Mill member profiles

Josh Owens: Boost

by Mar 4, 2021

A year ago, Josh Owens was getting ready to fly to Italy, where his husband was contracted to play the lead in a production of West Side Story. Josh had just finished a run for governor of Indiana and stepped down from being CEO of SupplyKick, which under his leadership had grown from a couple million dollars to just over 40 million dollars in annual sales in five years. It seemed like a great time for a trip to Italy and a respite from the breakneck pace of running a startup. Then COVID struck. Their flights were canceled, and life took a left turn.

“In our minds we were getting ready to go down a different path,” Josh says. “COVID obviously changed everyone’s plans from a career and business standpoint. And so we found ourselves back in Indianapolis, trying to look at what those next steps would be and where we could be most useful.”

A few months later, Josh was contacted by Cy Megnin, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the Velocities region and Jason Whitney at Indiana University (IU) Angel Network, about a new edtech startup called Boost. In the tight-knit Hoosier entrepreneurial ecosystem, word of opportunity spreads fast.

“So we all reconnected and started a conversation about this technology that Ben Motz developed at IU. It was helping students stay on top of what they needed to do that day and increasing the number of students who were completing a class and staying on track for graduation. As a former faculty member at IU and Butler University, I immediately understood the problem that Boost was trying to solve, in a way that I thought was pretty unique.”

And that’s how in the middle of a pandemic, Josh Owens found himself back in the startup world, as CEO of a new venture that elegantly sidesteps one of the biggest problems for edtech: adoption.

Josh Owens, Co-founder & CEO

Ben Motz, Co-founder & Chief Research Officer

“Most solutions in the education space require a lot of faculty or teacher input to manage it, putting in the information, getting students into the right cohort, so that the technology can then start to work. And Boost was inadvertently solving this problem: it was focused directly on the student using existing data.”

Boost is what Josh calls a “lightweight” solution, meaning it doesn’t add to the instructor’s burden, and yet it still provides substantial results in student learning. In the age of COVID and massive shifts in education, this advantage is even more critical, for overwhelmed teachers and for struggling students. The Boost app works by pulling data that’s already in the learning management system (LMS)—in the case of Indiana University, that’s Canvas—and then repurposes it to empower students to control the notifications and reminders they receive about assignments.

The premise sounds so simple: can reminders really make a difference? Shouldn’t students already know what they have to do? Learning today looks different, Josh argues, and not just in a pandemic. As a former teacher himself, he says, he became intimately aware of how much students have going on.

“We have societal expectations of what college culture is going to look like. But the truth is, for most students, college isn’t this perfect four-year arc of living on college campus and things going decently well.”

“For a lot of students, college involves transferring schools, changing majors maybe three, four, five times. That might set them back a year or two on completing their schooling. Just in the last decade, the price of college has changed so rapidly, that for many students, it really does become a semester-by-semester decision of, is it worth continuing?”

“What is really exciting to me about Boost is that I love solutions that don’t try to moralize about the world around us, but instead just try to solve the issue. And the issue is there’s a lot to stay on top of. That was true before COVID hit. Now that schools are flipping back and forth between online, hybrid and in class learning, things are changing dynamically for students. They might also be working two or three jobs to help pay for school, on top of family obligations and other things that might be going on in their life.”

“It’s not unreasonable for students to simply not be able to stay on top of all the things that are due in their classes, things that do add up to missing points here and there. It can make the difference between staying on track and doing well in class versus being at a really difficult decision point of, are their grades in a place where it’s even worth continuing at school?”

In higher ed, Josh explains, the average student has about 80 assignments in a semester, not including exams and group work. The base-level assigned work at typical universities works out to just over one assignment per school day. “It’s easy when you look at those numbers to understand the cascading effects of what can happen if you have a bad week because work gets difficult, or the class gets difficult, or something in life gets really difficult—especially during COVID.”

“Our attitude with Boost is compassion. Sometimes things go well, and it’s easy to organize it all in your head or in a planner. . . . But the moment things get a little bit more difficult, the first thing that starts to fall apart is daily organization. ‘What do I actually have to get done today? What’s important?’ That’s where we hope that Boost can step in and make life a little easier for students.”

The impact of that help is profound. In co-founder Ben Motz’s research study, Boost increased the number of students who were submitting assignments by 6%, increased the overall course grade by 4%, and increased the number of students who would pass the class by 3%. These are enviable outcomes, particularly for such a simple solution, and they are even more impressive when controlling for high-performing student users.

As a research scientist and director of the eLearning Research and Practice Lab at Indiana University, co-founder Ben Motz studies the intersection of student psychology and behaviors. The origin of the research project that led to Boost was one simple question: How can we make an impact on students turning in assignments?

“The greatest predictor of student engagement and performance in a class is if they’re turning in their assignments,” Josh explains. “That’s obvious, right? If you’re not turning an assignment, you’re not getting the points. So you’re already likely to be doing worse in the class. And you’re much more likely to also not be putting in the time to study for exams, and that leads to more points lost. The research question was, what happens if we just made it easier for them to stay on top of what they have to do?”

The first route Ben and his team explored was email reminders. But students, like most people, receive so many emails that reminders get lost there. The solution lay in harnessing an existing student behavior: checking their smart phones. While not every student has a smart phone, most carry their phones with them everywhere.

“From a business perspective, the research project forced Ben and his team to think about, ‘How do we build this solution in a really useful way for the students?’ And that naturally led to, ‘What if we created an app that would connect to their Canvas account?’”

Students’ Canvas accounts already held all the relevant information on assignments and due dates; all that was needed were optimized push notifications. The research project led to an alpha test across 200 students and a beta test across 5,000 students. The results were undeniable: Boost improved student outcomes.

“All of those success metrics were coming not from faculty members having to put more hours into it, or the school having to find the students who were having troubles. The success came from giving students more control over understanding what was due that day, when it needed to be done, and how they needed to do it. And that support turned out to be incredibly powerful.”

IU quickly saw the potential in commercializing the technology and spinning it out into its own company. From mid-2020 on, the focus was first on building the team, then fundraising, and now expanding the pilot into many different universities and ultimately into K–12 schools.

“I’ve helped build some pretty complicated businesses in the past. What’s nice about Boost,” Josh says, “is that we have a very narrow focus on what the problem is, and a very narrow focus on how we can solve it. There are certainly other ways that it can also be solved, but this is one way that is proven to be successful, that is a relatively low lift for all stakeholders involved, and yet can have a huge positive impact on the learning environment. And that’s really exciting about it, especially for me as a former teacher. We have a great application that ultimately helps students.”

As an entrepreneur, Josh is also excited by the business opportunities. “Boost was developed in close communication with Canvas because it started as a research project. They were having regular conversations with Canvas about what they were trying to build, how they’re working with students, and what it looked like. If you fast forward to today, as we build out the business, build the app, and look at bringing on a number of other institutions and schools, we’ve continued to do that in close consultation with Canvas.”

Boost has a partnership agreement with Canvas, in fact. “If you think about what Boost is trying to do and the results that we’re having with students, it makes Canvas more valuable to schools because it’s helping students stay on track and accomplish the things that the learning management system itself is managing for that school.”

“Learning management systems in general are difficult because you’re building one big solution for an enterprise that has thousands of different users and classes. And everything is slightly unique, even though 80% of it is the same from one class to the next, one year to the next.” In response, an ecosystem of apps and plugins for Canvas has emerged to support meeting those diverse needs.

Josh first started developing domain expertise in elearning in the summer of 2013, when he helped develop online classes in economics and statistics for Butler’s Lacy School of Business.

“I’ve used Moodle, I’ve used Blackboard, I’ve used Canvas. I’ve used many of the major learning management systems. They are incredibly powerful, but you do have to have a vision for what you’re trying to build in a class. You have to have time. You have to have the resources. And you have to have the technology expertise to be able to pull in all the different pieces needed to deliver a class to students that is engaging, authentic, and challenging —a class that is rigorous and not easily cheatable.”

“What we’re asking of faculty members today is to not just be really great at teaching students, but also also to become technology experts.”

Due to COVID, this change has happened at lightning speed not only in universities, but in K–12 schools, which are, Josh notes, typically much more under-resourced than higher ed. “I’m very sympathetic to what teachers and faculty members are having to do on a day-in, day-out basis just to keep their classes running, let alone to make them thoughtful and exciting for students who are changing from online to hybrid to in class multiple times within a semester.”

“Boost is focused on making sure that students can stay on track and on time with what is really asked of them to do today. And I think our solution, working directly with the students instead of working as an intermediary between the faculty member and the student, hopefully that will be something that really sets Boost apart, but also is a welcome innovation within the education space.”

Boost is only a few months old but is already active at Indiana University and IUPUI. Though the solution can expand quickly, the team is taking care to explore ways to provide value that are still within Boost’s narrowly defined focus, while they simultaneously develop capacity. The team is aware, for example, that K–12 follows a different model than higher ed, including a different sales cycle and different stakeholders making the decision. Still, Josh and Ben are hoping to get Boost into about a dozen more schools before the start of the 2021–22 school year.

“Everything we’ve been hearing from investors, from Canvas, from educators, is that this is something that is so needed in the K–12 space, to take some burden off the teacher. Right now that teacher is probably having to keep a spreadsheet of students who are doing well and who are not, emailing them individually, maybe having their phone number and texting them or their parents.”

“Our hope is that we can also get a few pilot programs going in K–12 schools to help support student learning in what I think is going to continue to be a pretty touch-and-go scenario even into next school year. At a minimum, online education is not completely going away, the most likely scenario being that hybrid learning models are here to stay. And we hope to make that easier to navigate for both the students and teachers.”

“Boost isn’t by any means a silver bullet. But if you take our success metrics, and you roll them forward to a large number of students, an overnight 3% increase in the number of students who are passing any given class, just as a result of signing up for Boost and getting the reminders that they need—that can have a cascading effect in the educational space that could be incredibly powerful.”

The future looks very different for Josh than it did a year ago, when he was getting ready to spend a year in Italy, but he has no regrets. “What’s been fun about this process for me is jumping back into the startup grind. For any founder, day to day, you’re constantly questioning your assumptions. You’re constantly questioning if you’re thinking about the business problems in the right way. Luckily, we’ve been able to bring in some really great investors, some really great advisors and thought leaders, especially early on, who helped me think through my underlying assumptions.

“From a business perspective, you have to make some bets. And you’re either right, or you’re wrong. Hopefully you’re doing enough testing and having enough conversations around the underlying product to think through, Is it the right solution at the right time for the right people? And then if that’s the case, are you getting it into the right people’s hands at the right time? And do you have a pricing mechanism to help pay for it, but not get too much in the way of scaling the solution?”

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we have been able to put a lot of those pieces together quickly. We’ve been lucky to have a lot of really great people along for the ride: Cy from Elevate, Jason at IU Ventures, Pat East and the community at The Mill, the Flywheel Fund . . . It’s just been really helpful for me as a founder. It’s also been really rewarding to be going back through this journey as a startup leader and to have so many Hoosier leaders and entities along this journey with us.”

Boost recently closed a round of funding in January 2021 and will soon be hiring an additional technology leader and a few sales and marketing positions.

Learn more about Boost.