Durham startup trinket focuses on interactive education lessons

akenney@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2014 

— Brian Marks, co-founder of the startup called trinket, describes his company’s technology as an “open education platform.”

The new Triangle company’s website, trinket.io, lets teachers make good-looking, interactive education lessons, focusing for now on computer programming.

“Basically, our company mission is to get more people teaching more often,” said Elliott Hauser, the five-person startup’s CEO. “It’s a big mission, so we’ve narrowed it down to really focus on introduction to programming to start with.”

The company, which officially launched its service this week, is focusing on a sector – educational technology, or ed-tech – that’s attracting increased investor attention.

Instead of having students install a complicated set of coding tools before a lesson, trinket puts a “sandbox” for coding directly into the teacher’s presentation, which can live in trinket.io’s digital cloud. Students write or edit code directly in the digital lesson, then watch it execute.

“As an instructor, I need to get my students that light bulb before I ask my students to spend two hours installing different versions of software,” said Hauser, who teaches programming at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Trinket has raised $375,000 from seven angel investors.

The company’s focus on ed-tech may end up being an advantage as it searches for a second round of funding this summer to shore up its newly launched product.

“At the most basic level, education is a massive industry – and so, from an investor perspective, that kind of translates to a big opportunity,” said Anand Sawal, a co-founder of CB Insights.

Sawal’s company tracks investments in private ed-tech companies. In the first quarter of this year, such companies raised close to $559 million, about $100 million more than the same period last year. That money is going to companies working to distribute lectures to massive audiences, build marketplaces for tutors or help schools organize their data.

“The sentiment on the space has become very bullish, at least among investors,” Sawal said.

Nontraditional path to the top

Hauser took a nontraditional path to become CEO of a startup. He majored in art history at Duke University – and he has written on the company’s blog about the parallels between his studies and the art of teaching programming.

Hauser, Marks and Eric Martindale co-founded the company last year and originally named it Coursefork. Martindale is no longer involved in the startup.

Trinket did much of its early work alongside other entrepreneurs inside the The Startup Factory, a large glass-walled room beneath the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. In the past few months, the company changed its name and rewrote its code from the ground up.

Out of the incubator

Today, trinket works out of an office attached to The Startup Factory, having graduated from its incubation program. Now the company’s product is waiting online for its first users.

Trinket’s platform should eventually allow for digital physics experiments, or interactive math problems, as the company expands, Hauser said.

The company plans to make money by charging organizations that want to make “private” courses, rather than publicly accessible presentations. Trinket also will sell curriculum management tools.

“It needs to be something that people who teach will use every time they teach,” he said.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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