University of Pennsylvania

Meet the New Educational Entrepreneurs

Innovation in action at the Milken-Penn GSE business plan competition

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about what powers innovation in education. The innovators who competed this week at the Milken-Penn GSE annual business plan competition remind us of where it all starts: one person passionate enough to challenge the status quo.  

Hosted by the Milken Family Institute in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, the annual competition attracts start-up teams from across the country. The first place team takes home $25,000 to expand their business. Watching the 12 finalists compete and talk with a panel of four prior winners, some of the traits that make up finalist teams’ ‘secret sauce’ became evident. 

  • Passion powers innovation. 

This sounds obvious. But all of these young entrepreneurs displayed a very disciplined passion. Some of them were fueled by negative experience—for example, Jason Young of Mindblown Labs talked openly about how his sibling’s poor financial decisions resulted in a significant student loan debt but no college degree—which motivated him to develop a tool for financial literacy. Some were fueled by positive experience. Christopher Gray co-founded Scholly, an ad-free app that instantly and accurately matches qualified students to college scholarships. He was able to find (and secure) over $1 million (yes, I said million) in scholarship money to finance his education, and he wanted all his friends to be able to do the same. But all of the finalists possessed ambition that went beyond their own desires: they were genuinely driven to find creative solutions to society’s most pressing educational problems, benefitting students and educators at large.

  • Curiosity about users fuels the process through iterations.

All of the entrepreneurs shared a relentless curiosity about their users, their needs and how their businesses could satisfy them. More than one told of their decision to scrap their original project based on user feedback—pivoting, just as entrepreneurs in the private sector often do—in order to start over with plans better aligned to what users actually need. It was an impressive display of humility and proof that caring is good business.

  • Technology, combined with research and data, can help.

The plans were technology-enabled, using the web, mobile devices.  TotusPower (2nd place winner) likely had the most creative use of technology: reclaiming car batteries with substantial useful life for powering other things—such as providing reliable electricity to power tech innovations in the developing world, where blackouts are often timed during peak learning hours. Teams that partnered with research and data were even stronger, such as K-12 Learn prize winner Branching Minds. This team developed a web-based tool that puts actionable strategies in teachers’ hands so they can identify and address learning struggles in real time—all based on the learning sciences.

Interested in learning more? Check out the 2014 finalists.  Congratulations to all the competitors and to Milken-Penn GSE sponsored and presented for sponsoring and presenting another great group of innovators to the world; it will be exciting to see the impact they’ll have on education.

Taking these nuggets to heart -- work smart, be curious and lead with passion – will make us all innovators!   

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