Meet Brian O’Dwyer, Commercial Founder & Executive Chairman of CognaLearn. CognaLearn’s cloud-based InteDashboard is world’s most widely used software platform created exclusively for physical and online team-based learning classrooms. Educators use InteDashboard to save time by automating individual quizzes, team quizzes, cases and 360º teammate evaluations furthermore improving outcomes with real-time data while integrating with existing learning management systems.
Brian will take part in the LearnLaunch Breakthrough Accelerator, a 5-week intensive program at the LearnLaunch Campus in Boston. Read on to learn about CognaLearn’s journey, where they’re headed, and why they chose LearnLaunch.
*Written by Brian O’Dwyer, Commercial Founder & Executive Chairman of CognaLearn
What traction do you have so far?
We have worked with nearly 100 institutions to implement team-based learning including Columbia, Duke-NUS, and Yale-NUS with 95% faculty satisfaction rate. We have revenue-generating customers in the United States (our largest market) as well as in Australia, Asia, and Europe. 48% of our trials convert into paying customers and 38% of our customers have come from referrals. We have over 100% of net revenue retention. Most of our customers are in higher education, but we do have some workforce customers with governments in Australia, Singapore and the United States and K-12 customers in Singapore.
What is the story and inspiration behind starting CognaLearn?
The initial inspiration:
I have a commercial pilot license with instrument, multi-engine and seaplane ratings. The two most important things a pilot needs to know when landing: am I too high or too low or too fast or too slow to achieve a landing objective. Pilots have detailed instruments in the cockpit to give them data in real-time to guide aircraft to successful landings. I believe that educators also need to know if they are too high or too low; too fast or too slow to help students achieve their learning objectives. Educators that are innovating their teaching style with team-based learning should also have real-time data in the classroom to guide students to successful learning outcomes.
Before entering the education industry, I was the chief financial officer of an airline where we grew from 400 to 800 employees in under 18 months before selling to Virgin Australia for $100 million. Our biggest challenge was finding talent for our team. However, I had also been an alumni career mentor to Columbia and Duke students and knew some talented people who couldn’t find the right job. This seemed like a worthy problem, so I shifted to education.
In 2013, I was the president of the Duke Alumni Club of Singapore and met Bob Kamei who was then the Vice-Dean of a joint venture medical school set up by Duke and the National University of Singapore (“Duke-NUS”) over lunch with the goal of trying to use Duke’s Singapore campus to show Duke-UNC basketball games for alumni. At lunch, Bob mentioned Duke-NUS was looking for an Entrepreneur-in-Residence (“EIR”) to help commercialize some learning technologies they had developed to implement team-based learning (“TBL”).
Around the same time, I also had the opportunity to teach as an adjunct faculty member at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Asia campus. When I started teaching airline management, I used the same TBL approach used at Duke-NUS medical school. Having just gone from airline CFO to teaching in the classroom, I saw the employability gap between the traditional lecture (and digital lecture) and what my student would need to do at an airline. I also saw the ability of TBL to deliver an authentic learning experience that would prepare my students much better for the workforce. However, I also felt the pain point of trying to implement TBL with existing systems such as Blackboard and Canvas which were not well designed for teams. I had to integrate seven different systems to create an authentic and powerful team-based learning experience. It was clunky, a lot of work and didn’t use data very well.
It was these experiences that lead to my role as an EIR in the Centre of Technology and Development (“CTED”) at Duke-NUS and the founding CognaLearn as a spinout from Duke-NUS along with four deans from Duke-NUS: Ranga Krishnan, Bob Kamei, Sandy Cook and Frank Starmer.
The continuing inspiration:
Recently some of our customers at Columbus State University in Georgia and the University of South Alabama presented research about the impact of TBL in general education classes which typically have a larger number of first-generation and financially disadvantaged students. In this study, withdrawal rates dropped from 10% to 4% and non-productive grades (Ds and Fs) dropped from 29% to 4% at one institution and 18% to 4% at another institution. Seeing the impact of TBL on retention and outcomes for students inspires me to continue our work to make TBL easier for educators to implement.
What is the unmet market need or challenge that CognaLearn is addressing?
Team-based learning (“TBL”) is a powerful combination of flipped classroom, collaborative learning, project learning and formative assessment. TBL is a solution that involves prework before class, individual and team tests to zoom in on trouble spots followed by team applications and 360-degree teammate evaluations. However, most learning IT was not designed for teams which result in clunky or paper-based processes that don’t use data well.
For example, before using our software, UCLA Medical School was using paper-based team assessments and paper voting cards for team cases which were cumbersome administratively and didn’t provide faculty real-time data in a classroom of over 170 students in 20+ teams.
How does your company solve the proposed problem and why you’re the team to solve this problem?
Our team created InteDashboard to solve this problem which does three things:
- We save educators time by automating workflow for team-based learning (“TBL”) which includes individual and team quizzes, cases and 360º teammate evaluations.
- We help educators improve outcomes by providing them real-time data.
- We integrate (rather than compete) with existing learning management systems.
Solving this problem requires a mix of customer, product and business abilities which we have as outlined below:
Customer: Our co-founders have been teaching with TBL for over a decade. Before pivoting to a software-only model, we used to run training programs with TBL. This gives us perspective and credibility with customers. Since then we have done over 430 software demos. We typically demo our software with 3-4 professor each week which gives us continued product insight. Our customer success manager, Payal Lal, founded two EdTech startups of her own before graduating from college.
Product: We started as an in-house system at Duke-NUS in 2010. Since then we launched version 2 in 2015 for a beta test with 20 institutions. Mark Png, our CTO leads our 11-person technical team. In the past, Mark has built a 200-person IT team. In addition, Mark previously built a formative assessment platform.
Business: Before shifting to education I had a business career as an A.T. Kearney consultant, Credit Suisse investment banker and airline chief financial officer. I have experience in over 50 debt, equity and M&A deals.
Why are you participating in the LearnLaunch Accelerator? Why did you choose this program?
We are participating in the LearnLaunch Accelerator to develop our US higher education sales, marketing and customer success strategy and implementation plan. Our 14-person team does not include any sales or marketing people yet, so we hope this will help us determine what we need in this area and how to put it in place.
We were introduced to the program by a friend, Alo Mukerji. We were impressed at LearnLaunch’s expertise in the US EdTech market, the level of organization, the blended nature of the program and the quality of people we met at LearnLaunch. They asked a lot of good questions in a constructive manner. Their due diligence was thorough but reasonable and done in a very respectable manner.