Today’s Q&A Wednesday is with Kent Fuka, the CEO of Querium. He was chairman of the board of Austin e-Learning company Thinkwell. Kent was previously a Vice President at Tivoli Systems, and was a partner in Austin VC firm CenterPoint Ventures.
Q: Explain what you do in a way that my mom can understand.
Querium was founded to help 24 million students master critical math and science skills, enabling them to achieve their career goals. Students today are experienced users of smart phones and tablets like the iPad. We wanted our products to work on those same devices. Our products use software technology to mimic an expert tutor. We can quickly diagnose what each student needs to learn. We then teach them the most important concepts using bite-size video lessons that feature expert teachers. Our products can adapt to students’ learning speed and abilities. Unlike a human tutor, students have access to our products any hour of the day or night, and can use our products to prepare for their critical tests in just a few days.
Q: What was your “lightbulb” moment when you knew you had something?
We realized we had something when we were able to step in and sign up well-known Texas colleges to help them meet their state mandated requirements to educate students about the new Texas Success Initiative (TSI) Assessment (i.e., Online Pre-Assessment Activity). In addition, when they started asking us for the TSI Math Prep program we are developing right now, we knew we were on to something! Supporting the TSI is the first use of our adaptive, mobile, e-learning test prep platform. We have many great opportunities to use our technology in other learning situations and in other states.
Q: Who are the hard working geniuses behind the company?
Patti Smith, Chief Marketing Officer, was the Texas regional manager for Kaplan Test Prep, and was VP of K-12 Product Strategy at Austin schoolbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She was most recently VP of Market and Product Management at DreamBox Learning in Seattle.
Rich Haner, VP Product Development, was the founder and CEO of Austin product design company Design Edge, and former Chairman of Austin software company Zero Wait State.
Aruni Gunasegaram, VP Operations, was the Director of Operations at the Austin Technology Incubator. She was co-founder and President at Austin startup Isochron Data and a founding parent of Magellan International School.
Alan May, Chief Architect, was a software architect at Home Away and at lottery software maker GTECH.
Stephen DiStasio, Director of Product Management, was a product manager at Microsoft, and at DreamBox Learning.
Q: What is the “secret sauce” that will make you shine above the competitors?
Kent’s work in the area of expert systems technology dates back to his days in graduate school studying Astrophysics. He needed to analyze data from 24 million stars, so he built software to automate that analysis. That software combined artificial intelligence with math simulation and physics simulation. That grad school project went so well, that we’ve applied those same techniques to testing and training students. We’ve designed a patent-pending software platform that combines artificial intelligence with symbolic math technology. As a management team, we have also sold products to colleges for the past 15 years at other companies, so we know what their biggest business challenges are. At Querium, we’re solving one of their top problems.
Q: We’ll know we made it when:
We have helped 3 million students improve their academic and career trajectory as well as increase college graduation rates. We will also know when they or their academic institutions have paid us to help them do it!
Q: Who are some of your first customers?
We have 12 Texas public colleges as our first customers. They’re listed on our website. You’ll have to check out our Partners Page to find out which colleges we have the pleasure of working with.
Q: Our first breakthrough came when:
We saw that all Texas public colleges had to start delivering a new required test, and most of them were not ready. We were able to help 10 colleges meet their new Pre Assessment Activity requirements on the first day the new TSI test went live in August.
Q: The best advice we’ve received so far has been:
To talk to a large number of real college students before we designed our product. We spoke with dozens and dozens of students on multiple college campuses, and our first product turned out totally different and much better as a result of their input.