Brainscape and its founder Andrew Cohen
Company Name: Brainscape
Founder: Andrew Cohen
Brainscape is an educational technology venture that I found on AngleList. It sparked my interest as it is a company that is deriving new, original value from very old ideas through the application of current digital and mobile trends.
Brainscape is a multi-platform application/service which focuses on the collaborative creation and sharing of digital flashcards for content memorization. It offers both the capacity for individuals or groups to design their own flashcards as well as the means to then review these cards via either web-access or through a dedicated mobile app. During review, analytics is used to identify those areas that require greater focus and those areas which have been successfully memorized. In addition to creating personal flashcards, users can also access existing flashcard collections via a shared library, covering various United States K-12 curriculum areas, as well as technical/vocational training subjects ranging from plumbing to piloting. Student progress is stored and synchronized across all devices used to access Brainscape, so students may seamlessly move from one study device to the next. Admittedly, flashcards, even digital ones, are a very traditional, content focused learning tools. However, from an educational venture perspective, Brainscape does tick many of the digital boxes that are currently trending, including incorporating analytics, being mobile focused, utilizing cloud-based data, supporting user-created content, providing collaboration tools and offering the ability to share content with others.
Brainscape’s founder and current CEO is Andrew Cohen. Possessing a graduate degree from Columbia University in Educational Technology and Cognitive Science, as well as an undergraduate degree in business, Cohen has the scholarly credentials to support his venture. Although never a public school teacher, Cohen lists that he has been a private business school instructor and has consulted on the development of digital training and certification programs for various companies. Cohen also lists several other digital ventures and online organizations in which he functioned as an advisor/mentor, including Socratic Labs and the online tutoring app Smart Alec. These elements imply that Cohen has significant knowledge of the context for which he developed Brainscape.
According to an interview with Ideamensch (Jul 24, 2014), the vision for Brainscape emerged as part of Cohen’s experience working international development in Latin America and the Caribbean. Forced to quickly develop proficiency in French and Spanish, he developed a drilling system using MS Excel which functioned better for him than any of the then current language learning applications. Based on this experience, he returned to school, changed his focus from business to educational technology, and acquired the programming skills necessary to code a prototype of Brainscape. On this journey, he made connections with academics, software engineers and investors who who would support the continued development of the app. as well as the founding and expansion of Brainscape as a company.
Cohen appears to have assembled a well-rounded and skilled team to support Brainscape. Chief among these is Jeff Holliday, the founder/developer of Flashcardlet, an early, successful iOS flashcard app whose intellectual properties were acquired by Brainscape. Further, he has also acquired as his chief product officer Andy Lutz, who has significant experience in the post-secondary educational services field, including the role of CPO for the Princeton Review, a well-established college admissions and test preparations company. A skilled team, a useful product, and a background that supports digital learning ventures seems to provide all the necessary ingredients for Andrew Cohen to address his stated goals of helping people learn more efficiently using cognitive science.
I found investigating Brainscape to be quite useful in illustrating the entrepreneurial concept of generating original value. Flashcards are certainly not new, nor are digital tools to assist in the memorization of content. But the application of digital elements such as cloud-based data, analytics, and a focus on mobile technologies have allowed new value to be derived from old concepts, especially as there is still a need to effectively and efficiently prepare for tests and certifications in many fields. Further, by acquiring an existing flashcard app, as well as its developer, the venture can build on the previous experience, avoiding potential pitfalls while focusing on the new, value adding elements.
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It's great to see that Andrew Cohen saw a need in his own life to have a better system to learn language and went on to create an app that could tackle this well, for many people. For would-be entrepreneurs, this shows a great path that can be taken, find a problem, create your own solution, improve your qualifications, improve your solution, surround yourself with great people. While someone had to digitize flash cards (since they do work for times memorization is needed) I cannot fault the founder for wanting to explore this avenue. However, it is now a very crowded space and seems like it would be difficult to grow revenue in the current market. I believe that integration beyond sharing (within lesson plans/presentations) or a way to be more integrated with a teacher and the classroom would begin to differentiate this offering. Great start of inspiration, but if this story doesn't continue forward, it may turn into a failed venture as competition chokes it out.
Jonathan, I like your Founders Parade pick! Your assessment of Andrew Cohen is credible and nicely articulated. I agree that flash cards for assisting memorization in not a new idea, but the digitization of it, conveniently cloud-based, and most importantly, with analytics is the key. Based on Cohen's visioning of how to bring this key memory aid tool into the '21st century', coupled with his domain expertise in cognitive science and high calibered team, I think this venture holds promise. Most importantly, I see this venture opportunity as having relevance to other Ed Tech solutions, meaning that Brainscape could fit nicely into another offering, as a part of a bundled service.