Social Entrepreneur Daniel Fountenberry ’08 saw an opportunity to personalize learning through technology. Through his company, Borne Digital, he and his team developed an adaptive reading platform for tablet devices called Books That Grow. These digital books ‘grow’ in difficulty as students become better readers.
Borne Digital was recently named a finalist at the SXSWedu Start up Competition. Read on to learn how learning to read is rapidly changing through the use of technology.
Tell us about Borne Digital and what is unique about it.
Borne Digital develops digital books that gather data while the child reads, analyzes that data in the cloud, and adapts the content in real time to suit each student’s needs. Our goal is to provide each student the most challenging experience they can manage, keeping them within what psychologists call the “Proximal Zone of Development.”
By creating a real time feedback loop within a book, our platform serves as a bridge between Publishing and Big Data.
What has been your biggest “A-Ha!” moment to date? How did it change your business?
We originally developed our technology with struggling readers in mind. We thought we were developing an intervention tool. However, during our initial pilots with elementary schools in Harlem, we found that the kids who were most excited about Books That Grow where the students who hungered to be challenged.
Our platform gave the students an opportunity to ‘grow’ beyond their teacher’s expectations. I’m pleasantly surprised every time an educator or student finds a use case for Books That Grow that I had not planned on, from ESL to adult education. We know now that Books That Grow is about growth and advancement no matter where you start.
When communicating with those “borne digital” today, what main differences should we keep in mind?
Our name is a double entendre. “Borne” is the past participle of the verb “to bear” – like a blood-borne disease or air-borne pathogen. Today’s youth are not only born into a digital age, but “borne” by digital media. Whether it’s a homework assignment, a photo of friend, or a favorite song, Digital Natives prefer media that they can tag, mash up, and share. Their greatest fear is being left out of the conversation.
How did the Columbia Business School classes you took shape your business/management approach?
At Columbia, I studied mostly finance, which has been very helpful thus far. However, the class that I’ve relied on most is Michael Feiner’s High Performance Leadership. Professor Feiner would often say, you can lead people to “stack bricks or build a cathedral.”
Each day, I’m humbled and inspired by the passion and hard work of my team. They are not working for me. Rather, they are working for the vision and mission of Borne Digital.
The Columbia Alumni Connection: How have you used it? How do you stay involved?
I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received from the Columbia community, not just the Business School but across the entire university.
The Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Teachers College incubated and housed Borne Digital for its first nine months. We also partnered with IUME to organize a conferenced called “Apps that Close the Gap” which focused on using technology to accelerate achievement in urban schools.
I’ve met most of my collaborators through Teachers College, including my Co-Founder, Dr. Jason Buhle, an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience who also earned his Ph.D. at Columbia. I rely on Columbia Business School alumni for strategic advice. Our advisors include Douglas Holloway, a legend in the cable industry, and Vineet Madeen who previously ran digital for McGraw Hill Education.
I engage with current students and alumni primarily through Columbia Venture Community (CVC) and The Black Business Students Association (BBSA).
Where do you see your business going?
Personalized, data driven learning.
What advice would you give to a graduating Columbia student with entrepreneurial aspirations?
Focus on solving real problems. You know you’ve found a real problem when your target customers are developing their own work-arounds to make something in their lives better (or less painful).
Once you’ve developed something that you believe solves a problem, offer it to your target customers. If they would rather pay for your product than use their own work-arounds, then you’ve solved a problem.
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