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EdSurge: Innovation For Fun And Profit

Some of us spend the weekends kicking back. Or gardening. Or partying. And some of us jump-start a company.

EdSurge: Innovation For Fun And Profit

Startup Weekends—a 54-hour chunk of time when total strangers gather to brainstorm ideas for companies—are becoming a huge phenomena. (Mini backgrounder: The first was held in 2007 in Boulder, Colorado. By the end of 2010, some 25,000 people had attended around the globe.) Last weekend was a "Mega Startup Weekend": 250 people, camping out in Microsoft's Silicon Valley HQ, all dreaming up ideas for new companies in education, gaming, and health. Here's a report from EdSurge contributor Justin Su, who savored every one of the 3,240 minutes of his edtech startup weekend.

The weekend kicked off on Friday evening with talks by Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, and Steve Case of AOL fame. Hoffman had some memorable lines (further memorialized on #swmega):

"As entrepreneurs you should always think big because it takes the same amount of work and pain as thinking small," and "There’s a need for education that makes us more effective at living our lives."

Steve Case wasn't going to be outdone: "The secret sauce of America is entrepreneurs," and "Patents are like nuclear weapons; wonderful to have but really hard to use."

Juiced with enthusiasm, the crowd split up into this weekend's three specialties. I joined the education room, where three dozen entrepreneurs pitched fledgling ideas to a crowd of 100. People gravitated to the ideas that appealed to them the most. Some popular ideas included an iOS app to help people find the best educational apps in the App Store, a site for people to provide easy-to-remember explanations for concepts, and a company that could outfit school buses with extracurricular activities. (Volleyball on the bus? Maybe not.)

The teams worked into the night. Weekend coordinators, including the awe-inspiring Ahmed Siddiqui (founder of Go Go Mongo) then handed out a conceptual map, namely Steve Blank’s Business Model Canvas. I joined a team of eight led by two women, Chandini Ammineni and Shilpa Dalmia, who wanted to create a community network for parents to find quality after-school activities for their children. Our backgrounds and skills included engineers, educators, entrepreneurs, business folks, and moms.

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, I worked with my team. Our schedule: brainstorm, discuss, change plans. Rinse. Repeat. We interviewed several potential "customers" late on Saturday and discovered to our dismay that they wouldn't pay a dime for the service. We retreated to the oh-so-plush boardroom (thanks, Microsoft!) and rethought our business plan. A half dozen strolling "mentors" of the team of 30 gave us valuable assistance. For instance, Rob Zazueta from Vertical Response, in particular, gave our team helpful advice by suggesting a distribution strategy.

A much-needed respite came Saturday evening when the weekend organizers, including Frank Denbow, Franck Nouyrigat, and Ahmed Siddiqui hosted an outdoor tent party, complete with a live band and three full bars.

On Sunday, all the teams practiced their presentations with a pitch coach. The presentations began at 4:00 pm. Sixteen edtech teams gave five-minute pitches to an experienced set of judges: Jennifer Carolan of NewSchools Venture Fund, Anthony Kim of Ed Elements, and Michael Staton of Inigral. The winning idea: "ClassParrot," a tool for teachers to safely text-message their students.

In a span of 56 hours, people who had started with little more than a scrap of an idea built a team, a prototype, and refined a pitch. Close to half of the 16 education teams seemed eager to follow through on their ideas after the weekend.

It's happening all over the world. Just last week, Startup Weekend, Grockit, and Kauffman Foundation announced a dedicated series for education, named Startup Weekend EDU. Startup Weekend EDU will kick off in San Francisco on Oct 15, then will head to D.C. and London.

Even Seattle-based "practical nerd" Frank Catalano, who's covered his share of bubbles and hype, believes the time is ripe for edtech entrepreneurship. Grockit founder Farbood Nivi is betting his sponsorship dollars on it. By supporting these startup jams, he says, "Grockit gets a chance to share the trials and tribulations of being an edtech startup with the rest of the world, which could help speed good products to market. In time, we expect to create APIs and developer tools that we will be able to provide to teams at SWEDU events to further accelerate their solutions." Sounds sweet.

And here are a few Sweet Ka'Chings this week:

RETHINK AUTISM: $3 million for New York City-based ReThink Autism from seed funders, philanthropist Jonathan Sackler and social investor, Matthew Greenfield, plus Midas-touch New York firm Seavest Capital Partners. Talk about picking a big, gnarly problem: approximately one in 110 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism. ReThink Autism delivers top-notch training to educators working with autistic children. The company is tapping the world's experts and putting their lessons on video. The strategy could work for other special-needs verticals but investors say this sector is deep enough to build a valuable business.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: $4 million for New York City-based startup incubator, General Assembly, from investors including Maveron and LearnCapital. Cool edsurgent companies hanging out in GA's Flatiron district campus include ShowMe and Neverware.

LEARNZILLION: $1 million for Washington D.C.-based "social mission" company (read: for profit), LearnZillion, which offers free video lessons, starting with math and early literacy. NewSchool Venture Fund is an investor in this round, which also included grants from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (under the prior names Scholar Rocket and Learning Match) and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Worth noting: foundations are stepping into the "for profit" funding circle. Yeah!

EdSurge is a community watering hole and resource for those engaged in the emerging eco-system of education technology. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.

[Image: Flickr user missjustine]