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Iowa City Area Development Group to lead Iowa's EdTech push

The following article was orginally published by the Iowa City Press-Citizen on October 10, 2019.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced a move to spur investment in the educational technology sector in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor at a press conference Thursday in Coralville. 

She pointed to a new analysis of Iowa's EdTech sector that indicates the state has an opportunity to grow the industry's existing footprint, taking advantage of the sector's projected growth in the coming years. Reynolds said the Iowa City Area Development Group and the new Iowa EdTech Accelerator can help lead the move.

The report by TEConomy Partners, LLC looked at the clustering of 28 EdTech companies like ACT and McGraw-Hill that employed approximately 3,126 people in the corridor during 2018. The vast majority of the sector is involved in educational assessment and educational content generation. A small part is involved in content visualization and virtual reality systems.

Based on this footprint, TEConomy reports that the EdTech sector could pull more investment by developing "adaptive learning systems" or ALS — the use of computer algorithms to manage teacher-student interactions to deliver student-specific resources to more individually target learning goals. 

"Because of the demonstrated expertise in Iowa within assessment and content platforms, and the emerging capabilities in the visualization platform, Iowa looks to be quite well-positioned for innovation and business growth in ALS," the report reads. By 2022, it expects the adaptive learning systems to be a $2.85 billion market in North America. "And Iowa has robust assets to apply to this opportunity." 

TEConomy reported that those assets could mean as many as 1,000 additional "high-paying, tech-oriented" jobs. For Reynolds, this was a projection that should not be ignored.

"I don't know about you but I'm looking forward to Iowa having a share of that growth," Reynolds said. 

ICAD to lead EdTech sector growth

Rather than create a new group to manage growth in this sector, the Iowa City Area Development Group will partner with state officials on building an EdTech incubator. 

"We didn’t want to start a new organization just for the sake of starting a new organization that would have to raise money and create overhead and infrastructure," said Mark Nolte, the president of ICAD. "We wanted to be more nimble and quicker to market."

Eric Engelman, the executive director of the new Cedar Rapids-based EdTech incubator said they are collaborating with ACT and the University of Iowa to get new ideas off the ground.

"The intent is to coalesce and bring together five high-potential entrepreneurs and give them seed capital, mentoring, coaching, housed at least part here on the ACT campus," Engleman said.

ACTNext and the University of Iowa will offer the startups research and expertise, and Engleman's NewBoCo will offer capital and business mentoring.

"I think the model of taking early entrepreneurs and putting them in a place where they are surrounded by resources that are easy to get to helps them make fewer mistakes, helps them move faster than they otherwise would (and) make decisions more quickly with less risk," Engleman said. "It’s better for everyone. Better for the entrepreneurs, better for the investors and better for the community."

According to Debi Durham of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the incubator's first pilot is planned to start this winter.

"We already have an industry cluster taking shape. Yet with more collaboration and facilitation we can develop a collective effort to steer change, prioritize action, address shared issues and promote Iowa as a recognized hub for DdTech development and business orientation," Durham said. 

The more the merrier for ACT

Marten Roorda, the CEO of ACT, pitched growing the EdTech sector to the crowd Thursday morning as both a moral and economic case.

"Only 40 percent of U.S. students are academically prepared for what comes next in their lives, whether it is school or the workplace," Roorda said.

This preparation disparity was particularly being felt by "under-served students." Iowa pushing growth in the sector would not only man more jobs and growth in the state but better outcomes worldwide.

"Iowa can and should be the EdTech hub for the United States," Roorda said. "Building on Iowa's unrivaled record in education and educational technology, we will not only create an extraordinary opportunity for Iowans but change the lives of countless people in all 50 states and people across the world."

ACT also has good reason internally to grow the EdTech Sector. The company is targeting investment, hoping to complete its transformation from primarily an assessment-based company to a more multifaceted education solutions company. 

Already it has invested millions in acquisitions and investments ranging from ed-tech companies to enrollment-services. To date, ACT has acquired OpenEd (May 2016), The National Research Center for College and University Admissions (July 2018), automated item generation(AIG) technology of MGHL Consulting Lt (September 2018), Knovation (December 2018), acquired the American College Application Campaign (January 2019) and acquired Mawi Learning (June 2019). They have merged with ProExam (February 2017). And they have invested $7.5 million in Smart Sparrow (February 2018) and an undisclosed amount to Open Assessment Technologies (September 2018).

"With ACT, it helps us keep tabs on what the industry is doing, finding new talent and new startup companies so I think it is a win-win situation," said Ada Woo, the senior director of strategy implementation and operation for ACTNext. 

Zachary Oren Smith writes about government, growth and development for the Press-Citizen. Reach him at or 319 -339-7354, and follow him on Twitter via @zacharyos.

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