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University of Minnesota launches startup Early Learning Labs

Company is second internal business unit to be spun out of U

May 2, 2012

The University of Minnesota recently launched startup company Early Learning Labs, which will commercialize a suite of tools for monitoring ongoing growth and development of preschool children. The suite, coined myIGDIs, is a combination of a test kit and assessment system as well as a web-based management and reporting framework designed for schools, teachers, and early childhood specialists.

The myIGDIs assessment measures (Individual Growth and Development Indicators) are based on 15 years of research on the measurement of essential skills in preschool children. The measures provide both periodic “snapshots” and a measure of growth over time in a child’s early literacy development. The assessment tools require little technical knowledge or training to administer, and teachers can track results over time. Researchers hope the assessment will ensure children in need of individual attention in school will get it. Early Learning Labs is the first U of M startup to result from research at the College of Education and Human Development.

“It’s easier to teach children when you have clear and frequent information about whether the interventions you’re providing to them are working or not,” says Scott McConnell, co-inventor, professor of educational psychology and affiliate of the Center for Early Education and Development. “We do lots of different things for young children at home and in preschool programs; it’s good to be able to sort out what’s actually helping kids learn.”

To date, myIGDIs has been used in more than 11,000 school settings and measured 180,000-plus preschool children.

“The University of Minnesota has a long tradition of innovative research in child development. The myIGDIs test measures are a prime example of this; and we’re extremely excited about the potential impact these tools can have on improving early childhood education,” according to Steve Johnson, president of Early Learning Labs.

Early Learning Labs is the second “internal business unit” to be launched by the university; CaSTT (Commerce and Search for Technology Transfer), an e-commerce and marketing framework for technology transfer offices, was launched in 2011. Internal business units (IBUs) are an innovative approach to moving university innovations from the lab to the marketplace. IBUs are relevant for a small number of technologies that are nearly market-ready but need some limited investment and product validation in order to be more attractive as licensable opportunities.

“IBUs are an effective way to incubate certain technologies before putting them in an external business setting,” said Rick Huebsch, associate director of the university’s Office for Technology Commercialization. “They are another tool in our technology transfer toolbox and provide additional opportunities to launch startup companies based on university research.”

Specific criteria must be met in order for a technology to be considered for an internal business unit, including that the technology must be in an advanced stage of product development and only a few months from being ready for initial product sales. IBUs are not a mechanism for bridging a broad “valley of death,” or for incubating inventions that will require a long period of development or significant seed funding. In the case of Early Learning Labs, the University provided some limited investment in the early-stage development before choosing to spin out a company. After the period of University incubation, a group of Minnesota technology investors came forward to fund the company’s launch, and to play an active role in its initial operation and development as a startup company.

The myIGDIs technology was licensed exclusively to Early Learning Labs by the university’s Office for Technology Commercialization. The research behind myIGDIs was funded by the United States Department of Education. The assessment was invented by McConnell, Educational Psychology Professors Mary McEvoy and Michael Rodriguez, and CEED Research Associates Tracy Bradfield and Alisha Wackerle-Hollman.

About the Office of Technology Commercialization
The mission of the University of Minnesota’s Office for Technology Commercialization is to translate University research into new products and services that provide growth opportunities for its licensees, benefit the public good, improve the quality of life and generate revenue to support the University's research and education goals.

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