September 16, 2013

Gradeable's Parul Singh is Boston's Next Big Startup CEO

Last year around this time, Mark Kasdorf was known among some in the tech community. He had founded Intrepid Labs, an app development shop and had just launched a concert finding app called Timbre. However, he was a relative unknown entity among members of the wider innovation ecosystem.

Fast forward to today. Kasdorf just finished an impressive and almost unbelievable week. He was selected as the “Emerging Executive of the Year” at the MassTLC Awards on Thursday, he received an Italics Award from the Startup Institute last night, and Timbre is being featured in the App Store this week as Apple goes live with iOS7 and launches a new iPhone.

What a difference a year can make. The story of Kasdorf’s quick rise to success happens more ofteni n the tech world than almost any other business sectors. It seems as if, each year, someone appears on the collective radar that we knew nothing about twelve months earlier.

Parul Singh, the founder of Gradeable, may be the local startup founder who you start to hear more about soon. Don’t be surprised that if at this time next year, Singh and Gradeable, her Ed Tech company that automatically corrects students’ tests, are a lot more well known than they are today.

Tomorrow, you’ll have a chance to get a glimpse of just what makes Gradeable’s test-grading app so innovative as Singh’s company will be one of the seven Ed Tech startups featured at LearnLaunchX’s Inaugural Demo Day at District Hall.

Helping Educators Find Time to be 'Teachers'

What exactly does Gradeable do. Basically, the app makes a teacher’s work load more manageable so that they can spend more time with students in need of extra help or a teacher’s guidance. Being able to give a student more attention is probably the most vital part of a teacher’s job, yet it is the one aspect of teaching that teachers don’t have enough time to actually do.

Gradeable is a digital test creation/grading program that allows teachers to make a test, with multiple-choice as well as short answer questions, that can be automatically corrected when scanned by a document reader or mobile phone.

(Full disclosure, in my former life as a teacher, I beta-tested the product for my class of hard-to-amaze, tech-savvy teenagers. They were astounded by Gradeable and couldn’t believe that I could grade their tests by running my iPhone over their paper.)

The company’s product also has data analysis features that may be even more important to educators than the time recaptured by automatic test correction. Gradeable can track specific components of a student’s progress throughout a school year by their performance on different types of tests and the varying difficulty or ease of exam questions. When the time comes for teacher/parent interaction, with Gradeable, a teacher has more data available to paint a complete and accurate picture of a student’s progress or even areas of concern.

Boston's Up-and-Coming CEO

Singh, who grew up in Canton, went from Canton High to Harvard, and, after some adventures in London and New York, moved up the Charles to MIT’s Sloan Business School.

As she said, “I think like a lot of entrepreneurs, my path makes a lot more sense looking back at it than it did at the time.”

At Harvard, Singh thought she wanted to get involved in government policy. However, she had learned how to code in high school, and she never lost her interest. Singh was lucky to have grown up in Canton, whose high school has a very progressive focus on math. It is still very rare to find local school’s that offer courses in coding, public school or private.

Her interest in coding was natural led her to a job at Razorfish in 2000.

Eventually, Singh moved to New York City and got a job at Fast Company/Fast Media Inc. as a developer. She transitioned to the business side at Fast Media and worked in product management and technical project management. She later moved on to the New York Times as a product manager, but started to grow an interest in the startup world.

This led Singh to take a job at Visible Measures and move back to Boston. Visible Measures introduced her to the Boston startup scene, but also to MIT’s Sloan Business School. The founders of the company had come out of Sloan at the same time as Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah of Hubspot.

As Singh explained, “I decided I wanted to go to business school and was really attracted to the fact that [Sloan] was really entrepreneurial.”

“I didn’t know if I really needed to go to business school,” she added, “but I felt very curious, like I had a lot to learn.”

“While I was at Sloan I was playing around with a couple of ideas and Gradeable was one of them,” Singh said. However, two other, more personal influences, were driving Singh to develop a tool to help teachers and the education world as a whole.

Education Runs in the Family

“I was really interested in education as a space overall, first, because I don’t think that there is a lot of technology there,” she explained. “Second, education is just a big thing in my family.”

She relayed the story of how her grandfather had been a poor villager in India and would walk twenty miles to get to school. He eventually got a scholarship and made it out of his village.

This led her grandfather to become, as Singh said, “a rural literacy expert for the UN." “He would go into villages and teach people how to read,” she explained. “When he became successful, he went back to build a school in his village.”

“Education was a big deal, something he really cared about.”

Knowing she wanted to build a startup in the education sector, Singh began talking to a lot of local teachers. As she said, “I asked them a whole bunch of questions, but mainly, I asked them what do you hate about your job or what do you need in order to do your job better.”

The overwhelming response Singh received from teachers was both time and money, and as she said, “I couldn’t do anything about the money part.”

“I learned that teachers are spending a third of their time grading.” In her talks with teachers, Singh also found a ton of hard-working educators who were trying to build more trackable data on their students performance. This took even more time and was very laborious as there was no program that allowed for accurate analysis of a student’s performance. Teachers who were using data were patching a bunch of programs together to analyze performance.

Around the time Singh was talking to teachers, she met her other inspiration for founding Gradeable, her future husband.

As she said, “I met an innovative teacher on a bus from Boston to NYC which sparked a four-hour long conversation about technology in the classroom. That teacher is now my husband.”

Her husband, a teacher in Cape Cod had been working on creating a program of more data-driven instruction. However, as Singh explained, “He lacked the tools he needed to innovate sustainably, and Gradeable evolved to build those tools for teachers.”

As the new school year begins, Gradeable is rolling out into more classrooms than ever and is receiving a very warm response from educators. Trust me, from my own experience using the product, Gradeable is a game-changer for education. The time saved and data created using the tool will help teachers and therefore students in unimaginable ways.

Tomorrow’s LearnLaunchX’s Demo Day presents an opportunity to get a first look at Singh and her company Gradeable that is already impressing some of the thought leaders of the Boston tech scene.

As HubSpot’s Brian Halligan, who met Singh when she was a TA during a course he taught at MIT, said of the emerging CEO, Parul is “smart, hardworking, and has good leadership skills.”  

“I think she'll make a great founder.”

Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz.  You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.