Google’s $100,000 ‘Stamp of Approval’ for PlaBook Reads Like Validation for KC-Built Edtech Startup

Kansas City expatriate PlaBook is about to receive $100,000 from Google’s initiative provide funding to black-led startups. But for Philip Hickman, it’s not just about funding, he said. It’s also a credibility boost.

“We were happy to receive an investment from Google,” said the founder of the edtech start-up. “It’s a stamp of approval to really validate our tool. We’ve won other awards like (as a semi-finalist at the GSV Cup). But it was validation. It was Google.

Related: KC startup wins $100,000 from Google initiative, funding its ‘food as medicine’ tech solution for chronic disease, healthy food inequalities

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Although Hickman moved PlaBook in St. Louis in 2021 to take advantage of the Arch Grants program, he was previously a mainstay of the Kansas City tech scene. He is a 2022 Fellow of the Pipeline Entrepreneurs Elite Fellowship and a veteran of Techstars Kansas City, Digital Sandbox KC and LaunchKC.

PlaBook uses artificial intelligence, natural language processing, voice recognition and gamification to help children learn to read.

To click here to explore PlaBook’s reading and math technology.

When creating its products, according to Hickman, PlaBook did not use any third-party tool, but developed its own voice engine. Unlike Google’s voice engine, which uses an adult dataset, PlaBook uses a children’s voice dataset, in addition to accounting for regional accents and dialects.

“So it was a bit more difficult to develop our proprietary technology around that because children’s voices change so quickly,” he explained. “Wait a minute, they’re squeaking. One minute they fall, get deep and creak. Then the next minute they have front teeth, and the next second they have no front teeth. »

Without such technology, he said, reading assessments are done by asking a child to read a paragraph and answer multiple-choice questions. Or younger children can be asked to do tasks like, for example, dragging and dropping a picture of an apple under the letter A.

“For the first time, we’re not only able to hear a child read, (but) use AI to analyze their readings and tell you exactly the reading level error, accuracy, reading proficiency oral – all those things – comprehension,” he continued. “But we’re also able to hear down to the phonemic level – we hold patents around that – until we’re able to hear the very unit of speech. …We are able to give them a profile of the student recommendation engine to be able to tell you exactly what obstacles the child has.

The technology is designed to work with teachers, according to Hickman, and be an informative assessment that still works in a noisy classroom environment.

“We inform and help the teacher use data to guide their teaching and personalize learning for children,” he said. “We do this through our gamification, where we add fun games – but academic games – that replace worksheets (and) really help students grow. It’s personalized, so every time the child is on the platform, it envelopes that student’s DNA and it works with the student.

PlaBook is now in use in the school districts of Florissant and Ferguson, Missouri, in the St. Louis area, as well as schools in Texas, Mississippi, Michigan, and New York. The startup is also exploring partnerships with a few schools in the Kansas City area, Hickman said.

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Philip Hickman takes the stage, far right, alongside the Pipeline Fellowship Class of 2022 at the Pipeline Innovators Gala in May 2022

Rewriting of the PlaBook

Before joining the startup scene, Hickman was completely immersed in the world of education. With his doctorate and five graduate degrees under his belt, he has worked as a special education teacher at Columbia, school psychologist in the St. Louis area, vice-principal in Belleville, Illinois, principal in the Chicago area, and superintendent in Houston and Mississippi. Additionally, he founded the Genesis Charter School in Kansas City.

So he knows firsthand the reading disparities that exist in school districts across the country, he said. Seventy-five percent of students in the United States read below grade level; from a minority perspective, 65% of African American students read below the basics; and only 18% of African-American eighth graders are proficient, Hickman said.

“You have this dichotomy and then you also have 73% of crime created in the United States is created by high school dropouts and about 82% of inmates have a reading disability that just hasn’t been corrected,” said he explained. “You go from a national pandemic (which has pushed back fourth-grade reading levels) to sort of a civil rights issue – in a sense – where you have a large majority of minorities who are not able to read at the school level. So this was an issue we wanted to address and examine, why is this such a pervasive issue?

In addition to the $100,000 of non-dilutive funding – meaning the funding is not provided in exchange for an equity stake in the business – Google will also provide PlaBook with $100,000 in Google Cloud Credits, hands-on support from Google employees and free access to business coaching and mental health services.

Google launched the initiative, officially called the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, in 2020 to boost economic opportunity in black communities. In the USA, less than one percent venture capital goes to black founders.

Hickman says they plan to use the funding for marketing.

“(We have to) develop a strong sales team, so that we can gain market share,” he added. “Our only problem is just getting in front of people’s faces so they can see the platform. Once they see it, they get it and they understand it. »

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This story is possible thanks to the support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundationa private, nonpartisan foundation that works with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create unusual solutions and empower people to shape their futures and succeed.

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