The MOOC that spawned three startups

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on September 4, 2013

From The News Desk

When Stanford professor Chuck Eesley headed down south to speak at the accelerator Start-Up Chile, he received an unexpected email from an old student named Ivo Georgiev. Georgiev's company was in the Chilean accelerator, and he was excited that Eesley was coming to visit. Georgiev had met his co-founders and formed his business in Eesley's class months prior.

But there's a twist -- Professor Eesley had no idea who Georgiev was. They had never met, Georgiev wasn't a Stanford student, and prior to getting the email, Eesley never knew he helped Georgiev launch a VC-backed startup.

This is the bright, bold world of MOOCs -- Massive Open Online Courses. Since 2012, Professor Eesley has been teaching a MOOC in technology entrepreneurship that is nearly identical to his popular intro course at Stanford. To set up the online class, he partnered with MOOC company NovoED to offer the curriculum free for anyone around the world. Despite the fact that the class is entirely online, students form teams to do startup projects.

Eesley has taught four sessions of the MOOC at this point, and at least three startup companies have spun out of the class.

TommyJams was formed by a couple Indian guys who took the MOOC and teamed up together for the class project. They built a platform that matches music venues and bars with musicians in Bangalore, Delhi, and Goa. "I still remember their emails when they were like 'We're going to quit our jobs and go for it,'" Eesley says. "I was like, 'Oh god, don't hold me responsible.'" He was thrilled months later to find out the team got accepted to India's Microsoft Accelerator program.

Stylemarks is a Berlin based fashion startup that got its CTO -- who is based in Russia -- through the MOOC. It has since gotten accepted to European accelerator hub:raum.

TeraFold Biologics is last on the list, developing software technology that simulates how proteins will fold. It's the company founded by Ivo Georgiev, who emailed Eesley when he heard he was coming to speak at the accelerator Start-Up Chile.

When asked which one was his favorite, Eesley says, "I'm super excited about all of them. It's like which of your children do you love the most?"

Eesley guesses there are more MOOC-spawned companies out there that haven't contacted him. Four sessions of the class has run, and at 30,000 per MOOC that's 120,000 grads, although the completion rate is probably much lower. All over the globe, Eesley constantly runs into students who have taken his online class.

He was headed to Hong Kong for a conference, tweeted it, and a team from his online class messaged him to say they were based there and wanted to pick him up at the airport. "I was a little nervous to accept at first, but they took me out for dim sum and then dropped me off at the conference," Eesley says. A different MOOC student working for the Ministry of Science and Technology in the Dominican Republic invited him on a free trip down to give a lecture to entrepreneurs, university deans, and government officials.

MOOCs are the talk of the ed-tech town these days, and the trend has its share of critics and evangelists. Champions of the cause say that MOOCs break down income inequality and geographical barriers by allowing people around the world to take classes at top tier universities, frequently for free. Naysayers believe that students suffer from a lower quality in online learning, and they point to the fact that only 5-10 percent of MOOC students finish the course.

NovoED entered the already crowded MOOC scene recently, with the goal of fixing a big MOOC pain point: group participation. There's a reason the M in MOOC stands for massive, and it's no small feat to have students collaborate on projects when the class size numbers 40,000. Group participation has been difficult for other popular online ed platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. In February, Coursera had to shut down a class when attempts to organize teams through Google Docs imploded.

Eesley mentioned he wanted to teach a MOOC to his colleague, Stanford professor Amin Saberi. Saberi was going on sabbatical, and decided to spend his time coding a better MOOC platform, using Eesley's entrepreneurship class as the guinea pig test. Thus spawned Venture Lab, which was redubbed NovoED and launched officially in 2013. Since Eesley's class required students to team up to do projects, the NovoED MOOC platform was built from the ground up with collaboration in mind.

This matters because one of the big criticisms of MOOCs is that students aren't engaged. Static online learning -- watching videos and answering quizzes -- does not beat in-person classroom interaction and dialogue. NovoED is banking that the social nature of the platform will give MOOC students a certain level of accountability, and lower the dropout rate. "It's not just some abstract professor," Eesley says. "They don't want to let down their teammates."

The fact that three companies have sprouted out of the soil of the course bodes well for student engagement. Of course, that's three companies formed out of an estimated 120,000 students total who have taken the class, so it's by no means a runaway success.

It's enough of a success, however, that's NovoED has decided to expand its offering by focusing on startup classes. A few weeks ago, the company announced partnerships with colleges Babson, Stanford, and UCSF. If NovoED wants to make its mark by facilitating teamwork in huge online classes, entrepreneurship is a fitting target.

Eesley says, "I'm interested in having a bigger impact with my teaching beyond just the students in my class at Stanford."

[Image courtesy: Todd Petrie]