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Welcome Four New DRF NYC Partners!

03/31/2015

As a few of our current Dorm Room Fund NYC partners prepare to graduate, we are extremely excited to pass the torch on to an incredible group of students!  Each new partner brings a diverse set of experiences that will surely help us continue to support the growing student founder community.  Please welcome Zak, Sweyn, Abigail and Max as our new DRF NYC partners!

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Zak Kukoff

Zak is an undergrad at NYU studying behavioral economics. He founded Autism Ambassadors and previously worked at the NewSchools Venture Fund supporting education entrepreneurs. Along with his work, he’s been featured in the New York Times, TechCrunch, Bloomberg View, and The Next Web, and has been honored by the Clinton Global Initiative and NBC Education Nation.

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Sweyn Venderbush

Sweyn is an undergraduate at Yale University majoring in Computer Science. He serves on the Executive Board of the Elmseed Enterprise Fund, the nation’s oldest campus microfinance organization. He is also working on a startup of his own, currently in stealth mode. In the past, Sweyn has served as a software developer at DreamFace Interactive and as a data analyst at theAudience. In his free time, Sweyn enjoys exploring the world of men’s style and dancing as part of Yale’s Ballroom Dance Team.

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Abigail Stone

Abigail Stone is pursuing her MBA at Columbia Business School with a focus on venture capital and entrepreneurship. Prior to CBS, Abigail worked at Ralph Lauren in e-Commerce as well as in their Art Acquisitions department. Her passion for art, architecture, and design informed her studies as an undergraduate at Trinity College and led her to co-found Young Folk, the official young supporters group of the American Folk Art Museum. Currently, Abigail helps with business development for Cuseum, the startup building the mobile platform to bring Internet of Things technology (BLE beacons) to museums and the art world. In her free time, Abigail loves to practice her (non-existent) vocal skills at karaoke, check out local flea markets for cool vintage finds, and maintain her self-proclaimed title as NYC’s top cheese expert.

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Max Ritz

Max is an MBA student at Columbia Business School, focusing on investment management and entrepreneurship. He is an InSITE Fellow and was involved in startup and growth-stage companies prior to business school. He has founded and helped lead two successful startups to acquisitions, both with his brother, and worked on the investment team at Innovation Endeavors, a venture capital firm based in Palo Alto and Tel Aviv co-founded by Eric Schmidt. Most recently, Max worked at SoFi, a portfolio company of Innovation Endeavors that blends technology and marketplace lending to intelligently address specific debt and loan sectors. Max holds a BA from The University of Maryland, where he captained the University’s lacrosse team.

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Committed Founders – Announcing our investment in Abaris

03/25/2015

We look for founders who are committed to building great companies. This is always true, but is especially important when we meet MBA founders. Today, I’m incredibly excited to announce Dorm Room Fund’s investment in Abaris Financial, a phenomenal example of a committed founding team who is working to build a great company in a very intelligent way.

For many MBA students, the two-year program they undertake in their mid-twenties is another in a series of decisions that preserves optionality. Those students often come from and will return to service industries where they’ll build skills and knowledge that could serve them well in a broad range of different future scenarios. That well-trod path is the embodiment of what Peter Thiel calls “indeterminate optimism”.

It’s another archetype among MBA students, however, that we seek to invest in – the Committed Founder. This person knows from their professional experience that they have a vision for the future and that they can play a role in bringing that about. This student has:

  • Inside knowledge of the problem they’re addressing

  • A rational, and even methodical, plan for pursuing their goal

  • A firm commitment to building the company that will change their industry

Abaris Co-Founders Adam Colombo, Matt Carey and Nimish Shukla

Abaris Co-Founders Adam Colombo, Matt Carey and Nimish Shukla

We’ll discuss other factors in upcoming blog posts, but our focus today is on commitment, which is exemplified by Matt Carey (center) and his co-founders, Nimish Shukla (right) and Adam Colombo. Matt and Nimish are classmates in the Wharton MBA program and Adam just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Management and Technology Program with degrees in Computer Science and Statistics. Their company, Abaris, is modernizing the retirement income market for consumers with an online education and comparison engine that allows individuals to purchase retirement income (e.g. Deferred Income Annuities). The technology they’ve built helps users to find a product that is right for them and figure how much money to spend based on the amount of future income they want to cover. The Abaris platform then pulls quotes directly from carriers and provides straightforward and real-time comparisons.

When Matt was working at the Treasury Department on retirement policy, he had a pretty unique view into how a secure retirement is increasingly becoming a “Do-It-Yourself” endeavor and decided that people don’t have the tools they need. He looked at his parents, who are small business owners in rural Maine and both 64 years old, and saw that they had no way to think about how much to be spending in retirement because they don’t know if they’ll live to 85 or 95 (or longer). Given the size and prospects of the aging “Baby Boomer” population, this is a big problem and Matt thought he could do something to solve it.

He left the Treasury to study actuarial science and finance, and get the tools that would help him build this business. He met Adam, who is a talented programmer and statistician with relevant internships at Blackrock and Paypal, and Nimish, who is a CFA with his own experience in traditional finance roles. Together, they’ve decided to devote all of their effort – in school and afterwards – to building Abaris.

These are not students who are waiting to see what the future brings and hoping they’re prepared. These are Committed Founders who are building their company to make the future a better place for their parents’ generation and for generations of retirees to come. That’s why we’re proud that Abaris chose the Dorm Room Fund as a partner in building their company.

Abaris has launched their public website on March 23rd and is always looking for world-class talent to join the team. Check out the company and share it with your friends and family.

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An inside look: Why we invested in Prayas Analytics

02/24/2015

As early stage investors it is very hard to predict the success of a company. However, among all the uncertainty the one thing that usually remains constant is the team. The importance of having a strong team was chronicled in a July blog post by DRF alum Alex Ginsberg. It was the team that was one of the key reasons why DRF Philly invested in Prayas Analytics, a solution that brings the power of web analytics to brick-and-mortar retail, with a focus on the checkout experience (like in the example below).

A sample of the data Prayas provides to large retailers

A sample of the data Prayas provides to large retailers

Here are five ways we think the team’s founders, Yash Kothari and Pranshu Maheshwari, have set themselves up for future success:

  1. An obsessive focus on the customer: After meeting Yash and Pranshu, many DRF investment team members were impressed with the founders’ strong focus on building their company around the needs of their consumers. Before finalizing their initial product concept, the team took the time to contact Penn alumni who could discuss the lack of analytics and A/B testing at brick and mortar retailers. The team sent out hundreds of emails, and conducted countless interviews on industry trends and current practices as a way to understand how to build their product offerings. It was directly from these conversation that Prayas Analytics was born. As an investment team, we were very confident that Yash and Pranshu would continue this rigorous customer development process.
  2. A flexible approach: The ability to experiment and adapt has proven to be a big reason for the success of Prayas. The original goal for the company was to help small coffee shops and cafes improve operational efficiency. However after running a few pilots, Yash and Pranshu quickly realized that this was not the best market for their product. The incremental value that they were delivering could only be realized at a large scale with retailers that see significant transaction volume. About three months into founding Prayas, Yash and Pranshu decided to pivot and tailor their product to large retailers. The team, however, would have never been able to make the pivot if it wasn’t for their flexibility and ability to remain honest with themselves about what their results were telling them.
  3. Persistence, persistence, persistence: The Prayas team prides themselves on their persistence as a way to drive business development. Whenever they go to conferences or speaker series, they always make the effort to follow up with people they have met as a way to build their network and learn more about retail operations. They have also been able to hardcode this persistence into their sales process through the company’s customer relationship management system. Following every single lead has allowed the Prayas team stays on top of their sales funnel all the time. The team’s efforts have proven successful as they now have a contract with a Fortune 200 retailer and are currently in paid pilots with a few other notable brick-and-mortar businesses.
  4. Reliance on data-driven results: From working closely with Yash and Pranshu, I have seen the emphasis the team puts in making data driven business decisions. Particularly, they have focused on tracking their growth and holding themselves to quantifiable results to make sure that they are using their resources as effectively as possible. By honing in on numbers to drive their sales approach, the team is able to hold themselves accountable and motivated. Not only do they provide analytics to other companies, but they make sure to embrace it internally as well.
  5. Strong team dynamic: Over the past year, it has been clear that the Yash and Pranshu have been able to grow their strong team dynamic. Specifically, they continue to develop a deeper understanding of one another through maintaining trust in each other’s judgement. The team is great about setting rules and boundaries around when to work and when to take time for themselves. For instance, the team has decided that they want to work during the weekend, as it provides a time to focus on the company without worrying about email and class. In order to prepare for the weekend, the team has set a strict rule to not work past past 7pm on Thursday nights so they can maintain a balanced workstyle and prevent themselves from burning out. Additionally, Yash and Pranshu have taken to heart Alex Ginsberg’s question about “how well do you know your co-founder’s family?” On a recent visit to a client, the co-founders took a detour so that Yash could meet Pranshu’s family. As Prayas continues to hire and increase its number of customers, the strong relationship that has been developed between Yash and Pranshu will serve as the foundation for the company to grow.

Personally, it has been an absolute pleasure working with Yash and Pranshu. I am inspired by their drive, determination, and diligence. They are always asking the right questions and maintain a high level of transparency with the DRF investment team. Additionally, they are selfless in their actions and make an effort to give back to the community at Penn, including presentations about how to start a company or offering advice to underclassmen interested in tech. Their smiles and charisma around the First Round office will truly be missed when they graduate. The Dorm Room Fund is lucky to have Prayas as a member of our community and we wish the company continued success. And we have some great news–they are hiring! The team is in the process of onboarding 3 new members and is looking to add more. If you would like to learn more about how you can work with Yash and Pranshu to help build Prayas, please contact them at info@prayasanalytics.com or visit their website www.prayasanalytics.com.

The Prayas Analytics Team

The Prayas Analytics Team

 

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Dorm Room Fund NYC Welcomes Three New Partners

02/12/2015

Dorm Room Fund is excited to announce three new additions to our New York City investment team. Student partners Michael Chiang, Daniel Toro and Jiashan Wu bring technical expertise, start-up experience and tremendous enthusiasm for supporting entrepreneurship on their university campuses. As a handful of current investment partners prepare to graduate and Dorm Room Fund’s impressive pool of alumni grows, we’re excited to add these new partners’ energy and talents to the Dorm Room Fund community.

Welcome to Dorm Room Fund, Michael, Daniel and Jiashan!

Michael Chiang

Michael Chiang

Michael Chiang is a Sophomore at Princeton University majoring in Operations Research and Financial Engineering with a minor in Computer Science. Currently he serves as the Director of Princeton’s Entrepreneurship Club’s Competitions. He is fascinated with growing startups having spent time working for GrowthHackers.com and Verbling (Y Combinator S11). In his free time, he enjoys playing competitive chess and exploring the NYC food scene.

Daniel Toro

Daniel Toro

Daniel Toro, an Operations Research and Financial Engineering major at Princeton, directs the TigerTrek program, which selects 20 student entrepreneurs to visit world-class founders and investors in Silicon Valley. In addition to his work with TigerTrek, Daniel serves as CIO overseeing a $2 million endowment for non-profit Business Today, where he also led a national fundraising round securing a record $1 million for the student-run organization. Previously, he co-founded an online network to facilitate collaboration across early-stage ventures in Latin America. In his free time, Daniel enjoys practicing yoga.

Jiashan Wu

Jiashan Wu

Jiashan Wu is a graduate student in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. She focuses on making and researching issues around mobile and connected devices to explore meaningful or playful applications. As a designer and art director she has worked with early stage startups, large enterprises, and nonprofits. She is the co-founder of XOlator, a New York based creative interactive agency. As a Fulbright scholar, she has researched the design and manufacturing of Shanzhai phones in Shenzhen, China. On a clear day, she can be found biking in the friendly New York traffic.

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Booya Fitness: Shaping up the Digital Fitness Market

02/05/2015

The Boston Dorm Room Fund team is proud to announce our investment in digital fitness startup, Booya Fitness.

When it comes to fitness, one of the biggest struggles of a studio is digitizing their content to compete with some of the big players that have already built a brand (think P90x, INSANITY, etc). Booya Fitness has their eyes set on empowering all studios and fitness instructors to take their content online and market themselves to their existing and new consumers. Prita, founder of Booya Fitness, explains that one of the biggest value-adds that they bring is they handle a lot of the logistics and heavy weight that a traditional studio would face when trying to move into the online market. Booya provides support with production, hosting, music licensing, marketing, and even offers analytical tools for studios to become better managers overall.

On the consumer side, the beauty of what Booya Fitness brings is an easy way to get access to hundreds of high-quality fitness content for less than $10/month. When a consumer lands on the Booya Fitness site, they’re greeted with any type of fitness class they can imagine. Fitness junkies or novices looking for something new can browse from the large and continually updated library of content. “Most digital fitness providers and traditional DVDs try to market ‘one-size-fits-all’ programs. With hundreds of workouts of all different styles, users can finally find a workout they love,” says Prita.

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With aims to become “the largest repository for branded fitness content,” Booya Fitness is well on their way. By making fitness classes affordable and accessible, the company is poised to shape the way fitness classes are delivered for the next generation.

[For more information about the business, feel free to reach out to team at booyafitness (dot) com.]

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Dorm Room Fund Boston Welcomes Two New Team Members

01/26/2015

Boston is welcoming students back from winter break, and Dorm Room Fund Boston is getting ready for a new semester of meeting and supporting the incredible student entrepreneurs in New England. To kick things off, we’re excited to introduce two new members to our investment team. Meet Eric and Kate:
DRF Eric SungEric Sung is a first year MBA student at Harvard Business School. In 2008, he co-founded Loku, a local discovery startup that was backed by 500 Startups. Eric operated the company for five years until it was acquired by Groupon in 2013. Prior to getting his MBA, Eric advised and consulted for several startups and also interned for a summer at Bain & Co. On campus, Eric is involved in the Entrepreneurship Club and Tech Club. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball, playing piano, and following Texas football.
DRF Kate MurdockKate Murdock is a sophomore at Northeastern University studying International Business – Spanish, Finance and Computer Science. She is currently a Marketing Intern at New England Venture Capital Association and an Investment Analyst for IDEA: Northeastern’s Venture Accelerator. She co-directs the Entrepreneurship Immersion Program at Northeastern and is also researching effective global management with Professor and Author, Paula Caligiuri. Previously, she worked as the Brand and Product Manager at Bare Tree Media, a PayPal StartTank company. This past summer she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to conduct research at the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Diplomacy. In her spare time, she dances with No Limits Dance Crew and is on the Powerlifting team. She is passionate about singing, playing piano, and theatre.

With clear passion for building and working with startups, Kate and Eric are two students that we’re confident will help grow what we’re doing and move toward our mission: to inspire and support more careers in the startup industry. We can’t wait for you to meet them.

Welcome to the family, Eric and Kate!

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Oncora Medical: Helping Doctors Fight Cancer with Data Analytics

01/23/2015

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“The front line of cancer care” is a phrase typically associated with a host of innovative treatments: better drugs, novel radiation therapies, and even gene therapy. But Oncora Medical, our newest portfolio company, is taking a dramatically different approach to fight cancer: it uses state-of-the-art computing techniques championed by the likes of Facebook, Google, and Netflix to help doctors make more data-driven decisions.

Deciding what treatments and what levels of dosage to treat patients with has traditionally been an onerous task. Because a single imprecise decision can have fatal consequences, multidisciplinary teams need to work weeks – if not months – to calculate by hand precise dosages suitable for each patient. Oncora is eager to eliminate this bottleneck with the aid of software, and is already working with multiple nationally renowned hospital systems to do just this.

If you’re a regular user of the Web, the premise behind Oncora’s technology will be familiar: just as Netflix predicts how much you’ll like a movie based on how you’ve rated other films, Oncora will use decades of data on cancer patients, treatments, and their outcomes to predict how a particular cancer treatment will affect a given patient – and can even determine the probability of complications several years after the initial procedure.

The beauty behind Oncora is that modern hospital systems already have all the pre-requisites: the “decades of data” mentioned is housed by these very hospital systems, where it lies largely untapped by software. In their solution, Oncora employs recently developed machine learning and computer vision techniques to analyze hundreds of patient and treatment variables and rigorously quantify their impact on patient outcome data. And because Oncora’s software does all of its heavy lifting in the cloud, oncologists aren’t bound to large computer workstations when they need to move around the hospital.

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Oncora Medical’s founders, David Lindsay and Chris Berlind, are excited to bring more data-driven decisions to fighting cancer – and are well equipped to do it. David, the CEO, is a Ph.D. and M.D. Candidate at University of Pennsylvania, and has numerous awards for his research on Parkinson’s Disease and bioinformatics. Chris, the CTO, is a Ph.D. Candidate at Georgia Tech, and has been published several times in the top machine learning journals. To help them penetrate the medical market, David and Chris have assembled a world-class advisory team including senior directors of oncology departments in the nation’s most prestigious hospitals as well as operating executives of digital health startups.

Dorm Room Fund feels a strong commitment to reducing the impact cancer has on society through creative technological solutions, and is proud to stand behind a venture that will substantially change the lives of cancer patients. More than anything, we admire the founders David and Chris for their knowledge, passion, and grit in such a demanding space as oncology, and are thrilled that they will be joining the DRF family. To find out more about Oncora, visit their website at www.oncoramedical.com or follow them @OncoraMed.

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Charitweet — making donating to charity as easy as tweeting

01/13/2015

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With Charitweet, donating is as simple as sending a tweet mentioning one of the dozens of charities on the platform. By helping donors empower their social networks, Charitweet can reduce costs and improve effectiveness of donation campaigns for non-profits.

Charitweet’s progress is clearly demonstrated with their recent success on #GivingTuesday, a day focused on giving following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. After less than a year of operation, the company saw completed donations from 33% percent of people that interacted with Charitweets sent from charity partners, which is remarkably high compared to traditional donation channels.

Charitweet is always looking for new ways to make donating easier. Recently, they launched a campaign to petition Apple to reconsider restrictions on processing donations within apps. The friction of transferring donors out of a native experience to a website or sms app is undoubtedly reducing the amount of money charities are receiving. You can support the petition by signing here.

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Since receiving funding from Dorm Room Fund, Charitweet has taken other innovative approaches to achieving their goal of putting more money in the pockets of non-profits. In a partnership with Fidelity Charitable, they set up MATCH campaigns on the platform. This was great news for small donors that want to further amplify their impact. Just last month, the 47 donors that contributed to the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship’s successful campaign to raise $1000, saw their donations turn into over $2000 going to the school.

There is a lot in store for Charitweet, so Dorm Room Fund couldn’t be more pleased to welcome them to the portfolio.

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Q&A with FiscalNote Co-Founder Tim Hwang

12/28/2014

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It’s been over a year since Dorm Room Fund NYC announced our investment in FiscalNote, a legislation-tracking startup founded by undergraduates. Since then, FiscalNote has quickly grown into Capitol Hill’s leading provider of cutting-edge legislative and regulatory analysis. Last month the company announced $7 million of Series A funding. Read on for DRF investment partner David Dworsky’s Q&A with co-founder, CEO and recent Princeton alum Tim Hwang to learn more about how he launched and led FiscalNote while remaining in school.

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How did you come up with the idea for FiscalNote while you were in school and what does the company look like today?

I was running a politics organization and one of the biggest problems we had was understanding how government was impacting our constituency. Following the latest updates in government legislation was a very difficult task at the time. I thought about it from a computational perspective and it seemed like such a simple thing to create what initially started off as a search engine for laws and regulations across the US. From that initial product, FiscalNote has become a whole suite of predictive analytics tools that make it a lot easier for people to understand what’s going on with government and legal data. Today we provide this broad analytics platform for customers around the world.

What was it like balancing your company with school work?

Prioritizing was the most important thing. For me, school work pretty much fell to the wayside as the company grew larger. I did try to plan my schoolwork such that I’d finish my thesis early but there’s only so much you can do. And if you’re going all in and really trying to focus on the company, prioritization is key.

What was the value of raising venture money while in school?

Up until raising our first round we were still proving out our thesis, and by raising money we were able to validate the concept. We were really young and scrappy at the time and I think getting venture funding allowed us to move to the next step in terms of validating our concept and knowing this was something we wanted to put our time into.

Can you talk a little bit about how you met met your co-founders, Jonathan Chen and Gerald Yao.

I had actually known my co-founders since elementary school. I also went to high school with them and we kept in touch through college. We had always been bouncing ideas off each other and this idea in particular was one that stuck. We tried to really test it out while in college and decided that we all wanted to continue working on this problem after graduation.

Do you have any advice for students who are trying to balance an entrepreneurial endeavor with school work?

I think the most important thing is to really take advantage of the opportunities that are on campus. Being in college, you can approach people in a very innocuous manner and ask them for advice. People are just more willing to engage with you. I think that type of environment lends itself really well to the type of customer interactions that you need to have as an early stage company. There’s a low barrier to entry in terms of getting to customers and talking with them as you build out your product.

At what point in college did you know that you wanted to start your own company after graduation?

I don’t think there was a definitive point when I decided I was definitely going to become an entrepreneur. It was more constant exposure to technology and the rapid innovations that were going on, and seeing our idea as a viable opportunity. Once I knew I had the team to really take advantage of that opportunity, we decided to run with it.

What are some of the disadvantages of being a student entrepreneur?

Well for one it takes up a lot of time and you have to forgo other responsibilities you might have at school. If you’re really serious about the venture, you’re going to end up putting school work on the backburner. The other disadvantage is inexperience. It’s important that you recognize that, and try to counterbalance it through advisors or specific strategic hires to get to a point where the inexperience is channeled into the right places. Because it can be an advantage sometimes, especially with respect to building technology. But when it comes to management, training, and the business side of things, inexperience gets to be a pretty big disadvantage that you have to learn to compensate for.

Can you talk about a major trend in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and how FiscalNote fits in?

One of the major trends of NLP is the idea of information retrieval in a very broad sense. We are trying to leverage technologies like entity extraction, optical character recognition (OCR), search queries and more for a variety of functionalities and use cases for our customers. When it comes to entity extraction, for example, we look at large pieces of legal data and have to be able to extract out people, concepts, or ideas for analytics. For queries and answers, we are trying to pioneer some pretty structured natural language searches that allow people and attorneys to be able to search our platform in a natural language manner — not just as a “bag of words” approach, but really understanding what the question is and trying to get the right answers in a very targeted manner. These new technologies are exciting because up until about the 70′s or 80′s NLP hadn’t seen much innovation, and now because of the lower cost of computing and experimentation, there’s been a lot more research going on in some of these fields.

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At Teachley, Games Are A Serious Subject

12/20/2014

Teachley

The NYC Dorm Room Fund team is excited to announce our investment in Teachley, a company that helps schools use app data to drive instruction. Teachley Analytics, a platform that gives educators actionable insight from children’s gameplay, is built from the founders’ years of cognitive science research at Columbia. The Teachley team taught in elementary schools before starting their PhDs at Columbia, where they started building educational apps to make early elementary learning more fun and effective. Teachley Analytics launched twelve weeks ago with Teachley’s award-winning math apps for K-5 students, including Addimal Adventure and Mt. Mutiplis, and is being used by 450 schools in 34 states.  Teachley’s math apps help students learn important math strategies and concepts through the use of engaging storylines and a meticulously crafted gaming experience.

The company’s founders, Kara Carpenter and Dana Pagar, are recent PhD graduates and co-founder, Rachael Labrecque, is a current PhD student in Cognitive Studies from Teachers College at Columbia. NYC has invested many resources into spurring commercialization out of universities, and Teachley is an excellent example of this translation.

Though still in its early stages, Teachley has already earned impressive accolades, including an Apple Design Award (2014) for Addimal Adventure and a Phase I and II grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the primary research arm of the United States Department of Education. They even got a shout out from the White House in answering Obama’s call to create “educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game.” Teachley also reached the finals of NBC’s Education Nation: Innovation Challenge and SIIA’s Innovation Incubator.

Dorm Room Fund is impressed by Teachley’s bold vision of bringing together cognitive science, games, design, and analytics. While our team may have already learned addition and multiplication some time ago, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit to getting sucked into Teachley’s addictive games ourselves. We’re honored to open their seed round and thrilled to add not one but three female founders to the DRF NYC family.

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