Meet, an ed-tech company working to change how people can access and engage with knowledge communities and highly specialized professionals.

The platform goes far beyond traditional tutoring models, said company co-founder Melvin Hines.

Hines has been fascinated with how learners can access educational knowledge since high school, when he realized that his graduating class of 68 students was just a small portion of the 250 students that he started school with as a freshman.

The issue isn’t about desire, or innate knowledge or skill, said Hines, it’s an issue of access. “We’re trying to create access for a lot of these people,” said Hines.

Co-founder Alex Pritchett got involved in educational access issues while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Pritchett helped set up an after-school educational program for Spanish-speaking students in Orange County. “It was an eye-opening experience,” said Pritchett.

Not long after, Pritchett started studying technology, with a particular eye towards solving educational issues.

“The current model is broken,” said Pritchett, “because to online tutors, I could be just another faceless name.”

“We’re personalizing the experience,” said Pritchett, “by building a marketplace that allows learners to better structure their session.”

Community of learners

Upswing is a community of learners, interested in pursuing knowledge across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Using the Upswing platform, learners are able to identify and contact “Coaches,” who are community members who are screened by Upswing prior to joining the marketplace.

“Even if a student doesn’t have a computer at home,” said Pritchett, addressing a potential concern, “virtually every student will have access to a tablet or a smartphone in their household.”

The company is counting on initiatives like One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) or a new initiative from LA Public Schools to provide each student an Apple iPad to expand access to knowledge-sharing to a wide community of learners.

The idea is simple, said Monique McNellie, the company’s third co-founder, and it could revolutionize how students learn. “Our hope is that students will open up their computer to do their homework, and automatically log-in to Upswing.”

“One neat thing,” said McNellie, “is that we don’t bill hourly, we charge by the minute.” This would enable a student who is experiencing trouble with one concept in their Algebra class to access a coach in real-time who could help troubleshoot and solve the issue, without the student having to set up an hour-long session in advance.

“The ‘Coaches’ will have their own profile,” said McNellie, “and will get to set their own rates and their own hours.” Students – the “Learners,” pay the Coaches. Under the current business model, Upswing gets a cut of that payment. The Learners, said McNellie, will be able to select which coach best fits their needs within the marketplace brokered by Upswing’s proprietary software platform.

McNellie, a Syracuse alumni who worked at IBM in Research Triangle Park and later graduated from law school at Duke University, was the last to join the team. McNellie splits her time between New York City, where she maintains a legal practice advising technology entrepreneurs, and the Triangle. She made the trip to Durham for Paradoxos, and returned for our conversation and to introduce WRAL Tech Wire to her co-founders.

McNellie is unique in the tech startup community, in that she’s a minority in the industry – a woman, African American, and in a wheelchair. “If there’s one thing I don’t do in this community, it’s blend in,” said McNellie, who sees this as a potential advantage when approaching investors, partners or high-value clients.

“It’s a good thing,” said McNellie, “that women often bring an alternative perspective to the table.”

Each of the Upswing co-founders has an equal spot at that table, said McNellie. “We all help out with each function, in order to deliver on the core vision.”

Core vision

“The core vision,” said Hines, “is to create a platform that allows as much access to as many learners as possible, while providing an incredibly high-quality experience.”

Building critical mass is still a critical issue that the company faces, said Hines, though it is clear that the pathway to success is through partnering with established institutions.

“And we have seen traction,” said Pritchett, “we’re fixing broken systems, because the old model isn’t working.” The company, which was one of seven finalists at a 40-company AngelPitch event held at Google headquarters in June, completed a private beta with a school system (we’ve been asked not to share the client list) during the spring semester and experienced great success. The client plans to renew their contract during the upcoming school year, said McNellie.

The company moved in to Groundwork Labs on June 17, 2013, and is making a splash in the startup community, attracting interest from investors, partners, and coaches, said Hines. The company plans to expand operations by hiring summer and fall interns and campus representatives at Triangle-area universities.

Upswing has also launched an indie-go-go campaign to raise $25,000. The funds will be used to develop the next iteration of the Upswing marketplace.

“There’s definitely a lot of opportunity,” said McNellie, “our platform keeps progressing, and we’re releasing a new version of it shortly.”