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Alumni Focus: Entrepreneurs Explore the Alchemy of Learning

by John Syme
Henry Blue and Win Smith
Win Smith ’06 and Henry Blue ’06 bring their experience in education and business to bear on their start-up venture Alchemy Learning. (Photo: Maximillan Franz)

If simply perusing the Internet is like drinking from a thousand firehoses, think about teaching from it. Teaching, say, ninth-graders.

Help is on the way.

Henry Blue '06 and Win Smith '06 have launched the start-up Alchemy Learning, a suite of digital instruction tools for teachers, to rave reviews.

At a recent national EdSurge conference, Alchemy presented immediately following Google. The David-and-Goliath contrast must have resonated with teachers who tested the Alchemy product SmartBinder: It got an 84 percent approval from teachers-up to and including paying for it themselves if necessary-compared to a conference average of 55 percent approval for other participating products.

Teachers' appreciation for SmartBinder, which is designed to help teachers share and build engaging lessons, is due in large part to its pedagogical flexibility-for individuals, for particular institutions, or for both.

"We're seeing more products and price points and functionality aimed at individual teachers," said Blue, a teacher himself. "We're starting to see purchasing power shift downward to principals, departments and independent teachers. There is an increasing ability for teachers to adopt technology independently, using the same kinds of tools to teach that they use elsewhere in their daily lives," he noted. "SmartBinder can be used by an individual teacher who can pick it up and run with it, or it can be used collaboratively among a small group of peers or even by a whole school."

That's good for business.

"We sit pretty nimbly with the instructors," said Smith. "With the conference data, we've been focusing on individual instructor products to make it even easier for them to be super-users or super-instructors. And the same way a teacher can focus on a class, an institution can have powerful control in disseminating curriculum."

Putting Experience into Practice

Insight from the front lines-of business as well as education-is fueling Alchemy's rapid growth since Blue and Smith incorporated in 2012.

Their experiences at Davidson and beyond were a perfect fit.

Blue, an English major with a master's in linguistics from the University of Virginia, taught in China for a year after college, and served as press intern for a U.S. congressman and a staffer with a political caucus group in Annapolis, Md. He taught middle school English and history at the Boys' Latin School of Maryland in Baltimore, where he still teaches character education several hours a week.

Smith earned a degree in economics at Davidson and an M.B.A. from Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He was an analyst with Hawkpoint Partners, Ltd. in London for three years, and an associate with New Capital Partners in Birmingham, Ala., before moving to Baltimore as a software associate with ABS Capital Partners.

After a couple of late-night bull sessions between the Davidson friends, Alchemy Learning was born.

In a Skype interview, Smith said, "We debate everything but don't usually get to the point of contention. I have certainly learned a lot and have a lot left to learn about how teachers really think. It's a unique group of folks."

"Teachers are getting more influential by abandoning the script that is the text book," said Blue. "Alchemy makes tools that empower teachers, that help give them ownership of the curriculum and the educational process."

That perspective, said Blue, springs directly from the close classroom experience of Davidson.

And that perspective continues to grow upward and onward with possibilities, added Smith, also apropos.

"That is something that was a given with Davidson professors: The acceptance that there may be no single right answer," Smith said.

As educators at every level continue their necessary march away from single-source curricula and into all the Internet's available "messy free stuff" as one partner put it, the tools to make it all manageable for teachers is urgently important.

This spring, Alchemy added staff, including two Davidson interns through the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Internship Program, and expanded into new offices.

Visit the Alchemy Learning website.