IOWA CITY — In a matter of weeks last March, Riley Eynon-Lynch saw use of his company’s product increase by 1,000 percent.
“We have an amazing technical team that could scale our infrastructure really fast, and then amazing sales and marketing teams running 10 trainings a day,” said Eynon-Lynch, the CEO and one of the four co-founders of Pear Deck, an education technology company in Iowa City.
One of Pear Deck’s professional development events had 40,000 teachers watching. Daily training sessions had 1,000 teachers as viewers.
It’s part of the Iowa City-based education-technology industry’s accelerated growth since the start of coronavirus.
“It became a more important part of education for a lot of teachers and schools,” Eynon-Lynch said.
A 2019 report commissioned by the Iowa Economic Development Authority estimated the size of the global ed-tech market to be $57 billion. Now, it’s expected to be $1 trillion in the next eight years.
“It’s blown up because of the online learning that’s occurring,” said Kate Moreland, the president of Iowa City Area Development Group.
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“We’re going to see a lot of products as a result of this period. ... We think it’s an ideal time to help get our share of that market and kind of plant our flag in Iowa around it.”
The best case scenario in the next five to 10 years, Moreland told The Gazette, would be for the Iowa City area to be “recognized nationally and internationally as a place where learning is being advanced.”
Adam Keune, co-founder of Coralville-based Higher Learning Technologies, anticipates ed-tech also filling a void for adult education as the Iowa workforce’s needs change.
“There’s going to be a lot of people that are going to need to be retrained in a lot of industries,” Keune said.
“It’s just the reality we live in.”
The Iowa City area already has myriad educational-technology companies. Testing giant ACT, which was founded in 1959 in Iowa City, is the longest-tenured company in the area.
Leepfrog Technologies, which provides course catalog services and other software for hundreds of universities, started in 1994.
While Pearson and McGraw-Hill are not headquartered in Iowa City, they also each have a significant footprint in the Iowa City area.
The 2019 IEDA report listed the presence of ACT and other existing ed-tech companies as a benefit as the state builds its own education-technology footprint.
Eynon-Lynch sees having other education technologies in the area as a workforce benefit as well.
“There are employees around that already know the space, and even if they’re looking for a switch from their current employment, they can stay in Iowa City,” he said.
The University of Iowa has helped the region attract education technology companies. Adam Keune, the co-founder of Higher Learning Technologies, said working with nearby schools — both at the university and K-12 levels — has given HLT a “sandbox” for new products.
“A great example is when we started with our nursing product,” Keune recalled in a virtual panel hosted by ICAD Thursday. “All of our products are free to University of Iowa students.”
That way, he can hear feedback from both students and faculty.
Debi Durham, the director of IEDA and the Iowa Finance Authority, said she has been talking to the state Department of Education about embracing this opportunity more.
“We need more cooperation from our education department,” Durham told The Gazette last month.
“We need to be able to work with them to solve problems proactively, but more importantly, to test some of these things. ... They need to be a partner on this, and they need to understand that all eyes could be on Iowa for this sector.”
Iowa is not alone in trying to become a center for ed-tech.
The IEDA report mentions Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh and Madison, Wis., as other places eyeing this industry.
Durham said ed-tech first caught her attention in a 2017 conversation with the previous president of ICAD and the previous chief executive officer of ACT.
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The Iowa EdTech Collaborative, a partnership between ICAD, IEDA, the New Bohemian Collaborative and other organizations, has worked to fund more ed-tech start-ups in Iowa.
Eynon-Lynch credited support from ICAD and other groups for making the Iowa City area a suitable home for Pear Deck when it started 2014.
“We didn’t move here for those reasons, but those were the things that made us feel like this is a good place to start a company,” he recalled.
Pear Deck merged with Los Angeles-based GoGuardian in November, but Eynon-Lynch said the company plans to keep all Pear Deck operations in Iowa City.
While the switch to remote learning forced many schools to more fully embrace education technology, Eynon-Lynch is confident schools will continue using Pear Deck’s platform even when schools are fully reopened.
“Pear Deck really helps teachers make sure they’re reaching every student, every day,” Eynon-Lynch said.
“We think that’s going to be a value that persists, even when COVID is over.”
He’s already been seeing it with schools that have resumed in-person instruction.
“Their usage of Pear Deck increased at the beginning of the outbreak but didn’t decrease when they went back to school,” Eynon-Lynch said.
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