For years, research in education has found its way to the marketplace, but not necessarily through a formal business-development program. In 1998, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University founded Carnegie Learning, a publisher of middle school, high school, and postsecondary math curricula, based on 20 years of research at the university.
Other universities foster new companies by teaming with corporate sponsors that become investors or owners of technology developed at the schools. The MIT Media Lab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one such program that spun off education companies and nonprofit ventures.
Last year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched the Center for Education Products and Services to license and market intellectual property created by faculty members, according to its website. But those products are not independent of the university.
CaseNEX, an online professional-development tool, was founded at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.
Stanford is known for backing technology created at the university; many faculty members invest in student-driven products, most notably Google.
But Stanford's support of education technology companies consists mostly of advising students who have market-ready ideas on how to build a business, and putting them in touch with potential investors, faculty members said.
"We like to think of what we do in this program as planting a lot of seeds and seeing what grows, rather than, 'We are going to start a company,' " said Karin Forssell, the director of the learning, design, and technology program in Stanford's graduate school of education.
Master's projects from the school have gone on to become notable education companies, most recently Motion Math and Toontastic, both popular educational mobile applications for young students. But those companies operate independently of the university.
That's why the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities initiative is unusual: It spins off independent companies with direct investment dollars from the university.
Proceeds the university earns from its stake in a company will go first to covering its costs and then be split among the inventors, related departments, and university funds, Mr. Huebsch said.
Scott McConnell, who led the IGDIs research along with two other professors and two research associates, is also a shareholder in Early Learning Labs and will serve as a senior adviser. University alumni also invest in the company and are shareholders, Mr. Johnson said.
With or without actual investment from a university, there are pros and cons to starting a company under the umbrella of higher education.
To start, there is far more credibility for a product that is backed by lengthy, intensive research, like Early Learning Labs, Mr. Huebsch said. And such a product already has thousands of users.
"Sometimes you have to actually produce a customer base, and sometimes doing that while part of a university is easier than starting up a company in a garage," Mr. Huebsch said.
And as Mr. Pines, of the EIA, pointed out, universities are great environments for research and development.
"You already have faculty researchers in that environment that are doing the heavy lifting of product development," he said.
Early Learning Labs' first goal is to repackage the print materials into a more organized assessment tool and to beef up the reporting and tracking software. Eventually, the company will offer mobile applications, Mr. Johnson said.
Building those products with the intellectual capital of a university available, and with the patience that a university environment affords, is invaluable, Mr. Johnson said. Conversely, $100,000 isn't a large amount of actual capital.
"There's a lot of help you don't have to pay for, but there's not a lot of cash," Mr. Huebsch said.
Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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