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With new funding, tech team, Higher Learning Technologies plans to release more apps

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"Entrepreneurship is a community sport," founders say

There are tons of good ideas out there. There aren’t as many truly great ideas.

That’s true in all business, but it especially rings true for the founders of Higher Learning Technologies, Coralville-based maker of education apps.

The company’s first four apps, which focus on test preparation for dental and nursing exams, all reached top 100 grossing lists for education apps. The first nursing app, NCLEX RN, quickly broke into top 10 lists, and the study tools are used in more than 150 countries worldwide. The company has received funding from the state of Iowa’s Demonstration Fund, and garnered awards and media attention at both the local and national level. The company recently completed another round of funding, but details were not disclosed.

Now that they have created the software, which puts bulky test prep books and hundreds of flash cards into the user’s pocket, it would be easy to rapidly release hundreds more apps, for practically any field that has rigorous exams. But that’s not what the three co-founders have in mind.

“The challenge is identifying the great opportunities, instead of the good opportunities. There’s a whole lot of things we could do, and the real challenge is identifying the great things,” said Alec Whitters, co-founder and CEO.

By the end of the spring, the team plans to release about 10 to 15 more apps – mostly in the health sciences, but a few in other fields to test the waters. Their goal is to change education forever, offering elite apps and customer service, to make it more accessible to anyone with a smartphone; nothing less than great will do.

The co-founders met in high school, and all went on to pursue advanced degrees at the University of Iowa. Whitters was preparing to take his dental boards, Ben O’Connor was studying nursing and Adam Keune was finishing his business degree.

Whitters and O’Connor grew increasingly frustrated with traditional test preparation methods available to them. Facing licensing exams that would define their careers, all they had were expensive books and hundreds of flash cards to carry around campus. They decided to digitize the information so they could study anywhere, on an app with diagrams and photos, flash cards, explanations of practice problems and metrics on the student’s performance.

With the help of their professors, who donated course content, they released a “very crude beta” of their first dental app in November 2012. The first nursing app, NCLEX RN, was released the following may, and dental boards part two and NCLEX PN quickly followed.

The apps aren’t cheap – retailing between $25 and $50 – but students around the world have responded. The nursing app, in particular, was a milestone for the company, the co-founders said. After that proof of concept, they expanded their staff and started a technology upgrade, including adding Josh Cramer, prominent local entrepreneur and investor, as chief technology officer in the fall of 2013. The team includes 10 full- or part-time employees and several contractors, as well as a slate of mentors from both health care and technology.

“Everyone is offering their services, or they know people who can help,” O’Connor said, noting he was amazed at the support the young entrepreneurs have received from the community. Sally Mason, UI President, has offered the former students her support, their professors have provided content, and dozens of community members have stepped up as mentors.

“Entrepreneurship is a community sport – it’s not something one company does on their own,” Whitters said.

As they grow, the team is working to “suppress the chaos” and move from a startup to a stable, sustainable business. But, Keune said he hopes to keep the hustle of a startup.

“You don’t see that kind of excitement in a corporate setting,” said the former business student. “You don’t get an opportunity like this very often.”

Scott Sanborn recently featured Higher Learning Technologies on his "Created in the Corridor" segment, see that below:

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