Friday, October 30, 2020

A Not So Typical Startup

Terrie
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FastBridge Learning is About to Change the Education Space

 

Maybe you have noticed that it’s debate season. Conspicuously absent from the spectacle – at least to this point – has been the topic of K-12 education. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s not being tackled.

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A little known, but quick moving Edutech startup – FastBridge Learning – is set to change all that.

What began over a decade ago as a research project – then three years as an incubator company within the University of Minnesota’s Office of Technology Commercialization – FastBridge Learning (FBL) was officially formed in February 2015.

FastBridge Learning isn’t your typical startup however. I sat down with CEO, Terri Soutor recently to learn why.

Theriault: You mentioned being a very mission-driven organization. What’s the mission?

Soutor: To put high-quality, evidence-based tools in the hands of teachers to help them better assess and impact learning outcomes and to do so as truthfully, briefly and cost effectively as possible. We want to help teachers spend less time testing or guessing what the right teaching course of action is for a student, and actually be able to focus and spend more time delivering the right instruction or intervention.

In essence, building more teacher capacity through data. We are bringing the data, facts and science to the education equation to pair with the teacher’s craft.

Theriault: Why is this so critical?

Soutor
: Typically, today, kids endure several hours of testing – after a lengthy prep period. To boot, the results rarely get distributed to teachers or parents in time to do something with it. Often the highstakes tests are strictly for funding and serve little purpose outside of a report card for the school, district and state. Opposite spectrum of what we’re doing.

Our assessments are designed to be incredibly brief and efficient, and give the teacher the tools to determine where each individual student is at, what is needed to fill in any learning gaps, and be able to do that in realtime – not at the end of a quarter or year. The teacher needs reliable data now so they can provide each student more personalized instruction.

If you have data, and you can truly identify with that data what a particular student’s unique strengths and weaknesses are, and where they need additional instruction – or a change in instruction – you can apply that and actually measure change in a student’s learning throughout the course of a school year. Now you can see a difference in that student’s learning growth.

Theriault: FastBridge has had a very unique start. Can you tell us about it?

Soutor: Incredibly unique. A lot of startups – when they begin – are in the R&D process and you have to work a couple of years to build and establish the product, prove it out, get early adopter customers, and start getting cash in the door.

When we launched in early 2015, we did so with customers, revenue, a fully developed and research validated product, and an established team that has been working in the business – and on the product – for a couple of years.

We started with these advantages because of our time associated with the university in research and incubation mode. It’s an incredibly fortunate position to be in as a startup.

Theriault: How would you assess the market opportunity for FBL?

Soutor: From a financial standpoint, the testing and assessment market is a $2.5 billion-dollar industry. We’re small, but growing rapidly. Our revenue doubled in 2015 and we expect to grow another 50 percent on top of that this year. Within three years, expect our top line to be four to five times its current size. Knowing the growth pace of our industry, hitting our growth mark is very achievable.

Competitively, the other players in our market are large and established companies. Often that will scare a startup, but in our case it doesn’t. I think it gives us an advantage.

Each of our large competitors has interests in multiple things. They aren’t laser focused on the initiatives that we are laser focused on. I like to think of this as stealing lunch from the sleeping giants. We’re more focused and innovating faster than our competitors, and we’re closely connected with our users. We apply user-centered design principles and continually evaluate how teachers are engaging with our product to drive innovation and improve teacher supports. We’re laser focused on the research and efficacy of our product, on bringing the best tools to the classroom, and building the capacity of educators in applying data-driven decision making principles in the classroom to improve student success.

If we had better practice in classrooms, we’d have less need to put kids through the unsatisfying rigors of high-stakes, end-ofyear assessments for the purposes of getting a report card of our nation’s schools. FastBridge Learning is providing the tools and the best practices to our users, and we aim to get those tools into as many educators’ hands as possible.

Theriault: How is the market opportunity dictating your strategy?

Soutor: Our market play is to displace the competition. Doing so won’t be easy. We have a sense that the teachers, and the schools and districts they work for, however, are fairly dissatisfied with the tools they are using when it comes to length of time to administer, cost and a failure to monitor the results effectively.

Schools also seem to desire a one-stop shop. If possible, they prefer not to have to purchase multiple assessments from multiple providers. We are making that possible through the diversity in testing options we offer.

Theriault: With this in mind what is your current focus?

Soutor: I have to help manage our growth from a finance and operations perspective, as well as attract talent that is as passionate about the team and our mission as I am. My daily challenge is to balance the scales of growing fast versus growing smart.

A lot of great raw materials were already in place here. However, internally we lacked repeatable and scalable businesses processes. For perspective, last year we administered five million tests. This year, we are on pace to more than double that. We need to scale our platform to handle that load plus a lot more.

I’ve brought in a couple of team members to help put the tools and processes in place that will allow us to deliver in a predictable, high-quality, on-time and on-budget way. Delivering an exceptional customer experience, and delivering on our promise as we grow, will be critical to us being able to displace any competitors.

Theriault: What is the biggest obstacle to your plan?

Soutor: Keeping our entire team, including myself, execution and mission focused. Every day we talk about remaining focused on executing against our clear value, goals and outcomes.

We’re working hard to establish and foster a culture of innovation, collaboration, transparency and trust within our team. Having clear sightlines into who is responsible for what, knowing what the interdependencies are, and assigning clear accountability for the outcomes is mission critical for our daily work.

Theriault: What’s success look like for FastBridge Learning?

Soutor: Achieving our near-term mark is very achievable.

Right now, this is fun. We don’t sit around talking about our exit strategy. This is a long-term plan for us. We have something really great here. How quick can we get it into the hands of teachers and make the education world better? This is a very mission-driven project for us and want to do this as long as we possibly can.

For more information about FastBridge Learning, visit www.FastBridge.org.

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