals, and pharmaceutical industry, Philadelphia has long been fertile ground for health information technology start-ups.

More recently, there has been a lot of effort in the region to nurture "green" technology firms focused on reducing energy use and promoting renewable energy sources.

If the University of Pennsylvania's Bobbi Kurshan gets her way, education technology will be the next sector locally to produce growing businesses.

Kurshan has been the executive director of academic innovation at the Penn Graduate School of Education since October, and she will lead the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition here Tuesday and Wednesday.

In an interview in her office last week, the former investment banker, seed-fund operator, and online educational community leader made the case for how education-rich Philadelphia can begin to play a role in the frothy world of ed-tech start-ups. In January, CB Insights, which tracks venture capital deals, said ed-tech firms raised a total of $1.1 billion in investment in 2012.

"The best entrepreneurs in education come out of research," Kurshan said, based on her dealmaking experience.

A successful ed-tech business needs to have investors, academic researchers, entrepreneurs, and the teachers who would use the products and services all on the same page, she said. Unfortunately, that's rare.

"The techie people don't understand education and the education people don't understand how to write the first line of code," Kurshan said.

Trying to bring those four constituencies closer together is one goal of the business-plan competition, begun in 2010. Ten early stage companies - including Autism Expressed of Philadelphia - will vie for a total of $145,000 in seven prizes in what is one of the richer competitions geared toward the ed-tech world.

The prize money has grown substantially since the Milken Family Foundation provided $25,000 for the best plan and $15,000 for the runner-up in in the first competition. This year, K12 Inc., a publicly traded online education company in Herndon, Va., will contribute $25,000 for the best business plan incorporating technology to address challenges in kindergarten through 12th grade online learning.

San Francisco firm Raise Labs Inc., AspirEDU of Orlando, and the other firms will get 10 minutes to try to wow seven judges Tuesday, but they won't learn whether they've won one or more prizes until Wednesday. Sounds like a process designed to teach patience.


Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980, marmstrong@phillynews.com, or follow @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.inquirer.com/phillyinc.

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