Ali Sarafzade is making learning more personal with Protean.me
The product helps kids and educators get a better handle on individual abilities and is already deployed in multiple states – and abroad.
Ali Sarafzade is making learning more personal with Protean.me

Hey Ali, welcome to AllYouCanTech! To get started, can you introduce Protean to our audience?

Protean was inspired by watching my daughter at the age of 12 do some amazing things and not knowing how to capture those learnings in a meaningful way that would make a difference in her life.

At the time she was a member of the Lego Robotics team, was attending Young Writers seminars at the local college, had her poetry published by the local newspaper, and was active on Scratch with over 400 followers. What really bothered me was the fact that her teachers didn’t know about any of it. The most common response from teachers … “I wish I had known”

And that is the problem. Education is a $5 trillion dollar industry that is only 2% digitized. Learning is increasingly fractured and siloed in ways that do not communicate with each other.

Considering the fact that at the age of 12 she was demonstrating aptitude in robotics, coding, engineering, and writing; there existed no way for us to capture that learning, from different sources, customize it for her, and nurture it through high school. Protean is the result of that inspiration. In fact, schools have a name for this approach; it’s called “Personalized Learning”

Fast forward 3 years, Protean is a digital personalized learning portfolio and learning management system for schools that aggregates learning from any source and makes it count. In Vermont we call them PLP’s.

Whether it is in-class, an online course, a weekend seminar, or while visiting a museum on vacation, learning happens all around us and Protean captures that learning in real time and aligns it with your school’s standards and various student information systems.

And the market is growing fast. Over 30 states and multiple international jurisdictions have some form of a personalized learning effort in place while existing tools are struggling to meet the new approaches needed.

Sounds like a great problem to address! Can you take us back to when you founded Protean?

I used to be chief product officer for a mid-sized government IT company. We built and managed digital government systems in 30+ states and I developed an aptitude for building complex platforms.

I started Protean when our company was acquired and I decided not to stay. For me it was an easy transition from my previous role to that of building my own solutions. Over the course of two years we developed a prototype, added major strategic partners, and began pilot testing. I come from a background of building systems for regulated industries with multiple stakeholders. That experience has served me well in the education sector and it shows in our architecture and our product suite.

But in the end, the customer is really who matters most. We take our customer validation process very seriously. We are continuously incorporating enhancements and improvements to what is now a very polished product. The application is cloud enabled, secure, with a mobile app for students and parents, complex APIs for various integrations, and various browser extension tools. It’s gorgeous!

How did you get your first customers?

Strategic partners and word of mouth have been huge for our growth to date. We started with 180 pilot testers in a single school and expanded to 2,000 students in dozens of schools purely by word of mouth in only 6 months. We have since added schools in NYC, NC, DC and internationally. And we will soon be announcing a major strategic partner that will get us access to over 400 schools nationally. We have accomplished a great deal with minimal resources and are now at a point where we are looking to hire sales and IT support teams to begin scaling.

How did you pick Vermont as the home for the company?

For this particular sector, Vermont is a great sand box. Schools have a high level of independence in terms of being innovative and adopting innovative approaches. We also have a high concentration of organizations that are leading thinkers in the area of personalized learning such as the Tarrant Institute on Innovative Education, The Middle Grades Collaborative, PLP Pathways and some tremendous afterschool organizations whom are all accessible and supportive. We count all of these as strategic partners in our growth.

What are some of the upsides as well as challenges of having a tech company in Vermont?

Like I said before Vermont is a great sandbox. Access to “infrastructure” resources like legal help, patent help, co-working spaces etc… are affordable by comparison to other tech centers. The ability to register your business and deal with government is streamlined and accessible by comparison as well. (in fact you can register your business in Vermont online while sitting on a beach somewhere in less than a minute… I know because I built the system and the SOS has won awards for it).

That said, there are certain things that Vermont is known for. That branding is typically where you see companies gestate and prosper. For example, value-add agriculture, tourism, resort management, insurance, education, military subcontracting. As a state, we need to do a better job of identifying and aligning branding opportunities with investment opportunities.

It is also difficult not to be in the “thick of it” when it comes to tech. Major tech centers like Boston, Silicon Valley, and others have critical mass in tech that feeds off itself in an exciting way. That said, VCET, Fresh Tracks and others are doing a great job at creating that excitement in Vermont.

Where do you see the edtech industry is going and how does Protean fit in?

Good question. By 2035, there are expected to be 2.7 billion students worldwide, and in order to meet higher education demand under the current structure; two universities need to be built per day, over the next twenty years. Wow.

We are already seeing the effects of this as more and more people rely on online courses and other proxies for formal education. Protean is a natural extension of that evolution.

We are thinking big with Protean and it really has the power to transform how we communicate our learning for the next century at a time when most “edtech” is struggling with outdated technology and poor implementations

For example:

Imagine a world where a high school student can demonstrate proficiency in coding, show off their work since middle school, and get matched to a college, scholarship or internship with a single click. No more applications, no more transcripts.

Imagine a world where children with learning disabilities, or underprivileged youth, can demonstrate and meet graduation requirements by using real life examples to demonstrate proficiency in areas that used to rely purely on standardized tests. Suddenly they are no longer struggling because the learning means something personal to them.

Protean empowers such outcomes in a pedagogically responsible way that is in keeping with the best standards in education and is integrated with schools and the way they teach rather than competing with it.

Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in Vermont?

Make sure you really understand your market. We live in a bit of a bubble here in Vermont and the best startups in the third wave of entrepreneurship (See Steve Case’s book, The Third Wave) have to identify and capture real inefficiencies in the market you are trying to serve. The days of the multi-million dollar weekend app are over.

You can only do this by either being a subject matter expert in that field or you need to have a subject matter expert as a partner or advisor. Or else, you will be constantly pivoting as you learn more about the market and are forced to come to terms with reality. Do your homework.

That said the other most common problem I see with startups is that they psych themselves out too early in the game. I believe that sometimes you don’t see that second door unless you go through the first one. It’s a fine line. Don’t psych yourself out of going through that first door.

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