The Ground Floor: University of Iowa grads making test prep easier

Startup is sending study materials straight to your smartphone

Adam Keune works in the Higher Learning Technologies headquarters in Coralville. The app, developed to help students to
Adam Keune works in the Higher Learning Technologies headquarters in Coralville. The app, developed to help students to study in a more convenient and interactive way is only two months old and already has users in 32 countries and while in the beta version, is now available for $20. (Kyle Grillot/The Gazette)

Text books can be a pain — literally — but thanks to a group of Eastern Iowa friends who have been burdened by their weight too long, the academic volumes are becoming optional.

Right now, dental students wanting to pass their board exams can choose to ditch some of their preparation texts and, if everything goes as planned, the weighty books could soon be a thing of the past for all types of students. That includes prospective nurses, lawyers-to-be and even high-schoolers about to take their ACTs and SATs.

“These exams are the most important of your life — we went through them,” said Adam Keune, one of three University of Iowa graduates who co-founded the new Coralville-based startup, Higher Learning Technologies.

“But instead of studying countless amounts of information,” Keune said, “we wanted to find the fastest and most effective way to help students learn.”

Here’s how Higher Learning Technologies is accomplishing that — programmers are developing applications for devices such as the iPhone, iPad and Android that transform traditional test preparation material into digital flash cards with photos and other learning tools.

Keune said the technology uses spatial repetition to help students remember material faster — recognizing the cards a student hasn’t learned and presenting those more often.

“Students can go through and get a full rationale as for why an answer is right or wrong,” he said.

And because so many tech-savvy entrepreneurs are getting in on the recent app boom, Keune said, Higher Learning Technologies is setting its study tools apart by including three unique features: a social aspect, a game element and the ability for the application to be customized to a student’s needs.

“Our app will have something similar to a Facebook function, with an online community,” he said. “It will be like dental students helping dental students.”

Keune and co-founders Alec Whitters and Ben O’Connor have been close friends since age 15 – attending Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids together and then the University of Iowa. Keune went to work for Yellow Book, Whitters went to dental school and O’Connor started taking nursing classes.

But while in graduate school, Whitters began scheming about the test prep application and went to teachers and peers for feedback. The idea received overwhelming interest, and Keune left his job – while both Whitters and O’Connor took time off school – to focus on the concept.

“We realized, ‘Wow, we can really take off with this,’” Keune said. “So we are all committed to this full time.”

The application launched Nov. 8 in the Apple store with test preparation material for the dental boards. It’s in a beta stage, meaning developers are still working out bugs, and it costs $20 right now – although it eventually will be priced around $50.

In just its first month on the market, the company made more than 200 sales in 30 countries, Keune said.

The company has raised more than $50,000 in capital and has office space in the UI’s Oakdale Research Park. Developers are preparing to roll out an application for nursing students next, followed by a dental boards part II and preparation materials for the dental aptitude test that students take to get into school, Keune said.

“Without spending a dime on marketing … we are making four times what we expected in sales,” Keune said. “Its success has kind of taken us by surprise.”

And while the trio is making plenty in worldwide sales, they plan to offer the tool to UI students free “forever.”

It’s already been made available to dental students, and many are using it, Keune said.

“It’s our way of giving back,” he said.

Owners: Adam Keune, Alec Whitters and Ben O’Connor

Company: Higher Learning Technologies

Address: 108 Technology Innovation Center, Oakdale Campus, Iowa City

Phone: (319) 929-2904

Website: www.hltcorp.comHours: The app can be purchased online.