Moving flashcards into the future

For Alec Whitters, former student turned president and CEO, shuffling through 1,200 flashcards to study for his dental school exams seemed outdated. Alec joined up with Adam Keune, co-founder and chief business development officer, and Ben O’Connor, co-founder and chief financial officer, to launch Higher Learning Technologies (HLT). At the time, Whitters was a third-year dental student, Keune was graduated and working for an online marketing company, and O’Connor was in the second year of his doctorate program.

In just four years, HLT grew from an idea to a viable company with 45 employees. Today, test takers answers over half a million practice questions every day, in every country in the world, using the smart phone apps and learning platform developed by Iowa City’s HLT. Winning more than $15,000 through Iowa JPEC’s idea pitch and business plan competitions made it all possible.

The idea

When asked how he got the idea for HLT, Whitters says, “I thought it was crazy that we still have to study with paper flashcards. My phone is the exact same size and can do so much more. How could I not use that technology?”

Whitters’ key to success was the personal connection he had with old-school studying methods. He was directly affected and inspired by the lack of technological advancements in the testing industry. He explains, “I think you have to find something that's painful for yourself. You have to actually be solving some problem that you understand—and that you care about.”

The moment on a mountain

As Whitters was contemplating the next step for his idea, a visit to Tanzania shed some light on how to proceed. “When we went to Tanzania and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, we saw a bunch of people wearing tribal clothes and using smart phones. The light turned on: this idea is something that can really change the world, and it's not just for dental students. This is a tool that can help people everywhere learn. That's when we went all in on our business,” Whitters says.

Whitters notes that a similar experience reinforced this concept for himself and O’Connor. He recalls, “When Ben and I were in the slums in Nairobi, they didn't have running water and they had limited electricity, but people had smart phones. This distribution channel for getting content to people—and for teaching people new things—could be a game changer.”

When the three co-founders realized their idea was possible and could impact people worldwide, they got to work.

The funding

Their first move? Applying to participate in Iowa JPEC’s competitions for student entrepreneurs, which annually provide over $100,000 of cash funding for startup ideas and validated businesses. For many UI student entrepreneurs, this is the only source of startup funding to help get their business running.

Whitters explains, “We probably did five or ten Iowa JPEC competitions—pitch competitions, business plan competitions, all sorts of things like that—and we got a significant amount of money. If we hadn't gotten that, we probably would have never gotten off the ground. In the beginning, nobody wanted to partner with us, so we worked with the university and got our hands dirty.”

Keune elaborates on the difficulties faced at the beginning of HLT’s existence. “At that early stage, it's tough to get people to start investing in you because you only have an idea. But the competitions are about feedback as well: people give you constructive feedback around your idea and highlight things that you need to be thinking about. Iowa JPEC has been very supportive of us from the beginning. We were all twenty-six, and none of us had run a business before, so getting perspective from Iowa JPEC experts and learning from them was huge.”

The support

The co-founders are grateful to Iowa JPEC not only for funding, but also for other benefits like a network of entrepreneurs and mentors.

In fact, Keune says that Iowa JPEC’s biggest help to HLT was providing connections to local entrepreneurs.

“With the popularity of “Shark Tank,” it's a cool thing to start a company. It's trendy. Everybody's starting a company, so getting meetings with the people you need to meet can be hard since so many people are trying to start companies. But Iowa JPEC would say, “Have you talked to this person? Have you got in touch with this person?” If you just cold call people asking for help, they don't know who you are. But having an organization like Iowa JPEC and the university behind you, a lot more doors start to open,” he explains.