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Milken Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition and the Innovators Changing the Landscape of Education

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Over the past two days, I attended the 2014 Milken Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition and Conference at the University of Pennsylvania. The Milken Family Foundation awards an overall first prize of $25,000 and a second prize of $15,000 for distinguished innovations to the way we improve education and learning outcomes throughout society. In its fifth year, the conference has steadily grown in the number and quality of business plans presented. Twelve finalists emerged this year from more than 250 initial plans submitted and overall the group seemed stronger than finalists in previous years. I would like to share with you some of the unique innovators that may soon be changing the landscape of education.

K-12 Finalists

I cannot remember the last time I saw a company present a business plan in this sector that did not take advantage of technology. The 2014 finalists did not disappoint me and the technology presented ranged from complex to relatively simple. Many developed applications primarily for K–12 education that included:

  • Creating smarter, interactive assignments aligned with Common Core standards (SmartestK12 and UClass)
  • Building and sharing interactive video lessons (eduCanon)
  • Identifying student learning challenges (Branching Minds)
  • Generating interactive formative assessments that launched to student devices (Pear Deck)
  • Learning vocabulary online (Professor Word)

Preschool Finalists

Two groups, Ubongo Kids and SmartyPAL, unveiled game-changing platforms for enhancing the overall preschool education experience. Ubongo Kids combines television shows with smartphone interaction and lessons. SmartyPAL is constructing a unique learning platform utilizing adaptive learning techniques.

Higher Education Finalists

While there were 10 higher education finalists, four stood out from the others. Open Assembly’s open courseware platform allows instructors to share content downloaded from Open Educational Resources (OER) sites. Scholly developed a mobile app to provide high school students, undergraduates, and graduates with a fast and simple way to locate scholarships for college. Osmosis’ web and mobile platform improves the way people learn and retain information. Their first product focuses on medical information that is currently used by nearly 10,000 medical school students. Totus Power presented the most unique plan, developing battery packs to power low-cost computers for schools in developing countries by using recycled electric vehicle batteries (EV); thus providing a low-cost product while solving the environmental dilemma of disposing spent EV batteries approximately every seven years.

The Award Winners

The winner of the $25,000 first prize was Osmosis while Totus Power took home the $5,000 second prize. Osmosis also won the American Public University Prize for contribution to online higher education.

The Osmosis application is well-designed and its rapid adoption by more than 10,000 medical students, representing about 10 percent of the U.S. medical school population, provides an initial indication of its potential and current relevance in the field today. Over the long haul, it is anticipated that the user base will continue expanding as the firm develops product upgrades that enhance continuing education for certified public accountants and allows for better feedback and quiz functionality.

Osmosis’ founders, Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes, are medical students attending Johns Hopkins University and are currently on a leave of absence to develop their company. Gaglani is also attending Harvard’s Business School and is pursuing an MBA, and Haynes holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Cambridge.

While it is far too early to predict the future success of Osmosis as a company, I find their business model and customer acquisition follows the premises of two books, “The Second Machine Age” and “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” that I reviewed in the past year. Clearly Erik Brynojolfsson’s and Andrew McAffee’s, “The Second Machine Age,” portends the disruption that occurs when tech entrepreneurs have the ability to design and build a technology-enabled product scalable to educate 10,000 plus learners with a staff of less than five educators. According to the Osmosis founders, the marketing budget to attract the 10,000 students attending approximately 500 medical schools was less than $500.

I think that Osmosis’ initial customer acquisition also meets the criteria recommended by Jonah Berger in his book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” Online advertising is expensive, and Berger suggests that it is actually the offline, peer conversations that are more prevalent and provide greater impact. My guess is that word-of-mouth conversations increased the demand for Osmosis’ app, which is similar to Berger’s assertion in what he coined as the six principles of content contagiousness: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories (STEPPS).

Additionally, all of the Penn GSE finalists and semifinalists have the opportunity to attend the Educational Design Studio, Inc.. (EDSI) fellows program. EDSI is an education business incubator developed by Penn GSE that brings together entrepreneurs and academic researchers. The first year for the fellows program was in 2013 and, judging from the conversations that I had with a few of the participants, it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Having attended the Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz. a few weeks ago, and then participating as a judge in the finals at Penn—it is clear to me that we are at a tipping point with a number of education entrepreneurs who are utilizing technology to bring positive changes to learning, teaching, and education administration. As a fan of positive disruption, I look forward to witnessing the changing landscape.

APUS Awards $25,000 APUS Prize for Innovation in Online Education to Osmosis. Read more from the press release here.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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