1776’s Top Edtech Startups: Handsfree Learning, LearnLux, Cognotion

With the explosion of online education, plenty of technology professionals are using skills they learned on their laptops rather than in university lecture halls. But how would you feel about a doctor who picked up surgical techniques the same way?

Year-old startup Handsfree Learning is starting to make that kind of online physician training possible—and it plans to expand its system for other tasks people do with their hands rather than solely with their heads. The possibilities? Carpentry, auto repair, and dentistry, to name a few.

San Francisco-based Handsfree was chosen this week as one of the semifinalists in the Challenge Cup, an international startup competition run by the Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund 1776. The organization’s mission is to break through barriers to innovation in sectors such as education and transportation, which affect millions of people.

As one of three semifinalists in the competition’s education category, Handsfree will receive $50,000 from 1776, and remains in the running for the Challenge Cup’s Global Finals on Saturday. It will compete for the top education prize with two other semifinalists: Boston-based LearnLux, an interactive online site where millennials can learn to manage their personal finances, and New York-based Cognotion, which gamifies training for entry level workers.

The three edtech companies will also compete with startups in all categories to become the overall winner of the Global Finals, an award that comes with a $150,000 investment from 1776. Two semifinalists in the energy and sustainability were announced Tuesday: BaseTrace near Durham, NC, which uses DNA tracers in industrial fluids to find leaks from “fracking” operations that extract oil and gas; and Brooklyn, NY-based Radiator Labs, which improves the efficiency of apartment radiators with a cover called the Cozy. Semifinalists in the two other categories—health, and transportation and cities—will be selected during the week.

Handsfree co-founder and board chairman Paul Freedman (pictured above) says the startup would have participated in the Challenge Cup even if it didn’t involve a total of $650,000 in prize money. The competition put Handsfree in front of judges representing education giant Pearson and the non-profit educational investment outfit NewSchools Venture Fund. Their verdict in favor of the startup carries weight, he says. Handsfree is funded to the tune of $1 million by Freedman’s edtech incubator, San Francisco-based Entangled Ventures. But the money from 1776 will be helpful, Freedman says.

“The signaling is even more helpful,” Freedman says.

Josh Salcman

Josh Salcman

Freedman and Handsfree co-founder Josh Salcman set out to lift limitations on online learning of crafts skills and other manual techniques. People can already find YouTube videos online that teach things like changing a tennis grip or fixing a bike, but if your hands are full of tools you can’t pause the video when you’re not finished with a step, Freedman says.

Handsfree created a mobile app that allows students to pause, rewind, or fast-forward an instructional video with voice commands. When students are learning as part of a program that requires them to pass a test of their new skills, they use the app to record their performance. An instructor, using a Handsfree app, reviews the student video and gives feedback pegged second-by-second to the operation being carried out at that moment, Freedman says.

This summer, Handsfree is starting a pilot project with UC San Francisco, which is developing videos to teach basic skills such as surgical knot tying to its medical and dental school students, Freedman says. Handsfree and UCSF will co-own the content, which Handsfree can then market to other schools, he says. The startup plans to work with Chabot Community College to offer the online lessons to students in a dental assistants’ program.

As the applications of Handsfree’s system become more complex, the company can augment the learning experience by using the many accessories already on the market for smartphones and tablets, including noise-reducing headphones and webcams that could be attached to a dentist’s magnifying glasses, Freedman says.

Both Freedman and Salcman are taking new runs at the edtech market after discouraging experiences. Salcman founded a video-based math teaching program, Virtual Nerd, but had to shut it down in 2013 and sell the assets to Pearson, Edsurge reported.

Freedman had founded Altius Education, which started a for-profit online junior college, Ivy Bridge, in partnership with Tiffin University in Ohio. But in 2013 the Higher Learning Commission, a private accrediting agency overseeing colleges and universities in Ohio and other states, decided that Ivy Bridge could not be covered under Tiffin’s accreditation. Ivy Bridge was shut down.

But Freedman says Handsfree is now benefiting from a sea change in attitudes about online education. Universities are seeing edtech as a way to improve their programs—not always as a cheap, low-quality alternative to classroom learning. For example, UCSF is willing to try Handsfree’s system as a way to scale up instruction in physical skills that its faculty may not always have time enough to teach, he says.

Handsfree could tap into a significant global market by adapting online learning for manual tasks, he says.

“The hands-on skills have just been forgotten about,” Freedman says. “We’d love to bring back hands-on learning as an important part of society.”

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