By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.
When you think of the founder of an education technology company, you probably don’t naturally think of someone with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering – and not that you should.
But you should know this edtech founder who happens to be a highly credentialed chemical engineer.
Justin Weinberg is the co-founder and current CEO of Aktiv Learning. He’s from New York City, went to prestigious Bronx Science, did his undergrad at the equally notable Cooper Union and earned his aforementioned Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon.
“I was going into bio-pharma,” Weinberg said. “Edtech was a hobby that eventually became a passion, and has now grown into a significant business,” he said.
That evolution started, Weinberg says, around 2010 when he was tutoring and partnered with his college friend and current co-founder, Igor Belyayev. The duo came together to develop a smartphone app that helped students learn chemistry with video lessons that Weinberg produced himself.
“Video lessons weren’t really a thing then,” Weinberg said. “But our theory was that smartphones were exploding and clearly the future and that we could use an app as a delivery mechanism for chemistry help. And we turned out to be right. We had more than 500,000 downloads with no promotion, no marketing. It was just something we were doing as a hobby.”
That number may get your attention – many edtech companies would kill for 500,000 downloads. Even now.
Weinberg says that experience taught him two big things. “One was the order of magnitude of people who were struggling in STEM and who needed help. Two was that students were looking at their phones as a way they could learn. We needed to figure out how we could take that to the next level,” he said. “The next level had to be centered around active learning –students sitting down, solving problems, struggling, failing and working things out. We did not want to be another memorization or lecture platform – we knew we could be and should be different and better.”
Those two things, in turn, led Weinberg to start Aktiv – a learning platform specifically built for STEM, with a focus on, as the name says, active learning.
“When we started off building the company, we did not want to take the traditional approach to creating a learning platform – just build a platform and load content from the humanities to the STEM disciplines. That does not create a good user experience for learners due to a lack of focus,” Weinberg said.
As a CEO, he says his start in chemical engineering and in bio-pharma was helpful. “It taught me how to manage large, unbounded projects with multiple people, which has been extremely valuable experience as an entrepreneur.”
And it seems it has.
Aktiv is an in-course resource, adopted by faculty for use as part of their chemistry and math classes, designed to supplement lectures and encourage learning by trying. When the company launched their chemistry product in 2016, Weinberg said they had eight schools on board. “This year,” he said, “we have faculty at nearly 600 colleges and universities.”
That’s a 75x growth rate in six years.
Not only is the company growing, it’s working. Those things are likely related.
“We did a survey of our students and had 91% say that our approach to active learning helped improve their chemistry grades and 86% said it made them more engaged and more interested in chemistry,” Weinberg said. “And I think, from a teaching and learning perspective, teachers would find that 86% number quite incredible.”
Even with that early success and affirmation, running an education company has been a learning experience, Weinberg said. “My background is science, engineering and teaching. I am the product guy in the company but I’ve developed an appreciation for the sales and marketing side – how hard and interesting of a challenge that can be,” he said.
“The truth is, you can have the greatest product in the world, that’s not going to make the market automatically come buy it from you,” Weinberg said.
Looking ahead, Weinberg sees growth, not change.
“We’ve gotten to this point because we’ve remained focused on building the best platforms for STEM subjects. And I want to stay true to that as we continue to grow.”
Aktiv has recently added math to their chemistry offerings, a process Weinberg described as years in the making. “We thought deeply about what has worked in chemistry and how that can translate to the challenges in teaching and learning math. through how chemistry and math can come together,” he said.
That nexus is important because many chemistry students struggle due to math deficiencies, which is actually a problem across many STEM subjects. Accordingly, Weinberg says his company, “is thinking about how we can also help schools at an institutional level to think about if their students are ready for math and chemistry before they enter the course and, if they are not, how we can catch them up.”
Anyone who’s spent any time at education entry gates – in two year colleges or career programs – can tell you that preparation and confidence for college-level courses is essential to success. Math especially. It’s really difficult to overstate how important it is to get students ready for STEM subjects and keep them in those programs. It’s a fragile pressure point in the global economy as well as for colleges more generally.
And if it takes a chemical engineer or two to shore up those education and training gaps, good. Let’s do that. It may not be the traditional or expected pathway to education enhancement. But it may turn out to be a very important one.