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February 01. 2014 1:09AM

ApplyKit is a startup that makes the grade


Bobby Touran, founder of ApplyKit.com, a Web-based service designed to better prepare high school students for admission to the college or university of their choice, recently made a presentation about his company for education officials in Washington, D.C. (COURTESY)

MANCHESTER - With a college-professor father and a schoolteacher mother, it's no surprise that Bobby Touran ended up as founder of ApplyKit.com, a Web-based service designed to better prepare high school students for admission to the college or university of their choice.

ApplyKit helps students identify the academic gap between where they stand in terms of GPA, extracurriculars and other qualifying factors versus where they need to be to gain admission to their top-choice schools. It's free to the students, until they decide to take advantage of the tutoring or other services offered on the site.

"We've partnered with the premier solution providers in test preparation, tutoring, athletic recruitment and more, to present students with tailored solutions at exclusive prices," said Touran. "Thousands of students around the world have already used ApplyKit to identify relevant colleges, manage their college applications and get into their target schools."

Based out of the abi Innovation Hub on Elm Street, ApplyKit caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education and was invited to present at "Education Datapalooza" on Jan. 15 in Washington, D.C.

The event, an offshoot of "Health Datapalooza," is intended to encourage nonprofit and for-profit organizations in the college admissions business to leverage government-owned data to improve their effectiveness.

ApplyKit was selected, in particular, because of the company's commitment to integrating data from the National Center for Education Statistics in its school profiles.

Visit to the White House

Touran and his marketing coordinator, Steve Messa, demonstrated ApplyKit for policymakers, education professionals and VIPs, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Touran and Messa were later invited to attend a special networking event at the White House.

The site went live last August and began aggressive marketing in the fall. Since then, Touran said, more than 13,000 students have used the service, with 10 to 15 percent coming from overseas.

"It's not strictly for students," he said. "The system is tailored to allow students to bring together all the collaborators on their admission process."

Parents or guidance counselors, once entered as collaborators, will get emails with regular updates on the process. Students are required to provide parental email addresses and give approval for sending offers by ApplyKit partners to those emails.

Partners include tutor.com, benchprep.com, revolutionprep.com and collegeprowler.com, among others.

The service targets students in their junior year or early senior year of high school and enables completion of the common online application for 500 of the most popular post-secondary schools in the nation, at commonapp.org.

"Our platform also allows students to submit to commonapp without leaving applykit.com," said Touran.

Startup ecosystem

The story of ApplyKit, which came from nowhere to a White House invitation in six months, is a reflection of Manchester's growing startup ecosystem.

Touran met Tom "T.K." Kuegler, co-founder and general partner of Wasabi Ventures, in 2011 at a Boston event focused on startups.

The venture capital firm specializes in early stage technology companies and operates with offices in Manchester, Baltimore, and the Ukraine, with global headquarters in San Mateo, Calif.

Wasabi, and Kuegler in particular, have been very active in the New Hampshire startup scene, along with people like Jeremy Hitchcock, a co-founder of Dyn and himself an investor in ApplyKit.

In the last 10 years, Wasabi has built, financed and advised more than 200 startups, including successful ventures such as Right Now Technologies, PBworks, Ustream and Etherpad.

"T.K was telling me about the startup activity in New Hampshire, and I became very interested in the scene up there. I thought it was very exciting and just beginning to take off," Touran said.

Having just sold an e-commerce startup, Touran became a venture partner at Wasabi, focused on startups that were based on e-commerce or education technology.

"I had grown up around education and was interested in the industry, so I proposed to T.K. the idea of starting a business that would help people with the college application process, which seemed like a big opportunity to me since it sat at the crossroads of consumer Internet and education."

Changing hats

Touran changed hats, became an entrepreneur in residence at Wasabi, and began early research on the project, which included field tests with students from Campbell High School in Litchfield.

He now splits his time between an office in Boston and company headquarters at the abi Innovation Hub, where in addition to the marketing director, the company now includes two full-time software engineers, Kuegler as lead adviser, and "a series of advisers and investors," according to Touran.

Believes in team

The young entrepreneur believes he and Kuegler have put together a team that will help students navigate a college application process that can involve more than 100 different documents.

"The human element is essential to what we do," he said. "It is not exclusively online. We have a customer support center where we offer a 30-minute consultation session for free with one of our ApplyKit college advisers."

Touran said he hopes ApplyKit will help address what he called a crisis in counseling for high school students.

While wealthier families can afford private consultants to guide their children through the last two years of high school and toward that prestigious degree, most students have no such advantage.

"A common misconception among Americans is that students have guidance counselors and they play a big role," Touran said. "Actually, the national average is 500 students per counselor, and in four years, the average U.S. high school student at a public school will spend no more than 30 minutes total with a guidance counselor."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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