Pizza with a CTO — NUMA x Ideaphora

Ideaphora enables students to take notes and organize material, connect ideas, analyze information, and apply their knowledge — all in one screen. By building and sharing knowledge maps, students develop higher order thinking skills, critical for college and career readiness, while teachers are able to visualize their students’ learning.

  • Founders: Anil Arvindam, Mark Oronzio
  • Founded: 2013, incorporated in the US
  • City: Portland (Oregon, USA)/ Bengaluru (India)
  • Funding: 40k$ seed from angels + undisclosed investment from Brainpop
  • Company size at time of writing: 5 + part timers
  • Tech team: 1 CTO, 2 Java software developers, 1 JS/Web designer. Looking for JS developers.

What’s on your Biryani ?

Paneer Makhani Biryani — This CTO Pizza took place in Bengaluru, India. In our concern of staying local, we grabbed some Biryanis instead.

Anil Arvindam, CTO Ideaphora Inc.

Let’s talk about you

I pitched him the idea, and Mark entered as a co-founder in 2013. We still hadn’t met yet, everything was done over Skype.

What’s your background?

Before Ideaphora I co-founded an education assessment startup (Edcite), where I wrote code and set up the dev team. Before that and for several years, I did a mix of technical consulting and being an entrepreneur in residence, since 2002. I first moved to Bengaluru to work for a chip company around that time, and before that I worked in the Bay area for Pacific Broadband Networks.

Beforehand, I worked for about 10 years in Tampa (Florida) for Home Shopping Network, because my background was in digital video, with a low level chip design CS degree. I was part of the team that made HSN go from an analog to a digital signal.

How did Ideaphora start?

When I was an entrepreneur in residence, I worked on a digital video startup to extract highlights of sports events automatically (we were mostly focusing on cricket games). But we ended up being unable to raise any funding and I started looking at educational videos.

When watching videos, one wants to take notes and always have to go back and forth between the screen and your notes — you might end up losing information in the process. Then when you go back to your notes, you can have a hard time finding again the time in the video they belong to. That’s where the idea of Ideaphora came from, as we didn’t find any pre-built solution. So we came up with the idea of applying concept maps next to videos to take notes in a visual and spatial way, which our brains remember more easily.

In 2009, I started researching a viable business model for the idea and put together a business plan. But concept maps are still an alien concept to the majority of the population. In 2013, I spun off from Edcite to start Ideaphora full time. I spoke to a friend who knew some people interested in investing, and he knew somebody who had a background in concept mapping and edtech: Mark! I pitched him the idea, and he entered as a co-founder in 2013. We still hadn’t met yet, everything was done over Skype.

Brainpop was really interested in the project and funded the first product, so we were able to grow the team up to 7 people.

In a few words, what is you job now?

I focus on getting the next round of funding and sign-up contracting partners. I’d like to be more focused on tech yet, but there’s no time for it and I trust my lead developer to do the job. Mark is doing the same thing in the US, basically, while I’m doing it here in Bengaluru.

Has it changed since you started?

At the beginning, it was all code and architecture design. The first 2 years were about pure technology, as we were building the app for Brainpop. We then started to work on our own application (we own the IP) with its own set of unique features.

The last 6 months have clearly been focused on fundraising and pitch decks.



The stack of an EdTech company


When you tell developers in 2017 that they’ll work on core Javascript, they are not always qualified

What’s your stack and why this choice?

The front-end is pure Javascript, with Fabric as a drawing/canvas library. For the rest it’s pretty simple Jquery/Bootstrap code.

The Backend is a bit more complex, with Java Spring and a semantic engine to analyze educational content — PDF documents, speech transcripts etc. We basically extract text and images, and run them through a machine learning/natural language processing engine to extract key phrases that are presented to the user in synchronization with content.

We store all that in a Cassandra database, as most of our data is represented as big JSON objects. Cassandra was chosen because it handles big chunks of data, with fast writes and a free licence.

Have you changed anything in your stack yet? Why?

We want to move to a front-end framework because it’s easier to hire people. When you tell developers in 2017 that they’ll work on core Javascript, they are not always qualified since they are used to having a framework do the heavy lifting for them.

We’ll also implement a UI framework like Kendo UI or similar, along with a charting framework. The mobile app is also soon going to be a consideration — for now, we’re using PhoneGap.

Have you ever faced a crisis? How did you solve it?

We had a database crash after we mistakenly removed some tables in production. We had strong backups so we were able to put everything back up in less than 24h.

The incident happened on a Friday night, so we were back up and running on Monday morning, without any customer noticing!


Your CTO life

In India, nobody teaches children how to learn. That’s a gap we‘re here to fill.

What’s your hardest challenge at this time?

Getting the next funding round! We’ve been talking to a few potential customers about the long-term value of what we’re trying to achieve, but it’s a very long process and we need to stay alive during that time. A few investors see the concept as a vitamin, as a note-taking solution. But we are more than that — we are teaching children how to learn effectively so they can understand better rather than just remember well. Nobody in India is doing this with technology that spans all subjects.

But our main issue right now is to get our customer validation in India. Once we do, it’s going to be easy to go back to investors.

Your biggest responsibility?

Same thing — Making sure we have enough money to keep going. Then, making sure we stay one step ahead of the customers’ needs. There’s a great tech lead who is also our product lead, so I can stay focused on the architecture and fundraising.

Would you change anything you did since the beginning?

When we launched, we directly made it a premium app, which you had to pay for to use. We should just have made it a freemium from the start, and we’re only making the switch now, and working on a compelling business model.

Investors like having a lot of users, so we need to raise our user base before going for premium features.


The people at Ideaphora

Can you describe your tech team in a few words?

Our head of software has 15+ years of experience in Java development, and is pretty much strong in everything. I found him on HasGeek while he was consulting for a few other startups. The other back-end engineer has 4 years of experience, and the front-end has 2.

Anything specific you are looking for when hiring?

The ideal is somebody who wants to work because they dig the project. I want to see some sort of passion about changing the education system, and a willingness to work hard and learn new things.

There are lots of people that are only searching for a salary, and stock options are not particularly enticing to these folks. They’d rather work for a big corporation and build a resume on brand value rather than cutting edge technology and work.

It’s slowly changing because a lot of people got laid off from big corporations and turn to startups for a more exciting adventure.


Let’s talk about the future

Where will Ideaphora be in 2 years?

If all goes well, my dream for India is that millions of kids will be able to learn on our app, directly from home. We will make Ideaphora a core part of learning in India.

The biggest challenges you’ll face to reach this point?

We would like to work with the government, which is hard unless you have the right contacts. We’re also hoping to work with special needs schools (i.e. for hearing impaired people, children with cerebral palsy and autism)

Our biggest issue is that most people don’t know what concept maps are. So we first need to teach them about that before they can understand how powerful our product can be.


Article written by Alban Dumouilla and originally published on CTO.Pizza

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