For 15 years, the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development researched the essential skills needed for preschool children to be ready for kindergarten. That research eventually became the framework for IGDIs, a university-funded set of early-literacy assessment materials.
Teachers could order free flashcards that measure students' literacy skills and log in to a university website to manage the results. The university says 180,000 students have used IGDIs, which stands for Individual Growth and Development Indicators.
Now, this research project has a new identity: as a startup company, Early Learning Labs, launched this month.
Innovations in areas like science, engineering, and medicine commonly make the transition from academia to the market, benefiting from financial and intellectual resources and university patent offices. As technology increasingly brings venture capital and a startup culture into K-12 education, some universities are seeing a similar opportunity in that sector.
At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, the office for technology commercialization identified IGDIs a few years ago as a potentially marketable commodity, not just a free tool, if given the proper investment and business development.
As one of the university's "internal business units," or IBUs, Early Learning Labs received a $100,000 investment from the university, and underwent a 20-month internal business-development program. Once that period ended, the company became independent of the university. It is free to raise outside investment and develop new products.
"The problem became that teachers were downloading these tools, but [the tools] weren't providing a full solution," said Steve Johnson, the 26-year-old president of Early Learning Labs and a former intern in the office for technology commercialization. "The only way to provide a full solution is to increase the resources behind it."
Research to Product
The IBU program at the University of Minnesota isn't exclusive to education ventures, but its structure lends itself to the field, university officials said.
The amount of funding to take an idea from the research level to the product phase is fairly modest in education, compared with other areas, said Rick Huebsch, an associate director of the university's office for technology commercialization.
Because of those relatively low costs, education startups like Early Learning Labs can become self-sustaining quickly and focus more on product development. Other areas, like science or medicine, require lengthy and costly approvals and tests to reach the same stage of development, Mr. Huebsch said.
Through various other arrangements, universities have become active in fostering education entrepreneurship.
The University of Pennsylvania, along with the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., sponsors a business-plan competition for education with a cash prize. Stanford University's StartX "incubator" program for its students has included education companies. But in both cases the universities do not get a stake in the companies.
A new doctor of education program at Johns Hopkins University will offer courses in entrepreneurship and include a program for startup companies and for small, established companies looking for acceleration. The school and its partner on the program, the Education Industry Association, are now raising funds for the incubator, and terms have not been determined, said Steven Pines, the executive director of the EIA, a Vienna, Va.-based trade group.
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