July 29. 2017 6:38PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: NH startups have a thing or four to teach schools


Guests mingle prior to an education technology panel at SNHU's Sandbox ColLABorative in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

It may seem like health care has made the transition to the digital age when you see your doctor enter data about you into an iPad. But the industry is only two-thirds of the way there, says Jean Hammond, co-founder and partner at LearnLaunch.

Education, the field Hammond works in, is about 10 to 15 years behind health care, she says. That means opportunity abounds for the education technology startups that LearnLaunch nurtures at its accelerator campus in Boston.

On Thursday, Hammond visited Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester to moderate a panel discussion featuring four startups based in the Granite State, which also is becoming a breeding ground for edTech companies.

The entrepreneurs are trying to disrupt an industry that has long been resistant to change, layered with bureaucracy that makes selling all the more difficult. But change has come nonetheless. Printed textbooks are disappearing, and high school teachers spend their nights scouring online sites for lesson plans they can adapt for their classrooms, Hammond said.

SNHU, which has been using technology to make education more efficient and more affordable, has become an industry leader, using some of the profits it generates from its successful online degree programs to expand its flagship Hooksett campus and create programs like Sandbox CoLABorative, the research and development center on Elm Street that hosted Thursday's event.

"Obviously we are standing in one of the major disrupters in the world, and yet we also have a whole lot of universities that still run pretty similar to how they did 60 years ago," Hammond told a group of about 50 people. "So what we're seeing in many places is that the data is still in silos. We're in the stage of the digital transition in higher ed of trying to combine the silos to get deep views into what's going on."

The aim is to provide a better system for students to gain the skills they need to match their career goals and for businesses to have the workers they need for a rapidly evolving workplace that is growing more global every day.

Each of the young New Hampshire companies represented on the panel is trying to improve some aspect of the education field:

Awato - pronounced "a way to" - earned the top prize of $50,000 at 2016 TechOut competition organized by the New Hampshire High Tech Council and Alpha Loft. The Manchester company produces an online platform that gives a series of assessments to help its users choose a career path.

"The biggest problems colleges have right now are the same problems you guys hear about every day," CEO and founder Matt Guruge said. "People are afraid about automation. There are all these new jobs, and all these old jobs are disappearing. And we aren't aligning people correctly."

EDACS - which stands for education access and support - is a cloud-based application designed to help schools from kindergarten through college manage learning accommodations and increase retention for special education students. The company recently released the beta version of its application, which is built on salesforce.com, a popular business tool.

Angela Addison, co-founder of the Manchester-based company, said she built the platform five years ago for a private college and helped the school increase its retention rate among students with special needs. The company will be working with three schools this fall, she said. "For colleges, it's revenue," Addison said. "For K through 12, they have the same issues. And teachers are drowning," she said, adding that the average turnaround for a special education teacher is three years "because they are just set up to fail."

Pulse is a community-based survey platform designed to collect and share opinions within large organizations, starting with college campuses. The Hanover-based company - which like EDACS participated in the Alpha Loft's Accelerate NH incubator program this spring - was one of three companies awarded $100,000 in May from the The Millworks II venture fund.

CEO Terren Klein, who co-founded the company at Dartmouth College, said Pulse's survey platform has an active user base of 95 percent and that the surveys have an average 50 percent response rate. The platform Dartmouth had previously been using typically had a 6 percent response rate, he said.

"What's next for us is to expand to other colleges and high schools. And in the fall we plan to be on every Ivy League campus," Klein said.

uConnectwhich won the 2014 Techout competition, helps college graduates find entry-level jobs by expanding the use of on-campus career centers. The company has offices in Boston and Manchester.

CEO David Kozhuk, who founded the company in 2013, had been working for a small private equity firm in Boston. He was inspired to create uConnect after he tried to recruit students at his alma mater.

"When I got to campus only four students showed up to the information session. And I was literally handing out jobs in private equity at a state school amidst a recession or depression or whatever it was," Kozhuk said. "And students didn't know about the event. Very few showed up, and the few that showed up were unprepared."

He aimed to help schools improve their career programs to curb such scenarios by helping them maximize the use of data about local career resources and student success. The company is working with between 40 and 50 institutions, including SNHU, he said.

"We help schools unlock the value of both resources and information that live in the career center to impact the entire student life cycle," Kozhuk said.

And with the growing need to learn new skills to adapt to an ever-changing workplace, that life cycle could be a lifetime.

Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or mcote@unionleader.com.