As a University of Iowa dental student, Alec Whitters was frustrated by the cost and heft of the books and 1,600 paper flashcards he purchased to study for board exams.
Rather than live with the inconvenience, Whitters took matters into his own hands. He created a mobile study app to make studying more efficient, engaging, and economical.
Whitters ended up dropping out of dental school, but he is now the President and CEO of his company, Higher Learning Technologies, which is quickly becoming one of the most talked about new startups in the country.
In addition to creating an app for dental exams, Whitters and his friends and fellow UI students Ben O’Connor, who graduated from nursing school in 2009, and Adam Keune, who graduated from business school with an entrepreneurial management certificate in 2010,created a nursing study app that quickly took off and eventually became the top-grossing educational app in both the Apple iStore and Google Play Store with more than 400,000 downloads. Today, the company has six study apps available for download.
Because of its innovative work, Higher Learning Technologies was named New Startup of the Year, Innovation of the Year, and Mobile App of the Year in August 2013, and it was the recipient of a $100,000 Iowa Demonstration Fund in July 2013.
The company is located at the UI Research Park but has recently moved from its office at the Technology Innovation Center to the BioVentures Center to have more space as they look to hire 30 new employees in the next year. At the BioVentures Center, they have two large rooms, one with two- to three-person offices and one large room with many cubicles, or pods.
“We’re very much about integration and collaboration,” Keune said. “We want people bumping into each other and running into each other all the time. That’s where the best ideas come from.”
New ideas are important to Higher Learning, especially ones that can help in the company’s longterm goal of modernizing education.
“The books and paper being used in the ‘60s and ‘70s are still dominating education, and with the technology available today, we know that there are better ways to learn,” Keune said.
Higher Learning Technology’s apps focus on making learning more convenient and interactive. Rather than holing up in the library for hours, students can run through practice questions before they go to bed, while they’re in line for lunch, or waiting for the bus. They don’t need to lug around books for every subject.
Additionally, the apps allow students to categorize questions after seeing the answers as something they knew, somewhat knew, or didn’t know. Then when going through questions again, they can select only the ones they need to practice. There is also a feedback form letting students interact with an expert at the company quickly if there is something they don’t understand. Higher Learning is working on implementing a live chat into the app as well.
With grants and funds from the UI Research Park, the app has come a long way from its first release of the dental app, which was a rough design created by a freelance software team.
“A thousand dollars here and a thousand dollars there doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re a young company, it adds up,” Keune said.
Keune said locating at the Research Park was pivotal to the success of the company, and the business partners have benefited hugely from the vast pool of available university resources.
“They’re always asking us, ‘How can we make this better?’” Keune said. “They are the exact replica of what the university wants to stand for when it comes to startups—‘What can we do? How can we help? Please let us know.’”
Last year Higher Learning raised a million dollar investment round and has worked with Componica, another company at the Research Park, as well as Josh Cramer and his web and mobile app development company Fullstack to create a better polished, higher functioning app.
The company has also worked with university faculty member Richard Ferguson, chairman of ACT from 1988-2010, to ensure that the apps’ content contains all the information students need to succeed.
“You use our app, you’re going to pass. You’re going to increase your test scores,” Keune said.
The Higher Learning team is committed to more than its own success. It also has a strong dedication to creating an entrepreneurial culture in the Iowa City/Corridor area.
“We’re really busy with a growing company, but at the same time, we also take pride in giving back. We want to help as many people as we can,” Keune said. “We want to give back at least as much as the community’s given us.”
With this goal, Higher Learning’s partners have participated in 1 Million Cups Talks and have interacted with countless students, offering to serve as mentors.
“We try to provide as much guidance as we can,” Keune said. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes and can help other people not make those same mistakes.”
Higher Learning also worked with the Iowa Accelerator in Cedar Rapids in August by speaking to teams about raising money, hiring people, and the benefits of starting a company in Iowa.
The team is not only interested in helping individuals start companies but in rethinking the workplace and helping their own employees be as innovative and interested in their work as possible.
“We want them to grow, to learn,” Keune said. “We’re an education company, so we put a high priority on learning. Not only growing the company but growing as individuals. We want to create the Google of Iowa.”
The University of Iowa Research Park is part of the UI Office of Research and Economic Development, which supports and advances research, scholarship, and creative activity on the campus. Through a broad variety of activities and services, it seeks to play an important role in the underpinning of these creative activities in the public and private sectors of Iowa and beyond.
By Anne Easker