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Education Startup Competition Sees Trends in Project-Based Learning and Products for Niche Audiences


Digital tools powered by artificial intelligence, products aimed at special student populations and a focus on project-based learning were the latest trends among the entrants in the University of Pennsylvania’s business plan competition for education startups.

Marking its 10th anniversary, the Milken-Penn Graduate School of Education competition award gave out over $140,000 in prizes this week to startup contestants. The competition has had over 125 finalists and 50 prize winners in the last decade, awarding $1.2 million in prize money.

This year Social Cipher, a Los Angeles-based video game studio that is developing a game for neurodiverse students, particularly those with autism, won the grand prize of $40,000 and $25,000 in Amazon Web Service credits. 

The game is designed to provide users with the opportunity to learn and apply social skills and practice social interaction through role-playing, said co-founder Vanessa Gill. In the space pirate adventure game Ava, users follow the path of an autistic girl through outer space as she goes on a mission searching for her missing brother.

Gill was diagnosed with autism when she was 14 and kept it a secret. “I hid my diagnosis for six years and I suffered from low self-esteem,” she said. “I didn’t want people to treat me differently or badly.”

Gill’s mother helped her learn social skills and improve her social interactions by using music, movies and turning Gill’s efforts into a game. Some of that sparked the idea for Ava, Gill said. The prize money from the Milken-Penn competition will go to the continued development of the digital game, which is set to launch in the summer of 2020, she said.

New Wave of Startups

Over the past decade, over 2,000 entrepreneurs have applied to the Education Business Plan Competition, from over 50 countries. Previous winners and finalists have also raised an additional $140 million since competing, according to contest officials.

Michael Golden, the executive director and senior fellow for Catalyst@Penn GSE, the school’s center for innovation, said he’s seen some new and continuing trends among entrants to the contest this year. Many of the ed-tech startup solutions tend toward mobile apps and include cloud computing aspects or are focused on how to harness data and share it in new ways, he said. The use of artificial intelligence and adaptive learning is also more prevalent.

Social Cipher is an example of a new wave of ed-tech companies with products designed to reach students with specific challenges. “Entrepreneurs are recognizing great potential in niche audiences and in satisfying those audiences,” Golden said.

In addition, Golden said education companies with a focus on project-based learning were more represented among contest entries this year. eCLOSE, a Philadelphia company providing biomedical research training to students and teachers and which connects students to scientists and real-world science projects, won two prizes totaling $40,000.

Golden’s also noting more diverse founder teams and more female-founded and led companies. All of the competitions’ winners this year are companies with female founders and last year four of the five prize-winners were led by women, Golden said.

All finalists in the contest received $1,000 in cash and $5,000 in Amazon Web Services promotional credits.

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