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AzTech: CourseKey

by Neal Bloom

By Sandy Athniel

In early 2015, Luke Sophinos, a student at San Diego State University (SDSU) at the time, decided he wanted to help improve the education system. So, he set out to create a tablet device made solely for academic test-taking. He then evolved his idea to become what is known today as CourseKey, a learning intelligence platform that enables post-secondary institutions to automatically capture attendance, distribute assessments, and enable learners to access digital textbooks. Through that data capture, real-time enterprise-wide learning analytics are available via dashboards to key stakeholders within the institution, enabling them to boost retention, maintain compliance, and improve efficiency.

By August 2015, Sophinos had assembled a team of students and professionals to develop and launch the CourseKey app. The team initially had a test-run in two SDSU classrooms and increased their usage on campus before expanding to other universities. Professors who choose to use CourseKey have their students download the app and, depending on the pricing model, either the students pay for the service or their institution covers the fees. The platform has been proven to lift student retention, making it an excellent addition to any post-secondary classroom. Today, CourseKey is used by tens of thousands of students at more than 50 campuses throughout the country.

We chatted with Sophinos and his co-founder Ryan Vanshur about their experience being Aztec entrepreneurs and the strong foundation they were able to build for their business while at SDSU.

Year Founded: 2015

Technology: Learning Intelligence Platform for post-secondary education

Team: Luke Sophinos, Ryan Vanshur, Fadee Kannah, Tom Hartman & Marc Barron

Headcount: 17 full-time employees.

The website states, “we’re a young and mighty team made up of nerds, artists, entrepreneurs, dads, dancers, and builders. With more than a little bit of ‘save the world’ attitude, we’re just as obsessed with helping make sure your students cross the finish line as you are.” Founder and CEO Sophinos adds, “A lot of people work very hard to make this happen.”

Headquarters: Downtown San Diego

Funds Raised: Undisclosed amount by VCs and angel investors, including Steve Altman (former president of Qualcomm), Ingram Content Group, Larry Rosenberger (Former CEO of FICO) Bisk Ventures, and Tech Coast Angels

Tech for Teaching: CourseKey automates the tracking of attendance and ensures data accuracy through a suite of location-based methods. With this technology, instructors can keep track of students who not only show up to class, but who also stay for the entire lecture. Another innovative feature of CourseKey is the ability to deliver tests, quizzes, homework and the like directly to students’ devices, allowing for a paperless assessment process and auto-grading functionality. Additionally, student communication channels connect students to their classmates and enable them to ask questions from their own devices. Through CourseKey Analytics, institutions can measure real-time learning at scale, as well as identify students who may be at risk, which would give them time to intervene and improve retention. The analytical tools also enable stakeholders to view attendance, assessment, or social insights at a class, campus, or institution level.

Local professor Tanya Hertz has been using the platform regularly for over two years. “CourseKey has really been a valuable tool in the business classes I teach at SDSU and Miramar College,” she says. “I use CourseKey in every class I teach to take attendance and administer in-class quizzes.” She finds it especially helpful as “a tool to measure students’ learning in real time, allowing me to intervene immediately when I notice that students did not fully understand the material. I typically send out several in-class quizzes during the course of a class period and then gauge how well students understood the material based on their scores.”

In comparison to an old-fashioned classroom, Hertz says, “Having that immediate feedback is so useful to a professor; in the past we could only ask open-ended questions to measure learning and that has its limitations,” citing that students who raise their hand in class “may not be representative of the average student. (CourseKey) allows us to not only measure learning from a few students who are willing to speak up in class, but all students.”

Aztec Resources: During his time at SDSU, Sophinos utilized the university’s entrepreneurial resources, noting, “San Diego State’s an awesome place for it.” The young entrepreneur started out with the Lavin [Entrepreneurship] Program on campus, which is part of the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center. The two-year program engages a select group of talented undergrads for an experience designed to prepare them for an entrepreneurial career. Participants are also given the chance to network with and receive guidance from industry experts, faculty, mentors, and Lavin Entrepreneurship Center staff to fuel their careers.

Shortly after entering the Lavin Entrepreneurship Program, Sophinos went on to join SDSU’s ZIP Launchpad (formerly Zahn Center), where he and his team launched CourseKey and worked on increasing its use on campus. The ZIP Launchpad helps SDSU students, faculty, and staff launch a startup from their early stage idea, providing vital resources like a prototype lab, legal assistance, mentorship, and funding. Things have come full circle, as Sophinos now serves on the ZIP Launchpad Advisory Board.

As a student, Sophinos felt inspired by guest speakers who would share their entrepreneurial experiences at SDSU events. He often attended those events to learn about what those entrepreneurs were working on and how they scaled their businesses. “That often inspired me to start something,” he says.

Facebook Friends: Vanshur and Sophinos met the way many millennials do these days – the internet. “I saw a random post in a Facebook group for the SDSU Entrepreneur Society from Luke asking if anyone was looking to help work on a project he had that was accepted into the [ZIP Launchpad],” Vanshur says. “I was just getting back on my feet from a battle with cancer and a really tough chemotherapy program over the previous two years while I was attending SDSU. At that point I was living on less than $1,000 a month with the help of disability payments and scholarships, so I figured I was already living the whole ‘broke entrepreneur lifestyle’ and could take a risk on spending a few more months trying to take a shot at CourseKey. I really didn’t have much to lose,” he says.

Vanshur ended up getting a lot more out of the opportunity than he had anticipated. “Initially, I figured I would get a really cool title and a few bullets on my resume saying I helped co-found a startup, but once we started working together, I knew Luke was a guy with a vision.”

Next Steps: Sophinos dropped out of SDSU just two units short of graduating in 2016 to join the Thiel Fellowship, a program founded by Peter Thiel, a former co-founder of PayPal. The fellowship awards roughly twenty students per year a $100K grant and access to the foundation’s network of inventors, entrepreneurs and scientists. CourseKey was then accepted into La Jolla-based startup incubator EvoNexus. The incubator has notable partners like Viasat and Qualcomm, as well as successful startup stories under its belt, including ecoATM and Cypher Genomics.

Mentor Medley: When it comes to mentorships, Sophinos strongly believes that they help entrepreneurs get to the next level. The CEO shares, “formal or informal, as long as you’re gaining value from consistent interactions, that to me is a great mentorship.”

Sophinos is “constantly working with a lot of our investors that are or were successful entrepreneurs or operators.” They way he sees it, “you can even have mentors you don’t actually know. You make a habit of consistently consuming their online content and learning from them. I have a bunch of people like that who I try to absorb everything they’re putting out there and just try to understand and learn from their thoughts and overall view of the world.”

Young and Unafraid: Being a young entrepreneur can bring about challenges for some, but Sophinos recalls his biggest challenge being to ensure that his business had the right talent at the right time and making sure the company was moving in the right direction. “I don’t think it was necessarily attributed to age. I think early on, when I was starting, obviously that was a lot of people’s first question, but as we’ve grown and matured, you just work your tail off and try to do everything you can for the team and I think people start to look past age pretty quickly.”

Words of Wisdom: Sophinos has learned a great deal from starting his business as a student and advises others on the same path that “it’s not easy and if you want to build a company, you just have to be relentless about it. Too often, we get these soundbites of ‘five-hour work week’ or ‘overnight successes,’ but I strongly believe positive outcomes are built through a lot of hard work, early mornings and late nights, compounded over time.” He adds that patience and perseverance are key, as “it’s not typically something that happens as fast as you’d expect it to.”

San Diego Scene: Sophinos is a big fan of the San Diego ecosystem. “I think it’s done a lot for us. I see it continue to grow and really support early-stage companies. Do I always wish for more? Absolutely. I think there’s always ways to get better and to improve and ultimately, I’d love to see more capital here. I think it would be very helpful to have a Series A venture fund that’s focused on solely software. We’re missing that.” Overall, he says, San Diego has “been fantastic from a seed-level perspective.”

Looking Ahead: In the next couple of years, CourseKey’s goal is to enable 200,000 more students to graduate college. Sophinos says, “In the next few years, we have an eye on partnering with 50 enterprises, and with how we believe we can lift retention, that should roughly put us around that number.”

EdTech spend is predicted to reach $252 billion by 2020 and CourseKey is proactively working to take advantage of the explosive growth of the industry.

“We have always taken a mobile-first approach to building our Learning Intelligence Platform and have made multiple strategic partnerships with companies like Ingram Content Group, to expand our product offerings, ranging from an expanded line of attendance technology options to access to digital textbooks,” Vanshur explains. “There are some other amazing projects in the works, but everyone will have to wait and see.”

Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: Sophinos spends his #TechoTuesdays at his favorite taco joint, “Puesto is incredible.” He prefers the chain’s Seaport Village location. Vanshur shares, “I love me some Lucha Libre Taco Shop.”

Brew with a View: When Sophinos is in the mood for a craft brewed beer, he enjoys going to The Nolen, a rooftop bar in downtown San Diego. Vanshur likes “having a beer on Fridays at the office with the CourseKey team.”

Keep up with what’s brewing at CourseKey on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn & Twitter.

Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs. #GoAzTechs

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