Communications Specialist, Iowa JPEC

It was hard enough for Alec Whitters, Adam Keune, and Ben O’Connor, three University of Iowa students, to tidy up their beat-up apartment off Mormon Trek Boulevard. Complicating matters were the antics of Whitters, who was studying for dental boards.

Whitters purchased a large box of expensive flash cards that included sample questions for the Dental Admission Test. He quizzed himself anywhere and everywhere for hundreds of hours. He also left a scattered a trail of cards throughout the apartment as well as on the dashboard of his car.

“These (flash cards) are like your life, the Bible, dental students study with,” Whitters said. “But it made absolutely no sense; there had to be a better way.”

Instead of flash cards, Whitters thought, what about an app for a mobile device that a studying student could carry with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week? After all, that’s how his generation was consuming information. After weeks of complaining to roommates Keune and O’Connor, Whitters called the publishing company that distributed the study cards. He distinctly remembers the response.

“They said, ‘Interesting idea but you don’t get it, kid. This is impossible in the real world,’” Whitters said. The reasoning was that apps were for gamers.

O’Connor, who was preparing for the licensing exam for nursing, lived a similar flashcard-toting lifestyle. Keune’s experience with the UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) was about to come in handy. The decision by the friends to create an app for any profession with a licensing exam was solidified during a visit to the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Everyone there had smartphones,” Whitters said. “People around the world are using smartphones and if we put engaging learning materials on it, we can help people learn through that.”

After partnering with classmates and faculty at the University of Iowa, the trio formed Higher Learning Technologies (HLT). They didn’t have a lot of startup money, so they outsourced to developers all over the globe. The rough platform was shared with dental students, who embraced the technology. A few months later, similar software was unveiled for nursing students.

“That’s when things really started to take off,” Keune said. “We realized we were on to something.”

In nearly 10 years, HLT’s more than 100 apps have been downloaded 25 million times with 2 billion practice questions answered. The app for the nursing exam became the No. 1 grossing educational app in the App Store and on Google Play. Average monthly price is around $25, and depending on the target market, subscription packages run for either one, three, or 12 months. HLT offers triple your money back if you use its product and fail the test.

The career paths for the three high school buddies from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are now fully vested with HLT. Whitters, the aspiring dentist, is chief executive officer. Keune, who was going into marketing, is chief growth officer. O’Connor, who intended to be a nurse, is chief financial officer.

“We’re heads down and working hard, and at times you have to stop and look back,” O’Connor said. “You take it for granted most of the time and don’t think about the progress you have made when you are focused on the progress you’re trying to make. Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves.”

HLT continues to look at ways to innovate. Its dedication to the mobile experience has attracted partners like McGraw Hill, Wiley, and Kaplan. There are desktop versions that accompany HLT’s software, but its expertise remains on mobile platforms.

“People want to be able to quickly access bite-size information,” Keune said. “They don’t want to scan a PDF on their phone and scroll and scroll and scroll. They want a good option they can learn from on their phone. That’s where we step in.”

In 2017, HLT acquired a company called Gee Whiz, which has educational products outside health care. There are also apps for military entrance exams and for real estate agents.  

“Our bread and butter is still health care and specifically nursing and dental,” O’Connor said.

Whitters believes the best of HLT is coming. He calls entrepreneurship a “community sport,” and the staff at HLT has two pressing goals: 1) make test prep better so subscribers can get the score they want the easiest possible way, and 2) find a way to use the app as a lifelong learning partner. 

“If we can help these people pass, not only do we help them achieve their dreams, but we are also educating the next generation of nurses,” Keune said. “These are the people we will see ourselves in the hospital helping us. It’s a cool thought.”

HLT has already hired many UI alumni, and it remains on the lookout for hungry students who want to learn. Whitters, Keune, and O’Connor laud the assistance they received from Iowa JPEC.

“Iowa JPEC was right there saying, ‘How can I help you?’” Keune said. “It has been instrumental, the people have been incredible, and we’re proud to say this is our beginning, this is where we came from.”

But the real starting point for the three friends was in a dumpy apartment off Mormon Trek Boulevard. That was 25 million downloads ago.