In the United States, around 36 million adults are reading below a third grade level, and less than a quarter have the resources to boost their literacy skills. A team of educators and techies hope to tackle that issue through GogyUp, an adult literacy platform that helps users learn English while reading everyday documents.

GogyUp is not a translating service – it functions as training wheels for people learning to read English. The free app helps users build phonetic awareness by providing examples of the 40 plus sounds made by the English alphabet’s 26 letters.

“There are certain skills we learn in school that we rarely use,” said co-founder Ned Zimmerman-Bence. “You don’t always need things like algebra, but everyone needs to know how to communicate effectively.”

GogyUp aims to help fix what Zimmerman-Bence describes as a “talent crisis” faced by manufacturing businesses. As these workplaces become increasingly diverse, multiple languages are often spoken on the factory floor.

Zimmerman-Bence said that GogyUp worked with one company where eight languages are spoken by employees. In these environments, instructions can be misinterpreted or lost in translation, leading to productivity issues. By providing free and accessible English lessons for employees, GogyUp hopes to improve communication in the workplace.

Zimmerman-Bence is an experienced educator and first-time founder. Before he started working on GogyUp in 2015, Zimmerman-Bence served as the executive director of Minnesota Online High School. Prior to that, he worked in elementary schools for a decade.

“We decided not to write a single line of code without talking to students.”

Not all of GogyUp’s students are starting from scratch. In Minnesota, there are more than 150,000 people under 40 years-old that do not have a high school diploma, Zimmerman-Bence said. GogyUp aims to help this demographic by helping students brush up on English skills required to attain additional degrees.

GogyUp was a semifinalist in the impact ventures division of this year’s Minnesota Cup. At the end of the startup competition, GogyUp received a $5,000 prize from AARP, which Zimmerman-Bence said the business used to apply for a patent. He added that as GogyUp continues to grow, its founders plan to avoid traditional funding models like venture capital and angel investing. Instead, the startup hopes to grow through partnerships and the subscription fees companies pay to use its platform.

“A lot of times when businesses create these platforms for employees, they do it without working with end users,” Zimmerman-Bence said. “We decided not to write a single line of code without talking to students.”

Zimmerman-Bence hopes to continue working closely with GogyUp students as the startup continues to add more users. Currently, he said, GogyUp is piloting a program with local YMCAs that helps users navigate and understand the often complicated process of obtaining U.S. citizenship. GogyUp is testing the program with one YMCA with the goal of expanding to up to 12 in the Twin Cities area.

The startup also hopes to establish relationships with organizations like local public libraries and the International Rescue Committee to provide literacy lessons for those in the community that recently relocated to the United States.

“Our goal is to be viewed as a highly valued resource for users and employers,” Zimmerman-Bence said.