|05 July 2012|
|Imagine Cup Alumni Spotlight: Distance Learning and Web Conferencing With Wormhole IT|
Original article published in Wired Magazine on June 29th, 2012. By Chuck Lawton for Wired Magazine.
The 10th Annual Microsoft Imagine Cup starts on July 6th in Sydney, Australia. GeekDad is profiling Imagine Cup alumni leading up to the world-wide finals. For more information, be sure to follow Daniel Donahoo’s coverage of the event next month.
The Imagine Cup, now in its tenth year, has always been about more than a programming competition. Yes, students compete, but they do so while tackling tough challenges and world problems — things like overcoming disabilities, improving healthcare and helping the environment. Competitors are coached on how to take their product to market and every so often a team does just that. Their growth doesn’t end at the end of the competition and they serve as a great example of what success at the Imagine Cup can mean.
Wormhole IT competed in the Imagine Cup finals in Korea in 2007. Their project sought to address educational problems in distance learning with slow infrastructure. They designed a learning management system that incorporated new technology that was bandwidth agnostic yet still could deliver advanced LMS features like video streaming or multi-party audio and video conferencing. Additionally, they recognized that the existing LMS systems were not targeted at the developing world and emerging markets, so having systems available in local languages, developed by a local company, could better deliver an educational system to faculty and students
“The Imagine Cup was the first time we had a chance to share our full vision with the world,” Sally Buberman wrote me in an e-mail interview. The feedback they received from industry experts and entrepreneurs was invaluable, and they started to feel like starting a company around their product could be profitable. They already had a team that had proven itself out and a prototype they built as a hobby as a way to compete in the Cup. Buberman continues, “When we came back, we looked at each other and said: ‘Why not? Let’s do it.’ So we quit our jobs, adopted a rice-and-noodles diet and created Wormhole IT. It’s the most amazing thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and we wouldn’t change it for anything in the world!”
Marketing their real-time classroom experience was their next challenge, and one that opened up new opportunities. Distance learning, they found, is an important but niche aspect to education. But their technology — mainly the self tuning and dead-simple video conferencing solution — had broad appeal for non-educational customers. If you think back five years ago, in an era of ActiveX controls and the T1 lines that made video conferencing possible, a solution that scaled down to dial-up and worked without additional software or custom plugins had broad appeal. So they began targeting the business community, and even telcos themselves who look to differentiate their offerings from competitors through a white-label program that got their technology and web conferencing solution in the hands of thousands of customers.
Wormhole IT’s mission now is “to revolutionize the way people work, learn and collaborate worldwide. We want to provide them a better way to communicate and share information while becoming the standard for web conferencing solutions in emerging markets. Our products are helping professionals, companies, educative institutions and government agencies save time and money by enabling them to meet, train and broadcast events online to any computer connected to the web.” And it’s one they’re succeeding in, even now. Advances in web conferencing technology has been happening in these past five years in the American and European markets, but the developing and emerging markets are still ignored or handled poorly by the major players, especially when it comes to cost, ease of use and bandwidth requirements.
And Wormhole IT isn’t resting either. These same five years have seen the mobile web explode and new technologies such as HTML5 and the emergence of cloud services. Coupled with the emergence of smart phones and 3G in the emerging markets, which traditionally lag behind the U.S. in terms of adoption and penetration, there are a lot of new avenues to target.
I did a demo of their platform to conduct an interview for this piece. They sent out an e-mail link and true to their description, we had a meeting room with full video conference running in no time. The meeting room was cleanly laid out with the full complement of tools I’d expect. And while the video wasn’t full screen, we were sharing documents and video links between the U.S. and Argentina, without disrupting the video call. I was certainly impressed.
I asked the team what running their startup has taught them and what wisdom they might have to share for future Imagine Cup teams. They responded, “Running a start-up in countries with no venture capital industry and economical conditions changing every two days is always tough. However, it is part of the life of an entrepreneur. A good entrepreneur will face all kind of problems but will not see them as problems. They will see them as challenges to face in order to achieve a goal and make a difference. So be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster, don’t give up, build an amazing team of people that can help you achieve your vision and, most importantly, enjoy the ride!”
That sounds like good advice, indeed. I’ve spoken with a few Imagine Cup alumni for these pieces in advance of the 2012 Cup in Australia, and a common thread is the unexpected challenges and hard work spent overcoming them. If running a business were easy, everyone would be doing it. A fantastic idea will only take you so far without the teamwork and expertise to execute on it. The Imagine Cup isn’t a startup incubator, but they do put teams through a fair amount of rigor that teams emerge well prepared to take those next steps should they want to. It’s exciting to see how many do and to have those examples to inspire those that follow.