Hour of Code introduces new kind of literacy to schools

November 11, 2013

Americans have always understood the link between literacy and getting ahead. The better you could read and write the English language, the better your chances for success.

But in the 21st century, where virtually every aspect of life involves some kind of digital technology, there is a lot of economic opportunity for people who also have another kind of literacy: code.

Code is the foundation of computer science, the instructions that programmers use to get computers and other digital devices to do what they want them to do. Who will shape the future of a technology-driven global economy? The people who know how to write code.

That is the basic message of the nonprofit organization Code.org, which is sponsoring a initiative called the Hour of Code to bring a taste of basic code instruction to every school during Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 9-15.

So far, Code.org reports that more than 9,800 events for CSEWmore than 1.56 million students are planned that week in 141 countries. Students don’t have to have special math knowledge or aptitude to participate. They don’t even have to have a computer. For more information, go to: Csedweek.org.

One Lexington group that has embraced this initiative is Awesome Inc., an incubator for high-tech entrepreneurs. Its offices at 348 East Main Street have provided shared workspace for 50 startup companies over the past six years, as well as meeting and educational space. It also houses the Kentucky Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame.

Brian Raney, a co-founder of Awesome Inc., said about 10 volunteers from among the 15 companies now housed at the incubator plan to use curricula developed by Code.org to teach an hour of code instruction at 10 schools during that week.

Raney already has signed up Rockcastle County High School and four Fayette County public schools: Tates Creek High School, Dixie Magnet Elementary, the Learning Center at Linlee and the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy.

He said Awesome Inc. will accept five more schools on a first-come, first-served basis, with preference given to schools that include the entire student body in the program. The session will include hands-on exercises, including some actual programming for student groups that have computers. There is a $100 reservation fee to cover instructors’ expenses.

Schools interested in having Awesome Inc. facilitate their participation in the Hour of Code can apply at: Awesomeincu.com/hourofcode.html.

“I honestly think we’ll have a lot more demand than the 10 schools we can handle,” Raney said.

“The idea is to teach the basics of what coding is all about,” he said. “To learn to think like a programmer — logical thinking, problem-solving. Kids pick that up so fast.”

Raney sees the Hour of Code as a great way to interest young people in computer programming and the career opportunities it offers, which are becoming more abundant, varied and lucrative every day.

awesomeHis own interest in programming led him to start Apax Software, which designs websites and develops mobile applications, such as Keeneland’s new Race Day app for iPhone, iPad and Android.

Raney said that getting more people to learn code is key to growing Kentucky’s technology and entrepreneurial economies, which is a goal of Awesome Inc.

This summer, Awesome Inc. began offering a series of one-day “crash courses” in coding for web development and mobile apps. So far, 140 students —ranging in age from 9 to their mid-60s — have taken those classes, which cost $50 to $100. More information: Awesomeincu.com.

“Our goal is to teach 500 people to code by the summer of 2014,” he said.

Raney is especially excited about the Hour of Code program because it will show young people that while coding may be the language of today’s technology geniuses, you don’t have to be a genius to learn to write code.

“Software is running everything,” he said. “If you can understand how that software works and how to manipulate it, you’re going to be able to do so much. The people who learn how to code are going to shape the future.”

Awesome Inc.’s Demo Day gives a look into local business future

September 10, 2012

There are basically two kinds of economic development strategies: import new businesses and jobs from elsewhere, or grow your own. Kentucky’s leaders have long focused on the first strategy, with a lot more misses than hits.

Awesome Inc. — a startup-business accelerator in downtown Lexington run by a bunch of smart, young techies — works with local investors and entrepreneurs to create home-grown businesses and jobs.

Last Wednesday, I joined about 100 other people at Awesome Inc.’s offices for Demo Day to watch five groups of young, local entrepreneurs make presentations about the companies they are working to create.

Before the presentations, Nick Seguin, a former manager of entrepreneurship for the Kauffman Foundation, discussed why this work is important for both communities and individuals.

“If we want more jobs, startups are what matter,” Seguin said, noting that most net new jobs in America are created by businesses less than six years old. But, he cautioned, “Success is built on a lot of failures.”

Entrepreneurship requires more than individual effort, he said. It needs a supportive community with the right kind of mind-set, funding, business services and employees.

The five companies that presented last week are all trying to harness online or mobile technology to create profitable new ways of solving problems or adding value.

Three of the teams were chosen earlier this year for an intense 14-week development program. In return for office space, a little seed money and a lot of advice, Awesome Inc. (Awesomeinc.org) and its investors get a small stake in each company, a common model for such accelerator organizations.

TagaPet is developing a pet tag system that uses electronics, including GPS and mobile phone technology, to reunite lost pets with their owners. Michael Ward said he and his two business partners love animals, and their idea grew out of that passion — an important motivator for many entrepreneurs.

Tags would be sold through pet stores and veterinarians, and customers then pay a monthly subscription fee for online tracking services. While a competitor already offers a similar product, Ward said he thinks there is room for more players in a nation with millions of pets.

Rate My Rental  is a Web site that its developers hope to launch in Lexington at the end of the year to let college students rate properties where they have lived as a guide to future renters. So far, they have gathered listings for 800 properties and 400 reviews of them from former tenants, partner Sam Blake said.

The company’s business model allows landlords to list a property on the site for free, then pay 10 percent of the first month’s rent if it is rented through the site. Blake and his two business partners, all University of Kentucky students, developed the idea to help others avoid the rental nightmares they experienced.

Fanbouts is a Web site being developed to aggregate fan-generated sports content — videos, photos, tweets, etc. Partner Jim Wombles said the site would make money through premium subscriptions and advertising.

Presentations also were made by an “alumni” team, which had been through Awesome Inc.’s program earlier, and an “associate” team that has ties to Awesome Inc. investors.

Crowded is a mobile app developed by an alumni team that allows fans at professional baseball games to use their smart phones to play trivia games and participate in predict-the-play contests at the stadium. The app is now in beta testing. The company would make money from advertising.

Crambu, the associate team, seemed to be furthest along. It provides an electronic platform for hotels to collect feedback and requests from guests, who use their own smart phones or iPads furnished by the hotel.

Partner David Booth said an initial version of the software has been in testing in three hotels in Kentucky and California, and the latest version will soon roll out to 11 hotels in several states. Hotels pay $1 per room per month for the service.

Will all of these companies succeed? Probably not. Will some of them? Maybe.

With the right culture and support, Seguin said Lexington entrepreneurs can develop the companies of the future, just as Kentuckians developed such success stories as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Alltech.

“It doesn’t need to just happen in Boston, Austin, Boulder or the Bay,” he said.

Awesome Inc. founder Brian Raney put it more bluntly: “Step 1 is do something. Step 2 is keep going. Most people get lost at Step 1.”

5 Across helps entrepreneurs focus their pitch

March 7, 2011

Many entrepreneurs think their business ideas are the greatest things since sliced bread. They think they have the vision, and their companies have the growth potential, to attract investors.

So make your pitches. And make them quick.

That’s the challenge five local entrepreneurs face every other month when they come to Awesome Inc. on Main Street to play a real-life game called 5 Across.

The concept is simple: Five entrepreneurs are chosen from applicants to make a presentation before an audience, as well as three experienced business people who serve as judges. Contestants must make a pitch in five minutes or less, using no more than five PowerPoint slides.

The winner of each 5 Across session in February, April, June, August and October receives $500 cash. Those five winners then compete in December for $2,500. But the learning is often more valuable than the prize money.

“It’s just phenomenal to have opportunities like this in our own hometown,” Anthony Schmidt, last year’s 5 Across champion, told players, judges and about 50 spectators during this year’s first competition on Feb. 23.

When Schmidt made his first pitch last year, he didn’t grasp his business’s potential. He had developed online management software for Alpha Phi Omega, a coed service fraternity he was president of at the University of Kentucky. “I was just playing on the Internet,” he said.

His AOPonline software is now used by more than 50 chapters. His 5 Across experience helped prompt him also to start GreekTrack.com, which creates customized online systems for any campus organization to use for everything from social networking to recruiting.

The Lexington Venture Club and Awesome Inc., which provides workspace and other services to startups, created 5 Across to help connect entrepreneurs with each other and potential investors. They also wanted to raise the visibility of local entrepreneurship.

“It’s a way of keeping in touch with the future of Lexington,” Lou Allegra, a business consultant, said when asked why he serves as a judge. “I don’t know that many people are aware of the vibrant entrepreneurial culture that’s in Lexington now.”

After each contestant makes his or her pitch, judges ask questions. Judges score the presentations on creativity, feasibility, profit potential and how far the entrepreneurs have taken their ideas. “What I look for is whether the entrepreneur has a view beyond a year or so,” Allegra said.

Although judges pick the winner, audience members rate each business concept and presentation by texting a score, which shows up on a display screen.

While some potential investors come to watch 5 Across, the main purpose of the game is to give entrepreneurs practice, coaching and feedback, so they will do a better job when they make more detailed pitches in the future.

The first 5 Across session of 2011 included a diverse group of local entrepreneurs: A man whose company organizes social sports leagues for adults; three partners who design video games that can be played on a variety of devices; a man whose company uses online software to organize virtual golf tournaments; and a man and woman who have an online coupon service.

The fifth presenter and winner was Michael Hartman, a video game developer whose 15-year-old company, Frogdice, has published two games and will soon launch a third. He is looking for perhaps $1 million in capital to hire more developers to help his company grow faster.

“It was stressful, but the practice was valuable,” Hartman said after his pitch. He will be making a more detailed presentation this month to the Lexington Venture Club.

Randall Stevens, a 5 Across judge whose Base 163 on Main Street rents space to startups, thinks the game is a good way for entrepreneurs to get advice.

“One thing Lexington has been missing is the mentoring aspect,” he said. “So this is one way I try to practice what I preach.”

If you go

What: 5 Across entrepreneur pitch contest

When: 5 p.m. on April 27, June 22, Aug. 24, Oct. 26 and Dec. 7 (finals)

Where: Awesome Inc., 348 East Main St.

Learn more: 5across.org or (859) 494-9302

Anthony Schmidt, the 5 Across winner for 2010, developed online management software.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Anthony Schmidt, chosen the best presenter at 5 Across during 2010, developed online management software. Photo by Tom Eblen

Global Entrepreneurship Week has Lexington event

November 16, 2009

This is Global Entrepreneurship Week, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

We’re just beginning to climb out of the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression. Bad economic times beg for good ideas, and the only way those ideas can make a difference is when entrepreneurs turn them into reality.

Global Entrepreneurship Week is sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation to encourage young people around the world to explore their potential to be innovators, self-starters and entrepreneurs. Last year, 3 million people participated in 25,000 events in 77 countries affiliated with the effort.

Among this year’s events is one in Lexington: Startup Weekend, a 54-hour workshop designed to help would-be entrepreneurs figure out how to turn their ideas into businesses.

Awesome Inc., a business incubator on East Main Street started two years ago by four 20-something entrepreneurs, is hosting the workshop, which runs from Friday evening through Sunday evening.

Brian Raney, one of Awesome Inc.’s partners, expects as many as 75 participants. If you want to be one of them, you can sign up at lexington.startupweekend.org. The cost is $40, which covers all meals during the weekend.

Awesome Inc. Lexington held its first Startup Weekend a year ago, when it was organized by the Kentucky Startup Blog, the Young Entrepreneurs of Lexington and the University of Kentucky’s Entrepreneur Club. It included would-be entrepreneurs who ranged from high school and college students to people in their 50s and 60s, Raney said. Most of the ventures developed during the workshop were Internet-related because that works best in such a short session.

Startup Weekend, a concept developed promoted by a non-profit group in Seattle, has done events in more than 50 cities and 12 countries over the past two years. More than 250 businesses have come out of those workshops, the group claims.

Here’s how Startup Weekend will work:

On Friday night, participants with ideas they think could become businesses make pitches to the group. Teams self-select around the ideas that draw the most interest. The teams then spend the next two days fleshing out the ideas, developing business and technical plans and building a basic Web site.

At the end of the workshop Sunday night, each team makes a presentation about its proposed business and participants discuss and critique them.

The weekend will include presentations by Ken Sagan, an attorney with the law firm Stites and Harbison, and John Williamson of Uvestor. The company, an online marketplace for buyers and sellers of investment real estate, grew out of last year’s Startup Weekend.

Sponsors for Startup Weekend include Stites & Harbison and Commerce Lexington.

Raney said many entrepreneurs find the workshop a good way to develop their ideas, because there’s a sense of focus and community.

“Being around people who are interested in the same things you are interested in allows you to stay motivated,” he said. “It’s the same reason some people go to a gym to work out rather than doing it alone in their basement.”

It’s similar to the concept behind Awesome Inc., which rents workspace to 15 fledgling entrepreneurs who are looking for community and an inexpensive place to work that’s a more professional address than a home office.

Raney, 27, is a Campbell County native with economics and computer science degrees from the University of Kentucky who said he has started two businesses in addition to Awesome Inc.

He said Lexington has a bright future as a place for entrepreneurs. Reasons include UK, a relatively low cost of living, an attractive environment and a good quality of life.

“I think it has great potential,” he said of Lexington. “That’s why I’m still here instead of being in Austin, Boulder or San Francisco.”

And after this weekend, he hopes to have more company.