From August 9 to 11, 140 developers, teachers, designers, students and mentors worked almost non-stop for 48 hours to create the next big education startup. Canada’s first education-specific Startup Weekend took place at The Working Group offices, crammed with pop cans and iPhone chargers. On the Sunday evening, 12 companies pitched their prototypes and business models to a panel of judges, vying for over $20,000 in prizes.

The team behind LearningLoop, the parent-teacher communication app that won the weekend’s competition, credits their success to a strong validation strategy.

“Our mentor really challenged us to get the product into the hands of our customers,” says team member Alison Livey Gibbins. In response, she created a “pop-up daycare” to access kids and parents.

“We couldn’t book space in time, so we just did it in my backyard. We had 11 kids and nine parents show up, plus two ECEs [early childhood educators] and one JK [junior kindergarten] teacher,” she says.

The kids played with the facilitators in the backyard while the parents drank coffee in the house, receiving updates on their children’s activities through their phones. LearningLoop originally started as an idea to help teachers inform parents what their kids were doing at school; however, the team soon realized that there was more value in explaining to parents how the trained educators were benchmarking their children’s behaviour against developmental milestones.

“We want to get beyond reporting on what the kids are doing to why they are doing it or how they are doing it,” explains Gibbins.

The LearningLoop team also realized that the educators and the parents were speaking in different languages. “Having both educators and parents on our team was crucial,” says team member Loren Aytona, as it led to the creation of different designs for the parent interface and the educator interface.

Loren Aytona from LearningLoop pitching at Startup Weekend Toronto EDU
Loren Aytona from LearningLoop pitching at Startup Weekend Toronto EDU

One of the unique aspects of the Startup Weekend Toronto EDU design was including high school students, not only as product testers, but also as part of the teams. David Wang, a Grade 12 student at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, was pumped when his idea for providing incentives for online learners to finish courses passed the audience vote on the Friday night. By Saturday night, however, David’s team had interviewed enough customers to know their idea would not work.

“I learned so much,” he says. “Startup Weekend isn’t just about creating the next big company, it’s about learning the process. Failing slowly costs a lot of money and time for a startup.”

David has already changed his idea significantly and has reached out to online education providers Coursera and Udacity with suggestions for new revenue streams.

“One of the things I learned this weekend is the idea of not falling in love with a solution, but falling in love with a problem,” he says.

High school student David Wanf hard at work at Startup Weekend Toronto EDU
High school student David Wang hard at work at Startup Weekend Toronto EDU

One of the developers on the LearningLoop team surprised everyone at the Sunday night awards announcement with the news that he had to head back to Poland in the next few days to finish Grade 12.

“It’s amazing for someone so young to have that experience. He kept up, too. He did so well,” says Aytona.

The three top winners (also check out SmartyPants and Fieldr) will now start to redeem one of their prizes: intensive mentorship sessions with MaRS education advisors, as well as complimentary access to the upcoming Entrepreneur’s Toolkit Workshops.

One of the winning startups, Fieldr, was quick to credit its own team dynamics for its success.

“It was pretty democratic the way we worked together,” says team member Max Paterson. “We talked everything out. We even voted a few times.”

Kerri Minns, the team’s marketing specialist, praised her colleagues’ flexibility. “Everyone took on a piece of what needed to be done. It kind of happened organically.”

Keep an eye open for the next Startup Weekend Toronto at The Working Group in the fall. The next big idea just might be yours.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…