Philly education startups talk expansion after GSE competition win

The DP sat down with Osmosis' and ProfessorWords' founders

· May 21, 2014, 8:17 am   ·  Updated May 22, 2014, 4:22 pm

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Education startups Osmosis and ProfessorWord, both based in Philadelphia, recently won awards at the 2014 Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, a top education competition in the country.

Osmosis is a smartphone app designed for medical school students looking to improve their grades and MCAT scores. ProfessorWord teaches vocabulary by highlighting SAT and ACT words encountered on sites through one’s normal Internet browsing.

The Daily Pennsylvanian talked separately to Shiv Gaglani, co-founder of Osmosis, and 2014 Wharton MBA graduate Betty Hsu, co-founder of ProfessorWord, about their companies’ origins and future goals.

Daily Pennsylvanian: How did your company become involved in and decide to enter this competition?

Shiv Gaglani (Osmosis): If you’re involved in education technology, you’ve probably heard of the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition. It’s one of the most prestigious education competitions and has been on our radar for the last two years. One of our mentors encouraged us to apply after we graduated from the Philadelphia-based tech incubator DreamIt Ventures, and we’ve been extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to do so successfully. The award money was of course a huge bonus, though we found the network of people the competition attracted to be even more of a draw. In less than 24 hours, we met at least a dozen potential business partners, mentors and investors.

Betty Hsu (ProfessorWord): We wanted to enter because we knew that the Milken-Penn GSE competition offered us the opportunity to meet other education entrepreneurs, get feedback and advice on our plan from industry leaders, and the chance to compete for substantial prize money.

DP: What do you see as the main purpose and the future potential for growth in terms of your company’s business model?

SG: As medical students we’ve been developing Osmosis to be as useful to our colleagues as possible. The vertical of medical education is a great field because, if you think about it, a doctor begins her training as a freshman in college biology and only finishes at retirement. Medicine is the archetype of lifelong learning because the knowledge base is vast, dynamic and high-stakes. Thus, we ideally will be a useful solution to students before and beyond medical school, as well as to our colleagues in related professions (nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, etc.).

BH: ProfessorWord helps students learn vocabulary as they read online. A major challenge right now is that students aren’t reading enough, mostly because they’re tired of being assigned things to read that aren’t relevant to their lives. And because they don’t read enough, they don’t develop the vocabulary that they need to succeed in school and beyond … We curate interesting articles from top-quality websites (like CNN and Slate) to create personalized reading programs for students that can be customized based on their reading level, vocabulary needs and interests.

We also offer tools to help students learn words in context as they read. For example, students can see vocabulary words highlighted in the article they are reading and click any word to get its definition. They’ll also be able to save words to create personalized study materials and practice problems. We think that ProfessorWord has broad applications and can be used to serve a variety of vocabulary needs — including SAT/ACT test takers, middle school students, English learners in the United States  and abroad, struggling readers and adult learners.

But our first product will be focused on the SAT/ACT. We're offering a free SAT/ACT Summer Reading Challenge — it’s designed to complement the traditional reading lists that many high school teachers assign. Every day, we’ll send students one to two interesting articles to read that we’ve curated from top websites. Over six weeks, they’ll be exposed to the top 100 SAT/ACT vocabulary words multiple times in multiple contexts to ensure that they really learn them. It’s a lot more fun than memorizing flashcards, and it’s a lot more effective too!

DP: How was such a unique idea conceived?

SG: [Co-founder] Ryan [Haynes] and I developed the idea as medical students at Johns Hopkins based on personal experiences trying to learn and retain information more efficiently. We combined our experiences and backgrounds in neuroscience, education and computer science to develop Osmosis first as a personal solution and then as a scalable concept.

BH: ProfessorWord was inspired by our own experiences studying for the SAT, GRE and GMAT as well as our childhood experiences helping our immigrant parents learn English.

DP: What will you use the awarded money for?

SG: The award money will catalyze our development process so that we can reach our goals starting with the field of medicine, in which we already have 10,000 users, and hopefully beyond. For example, the APUS award was for a solution for adult and lifelong learning, which is a strong component of Osmosis given our mobile app that incorporates behavior theory and cognitive neuroscience.

BH: The prize money will help us accelerate our product development. We plan to launch our first vocabulary reading program targeted at SAT/ACT test takers this fall.

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