This time, the blog post isn’t about online assessment, successful implementation strategies for maths e-learning or how to help tackle Covid/lockdown related issues, this time, the blog post is a bit more personal and a short history lesson ;) Because the company SOWISO was founded 10 years ago! So, I want to share a bird’s eye view of what happened in these years.
Although the company was founded 10 years ago, the process leading to that foundation started a bit earlier already. Myself and Max, the other co-founder, were already life-long friends since the start of high school.
Max & Marc at the opening of the first office
After having worked in big-tech and big-government, we decided to quit our jobs and go for an entrepreneurial adventure together. Through Arjeh Cohen, we came into contact with Eindhoven University of Technology where we started SOWISO as a spin-off from the department of mathematics and computer science. The first phase was spent performing technological and commercial feasibility studies, leading to a first business plan on how we were going to disrupt the market for high school maths books. As time and insights progressed, our focus shifted towards higher-ed and we rewrote the business plan (a dozen times or so, up to the point where we never wanted to see it again) giving us a solid foundation to start. But the real kick-starter came after a newspaper article where we were given the opportunity to tell about our innovative plans, to make “maths sexy again” (A title that was chosen by the journalist of course)
Sexy or not, this article sparked the interest of the Amsterdam university hospital (Amsterdam UMC) who wanted to offer their graduate students a more flexible and personalized way of learning statistics. This was the first contract for SOWISO!
Image by: Benjamin Voros
This first (jointly created) e-learning course was a big success (and it is still being followed by hundreds of aspiring doctors each year) and helped SOWISO grow. But after a few years, we came to the conclusion that the technology we were using, as well as our business model, was not scalable at all and we urgently needed to change something to assure the future of the company. And as many business guru’s preach “you have to fail at least once to know what it takes to be successful”, so we were happy to have gotten that part over with already pretty soon ;)
This led to the creation of the first version of the e-learning platform, with the built-in authoring environment, that many of you know. The University of Amsterdam (UvA), our neighbour at the Amsterdam Science Park, was the first one to adopt the new platform in 2013. It was only used for a small pilot, a graduate unit by André Heck with 3 students (of which even 1 dropped out during the unit!) Thankfully, it was still a success and after that, the UvA became the first large scale adopter of SOWISO. After which many universities and colleges followed.
Becoming a publisher One of the main feedback comments we were getting from teachers was that the platform was really great, but that it took quite a bit of time to create new learning materials in the authoring tool. And there was no denying that, creating content takes time in any tool, also in ours. That led us to hire our own in house team of authors, to create ready-made content to be used by teachers. We were really focusing on maths courses in the beginning, but expanded to statistics, physics, and now even python programming! Since this publishing process required a lot of resources up front, around this moment we were also looking for external funding. With the help of KplusV and MoneyMeetsIdeas we found our perfect investor-match in BflyVentures, with who we have had a professional and vey pleasant relationship ever since.
These courses are turn-key but are easily adaptable by teachers. We see that some use the courses as a complete substitute for the traditional book, others use it as an add-on to other learning materials, whatever suits the particular teacher or unit best.
Over the years, the content department within SOWISO has become the biggest department. And we take pride in the fact that we employ more mathematicians than developers or commercial colleagues! We feel it helps us be a better partner to the higher-ed institutions we work with.
Image by: delfi de la Rua
Mathematics might be the most international language there is. And this is a very good thing! An engineer studying in Amsterdam learns the same maths as one would studying in Sydney, a safe thought as well ;) So we went abroad with the platform and courses, which we published in at least Dutch and English.
Over the last years, we expanded to quite a few countries. Belgium and Scandinavia became important markets, where we partnered with both higher-ed institutions as well as educational publishers, reaching over hundreds of thousands students each year. But it doesn’t need to be close to home, our second biggest market became Australia!
We also found out that although maths might be international, our brand name SOWISO (a Dutch abbreviation for “Software voor Wiskunde Onderwijs”) wasn’t exactly so. When I met with teachers abroad, the first question I usually got was “Am I pronouncing this right?” So outside of the Dutch-speaking markets, we went for our new name “Bolster Academy”. Has quite a more international ring to it don’t you think?
SOWISO learning platform
But a new name isn’t the only thing we worked on the last 10 years ;) Our team of authors published a range of top-notch digital books. And their development colleagues added tons of new features over the years. A lot of these features have been developed in close contact, or even together with, our university partners. This type of open innovation is something we enjoyed and benefited from. The best ideas come from the teachers we work with, since they are using the tool on a daily basis and know first hand what works for themselves and for keeping their students engaged.
One of the main themes we’ve been working on with our partners is to develop more online assessment options. This assessment ranges from homework or diagnostic self-tests to formal exams, in each case saving teachers a lot of time since they don’t have to grade it all by hand anymore.
The last years we also looked at the hardware side of it and set up a scalable architecture, being able to serve not only tens of thousands of students worldwide but also making sure that even if 2.000+ students start their exam at exactly the same time, they don’t experience any delays (which is great, they are already nervous enough for an exam to begin with!)
Another big recent milestone was the ISO27001 certification we obtained. The process (and what a process it was!) and its outcomes made us even more aware in the fields of security and privacy. Universities and students trust us with their personal information and it is our responsibility to treat this data with the utmost confidence and professionalism. Being GDPR compliant is one thing, having your security procedures and information management systems in place to be on par with ISO27001 is something entirely different we found out ;)
When we see where we stand now as a company and how turbulent 2020 has been, it sort of feels like what we did over the last 10 years in some ways accumulated into the last year. It was a terrible year in many aspects. Society was disrupted on many levels, and education not in the least. But at SOWISO, we were glad that we were able to help teachers around the world mitigate some of their problems so that they could continue their teaching during the lockdowns. The world of education was already changing, but the change has been accelerated. The phases we went through over the previous years prepared us to step up our game when needed, and this hopefully helped students continue their learning and not fall behind, whatever situation they were in.
Team picture (Social Distance)
Everything that happened in the last year made me realize even more that that’s what it is all about for me. 10 years ago, Max and I started SOWISO because we wanted to make a difference in our own lives. Right now we are working with 30 colleagues to make a difference in students’ lives. Education, and the right to it, is treated differently around the world and accessibility to that education can be an issue. We are proud to play our small part by making the best STEM education available to students, wherever they are. And after the successful rollout in universities and colleges, we are now making our way into secondary-education, reaching even more students. And interestingly, finally ending up at our first rewrite of the business plan 10 years ago ;)
On to the next 10!