Shearwater’s Jackson Boyar (left) and Cram Fighter’s Amit Mathew (right) won the edtech pitch contest today.

Over the past three years, Cengage Learning has successfully pulled itself out of bankruptcy and into the tech world. Since the textbook corporation has pivoted itself to be focused on educational software development, it’s made an effort to ingrain itself in Boston’s edtech community. This afternoon, Cengage hosted the Live Higher Education Pitch Competition in its Seaport office as just another act of reinforcing its revamped techie persona.

To be clear, Cengage wasn’t flying solo on this pitch contest. The company partnered with LearnLaunch – an organization dedicated to supporting edtech startups through its Accelerator, Campus coworking space and Institute programs – to bring it all together.

Five startups that aim to solve a wide range of problems in the higher edtech space, helping both universities and students alike, presented their pitches. A panel of judges, which included folks like Cengage’s CTO George Moore and Simmons College School of Management’s Teresa Nelson, scrutinized their companies and picked a winner.

Or, in this case, winners. The judges couldn’t settle on a single victor, so they selected two: Shearwater and Cram Fighter, which were on opposite ends of the edtech spectrum.

As a reward for their domination today, Cram Fighter and Shearwater will be receiving separate feedback sessions and lunches with potential investors, according to LearnLaunch.

Shearwater’s Intercultural Curriculum

You may have heard of Shearwater because of its Techstars status. The startup is finishing up its stint in the accelerator program and is getting ready to move into its own office space.

“They’d be paying $50k a year and wouldn’t be happy. It was ridiculous.”

Jackson Boyar, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Shearwater, pitched the business, which is focused on assisting international students in assimilating into American university life. The Shearwater solution allows schools to match international students with mentors, who are typically alumni but could also be upperclassmen in some cases. The pairs follow a curriculum, so that the international students can become included members of their college communities.

“During college, I had a lot of friends who were Chinese students or who were from the broader international community,” Boyar told me. “They had trouble adjusting to life at American college. They had no American friends – I was their only one – and they’d feel very isolated. In some cases, they’d drop out. They’d be paying $50k a year and wouldn’t be happy. It was ridiculous.”

Boyar explained that to avoid extreme scenarios like international dropouts and just general discontent, Shearwater’s platform ensures students are engaged. They meet over video with their mentors and complete activities with them. For example, they can do role plays, going over scenarios like meeting a roommate for the first time and speaking up in a classroom setting.

At the same time, mentors can assign their own tasks to international students to make sure they’re properly easing into their foreign surroundings. Boyar said they might as mentees to do things like going out and making 5 new American friends. Shearwater’s solution not only enables these interactions, but it also ensures universities can hold both sides accountable so progress is actually being made in getting students into a groove.

Cram Fighter’s Study Plan of Attack

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cram Fighter targets individual students and helps them figure out independent study schedules. Amit Mathew, one of the startup’s co-founders, explained that when it comes to high stakes exams, people can take hours – even days – to create a long-term study plan. He saw this problem firsthand as he watched his wife prep for med exams.

“There’s always been a focus on developing better test-prep content – a new book or a question bank. But now, we’re helping them organize all of that quality content.”

“I was directly watching her struggle planning to prepare for her board exams,” Mathew said. “She was pulling out markers and doing crazy things to organize her resources. My background is in tech, so I would think to myself, ‘There has to be a way to automate that.’”

With Cram Fighter, a student just has to enter all of the resources they intend to use to prepare for a heavy-duty exam, and the solution produces a personalized plan. It also makes instant adjustments for people if they want to add other resources or if they fall behind.

“Basically, they’re very content-intensive exams,” Mathew elaborated. “You have to memorize and understand volumes of material. People usually have good idea of what they want to use for resources, but then they have to figure out what their day-to-day study schedules should look like. There’s always been a focus on developing better test-prep content – a new book or a question bank. But now, we’re helping them organize all of that quality content.”

For the most part, Cram Fighter has identified med students as ideal users. But that’s just for now. They’re planning on branching out and allowing other people prepare for different professional exams, such as CFAs and LSATs.

Image via Olivia Vanni.