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New grading software saves teachers time and governments money

What started as a "logistical nightmare" – marking 5,000 exams with just 100 graders for the 2011 Canadian Open Mathematics Challenge (COMC) – has evolved into a rapidly growing start-up with global market potential.

Founded by University of Toronto Professor James Colliander and University of Toronto graduate student Martin Muñoz, Crowdmark Inc. was among the first 10 companies to graduate from UTEST (University of Toronto Early-Stage Technology). Jointly administered by University of Toronto and MaRS Innovation (MI), the program helps turn promising ideas into marketable products and services by providing start-ups with seed funding, office space in Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, mentoring and business advisory services.

"The UTEST program understood the value of my invention and saw its potential when others didn’t," says Colliander.

That potential is based on a software platform that moves pen and paper grading into the cloud. Here’s how it works: Blank exams and student lists are uploaded to Crowdmark, which generates exams with unique student QR (Quick Response) codes. Teachers then print out the exams for students, and finished exams are scanned again and uploaded to Crowdmark, where markers work alone or as part of a team to leave scores and comments. The platform stores the exams for easy online access any time by students and parents.

It was successfully tested at the 2012 COMC with 147 graders physically located at eight Canadian universities assessing 46,424 math problems simultaneously. It cut the marking time from past competitions in half.

In May 2013, Grade 3 and 6 teachers at Toronto’s Golf Road Junior Public School used Crowdmark to score a mock EQAO (the standardized tests from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office) exam. As one teacher noted: "I was able to mark three times the amount of student work in less than a third of the time it would have taken me if those tests had been in front of me with a pen in my hand."

In addition to saving time, the platform also saves school boards money.

"Collectively, teachers spend more than two billion hours per year grading student work, by hand. Administering EQAO costs the Ontario government $33 million every year," says Colliander.

Seeing the market opportunity, the University of Toronto’s intellectual property office referred Colliander to MaRS Innovation, which in turn encouraged him to launch a company through UTEST.

"What distinguishes UTEST is its focus on early-stage, intellectual property-based ventures, whereas most tech-based accelerators focus on fast-moving, fast-trending technology companies," explains Michael Betts, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at MI and Co-director of UTEST. "We also incubate companies for six months, instead of the traditional three, which gives them time to validate both the technology and the market."

Initial seed funding of $30,000 from UTEST enabled Crowdmark to file for a patent, build a prototype, create a business plan, and get advice on marketing and building a successful and sustainable business. The math competition provided an opportunity to test the software under real-world conditions.

The success of that large-scale proof-of-concept, combined with limited resources in education systems worldwide and an exploding market for distance education, convinced MI, University of Toronto’s Connaught Fund, the Ontario Centres of Excellence and other funders to invest a further $400,000 in Crowdmark. Both UTEST and MI are now equity investors in Crowdmark and any cash earned from a successful exit from the company is reinvested back into MI and the Connaught Fund.

"MaRS Innovation takes more of a merchant banking model, where we help do venture creation and then get a percentage of the founder’s equity for support of that very early development," says Betts.

Crowdmark now has seven employees, including a former IBM executive to head its sales, and former MI executive Lyssa Neel as Chief Operating Officer.

"We’ve made our first sale, are going out on sales calls to universities in upstate New York and are currently trialling the platform in 21 countries to mark student papers," says Neel.

The initial target market is large, first-year university courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – disciplines that are hard pressed to find enough qualified graders at one institution. Following successful pilots at universities, colleges and school boards, more than 120,000 pages of assignments and exams have been evaluated using Crowdmark.

The technology also received top marks from the Education Division of the Software & Information Industry Association. Crowdmark was named the most innovative of more than 50 applicants at the SIIA’s Education Industry Summit in May.

"Grading STEM exams is more labour-intensive than many other first year exams, which often rely on multiple choice answers," says Neel. "This is a market that is virtually untapped."

For Colliander, a university professor who admits to having "no business experience," UTEST and MI have been game changers.

"I learned how to turn an idea into a company," says Colliander. "Without MaRS Innovation and UTEST, I don’t think I would have been able to build this as quickly as I did."