Pitt assists startups with education tech focus
Dec 05, 2012 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As the University of Pittsburgh builds upon its reputation for biomedical innovation, it is also making time to promote technology made for classrooms instead of operating rooms.
Two startups getting an assist from the university's Office of Technology Management and Office of Enterprise Development are focused on breaking into the booming education technology sector.
Panther Learning, a company that builds writing skills through its SWoRD Peer Review teaching software, is only months away from upgrades that will make the program available to universities across the country.
The software allows students to upload writing assignments to a cloud server that sends the work to classmates to be reviewed. Once classmates make notes, the work is returned to the author to make revisions and to add comments about the peers' notes.
Once all reviews are in, SWoRD uses an algorithm to detect bias in student responses and determines a grade based on the responses. By the end of March, the software will be compatible with the majority of learning management systems used in American universities.
Panther Learning CEO Mark Limbach said the software already has been used by more than 4,000 students at universities and secondary schools, and has empowered teachers to assign more writing assignments -- something that can be difficult when they don't have time to fairly assess hundreds of papers.
"One thing we learned is that writing improves when assignments are given over a wide range of courses," he said. "It's interesting to see how many times we see biology professors now assigning writing tasks when they could never possibly assign them in the past because they didn't have the time to grade them all."
The software was developed at the university's Learning Research and Development Center by professor of psychology and senior LRDC scientist Christian Schunn. An official trademark of the university, SWoRD is being used exclusively by Panther Learning under license.
The company, which is operating out of Oakland-based tech incubator Idea Foundry, has four employees. It won the incubator's Idea Transformation Fellowship award this year and will receive an undisclosed amount of financial aid from the nonprofit to support expansion of its signature software.
The product is being prepped for sale at the precise time when investors and government stakeholders alike are beginning to appreciate the value of education technology, Mr. Limbach said.
Education technology investments have tripled over the last decade, going from $146 million in 2002 to $429 million last year, according to the National Venture Capital Association.
Since research into SWoRD began about eight years ago, Mr. Schunn and Panther Learning have received around $3.5 million in grants support from Pitt, the RK Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences.
"What it appears to be is this is a time where there is widespread recognition that there are fundamental problems in education and technology is going to be a key to solving those problems," Mr. Limbach said. "Nobody knows how it's going to play out, but they want to be a part of it."
Steven Benso and Anthony Chao, founders of the mobile software company CE Agent, recognized right away that there was a way to improve education that goes beyond college and into the workforce.
CE Agent, formerly called CE Manager, is a smartphone app that stores and manages continuing education credits and certificates for nurses. Mr. Benso and Mr. Chao, former UPMC employees with backgrounds in nursing, said they noticed right away the most common problem with staying on top of certifications was a matter of organizing paperwork and knowing when requirements should be fulfilled.
Once Mr. Benso approached Mr. Chao with the idea to store certificates digitally and provide alerts when new certifications are due, they both knew they were on to a long overdue idea.
"You take classes, get the education credit and it's a paper certificate. You take that certificate and it winds up on top of another certificate. Then the next time you need [to get] certified, hopefully you can find everything and hopefully you have enough hours," Mr. Chao said. "This brings organization and clarity to the process."
Although apps to track continuing education exist, Mr. Benso noted CE Agent will include a feature that helps users track down where the continuing education course they need is being conducted in their area.
After a quick start in April, the company won a $10,000 prize through the Michael G. Wells Student Health Care Entrepreneurship Competition in October.
The next steps are to beta test the software in January, release the product to the health care market in February and release an updated product that tracks all professional certifications by April. The company is completely virtual at this time, but Mr. Benso said they're looking for office space.
Greg Coticchia, a university executive in residence for software and information technology, said Panther Learning and CE Agent are only a few of the nonmedical innovations coming out of Pitt that will hit the market in the next few years.
In fiscal year 2012, the Office of Technology Management increased licensing transactions and options by nearly 25 percent; saw commercialization revenues jump 10 percent to approximately $6.8 million; and spun out nine new startups.
While all of this year's spinoff companies were in the biotech field, Mr. Coticchia said the university at large has spun off four or five software startups and several more are gearing toward commercialization.
"A lot of exciting things are happening in the area of software at Pitt," he said. "We'll continue to be life science-oriented, but we're also going to do our share of software and IT."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.
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