Rackspace Startup Program Spotlight On Knowji: Combining Education, Technology For Language Acquisition Apps

Helping people learn more in less time is the mission behind Knowji, a passionate education technology (EdTech) company and a member of the Rackspace Startup Program that strives to empower people through education, focusing specifically on language acquisition.

Knowji’s goal is to enable anyone to learn a language at an unprecedented speed. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, Knowji co-founder and CEO Emmie Thomas knows first-hand the challenges in learning new a new language and the lack of tools available to help.

Looking back now, I realize the seed that would become the idea for Knowji was planted when I was a small child growing up in a working class immigrant community in New York City,” explains Thomas. “There I encountered many people who had great potentials, but who were prevented from getting ahead in their lives because of some significant challenges in their education, especially around language. That was when I first made the connection between education, language competency, and leading a fulfilled and happy life.”

Knowji builds apps that combine scientifically proven methodologies with entertaining content to create a thoroughly engaging and effective learning platform. Its users learn hundreds of words in a month, and have fun doing it. Over four years of development and refinement have gone into Knowji’s effort to deliver a high quality learning experience.

I had arrived at a crossroads in my career a few years ago,” says Thomas. “I wanted to leverage my experience and interest in technology and build something that would make a positive social difference. I just wasn’t sure which direction to take.”

Thomas says she had a true a-ha moment while she contemplated studying for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

“I was really struggling to memorize the vocabulary lists, and when I looked around for a tool to help me, I couldn’t find one. It was then I had a crucial insight – the technology I needed to help me study my GRE vocabulary could also be an important component in a larger solution to help all those people I had seen struggle during my childhood.

“It all came together at that moment,” continues Thomas. “I not only had found an important problem that I was passionate about solving, but most importantly, one in which I could leverage my intimate knowledge about the problem space, as well as my technology experience, to build a company that could help address the problem. This was the genesis of Knowji.”

Initially, Thomas was the sole contributor of Knowji. She spent considerable time thoroughly researching the problem space through scholarly publications on second language acquisition. She says she found herself fascinated and engrossed by the subject. During that time, Thomas learned some programming, and built prototypes to test the effectiveness of what would become Knowji’s adaptive core learning algorithm. Thomas’ co-founder and husband, Nick Thomas joined the team, and started to build the Knowji platform based on Emmie’s previous research.

“We’re passionate about building great things that can have a positive social impact,” exclaims Thomas. “We pour our hearts and souls into what we do, and we feel extraordinarily rewarded whenever we hear from our users and teachers who tell us that we’ve made a huge difference.”

Over their four years of development, the team at Knowji has brought to market a set of 14 vocabulary apps that have been featured in Apple App Store. These apps help anyone build their vocabulary quickly, and include words for the SAT, PSAT, GRE and TOEFL exams.

From a technology standpoint, Knowji built its apps on Rackspace. “The value for us in being in the Rackspace Startup Program is in the expertise we can count on at Rackspace to help us make the right calls on our cloud architecture strategy,” says Thomas. “Like many startups, we’re a small team and we have to wear many hats.

“Reliability, services and support were the chief factors that contributed to Knowji choosing Rackspace,” she says. “We wanted a fast website that was always available, but we also didn’t want to spend a lot of time away from our core business tending to the needs of the site. Rackspace brings cloud expertise directly onto the Knowji team. This means we get to stay focused on what we do best while knowing we have a trusted partner watching over our cloud infrastructure, an increasingly critical part of our business.”

A powerful cloud infrastructure enables Knowji to be on the forefront of the EdTech explosion.

“It’s an amazing time to be in EdTech,” says Thomas. “We’re seeing new possibilities opening up all the time. While it’s true that technology in education has often failed to deliver on its promise in the past, we believe that this convergence is beginning to usher in long-awaited benefits from technology. We’re excited to be playing a part in this, and to be able to work on a huge, seemingly intractable problem that we would like to see solved.”

The crossroads of mobile, cloud computing, social networks and adaptive learning are exactly where Knowji wants to be.

“Mobile was a great place for us to start, because as a platform it enables people to learn anytime and anyplace,” says Thomas. “This is perfect for our algorithm, and it’s proven extremely effective. What set us apart from our competition are the quality, breadth, and depth of our content, and the speed and ease by which our learners learn and remember a large number of words in a short amount of time.”

The core of the Knowji technology is its learning algorithm. It’s based on scientifically proven methodologies including Spaced Repetition and The Forgetting Curve. When you use Knowji, the algorithm tracks your learning.

“Learners love our apps,” concludes Thomas. “You can see this from the amazing testimonials we have on our website. It’s so great when people get in touch to tell us what a difference our apps have made for them or for their students. When we hear Knowji was the breakthrough tool for an adult English as a Second Language (ESL) learner struggling to pick up English in night school, or a struggling student who is reading three grades below their level, it’s these kind of stories that let us know we’re making an important difference in people’s lives.”

What’s next for Knowji? Just last month, Knowji was one of 10 United States startups selected by KOTRA (Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency) to attend the 2014 Global Startup Vision Conference in Seoul, Korea. The conference provides entrepreneurs first-hand exposure to one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and the opportunity to meet with investors and exhibit their products. “KOTRA is keen to invite education technology startups like Knowji because of the importance of education to Koreans, and the increasing role technology is playing in the classroom,” says Joong-Hun Kwon, KOTRA Managing Director, in a statement.

Thomas adds, “Being an immigrant from Hong Kong myself, I really understand the challenges of ESL learners, and we look forward to the opportunity to release our products in Korea.”

The Rackspace Startup Program was there to help Knowji bring to market a set of 14 vocabulary apps that it built on a world-class cloud platform. Drop the Startup Team a note and let us know if you need any help building your startup.

John McKenna loves startups and was a Space Cowboy with the Rackspace Startup Program. He also crafted customer stories and produced really cool videos for the Customer Reference Program. John enjoys telling stories through his writings…and loves the beach, the ranch, his dog Blue and most of all his three beautiful daughters.


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