"No talk, all action," is the loudly sung motto of Startup Weekend, a movement to transform the way we think, innovate, and create. Thousands of local organizers have hosted Startup Weekends around the world, forging a network of entrepreneurs, developers, product managers, marketing whizzes, educators, designers, and startup enthusiasts that expands, evolves, and continually hums a positive message that the world is changing for the better -- and more importantly, that everyday people can be the agents of that change.
Last weekend, for 54 hours straight, 18 teams of educators, business and product gurus, technologists, venture capitalists, and education enthusiasts came together for Startup Weekend Education. The event was everything you would expect from a Startup Weekend: 56 one-minute pitches kicked off the event Friday night, then the frenzy of fine-tuning and development commenced, resulting in 18 final presentations Sunday night. Newly formed teams spent their time (sometimes sleeplessly) digging into market research, analyzing survey data, formulating business plans, creating slide decks, and practicing their final venture capitalist targeted pitch. As a member of the LearnBoost team, I had the pleasure of attending and getting a first-hand glimpse of the energy and talent in the building.
Organized by Teach For America alumna, Nihal El Rayess, in collaboration with the Kno team and the formidable leaders at Startup Weekend and Startup Weekend EDU, the event drew in wide participation -- from classroom teachers to ed-tech CEOs. Though encapsulating all of the traditional fun of Startup Weekend, the education, or EDU, initiative is a cry to the most talented and innovative people to come together to focus on the challenges that confront global education.
The event brought two added initiatives that really shined a light on the need for innovative collaborations among educators, entrepreneurs, and developers.
First off, the EDU vertical asks for a new level of customer validation before teams even form. After the initial pitches, every teacher in the room gives their teacher "stamp of approval" on ideas that really had potential to help teachers and/or transform education for the better.
The second differentiating piece of this particular event was an "ideas contest." The brainchild of organizer Nihal El Rayess, the ideas contest opened the event to teachers in rural and urban schools around the country -- where innovation is often needed most. Teachers who work in the most high-need areas face a plethora of challenges that they are uniquely posited to solve, and that often limit their participation in the fast-moving tech environment of Silicon Valley. Thus, Nihal worked relentlessly to open the communication and hear inspiring ideas from teachers everywhere. As she said it, "We need to get better ideas into the room. We need to hear from the teachers and students for whom change is not an option, it's a necessity."
After culling through the videos and essays from innovative and variably isolated teachers, Nihal and her team chose three winners to fly out to add to the pitches at Startup Weekend EDU. First place in the ideas contest went to Kevin Tame from Baltimore, a teacher with huge ideas for bringing teacher tools together. Kevin was flown to New York's Startup Weekend EDU event to give his 60 pitch. Second place winners, Deborah Chang and Jamie Lonie from Houston shared their goals for making student data actionable, and runner up Benjamin Lynch from the Mississippi Delta brainstormed The Literacy Project, which seeks to infuse technology and literacy, building reading skills through the collection and distribution of older generation e-readers to schools that lack the resources to combat low literacy rates. These two groups were flown all the way to the Bay Area to share their ideas with an eager audience.
In the end, a different group, MySciHigh, stole the show at Startup Weekend EDU in Santa Clara. With a strong team, experienced in education, MySciHigh sold the high-profile judging panel that they could solve the problem of finding and aggregating quality scientific content to make passive, unstructured online learning more project-based and active. Because their model included leveraging existing content, they showed figures on radically reducing the cost of online education while making the experience customizable and relevant. What stood out in MySciHigh's pitch was a seamless flow from the market research to viable business plan to highly needed solutions to challenges that the wide world of online content can create.
For people passionate about changing the way systems work, and who really want to disrupt the status quo, the opportunities at Startup Weekend are innumerable. MySciHigh has yet to receive funding, but the team is ambitious and their roadmap strong, and investors are already watching them. The potential for transforming science curriculum with the tools already out there is immense, and MySciHigh is a venture to watch.
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