By: Mark Guarino
Education ventures are a tough sell to investors. Yes, they have noble missions, but they're hard to monetize because school district budgets often have little money for extras.
Eileen Murphy Buckley has had it pretty easy. Even before she launched ThinkCerca in mid-2013, the Gates Foundation pledged $250,000. Since then, the former English teacher and startup CEO has raised an additional $4.7 million for her company, including $3.2 million in March led by educational book company Follett.
ThinkCerca is a subscription-based online repository of reading and writing lessons for grades four through 12 intended to strengthen critical thinking and literacy skills. Students create arguments and explain their reasoning in accordance to specific readings while teachers can personalize lesson plans for students of varying levels and monitor progress in real time.
More than that, what intrigues school districts—and investors—is that ThinkCerca's lessons are structured around the recent Common Core State Standards Initiative, and Buckley hired some of the same writers of those standards to create her content. “When you get into what we teach, which is how to analyze a poem or how to create a scientific argument, you have to know a lot about the subject,” she says. “There is no way around the expert element.”
Buckley, 44, taught English for 15 years before becoming the founding English department chair at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School on the Near North Side. She later worked at Chicago Public Schools as director of curriculum and instruction. Her experience was funneled into a 2011 book, “360 Degrees of Text: Using Poetry to Teach Close Reading and Powerful Writing,” geared to help teachers strengthen skills required by Common Core.
WHY HE INVESTED
Chuck Templeton, chairman of 1871's Impact Engine and a ThinkCerca investor, picked the company and seven others out of 800 applicants for the accelerator program in 2012. He says Buckley already had proven her curriculum models were in demand. Another selling point: ThinkCerca is designed as both a platform and a content provider, which allows more versatility if Buckley wants to one day open the service up to third-party providers.
“She was already getting paid for what she wanted to do in a virtual world,” he says. “Her passion showed she had staying power, plus being in the industry brought us over the edge.”
ThinkCerca charges schools $1 per student per week, and Buckley says about 60,000 students are signed up. The company quadrupled its revenue in its second year and is on track to triple that amount next year. The service is available today in almost 300 schools—public, charter and private—in 30 states, including over 100 CPS schools and suburban high schools in Chicago Heights and Lake Forest.
To match such growth, Buckley moved the company out of 1871 in August and into its first office downtown, which will support 28 full-time staffers.
Buckley lives on the Northwest Side, in Budlong Woods, with her husband and four children. All attend CPS.