Education Accelerator: A Conversation with Dean Pianta

The Curry School Foundation has been leading an effort to create an Education Accelerator in Charlottesville, VA.  The idea was birthed out of the innovative climate at the Curry School.  To explain more about the Accelerator, we interviewed Dean of the Curry School Bob Pianta, who has been an inspiring part of the project.

What is the Accelerator idea and why do we need it?

Policy makers, education leaders and practitioners, and education reformers all agree—the future success of education hinges on our nation’s capacity for designing, implementing, and scaling innovative and effective solutions (e.g., tools, technology, and training models) that are useful to those in the field.  Over the past decade, an unprecedented federal investment in education research and development has created a supply of promising solutions.  However, third-party estimates suggest that fewer than 10% of the promising solutions coming out of university-based research have moved to scale or been adopted in policy.  I believe that too many potential helpful tools and resources languish on the sidelines while the pace of change stagnates.

The Accelerator is a response to the field’s needs and demands for education innovation and will provide a market-oriented portal for linking solutions with capital, partnerships, and organizational capacity to move to scale.  One of the biggest challenges to almost any proven-effective tool or resource coming out of university-based research is getting to scale with high-fidelity implementation.  The Accelerator will become a, locus for innovative partnerships and market-driven, proven-effective solutions dedicated to implementing with fidelity.

How did this idea come about?

The Curry School Foundation Board starting talking about developing an education incubator more than two years ago. The Board discussed the role of a research university in vetting products and services and extending its outreach to help develop and nurture education technology that will improve education outcomes for children and support for the educators who serve them.  The board saw tremendous promise and opportunity in the concept of an incubator.

The board also wanted to support Curry faculty who have successfully developed promising solutions but who struggle to get them to the field at scale.  They  saw great potential for Curry’s innovative faculty members who have developed a range of products, proven by research to improve instruction and learning, yet these products rarely make it to market because we lack a vehicle for business development in the education sector. The University has been supportive of the general trend toward commercialization of innovations, but was focused primarily on other sectors.

The Board worked closely with the UVA Innovation Office, venture capital and business leaders and educators, to develop our accelerator model. Ultimately, the Foundation Board decided that a community-based accelerator established outside of the Curry School of Education and the University of Virginia would provide the most market-responsive model for incubating and accelerating education companies. This model would be a bold move for a University-affiliated Foundation, but also had the most promise in terms of attracting investors who understood and supported the mission to deliver research-based innovation to educators in the field. Though established outside of the Curry School, we plan to build a strong partnership with a number of connections between the accelerator and Curry faculty and students.  The concept and plans have garnered tremendous support and enthusiasm from people across the education sector.

Just for clarification, can you explain the relationship between the Curry School and the Accelerator?

Sure, its very clear.  Plans for the Accelerator were developed by a range of stakeholders, including faculty members from the Curry School of Education, the Curry Foundation Board, several preK-12 organizations, venture capital investors, education reform leaders, start-up founders (in education and other sectors), and business leaders. The Accelerator will operate as an independent for-profit company owned by investors, including a minority share ownership by the Curry School of Education Foundation. The association of the Accelerator with the Curry School provides unique value to companies in terms of expertise, implementation, and evaluation.  This affiliation can create opportunities for research and evaluation for students and faculty members who can also provide expertise and add rigor to the vetting of potential innovations and plans being proposed to enter the Accelerator.

If the Accelerator is external from the Curry School, why does having a partnership with the School matter?  Why here?

The Curry School is a leading school of education known nationally for its impact on policy, classroom practice, and technological innovations. Curry has already seeded other successful education start-ups including CaseNEX, PALS, and Teachstone.  As such, its been involved in innovation and tech transfer for some time.  We have some experience with this that can be helpful to the field and to bringing innovation to scale.

The University of Virginia, one of the United States’ preeminent institutions of higher education and centers of activity dedicated to promoting education change and improvement.  U.Va. has hosted two major Presidential Summits on Education, and its Jeffersonian founding predicated on the spread of practical knowledge makes it an ideal location for the Accelerator.

The Accelerator will attract Curry and U.Va.’s varied and deep resources, including faculty and students in many academic disciplines such as education, business, engineering, and various arts and sciences.

Charlottesville and the region are nationally recognized for quality of life, and the area is increasingly becoming a center for a variety of entrepreneurial activities, including bio-tech, with a notable capacity to draw on an influx of people from other regions. The Accelerator will also leverage its proximity to Washington D.C. and the policy makers, technology, and economic resources in the region.

Perhaps most importantly, the activities and people working in the Accelerator are resources for Curry and UVA students and faculty.  I expect that the mentors working with early stage companies in the Accelerator, or Accelerator staff will be guest lecturing in Curry courses or even teaching courses of their own.  Our students and faculty can take advantage of the seminars and work being done in the Accelerator to advance their own expertise or experience.

What is your hope for the Accelerator?

Our hope is that the accelerator will be a world-class resource for educators, not only in the US but across the world.  We also hope it will continue to advance the Curry School’s reputation as a leading school of education, helping to attract the best students and faculty and drawing talent to Charlottesville.  We intend it to scale education products and services that truly help make improve the opportunities and outcomes for children in public education. Through the Accelerator, we also aim to demonstrate the value of research in the development and evaluation of products for the education sector.

Where do things stand now?

We have formed an LLC and have launched a search for a CEO to lead the Accelerator. We are gathering feedback from various sectors and soliciting philanthropic contributions to help develop the accelerator and fund seed costs. Once the CEO is in place, co-investors will be invited to the Accelerator.