This Edtech Business Competition Is a Win for the Education Ecosystem

On October 7, seven talented edtech entrepreneurs will take center stage at the final event of the 2019 Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition (EBPC). Each finalist hopes to impress the expert judges with a winning pitch as they vie for a share of more than $120,000 in cash and prizes. It’s been a long journey for these seven entrepreneurs, who entered the competition—along with hundreds of others—last February.

Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (PennGSE) and sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation, this esteemed business plan competition is now in its tenth year. To learn a bit about the competition’s history and how it has benefitted entrepreneurs over the past decade, we sat down with Michael Golden, executive director of Catalyst, a center for global education innovation and entrepreneurship at PennGSE, and host of the EBPC.

EdSurge: How did Penn GSE first get involved in this competition?

Michael Golden: At PennGSE, we have a long history of inspiring and cultivating innovation at all levels of education, from K-12 through adult learning. A decade ago, as we saw innovators and entrepreneurs applying new technology across business sectors, we wanted to inspire them to focus on solving the many challenges we face at all levels of education. So, the EPBC was launched—the first such competition to focus solely on the education sector.

Over ten years, the competition has awarded more than $1.2 million in cash prizes. Winners and finalists have gone on to secure more than $140 million in funding. And while we’re proud of the lucrative prizes we offer our finalists, the EBPC’s reach extends beyond monetary concerns.

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As the 2014 competition finalist Shiv Gaglani, cofounder of Osmosis, recently shared, “The impact Milken-Penn had on our business was significant. The contacts we made were formative. The win also put us on the map. We received a lot of inbound interest from investors, and our customers, both direct users and institutions, felt validated in choosing us when we were recognized by Penn GSE for our work.”

EBPC 2018 Winners and Finalists (Source: Catalyst @ Penn GSE)

What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from hosting the competition?

Building a business is hard. Building a business that can actually improve learning is much, much harder. As we enter our second decade, the business plan competition is transforming into a runway for entrepreneurs with a focus on providing early support.

Of course, businesses don’t make transformative changes alone; research matters. Because we are housed at Penn GSE, Catalyst regularly works with some of the leading experts in education research. We want entrepreneurs to be able to leverage that expertise.This year, we started offering semifinalists and finalists access to a series of Catalyst bootcamps and webinars that gave entrepreneurs a foundation in fundamentals, such as sales, marketing, fundraising and legal issues. We’ve already seen how semifinalists put these skills into practice for the finals and improved their ventures in the process. Our next bootcamp series will begin in October, soon after this year’s finals.

Buyers and investors are savvy. They need to see proof of an idea’s potential impact. We can help entrepreneurs understand how to evaluate their products and demonstrate their effectiveness.

Because we have been around for a decade, we have a vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurs, researchers, investors and subject matter experts ready to partner with new companies. We can meet the leaders of new ventures at any stage and help move them forward. Ultimately, we hope to reduce the time it takes for a new breakthrough idea to get wide distribution, which will make a meaningful difference in the lives of more educators and learners.

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Today’s marketplace for education and edtech companies is quite different than it was in 2010. Do we still need this type of competition?

Absolutely. The opportunity for innovation across education at all levels—from pre-K through adult learning—has never been greater. Today’s technology allows us to do things we could only dream of in 2010. Mobile internet access in homes has mushroomed from 9 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2017. Software and data now live in the cloud. And AI is making personalized learning a reality at scale.

If you look through the hundreds of entry submissions we get each year, you’d see the wide range of business ideas sprouting in teachers’ classrooms and researchers’ labs. But the gap between an idea and an operational product in use across the country is huge. We’ve intentionally geared the competition, and our ecosystem, to help smart, dedicated people across that gap.

You can see the potential in this year’s finalists. One is an enterprise that applies AI to support college students through their academic journey. Another allows the creation of personalized, adaptive tests to improve and track learning. Others enable teachers to turn mobile devices into science equipment and students into practicing scientists.

So, who will prevail on October 7?

Ultimately, the education ecosystem wins on October 7. As to who walks away with cash prizes, that’s up to the judges—you’ll need to join us at the finals to find out.

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