Triangle Startup Weekend Unites Educators, Entrepreneurs

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Educators and entrepreneurs converged during the latest iteration of Triangle Startup Weekend in Raleigh, NC, to brainstorm and launch ideas aimed at solving problems in the K-12 system.

During the final hours of the event Feb. 22, 10 teams scrambled to finish demos of products designed to address issues such as student engagement, parent-teacher communication, and funding shortages. The winning team pitched Math !nFusion, an online program that would enable teachers to tutor students while learning how to better implement the Common Core State Standards math curriculum.

“Teachers are not prepared to teach CCSS math,” said Jere Confrey, the team’s leader and the Joseph D. Moore distinguished professor at North Carolina State University, where the event was held. “They have limited exposure to high-quality professional development, and they’re not paid enough to get it.”

Math !nfusion is centered on an online map Confrey and members of her team have designed to break down big ideas in middle-grade math and connect them to common core standards. Each section of the map’s interactive layout explains how students arrive to understand specific concepts.

“Taking an entrepreneurial perspective forces you to refocus your work and to try to understand the value of the concept you’re working on,” Confrey said.

Startup Weekend has been making the rounds in the Triangle since 2009, but the education theme inspired a larger number of ideas than usual. About half of the event’s 92 participants pitched concepts the first night.

“We had more pitches than average for a turnout of this size,” said Mital Patel, an attorney with Wyrick Robbins, a Raleigh-based entrepreneurial law firm, who helped organize the event. “That speaks to the quality of attendees we were able to attract.”

About a quarter of participants were educators. The first education-themed Triangle Startup Weekend, held in March 2013, didn’t attract as large of a teacher turnout.

“This one is bigger and better in the sense that we have a better ratio of educators who live and breathe these issues everyday to developers who aren’t as clued in,” Patel said.

After 54 hours of work, the teams assembled to pitch their products to a panel of judges on Sunday. Boosting classroom engagement proved a common theme among several proposals. Two sought to decrease apathy and inspire students by using video technology to connect them with professionals who could explain real-world applications of the knowledge.

Others focused on ways to enhance the classroom atmosphere and improve student performance. One proposed an online program that would help young high school students identify potential career paths based on their interests and acquire the skills necessary to be competitive in that job market. Another team called aBay, headed by 14-year-old Jake Marold, proposed an application that would partner with food and entertainment vendors to incentivize students to reach grade goals.

“It’s kind of a rewards app that parents use and companies put in stuff as donations,” Marold (pictured above) said. “I gained a lot of knowledge about being the leader of your own company and how stressful that is.”

The organizers decided to host a second education-themed weekend because Startup Weekend, the Seattle-based nonprofit that helps run the events in cities worldwide, identified a need for innovation in that sector, Patel said.

“Education as an institution hasn’t changed really at all for hundreds of years, but the world has changed a lot,” he said.

Several attendees felt the ideas pitched at the event could especially benefit teachers and schools in a state where budget cuts have decreased net spending on education.

“So many people are recognizing the impact of investing in K-12 at a time when the state has not been investing resources in it,” said Frank Pollock, a startup coach at the event and president of the Pioneer Group, a Durham-based consulting firm.

In recent years, Triangle Startup Weekend has grown in popularity and frequency—five events were held in the Raleigh-Durham area last year, up from one in 2010.

The increase mirrors the growth of the startup culture in the Raleigh-Durham area. In the years since the launch of Triangle Startup Weekend, the area’s incubators have expanded significantly. HQ Raleigh, home to more than 90 startups, is planning a location in Greensboro, and American Underground, which houses more than 200 startups in Raleigh and Durham, recently expanded one of its locations.

Two more Triangle Startup Weekends, focused on diversity and social impact, are planned for May and August of this year. Marold said he plans to attend both.

“I don’t care what the theme is,” he said. “I like the challenge of having to think of something that is outside your comfort zone. That is something entrepreneurs have to do all the time.”