Academic journal article Education Next

Education Entrepreneurs Petersen

Academic journal article Education Next

Education Entrepreneurs Petersen

Article excerpt

The Data Guys:

Larry Berger and Jonathan Harber

As the disciples of innovation scholar Clayton Christensen know, market-leading companies are rarely the ones that invent the future. Although large technology companies like IBM often work with school systems, the real pioneers in the use of technology and data in education have been startups. The founders of Wireless Generation and SchoolNet, respectively, took into account the ways in which teachers and schools wanted to work with data (and, crucially, the ways in which school systems were able to pay for them) rather than bolting existing technologies onto the desks of teachers and administrators.

Most people trying to incorporate technology into schooling in the 1990s were focused on instruction, recalls Larry Berger, who started Wireless Generation with Greg Gunn, a graduate-school friend. But in other fields, he observes, "much of the success technology had had was in automating the workflow behind the scenes." Berger and Gunn worked together at a web development company and also created an online presence for actor Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camp for children with serious illnesses. After observing that new Internet-connected mobile devices might be better suited than desktop computers to the needs of teachers, they began in 1998 to pursue their longtime dream of starting an education company together. On nights and weekends, they worked on the business plan, eventually raising $17 million from individual investors and Seavest Capital, as well as from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Their very first check was from then Qualcomm CEO Irwin Jacobs, who a few days after a brief pitch meeting with Berger sent a check for $250,000 along with a Post-it note: "Let me know what percent of your company I bought."

Berger says he and Gunn planned to develop mobile-friendly applications that would harness the power of the Internet to change the way teachers worked in the classroom. "We liked the idea of creating tools that would make teachers feel more empowered rather than cost them a lot of time and somehow feel less empowered," he says. Initially, the founders set out to distribute their applications through existing channels, such as publishers. Their first product, mCLASS, automated the burdensome paper-based "running record" that teachers use to capture students' early-learning progress. When demand for the products emerged faster than did satisfactory deals with publishers, Wireless Generation shifted its strategy and built a sales team.

They quickly found that in order to succeed in public education, they would need to be attentive to public policies that would drive demand and funding for their products. Wireless Generation employees pored over the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) the night it was signed, looking for potential opportunities, and found that the act's Reading First component "created an unusual amount of liquidity centralized at the state level (about $200 million per year) that did not already have a bureaucracy trained to spend it," as Berger has written. Wireless Generation went on to secure at least 18 state contracts, including those of New Mexico and Ohio.

By 2010, the company had grown to 350 employees and an estimated $60 million in annual revenue, including a sizable contract with the New York City Department of Education to build its Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) as an IBM subcontractor. "What impressed us with Larry was his largeness of vision," says Tony Berkley, who spearheaded a $5 million convertible loan from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Mission-Driven Investments portfolio in mid-2010. "He had built a company that was trying to tackle teacher effectiveness and accountability and innovation in the curriculum market--pretty much all the big challenges in education."

That year, several publishers as well as media conglomerate News Corporation approached Wireless Generation with acquisition offers. …

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