When I was in high school, I remember struggling to memorize the makeup of compounds such as sodium oxide (NaCL) and potassium sorbate (C6H7KO2), making flashcards, spending all night memorizing them and acing the test the next morning, only to forget it all by the time it was time to eat rectangular pizza at lunch.

I’m willing to bet most people have had a similar experience at some point in their educational career…and the rectangular pizza is the least dissapointing part about that story.

Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event where entrepreneurs pitch an idea for a potential company on Friday, build a team, work on Saturday with the help of expert mentors, and present their progress to a panel of judges on Sunday. We’ve had at least 4 Triangle Startup Weekends (TSW), the past two combining to draw almost 500 members of the Raleigh/Durham startup community.

I’ve had a blast organizing TSW’s the past few years. The event has become a key component of the local startup ecosystem and we’ve gotten rave reviews from our participants and sponsors. However, something’s been missing – a feeling that we could be adding more value if we were to give the event a little focus. And much like a startup, we’ve decided to focus on verticals, starting with those where we can add the most value.

In deciding which vertical to pick for our next March 7 – 10th TSW event, given our density of world class universities and quality secondary schools, pursuing the education space was a natural fit.

Innovation in Education (or a lack thereof)

Education as an institution has barely changed over the past 100 years. Forget innovation and improvement – teachers are more overworked than ever and our country’s educational institutions struggle to keep up with the rest of the world. Yes, there have been a few interesting improvements such as Kahn Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare, but the traditional top-down, memorize-and-regurgitate model could use a little more distruption.

Validate and Build

Education presents a variety of difficult challenges. First, it’s a space that’s largely misunderstood and one that entrepreneurs are far removed from. Yes, most entrepreneurs have spent time in a classroom, but few have the perspective of an educator. Education is highly institutionalized, silo’d and beurocratic. If you’re lucky enough to get a meeting with a decision maker, they tend to be stuck in their ways, hard to convince, and constrained by an ever-shrinking budget.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the teacher’s fault. They’re overworked, underpaid, and continually asked to do more and more with less and less. And it’s exactly that experience that gives them the perspective needed to validate a product someone could build a company around. But even if they had the time to do so, most educators can’t code or test or build business models.

And hopefully, that’s where TSW Education comes in. When educators are put in the same room as entreprneurs, interesting things happen. It’s been done in places like Seattle and San Francisco with similar results. When you consider that Raleigh is the state capital, we should have a mix of attendees that can simultaneously validate, test and implement.

All Education, All Everything.

The core event will be just like a traditional Startup Weekend. We’ll bring in expert mentors on Saturday and a panel of judges on Sunday. They’ll be a mix of successful entreprneurs, educators and investors in the education space, so attendees will be surrounded by the support of folks that have been there, done that, and are willing to give up their time to help other entrepreneurs build the next big innovation in education.

Judges will be similarly vetted, with a focus on folks with an ability to give the winning teams a runway towards an investment or, better yet, implementation in the classroom. I’d expect to see a healthy mix of mobile/tablet apps, web services, and full platforms at the Sunday presentations on March 10th.

Can we solve our country’s education-related problems in one weekend? Probably not. Will attendees have a chance to start building something that could one day become something? Sure. Am I excited to see smart educators talking to a group of motivated entrepreneurs? Absolutely.