UR Turn wins spot with AT&T accelerator, reported in Minneapolis -St. Paul Business Journal

Twin Cities ed-tech startup wins spot with AT&T accelerator

Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal

Local education-technology company Ur Turn has been chosen as one of eight startups for this year's AT&T Aspire Accelerator class.

St. Louis Park-based Ur Turn makes software that combines education research, data from school portals and algorithms to measure how well prepared students are for college and a career.

Ur Turn will receive a $125,000 investment from AT&T. It will also pitch its business at a demo day in Dallas in December.

"It was a nice validation of what we're doing," Ur Turn CEO Angie Eilers said. "Based on the number of applicants, there was a 3 percent chance of being accepted."

Founded in 2015, the virtual accelerator focuses on ed-tech companies that are led by founders who are "bringing innovative skills-building resources into hundreds of thousands of classrooms," Anne Wintroub, director of social innovation at AT&T, said in a statement.

Eilers is a longtime education researcher and a former executive at ed-tech company Sophia Learning.

Alex Wittenberg

Staff writer
Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal

Meet the 2019 Aspire Accelerator $1 Million Skills Building Challenge Class

By Anne Wintroub - Director of Social Innovation at AT&T

Today, across the United States, there are an estimated 5 million young adults disconnected from stable career pathways, and 12 million jobs requiring postsecondary education or training that will go unfilled in the next decade. This is a massive gap, and one that AT&T is working to help fill with a strong talent pipeline. For our company – and our country – to succeed in the 21st century, we need to ensure that the future workforce has the right skills.

That’s why I was so excited to launch the 5th year of our AT&T Aspire Accelerator program. Since we welcomed our first Accelerator class in 2015, we’ve had the honor of working with some of the most promising startups in ed-tech, led by founders who are truly changing the game by bringing innovative skills building resources into hundreds of thousands of classrooms. The 27 participants from the 4 previous classes are currently reaching more than 23 million students and have attracted more than $35 million in funding after AT&T’s investment.

The 8 inspiring organizations that we’ve selected as members of the 2019 Aspire Accelerator class to participate in the $1 Million AT&T Skills Building Challenge are working to give students the skills they need today to succeed in the careers of tomorrow.  

Meet the innovative, mission-driven organizations seeking to help every student achieve a bright, successful future who make up the 2019 AT&T Aspire Accelerator class:

  • AllHere (Boston, Massachusetts) replaces outdated responses to chronic absenteeism with an online attendance improvement operating system that identifies barriers to attendance, delivers personalized interventions and analyzes the results.

  • Boddle Learning (Kansas City, Missouri) helps teachers identify learning gaps and differentiate their students’ learning styles quickly and accurately, using gameplay to boost student engagement and capture more actionable data at the same time.

  • Cognitive ToyBox (Brooklyn, New York) saves teachers up to three hours per week, shortens the feedback cycle from assessment to instructional adjustment and enables more objective data collection through a game-based assessment platform.

  • Sidekick Education (501(c)(3)/Madison, Wisconsin) uses artificial intelligence to reinvent the high school internship as an in-class project, so any classroom can help close the STEM skills gap.

  • UPchieve (501(c)(3)/Brooklyn, New York) provides free 24/7 STEM tutoring to underserved high school students, offering late-night homework support and test prep to help motivate them to finish high school and pursue rewarding careers.

  • UR TURN (Minneapolis, Minnesota) drives student and parent engagement through a goal-setting and progress-mapping tool with a visualized tracking dashboard. Setting and achieving goals correlates to college and career readiness.

  • WeThrive (501(c)(3)/New York, New York) helps teachers increase classroom engagement, real-world learning and future-readiness by creating student-run companies that earn real revenues through a web and mobile app.

  • Wildcards (Fort Worth, Texas) serves as a low-cost, easy-to-use electronic programming product designed to help students learn about coding, electronics and engineering while developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The Aspire Accelerator $1 Million AT&T Skills Building Challenge will connect the 2019 class with the resources, services, expertise and relationships they need to drive change in how people acquire skills needed for good jobs and rewarding careers.

I can’t wait to watch what this class can accomplish in their ongoing efforts to create and foster solutions that prepare students for future success.

Star Tribune features UR TURN, and our benefit corp status and mission

By LEE SCHAFER , STAR TRIBUNE 
April 20, 2019 - 8:00 AM

Angie Eilers is the founder and CEO of UR Turn SBC, with the SBC meaning specific benefit corporation. It’s part of an emerging trend of businesses organized to make money for shareholders but serve a social mission, too. Based upon her experience in education and education policy, she knew kids still didn’t have what they really needed to chart their progress through school. Her solution was an electronic coach for academic progress, easily accessible on a smartphone. UR Turn, based in Minneapolis, got its start in 2016 with the first users in 2017.

Q: What is your business about?

A: UR Turn produces a goal-setting and progress-tracking application for middle- and high-school students and their families. We do with education data what apps like Mint.com do with banking data or what Fitbit does with your bath-scale data. Right now, students and parents get a lot of different data points like report cards and test scores, but what do those data points mean? What do they add up to? How does a student or their family know if the student is on track of graduating high school or being eligible for higher ed? UR Turn answers those questions for them.

This is never meant to replace the human touch. It’s a supplement by providing meaning and interpretation of data. For example, if you wear a Fitbit it shouldn’t preclude you from visiting with your doctor, but if you want to lose 10 pounds by the summer, your Fitbit will tell you that you need to walk more steps and get your heart rate up a bit.

Q: There is a lot of education technology available, so why is this needed?

A: There has been some reporting on this, but the student-to-counselor ratio in the U.S. is about 450 or 500 to one. In Minnesota, the latest figure I saw reported was 659 to one. At the same time, almost half the states in the U.S. have state legislation that calls for personalized learning plans for each and every student. Who could possibly create personalized plans for 500 students? And who tracks that and how?

As we saw in last month’s big news on the bribery scandals and selective colleges, [wealthier] families have access to private college counselors — and obviously other tools — that can provide them personal guidance. UR Turn is an effort to affordably make a decision-support software tool available to all students and families in districts that purchase it. So we are making an argument for equal opportunity to understand and access data on a personal basis. Besides, we like to think that we can unburden busy counselors from data so they can get back to the job of human connections with students around their mental health needs and other anxieties besides college and career readiness.

The difference between us and something like Fitbit is that the schools see this same visualized data on their own customized dashboard — just as if your Fitbit data was now visible to your doctor.

Q: How is the business organized?

A: I founded the company as a result of winning a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research award as well as funding from a program-related investment (PRI) — both of which are non-dilutive [to shareholders]. However, we have also received more traditional funding from angel investors in the form of convertible notes.

While the company is registered as a C-corp, we also sought out the designation as a specific benefit corporation (SBC) because we are a mission-based organization — meaning our mission or impact is equal to or of greater priority than the shareholders’ interests. Our mission is to get more students to graduate high school on time and to show them a viable pathway for eligibility for a two-year or four-year degree.

Most corporations have a stated mission, but our mission holds us to a higher standard than profit to shareholders. For benefit corporations, the socially conscious purpose is as much an interest to the shareholders as it is to our company. Theoretically, this protects a company from shareholder litigation if a company makes a decision based on higher ideals rather than pursuit of near-term profits.

Q: Why was this important rather than as a nonprofit?

A: It takes a lot of capital to create a scalable and replicable solution that reaches across the U.S. [and possibly beyond our borders]. At the same time, we’re a benefit corporation because we want to attract investors who value the double bottom line: making a return on their investment while also trying to address some of our education attainment challenges. As a specific benefit corporation, we also want our customers to know we are a value-based company. Warby Parker, for example, is a benefit corporation. If you’re going to buy glasses, wouldn’t you want to know the vendor doesn’t just stop at the sale? A benefit corporation puts a stake in the ground that they are committed to a socially conscious objective that goes well beyond profit.

Lee Schafer joined the Star Tribune as columnist in 2012 after 15 years in business, including leading his own consulting practice and serving on corporate boards of directors. He's twice been named the best in business columnist by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, most recently for his work in 2017.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302 LeeASchafer

UR TURN earns a place as a Tekne Award Finalist

MINNEAPOLIS, Oct. 1, 2018 – UR TURN, SBC is a finalist for the Minnesota High Tech Association 2018 Tekne Awards in the Science and Technology Startup category. For the past two decades, the Tekne Awards have recognized organizations that are leading-edge innovators in science and technology Minnesota. The 2018 Tekne Awards ceremony on Nov. 29 will reveal winners among the finalists in 16 categories.

UR TURN’s innovation in ed tech software placed the company in the top three finalists due to leading-edge Artificial Intelligence/Neural Network technology.

“We are thrilled to get recognized by the Tekne judges and to be in competition with high quality companies. The competition is fierce,” said Founder and CEO Angie Eilers.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, said, “The Tekne Award finalists this year represent the ongoing strength of innovative Minnesota-based companies. They are pioneers in leading-edge science and technology that has impact around the globe.”

UR TURN, SBC is a B2B SaaS tool that serves middle and high school students and their families by serving as a personalized, mobile-enabled AI-driven counselor. Specifically, it is a nudging/alerting tool for 6th-12th grade students that helps them set goals and track progress.  This kind of data-driven, research-based intelligence is especially helpful for first-generation college aspirants and for low- to mid-performing students.

About the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA)

The Minnesota High Tech Association is an innovation and technology association united in fueling Minnesota’s prosperity and making Minnesota a top five technology state. We bring together the people of Minnesota’s science and technology ecosystem and lead the way in bringing science and technology issues to leaders at Minnesota’s Capitol and Washington, D.C. MHTA is the only membership organization that represents Minnesota’s entire technology-based economy. Our members include organizations of every size − involved in virtually every aspect of technology creation, production, application and education in Minnesota.

mhta.org   |   @MHTA   |   @minnesota-high-tech-association

Interview in Tech.MN with UR Turn CTO Peter Kirwin

Peter Kirwin is the CTO of edutech startup UR Turn — the developers of software designed to help students stay on track.

How long have you been working in tech for and what is your background?

I’ve always really enjoyed programming. I began seriously working with code in school for numerical simulation in physics and economics. I got into web application development in my first startup about 10 years ago. I was the industry person, not a programmer, but the programmers let me get involved with some of the math-intensive backend stuff, and got hooked.

What are you focused on right now?

I’m currently running technology for UR Turn, a Minneapolis-based education start up founded by a fellow educator, Angie Eilers.

We help schools identify students who are falling off track to meet their post-secondary education goals. In particular, we’re making some very exciting improvements to our algorithm for the upcoming academic year and working to tie into more software that schools already use.

What are the some of the technologies within your company and IT environment?

We run a web app in ruby on rails, and we’re currently trying out some different ways of building and implementing a neural network. Our current idea for the neural network is to develop it in R, and evaluate new observations in R right out of ruby on the web server — which would be great if it works.

How do you ensure that IT plans, projects and objectives are aligned with business outcomes?

I advocate for using the five whys, and spending time defining problems before deciding on solutions. In technology, it’s easy to think that a problem can only be solved with cutting-edge tools. But by spending time getting to agreement on what the need is, and then drilling down to its root cause, we can separate the problems that genuinely require AI or autonomous drones from the ones that can be addressed with a well-structured Google spreadsheet. This allows us to apply our resources efficiently, and prevents us from obtaining flashy solutions to problems we don’t actually have.

 

What is the size of your department and how is it organized/managed?

We’re still pretty small. All told, there are four of us and we outsource some work, too. The technology/business objective alignment goes through me, but other than that we’re a very flat organization. We use some simple software to help with tracking the agile components, but beyond that it’s usually quite clear who should be doing what, and once a task lands on someone’s plate they have great autonomy how they go about addressing it. I can’t take a lot of credit for this working well; we have a small team of great people and it’s pretty easy for things to go well in that case.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions?

Being as small as we are, and being a startup with a laudable mission, we’ve been able to fill our positions just by reaching out to people in our network. That plan won’t work forever, but it has served us well so far.

How do you personally keep up with the ever changing technology landscape?

Newsletters and blogs are great, but I find that the most interesting way get details on the important things is to intently listen to talented programmers working on new initiatives whent they complain about what’s hard at their jobs. For one thing, this focuses on technology that real companies have decided to pursue and helps avoid technology that has been ‘two years from wide adoption’ the market for the past ten years. Another advantage of this practice is that you get a more complete sense of those technologies. It’s easy to read about the selling points of new technology, but talking with someone who is currently struggling with it offers a valuable picture of what adopting it myself or in my organization would be like.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

I remember seeing robots on cartoons when I was a kid and wishing that I had something like that to do my chores for me. I’ve come to realize that we already have robots; they don’t have blinking eyes or antennae on their heads, but technology that meaningfully replaces work I don’t want to do, or enables me to do something I can’t do on my own, exists and is getting more power.

What we’re doing at UR Turn is a great example of this: some students receive sufficient advice on what they need to do in order to, say, go to college, but others don’t. We can’t afford enough school counselors to address this problem, but we can enlist the robots. We use large data sets and sophisticated algorithms to show students how their current behavior affects their ability to obtain future goals so that they can make changes if necessary.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

Technology has always been a valuable thing to own. I worry that as technology replaces humans in increasingly skilled jobs, an even smaller number of people and corporations will end up controlling even more wealth. I don’t think that our society is well equipped to deal with this, and I believe that a lot of people are going to suffer while we figure out what to do.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry – how could it be better?

I love the tech community around here. More people should use VIM, but that may be too much to hope for.

What are you into outside of technology?

Eating, and running enough to eat the things that I want to without having to buy new pants.

UR TURN chosen as Capella Prize winner for Best Ed Tech company, MN Cup Finalist, and speaker at upcoming events

Of 1300 applicants in the Minnesota Cup, a statewide innovation competition, UR Turn was selected as one of the Top 16 companies to advance to the final event on October 9.  CEO and Founder, Angie Eilers, will pitch at MN Cup as well as at WE Pitch Fest, the premier Women Entrepreneur's event on October 9.  As a featured speaker at Twin Cities Startup Week, Dr. Angie Eilers will serve on a panel of founders at Educelerate at ECMC.  Contact us for more information about attending any of these exciting events.

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UR TURN chosen as semi-finalist for 2017 Minnesota Cup competition

Of the 1, 300 applicants to the Minnesota Cup this year, UR TURN emerges as a semi-finalist. There are 80 competitors in 8 divisions in the semi-final round. UR TURN is competing in the Impact Ventures division which is for mission-based entrepreneurs that aim to have an impact on the critical challenges facing our society including education, sustainability, health, and economic and social equity.  Finalists will be announced in August, 2017. Let the games begin!