NC IDEA announces six North Carolina startups as spring grant winners and recipients of a collective $300,000. This story is part of a series of profiles on the winners.

When teachers are loaded with federally-mandated paperwork and case reports, the pressure to fulfill daily administrative procedures can send a sincere passion for teaching to the back of their minds.

The extra time spent meeting requirements makes the risk of burnout especially resonant for special ed teachers, says the pair of women behind EduLync, a software system designed to address this challenge.

Federal procedures instruct teachers of kids with diagnosed disabilities to develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for their students, complete with action items and goals personalized to kids’ specific learning patterns and needs.

Helen Fuller and Becky Dees (pictured above), both consultants in the UNC School of Medicine’s TEACHH Autism Program, found there just isn’t enough time for special ed teachers to help students achieve goals. Their research shows, on average, special education teachers only spend 27 percent of their day instructing students.

So in 2015 they began combining their 15+ years of experience in special ed programming to design a web application that cuts down the amount of time teachers spend managing IEPs and the related reports necessary to keep up with them.

The app allows teachers to ensure IEPs are serving their purpose, spending time with students to assert the programs’ effectiveness. On EduLync, teachers work alongside school administrators and outside specialists to design individualized instruction frameworks that address each student’s needs and goals. Simultaneously, the app records this process and keeps track of all progress to comply with federal Common Core standards.

The app is already in use at more than a dozen private and public schools in and outside of North Carolina. An increasing number of partner sign ons and recurring revenue, plus a new grant from the NC IDEA Foundation, are positioning EduLync to expand its reach to more institutions nationally and internationally.

This means the application could directly serve even more students and teachers, ultimately improving the daily experience for both.

A mission shaped to fit a large market

The venture originally targeted the education market for students diagnosed within the autism spectrum, and was aptly named Connections for Autism. But as the founders studied the larger market, the objective shifted to all areas of special ed and the startup rebranded to EduLync this year.

The idea is still to serve the increasing number of educators working with students on the autism spectrum, but along with the broader market of special education, an area the founders believe is in dire need of a solution to IEP management challenges.

In the U.S., 13 percent of children participate in IEPs as designated special education students.

That figure will likely increase given the rising number of school-age kids being diagnosed with disabilities.

In the last 10 years, the number of students with diagnoses on the autism spectrum spiked 165 percent. This time span also saw a 51 percent increase in the amount of students with other physical and mental health conditions such as epilepsy, mobility impairment, ADHD and bipolar disorder. Despite these recent increases, the vast majority of students with IEPs fall under the umbrella category “specific learning disability,” which includes conditions such as dyslexia and audio processing disorder.

Though there are other solutions to high IEP management demands, Fuller and Dees say the tools to implement research-based practices are often lacking. Even if they are available, they can be “hard to find, scattered and inflexible.”

EduLync combines those tools into a simple dashboard where teachers create and manage instruction plans, set short-term and annual goals for individual students, and view how much progress has been made over time. An administrator portal lets school officials in on the process, so they can support teachers along the way of achieving these goals.

EduLync believes it’s filling a critical need for special ed teachers, and is setting a long-term plan to do so in schools throughout the U.S. and to international English-speaking countries.

The founders have already kicked off that effort. EduLync has been in pilot operation since spring 2016, starting with a local school district. After months of success, the pilot expanded to more schools. Now, the program is being used by charter schools, private schools, two international schools, 13 state and district school systems, and more than 300 individual teachers.

Fuller and Dees consider the pilot a demonstration of the app’s effectiveness after positive feedback, proven teacher engagement and confidence, and an increased customer base that quickly followed suit.

Proof-of-concept fuels more pilots, nabs NC IDEA funding

EduLync’s partnerships are also growing. Last month, it added another large North Carolina-based charter school pilot with the Community School of Davidson. The team also launched a partnership with the State of Kansas’ Autism and Tertiary Behavior Support Team, which helped EduLync complete a pilot project earlier this year which demonstrated the effectiveness of the solution and the tools integrated within the application.

NC IDEA President Thom Ruhe expects the expansion to the broader education market will generate a huge impact.

“[The founders have] good innovations in a kind of technology-lagging field for the betterment of students’ lives,” he says, adding that he noticed a triple bottom line with EduLync: “It’s financially successful, it’s a cool company and it’s good for humanity.”

Last year, Dees and Fuller completed the NC IDEA-supported accelerator Groundwork Labs, an experience that validated their solution and introduced them to customers. Since then, EduLync has maintained its relationship with Groundwork Labs, finding a local advisor in Automated Insights CRO Chris Neal, who formerly led Morrisville software startup BlueStripe (acquired by Microsoft in 2015) as CEO.

In time for the upcoming school year, Fuller and Dees will roll out some new tweaks and features to their software, changing up the user interface and streamlining the content and materials available in the app.

They’re also planning to add a vice president of sales to the team.

Ultimately, the founders say, the NC IDEA grant is propelling the startup to tackle important needs in education and reach new revenue milestones by the end of 2017.

It also helps position the bootstrapped company to raise a seed round early next year.

Through EduLync’s pilot phase, Dees and Fuller believe they’ve proven the demand for IEP management tools in special ed settings. The pair quickly developed a comprehensive solution that hadn’t existed before, and they got the response from teachers that it was needed.

Laura Baverman contributed reporting.

This story was updated to state that the majority of school-age children who receive IEPs have diagnoses falling under the “specific learning disabilities” category. An earlier version said the bulk of students on IEPs have diagnoses falling on the autism spectrum disorder designation, or under a general other physical and mental health conditions designation.