Educational Entrepreneurship: Nurturing Innovation for the Classroom and Beyond

It seems that interested parties from every corner are calling for innovation in the US classroom. From the Department of Education’s i3 program to the Foundation Registry to companies announcing their own innovation programs, there are plenty of government, public, and private organizations willing to fund new ideas for the classroom. In addition to money, though, developers of educational products also need to understand the intricacies of the sales market, government regulations, purchasing systems, state standards, etc. Where can someone new to the industry learn about the business of education so that they can bring sustainable innovation to fruition? Doug Lynch, Vice Dean of Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and a speaker at AEP’s 2010 CEO Roundtable, is trying to create a network where innovators, distributors, funders, and members of the education community can come together and develop the next generation of educational resources.

Lynch spent the first twenty years of his life as an economist working on the “people problem.” Wherever he went and whomever he studied, from mining to higher ed to the CIA, the answer was always education. As one of the biggest differences between the haves and have-nots, education remained a focal point for Lynch, and he began to examine the wide variances in education from place to place.

“Education is almost the perfect good,” says Lynch. “It can change kids’ and parents’ lives, bring together a neighborhood, and raise the tax base for the community at large. And we know what to do–yet, we don’t. I kept asking myself why is it so hard?”

Hired by the University of Pennsylvania to explore innovation in education, Lynch started teaching an entrepreneurship course. During the class, students would develop ideas and pitch them to representatives of public and private funding organizations. Invariably, at least one idea would be bought by the end of the workshop. That led him to hold his first summit on education entrepreneurship in 2009. Attended by members of both the public and private sector, the summit was a place for these representatives to get together and discuss the challenges they faced finding new ideas and getting them into schools.

“It bothers me that given the amount of money spent on education, there are so many barriers to entering the market,” said Lynch. “Between the regulatory environment, the politics, and the short tenure of anyone who can make purchasing decisions, it’s even worse than selling to the military.”

More importantly, though, when Lynch asked workshop attendees where they go to see new ideas, they responded, “Nowhere.” Lynch saw the need for a Silicon Valley for education, a place where people can foster their ideas while receiving support and training to succeed in the business world.

“In biotech, telecomm, and other industries, there are steps in place to help you bring your product to market from research funding to clinical trials. The education market, in contrast, offers no similar pathway,” observed Lynch.

The first step was to create a business plan competition, funded by Penn and the Milken Family Foundation, to promote entrepreneurship in the education sector by asking for entrants form “every conceivable educational setting – from early childhood through corporate/adult training, in settings and contexts anywhere in the world.” No extreme marketing was needed to get entrants; people were looking for a place to showcase their ideas. First prize went to Digital Proctor, a program to identify typists through keystroke biometrics to help identify test fraud.

Now, Lynch is getting ready to launch NEST (Networking Ed entrepreneurs for Social Transformation), which aims to be a continuing program of networking, professional development, and incubating for education innovation. He is hoping for a more elegant solution than just giving money to NEST participants. His goal is a real information exchange where experienced educational publishing, business, and funding professionals offer their insights while product developers showcase their innovate ideas.

“I think it’s an appropriate role for a university to catalyze this market,” said Lynch. “We can bring together all of the players–distributors, money people, marketing experts, developers–and create a real place for ideas to grow and develop into full-fledged products ready for use.”

Learn more about the 2010 AEP CEO Roundtable.

Get more information on The Second Annual Milken-PennGSE business plan competition.

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1 Response to “Educational Entrepreneurship: Nurturing Innovation for the Classroom and Beyond”



  1. 1 Industry Powerhouses on Display at 2011 Content in Context « Educational Publishing Trackback on May 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm

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