Tom Snee, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell)
No more flash cards
No more flash cards
No more flash cards
In just two years, Higher Learning Technologies (HLT) has gone from the vision of a frustrated University of Iowa dental student to a firm that’s helped thousands of nursing and dental students across the country pass their boards.
“None of it would have been possible without the University of Iowa,” says Alex Whitters, who came up with the idea for HLT when he was a UI dental student preparing to take his boards in 2011. He purchased a study guide and a set of flash cards for hundreds of dollars, the standard procedure for dental students studying for their boards.
But the book was thick and heavy and the flash cards came in what amounted to a shoebox. They were bulky, difficult to use, and expensive, and Whitters thought there had to be a better way. Why not an app, he asked himself. Then, whenever he had a few minutes, on a bus, for instance, or doing laundry, he could take out his phone and study for the biggest test of his life.
Whitters discovered it wasn’t just dental students, either. His childhood friend from Cedar Rapids, Ben O’Connor, was a UI nursing student and finding the same inconveniences studying for his nursing boards. The publishing companies brushed them off when they suggested replacing flash cards with an app, so they decided to do it themselves.
They shared their beef with yet another childhood Cedar Rapids friend—Adam Keune—a Tippie College of Business graduate, and they set about finding a solution to the problem. Their first stop was UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center for guidance, where they found experienced entrepreneurs to serve as mentors, and participated in contests that helped them better sharpen their business plan and elevator pitch, the condensed two-minute pitch they make to investors for funding. They won two contests, generating $7,000 in important early seed funding which has since grown to more than $6 million.
JPEC also helped the three of them learn how to network and how to find additional venture funding, lessons that led to additional seeding from the Iowa Demonstration Fund, the Regents Innovation Development competition, and the John Pappajohn Business Plan Competition.
“The university introduced us to many people who have played a vital role in our growth,” Whitters says. “From MBA students who were recommended to us, to investors who had previously taught in the business school, to mentors who helped guide our journey.”
The university also provided low-cost office space in the Oakdale Research Park, first in the Technology Innovation Center, and then when they outgrew that, in the Bioventures Center.
They looked to other parts of the university, too, for guidance and expert content from faculty members and researchers.
“The College of Dentistry, the Iowa Testing Program, and other programs have helped us to get world class content that our business needs to succeed,” he says.
The result was Higher Learning Technologies, and its first app—Dental Boards Mastery—hit the market on the Apple iStore in December 2012. A second product—NCLEX Mastery, for the nursing boards—followed, along with products for the MCAT and Certified Financial Planner exams. The company’s five apps each feature a simple, easy to use screen appearance with up to 1,600 flash cards, and cost between $9.99 and $29.99, a far cry from the hundreds of dollars needed for books and flash cards. They’ve sold nearly 500,000 downloads in less than two years and are the top grossing educational app sold in the iStore and Google Play Store. The company has also been featured in publications such as EdTech and Inc.
Today, the company has 25 employees staying on top of the latest tests so their apps are continually up to date, and designing new apps for additional high stakes tests.
“The university has helped us not only to thrive, but also to survive,” says Whitters. “Things are very fragile in a company’s early days and having the university on our side made it possible for us to get through the infancy period of HLT.”