Xavier Xicay experienced firsthand how fragmented the student workflow is while studying graphic design at Northeastern. Having to bounce around from his textbook to his notes and back to the professor’s powerpoint was frustrating. So frustrating, he decided to address the issue head on, drafting mockups and networking prototypes he could use to lure someone from the publishing industry.
With one simple goal — to disrupt higher education — Xicay started building Tuatara, working toward the company’s first platform GilaPad. His progress soon caught the attention of William Hoover, a digital author for McGraw-Hill Companies and a professor of anatomy and physiology at Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College. Hoover signed on as co-founder and president, and the idea started materializing from there.
“I was 20 years old at the time, trying to convince someone to work with me,” Xicay says. His proposal, however, was powerful. With GilaPad, students can drag text, images and videos from textbooks, as well as course materials from the web, and drop it right into their notes. They can collaborate with classmates in real time, all while annotating their textbooks, notes and other class materials.
Although the e-textbook market is expected to pass 25 percent by 2015, digital textbooks only topped three percent of the education market in 2011. To Xicay, that’s because there was never a compelling reason for students to use e-textbooks. What he’s trying to tell publishers now, however, is that he has the ability to make that statistic change.
Xicay and Hoover started looking for funding, yet found themselves in this triangle. “Investors wouldn’t give us money without contracts with the publishers,” Xicay says. “Publishers wouldn’t give us the contracts if we didn’t have the product, and developers wouldn’t work for free.” So, after four months of trying to get the attention of friends and family members, Xicay received two million dollars to start paying developers to iterate.
The web-based e-book platform attracted four publishers: McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Wiley and Jones & Bartlett. This fall, Xicay says they’ll go live with GilaPad’s beta in a closed environment, after having tested the platform with 100 professors and more than 1,000 students at MIT, Bunker Hill and other surrounding colleges.
“Publishers don’t lose anything by doing this beta test with us,” Xicay says, claiming GilaPad will only make “their products look awesome” and help them with sale-through. Each publisher has given an e-textbook to Tuatara, who can then provide the publishers with data at the end of the semester, whether it be on the amount of students who used the drag and drop feature or the percentage who said they’d buy a company’s textbook through the GilaPad platform again.
“The idea with this platform is to make it open for everyone,” Xicay says. Once GilaPad catches on, professors could start making their own materials available without having to do much — they upload their work to GilaPad, whether in PDF, Word or Powerpoint format, and the company turns it into an HTML textbook for them, allowing professors to give it away for free or sell it at their own price point. To Xicay, they’re “marrying the best of both worlds,” bringing together open source content and the publishing world. Once publishers jump on board, Xicay claims they’ll be visiting schools to see if they can sell them the Tuatara technology.
When asked what really sets Tuatara apart from other local companies dabbling in the textbook space, like Boundless, Xicay admits it’s their relationship with the publishers. “We’re bringing value to the publishers,” he says. On top of that, he points to the “power of individual experience.”
The Tuatara team is currently looking for six to eight million dollars in funding right now. Xicay says some of the publishers have already started expressing interest in owning a piece of the company. Why? Because perhaps they see what Xicay knows. “Instead of creating another ‘sustaining e-book platform, we are creating a disruptive one.”