Kauffman Labs Inaugural Incubator Program Brings In Education-Focused Entrepreneurs from Massachusetts, Michigan, and Bay Area

Surprise: we’re writing about an incubator. (OK, it might not come as a surprise. There’s been no shortage of news surrounding programs designed to create and accelerate tech startups across the nation, as my colleague Greg recently noted.)

The Education Ventures Program, which will kick off later this month, is a bit different, though. It’s not necessarily looking for the next billion-dollar Web or software startup, but is entirely focused on developing businesses and technologies out to improve education.

This one comes from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and naturally it lines up with the organization’s vision of spurring economic growth. “Through our entrepreneurship education program, we hope that we can catalyze more founders of high growth, scalable business,” says Sandy Miller, director of Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation, which runs Education Ventures. “The reason for the explicit focus on those types of businesses is that data has come out showing that the majority of net new job creation comes from firms less than five years old.”

The 25 entrepreneurs selected for the inaugural four-month program will work at Kauffman Labs in Kansas City, MO, for the first month, will be closely matched with a business to work alongside for two months, and will finish the last month back at the Kauffman. In addition to fostering the growth of new companies, the foundation has another aim for the program: to learn what helps startups take off.

“It’s really important while we’re delivering this entrepreneur education program to really study this activity, and make inroads into better understanding the science of startups,” Miller says.

Education Ventures is the pilot version of a new crop of entrepreneurial education programs from Kauffman Labs. Two more will be announced this year, each targeting ideas in different sectors. The next one will focus on the food and nutrition market, Miller told me, but she’s keeping the focus of the third one a surprise for now.

The narrow industry focus is one quality that sets the Kauffman programs apart from other early-stage startup incubators like TechStars or YCombinator, which accept a range of Web and IT startups. The program is also taking on ideas on the non-profit and services side, as well as entrepreneurs who are very early on in developing their concept, rather than requiring formally developed business plans. And Miller describes the Kauffman Foundation as “the most benign investor or cofounder you can imagine,” meaning it won’t take an ownership stake in its participating startups in exchange for the support it provides. Instead, it’s providing a payment directly to the entrepreneurs, prorating a $70,000 annual salary across the four-month duration of the program.

Kauffman has picked entrepreneurs from a trio of Xconomy regions for its inaugural class of the Education Ventures Program. We highlighted participants from Massachusetts, Michigan, and the Bay Area. Read below for details and comments from the entrepreneurs I was able to connect with. (Information on the full class of the Education Ventures Program can be found here.)


—Ann Arbor, MI-based Bhargav Sri Prakash and Dmitry Tarasev are developing 3D simulation games for education. Prakash previously developed a game called Vmerse for recruiting prospective college students by simulating the feel of a particular campus. “In many ways Vmerse was a business to business model,” Prakash says. The Kauffman program could help he and Tarasev (a former Vmerse intern) adjust the vision to market learning games directly to the consumer.

—Entrepreneur Christian Spielvogel of Kalamazoo, MI, says his team is incorporating social games into the textbook world. As students complete a chapter in a history textbook, for example, they can play an online social game, adapting an avatar representative of a certain person or group from that period in history, and role-playing historical events. Spielvogel’s first title, called America at War, focuses on the civil war, and is aimed at high school and college students. Spielvogel and his other team members (Kalamazoo-based Laura Spielvogel and University Park, PA-based Khusro Kidwai) are all PhDs and not experienced entrepreneurs, so Christians says they’re looking to the Education Ventures Program to understand how to scale the business.


—Cambridge, MA-based Niko Ralf Cunningham isn’t waiting for his education-focused website to be found via a search engine, but is taking the direct sales approach of selling to parents “right in their living rooms.” He’s developing a subscription-based site to help connect kids with college groups that could foster their afterschool interests and passions. “Were’ hoping to hit the sweet spot that educational technology misses by hoping people will find them on Google,” he says.

—Jill Frankfort and Kenneth Salim of Boston are developing technology to help better ensure students successfully complete college, according to the Kauffman announcement.

—Brookline, MA-based Igor Khayet is building on his college admissions and consulting background to launch a service for coaching students and young professionals for college and job interviews.

—Melissa Pickering of Medford, MA, is the majority owner of iCreate to Educate, a company spun out of Tufts University to help get new educational technologies being developed at the research level into classrooms. (She’s also the entrepreneur who alerted me to the Education Ventures Program.) The company is using animation software developed at Tufts to help supplement science education in the classroom. Pickering says she’s looking to take the time at Educations Ventures to explore the data the company has picked up on its product, and figure out “how can we make a sustainable business and how can we make it scale.”

San Francisco

—Matt Garmur of Oakland, CA, and Jason Young of San Francisco are targeting financial literacy education, with Web- and mobile-based social games and incentives. The website for the game, Zindagi, describes the product as “Farmville meets Mint.com.”

—Fremont, CA-based Jerry Huang is CEO of Childroad, a provider of multimedia textbooks in different languages for kids across the globe. His co-founder Michael Qin of Hangzhou, China, will join him at Kauffman Labs.

—There’s an app for everything now, even education, with what Sandy Khaund of Walnut Creek, CA, is working on. His company Irynsoft is developing mobile apps to help delivervideodeliver video content for distance learning and online courses to mobile phones. His New York-based partner Sanjib Kalita will be joining him at the Kauffman program, which Khaund (who has experience in tech from a gig at Microsoft) hopes will better expose them to those in the education field.

—San Francisco-based Matt Pasternack is taking GoalPost, a platform enabling K-12 students to set goals and track their progress, into the Education Ventures Program. He says he was impressed by the “access to nearly two dozen advisers with deep entrepreneurial and sector-specific experience” that Kauffman finalists had during a boot camp week in November. He’s looking to continue those relationships once the program officially starts.

—Elizabeth Schmidt of San Francisco is developing a non-profit Internet platform called Wishbone.org for connecting at-risk students with extracurricular programs. “I’m really excited for the strategic planning piece” of the Education Ventures Program, she says.

—Alexandre Scialom of San Francisco is working on what he calls a Yelp.com for lifelong learning opportunities, i.e. “anything for personal or professional development” for adults. His background is on the technology side of business, so he’s looking to the Kauffman program to connect him with those in the education world, he says.

—East Palo Alto, CA-based Daniel Jhin Yoo is in the idea phase of developing an analytics platform for gauging the success of online learning strategies at schools. “Being at Kauffman will help me build a plan,” he says.

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