DURHAM – When Joel Nkounkou was a student at the University of New Hampshire he was searching for a PDF version of a textbook he needed when he came up with the idea for ecoText.
“The idea of ecoText was birthed on a random night junior year,” Nkounkou said. “I had a friend of mine, who every semester, I gave him a list of my textbooks and said, ‘Do your magic. Find the PDF version of this textbook so I don’t have to pay anything.’ I think I was going through that exercise with him, and there was one engineering book that we couldn’t find.”
Nkounkou said that $300 book felt like $3 million at the time.
The electrical and electronics engineering student from Dover said he started thinking about how people used to buy CDs for music and now download only the songs they want for less than a dollar. So he sought out advice about starting his own website where college students could get the books they need for all of their classes online.
With the help of mentor Ian Grant, who is the executive director of the Peter T. Paul Entrepreneurship Center, Nkounkou came up with a viable business model.
“He opened up that world and really provided a deeper perspective on how businesses grow,” Nkounkou said. “We ended up traveling. We went to these pitch competitions to maybe win some money and network.”
Grant said Nkounkou won UNH’s first Maurice Prize and $5,000 in 2018 for his idea. He also competed in the Startup Shindig in Manchester this May.
Dylan Wheeler, who founded his own software company in high school, helped Nkounkou finish the development of ecoText, and they are in live beta use now. Their current product, which has 50,000 books in digital form, took a year to develop.
Nkounkou’s team also includes Hans Massie, Sam Werman, Evan Shaw and Nelson Thomas. Thomas is ecoText’s chief marketing officer, and the UNH football player met Nkounkou, who ran track in college, through athletics.
Nkounkou and Thomas said students are more stressed about affording books for college than many people realize because it is an out-of-pocket cost that averages over $1,200 a year.
“The biggest question from students is, ‘What is going to be the biggest beneficial aspect for me?’ and the most beneficial aspect is we are going to be embedded into tuition costs, and it eliminates the out of pocket costs for them,” Thomas said.
The price is another benefit. Textbooks for a year using ecoText costs between $400 and $500.
Nkounkou said only 20 percent of college students buy new textbooks and that 30 percent don’t buy textbooks at all, so publishers know that selling a digital version of their books to ecoText brings in revenue they would not otherwise see.
Nkounkou said they had 40 students sign up for ecoText within a week at the beginning of UNH’s fall semester. He hopes to grow that number to 1,000 by the middle of the semester.
Nkounkou said ecoText can be used by students at any college, and he hopes to work with more schools to make sure the company is offering the textbooks being used at their institutions.