GSE's design studio nurtures innovation in education

Innovation @ Penn GSE is a space within the University’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) where theory and practice from a variety of fields and disciplines come together to drive meaningful, positive educational change.

Led by Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, a senior fellow and executive director of academic innovation at GSE, the cluster offers several entrepreneurial programs and projects that focus on innovation in education, including a master’s degree in education entrepreneurship, the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, and the Education Design Studio, Inc. (EDSi) in collaboration with GSE.

Launched in September of 2013, EDSi is a $2.1 million hybrid incubator/seed fund designed to nurture the new ecosystem around innovation in education, and bring together investors, researchers, practitioners, teachers, and entrepreneurs to support “edtech” startups and connect them with education research.

The EDSi model takes research into practice by blending the best components of an incubator, design studio, seed fund, and social impact company, and leveraging the world-class faculty at the Graduate School of Education. Its work is grounded in the practical research produced by GSE faculty, and enhanced by local, national, and international partnerships with technologists, K-12 educators, investors, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Kurshan, who has been involved with education and technology for more than 35 years, says EDSi was founded as a way to take research to practice by engaging entrepreneurs in education.

“I believe that great teachers at any level are great entrepreneurs,” she says. “They have a lot of the same characteristics.”

EDSi’s collaboration with GSE makes it unique.

“We work in collaboration with groups of people that usually don’t collaborate,” Kurshan says. “Investors are not used to engaging with academics, and academics are not used to engaging with entrepreneurs.”

EDSi builds upon the success of the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition (BPC) by extending invitations to select BPC participants for its six-month Design Studio program. Fellows accepted into the program are provided with seed funding, legal and accounting advice, technology support, marketing and sales mentoring, and access to extensive research and Penn expertise.

Now in its second year, EDSi has tripled its cohort of companies, tackling educational issues ranging from more effective teacher training to adaptive vocabulary learning systems.

Nine early-stage edtech startups have signed on for support and incubation through EDSi, including 21st Century Brilliance, a Philadelphia-based educational mobile application software company; 321 eLearning, a Texas-based company that creates content to support the down syndrome community; Propagate, a California-based company that turns digital texts into customized word learning experiences; and Ubongo, a social enterprise based in Tanzania that creates interactive “edutainment” for learners in Africa.

The cohort will be an anchor tenant at Oxford Mills, an education-focused housing and business hub in South Kensington. Entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to travel domestically and, in some instances, abroad to learn from experts, and explore the global investment community and marketplace.

Three startups in last year’s EDSi cohort have grown significantly in revenue, investment, and customers.

Kurshan says EDSi is working very closely with the Penn Center for Innovation, and recently partnered with Toronto-based MaRS Discovery District, one of the world’s largest innovation hubs, to create a unique “edupreneurship” program, which combines in-person and online learning.

Venture capitalists have been spending millions of dollars investing in education. Kurshan says they have seen the potential of innovation in education, and are looking for ways to invest.

“Our secret sauce is the fact that we’re connecting the research to practice,” she says.