Although Eileen Murphy never planned to become an edtech entrepreneur before starting her company ThinkCERCA in 2012, she already had tremendous success building elite educational organizations.
Fifteen years ago, she was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, which is today among the top public high schools in Illinois. After writing a book that explained how poetry could be used to teach close reading, Murphy in 2010 and 2011 helped the Chicago Public School (CPS) system roll out Common Core State Standards while serving as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the city's top-performing schools.
That experience coincided with the debut of the iPad and subsequent surge in touchscreen apps and other digital media offerings to help teachers manage and enhance their lesson plans and curriculum. As a gatekeeper that vetted these tools for principals and teachers, Murphy was not impressed.
"I saw a lot of snake oil and a lot of wasted money," she said. "I knew no teacher at Payton would use what I was seeing, and I realized we needed to make a product for high performing teachers at high performing schools with high performing students."
So Murphy left CPS in March 2012 to start ThinkCERCA (which stands for Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterargument, and Audience). Before developing a website or any technology, Murphy first constructed a paper-based version of her vision, which couples informational texts with instant Common Core-aligned assessments for grades 4-12. Her alpha analog customers were deliberately principals and educators that were not already part of her network.
They liked it.
After passing the initial test, Murphy set out to build the web-based service. All of the content and assessment materials are original, and the free offerings include a nice mix of topical reading passages ("To fight Ebola, create a Health Workforce Reserve force") to more evergreen topics ("Food and Brain"). Most passages are accompanied with a related audio clip. After students absorb a particular topic, they are provided with a 5-question Common Core-aligned multiple choice quiz that generates instant analytics for their teachers.
A premium version of the service goes much deeper, with multi-tiered lessons and prompts for students to write and back up their arguments. A full demo of the service can be found here.
Murphy says on average it takes about 45 minutes to train teachers on the product, and that 85 percent of teachers signed up to ThinkCERCA use it at least weekly. She said ThinkCERCA stands out from similar products in the space due to its focus on "advanced skills", and its structure that encourages students to initiate and debate a point of view based on what they read. The former english teacher also believes ThinkCERCA has cracked the code on blended learning in the classroom.
"(In the past we always separated digital tools from teachers with (places like the) computer lab", she explained. "But technology alone doesn't improve instruction. We actually advocate for the blend of human and online instruction. We give teachers superpowers."
Building the business
Although ThinkCERCA was generating subscription revenue from schools "before day one" of operations, Murphy needed startup capital to build her service and team. In March 2013, she raised $250,000 from Impact Engine, a Chicago-based for-profit business accelerator that trains and funds businesses that focus on societal and/or environmental concerns.
To date, ThinkCERCA has raised approximately $1.5 million of seed funding "in drips and drabs". Murphy has spent the better part of 2014 raising a Series A round of venture capital financing, which she hopes to announce soon. In the meantime, revenue is coming in from approximately 175 schools in 13 states that pay for premium content and services.
The 16-person company is growing out of its scattered presence in Chicago's 1871 entrepreneurial hub, and is expected to branch out and get its own space. Murphy said proceeds from the Series A round will be invested in "reinforcing the existing product", including additional subject areas (all based on reading comprehension) and professional development.
"What we are teaching, reading analytically about science and social science, is hard," she said. "Teachers are human beings, and what we do is meaningful because we create the context to put in the effort."