Cincinnati's emerging EdTech pioneers use innovation to help students thrive

Region poised to become an industry leader
Posted at 7:11 AM, Jul 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-18 07:11:49-04

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati-area students who fall into Generation Z are tech natives when it comes to their personal smart devices and 24/7 interactions with friends.

But it's a different story in many area classrooms, where tech gaps stand out, and our most vulnerable students remain at a disadvantage when it comes to high school graduation rates and college admissions. 

Entrepreneurs and startup founders from the financial technology (fintech) and medtech sectors look to big corporations for pilots and sales related to their products and services. However, the big corporation equivalent for Greater Cincinnati EdTech companies is slightly different. 

Dominating the education landscape are legacy institutions like state boards of education, city school systems and textbook publishers. All of these enterprises play key roles in EdTech businesses, said Adam Helbig, director of business development at TutorGen Inc., an education-management company based in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. In fact, it's a mistake to presume that EdTech companies only work in P-12 or higher education environments. 

"We include corporate and government as part of the markets we serve at TutorGen," Helbig said, speaking recently at Union Hall in Over-the-Rhine. "We use data to create learner models to adapt new and existing content at whatever level of education or training … Our big corporation equivalent has been universities and schools, but also corporations."

Moulay A. Essakalli, CEO and co-founder of Zid Zid, the developer of a web-based curriculum designed to help preschool children learn world languages, agrees that there's much school leaders can learn from Cincinnati's emerging EdTech leaders and how they're using new technologies to help Cincinnati youth in the pre-K market thrive in the 21st century and meet their full potential.

"Recent studies show that children who speak more than one language outperform their peers in academic, cognitive, emotional and social areas," Essakalli said, speaking recently between meetings at Union Hall in Over-the-Rhine. "The best developmental age to learn another language is before the age of 6, yet only a minority of preschools offer learning language programs because of budgetary constraints or difficulties finding qualified language teachers."

A recent graduate of The Brandery accelerator, Essakalli and his Zid Zid team continue to build their community of clients and partners along with seeking funding. While EdTech continues to be a rising business category, Essakalli understands that the private/public nature of their school district and preschool chain clients, along with the education market in general, creates some challenges.

"Zid Zid is a subscription-based company," Essakalli said. "We offer yearly teacher licenses and a combination of teacher and family licenses. We're also planning to add subscriptions for families independent of schools." 

Listen to Cincinnati's established education players like new Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Catherine Laura and Byron White, executive director of the education reform collaborative Strive Partnership, along with emerging EdTech leaders from education companies like Tier 1 Performance Solutions, and you'll begin to experience a big-picture outlook of how a diverse group of education businesses are using new technologies to help Cincinnati youth meet their potential.

Successful tech companies thrive on value propositions that focus on the clear market problems they look to solve. For example, Square makes it easy for indie artisans and businesses to accept credit cards. EdTech businesses frequently face numerous problems from home-environment support to classroom engagement and reading and study skills. 

Monica Solomon, a Cincinnati-based education consultant and senior associate at Schlechty Center, has EdTech companies and startups reach out to her private, nonprofit consultancy all the time. The companies she values most are those that prioritize issues around building a culture of engagement and increasing profound learning for all students. 

Solomon and her Schlechty Center colleagues understand that longstanding industries, from steel to coal and paper to retail, are losing legacy businesses. Education is no different, and there are many legacy institutions in danger of dissolving unless key innovations are implemented.

"At the Schlechty Center, we believe that public education, legacy institutions must be in tune with two fundamental anchors to ignite needed transformation," Solomon said. "One is restoring civic capacity, meaning uniting organizations to work together on common community goals. The other anchor is building social capacity, establishing teachers as education leaders, designers and guides with principals and superintendents as their moral and intellectual leaders … If you accomplish these two anchors, public education can remain central to our democratic life."

With more students interacting with their teachers and fellow students remotely alongside the challenge of increasing the number of quality educators and transforming curricula to suit the changing needs of students, it's fair to say that education ecosystems five years from now will be very different from what EdTech companies are facing today. 

Meanwhile, work continues for RISE, Cincinnati's latest EdTech summit, taking place on Aug. 4 at Northern Kentucky University. Helbig hopes RISE will help establish an ongoing EdTech Research Center at Northern Kentucky University as well as new partnerships with tech companies currently outside the education community. 

When it comes to these EdTech challenges, Greater Cincinnati's EdTech ecosystem shares much in common with other markets around the challenges of funding, digital conversion and the best use of big data.

However, Helbig is convinced that Cincinnati's growing EdTech community makes our market unique. And what makes us unique can also make our EdTech community strong, vibrant and an industry leader. 

"I believe that Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati are well positioned to be the center of education technology in the world," Helbig said. "Couple our education institutions and demographics with the culture of innovation that has been built up on both sides of the river, UpTech, The Brandery, Cintrifuse. The region has been voted one of the top 15 places to start a new business and the accelerators are in the top 30 with the FounderCon startup conference being hosted here last year. Our big corporations and investors are actively participating in the startup scene and investing in the ecosystem -- including EdTech -- thanks to organizations like Cintrifuse and the Kentucky Innovation Network."