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Meet the Recent Iowa Grads Behind a Top 10 Grossing Educational App

Less than two years ago, Alec Whitters was one of thousands of dental students across the country poring over notes and textbooks to prep for his upcoming board exams. To prepare, he purchased Dental Decks, paper flashcards that cost about $250 per set.

"And he just thought that was the dumbest thing in the world," joked friend and Higher Learning Technologies (HLT) co-founder Adam Keune. "He's got this smartphone and tablet and he's still paying to have this giant cluster of notecards that were everywhere."

So Whitters collaborated with University of Iowa professors and fellow dental students to formulate a study guide that he could use to build his own app. With the help of nursing student Ben O'Connor and Keune, an entrepreneurial management and business student, HLT was able to expand its content and find an audience.

To build the app's first framework, HLT partnered with Componica, a software development firm out of the University of Iowa's Oakdale Research Park. In November 2012, HLT launched its first product, Dental Boards Mastery: NBDE I, and received high praise. Since then, HLT boasts more than 80,000 downloads of its now three apps.

But the company's latest app, released in May, has really taken the cake. In just one month on the market, HLT's nursing exam prep app, NCLEX Mastery, has been downloaded 60,000 times.

While students can view sample content with a free trial version, NCLEX Mastery retails for $24.99. The company didn't specify how many of the downloads were paid or free, but NCLEX Mastery currently ranks in the top 10 grossing educational apps in the Apple App Store and the top five in Google Play store.

The app features 1,600 digital flashcards, visual aids, and detailed statistics tracking a user's strengths and weaknesses.

Keune says there's a simple reason why this startup's nursing app is giving larger study-aid companies like McGraw-Hill a run for their money.

"We're students," said Keune. "We know what students want. And we just see that big publishing companies view apps as a side thing."

Whitters, O'Connor, and Keune are all recent University of Iowa graduates. They've also been friends since they were 15 years old and attending Xavier High in Cedar Rapids.

Keune says they've been "blown away" by the support of the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City startup community. Since September 2012, the startup has raised about $200,000 through investors and pitch competitions.

HLT is currently developing an app for the National Dental Board Examination Part II, which they expect to release sometime in late July. So far, the teams' apps have been downloaded in all 50 states and 100 countries.

Although HLT's first wave of apps have been focused on the medical field, they're not stopping there. The team has grown to eight members, and these Iowa entrepreneurs are reaching out to professionals in other industries.

"Now we've basically got this framework in place where we can take any content or any subject and make a new app with it," said Keune.

Eventually, the team would like to be able to license their apps to schools. This way teachers could use HLT's templates to create homework assignments and quizzes for students to complete on their mobile devices.

"A class of 500 at the University of Iowa isn't that uncommon," Keune said. "But now if a professor has an app where every single student can talk to them seamlessly and frictionlessly, it just helps the learning process."

Editor’s Note: Higher Learning Technology was competition winner of UI’s 2012 Iowa Centers for Enterprise Elevator Pitch Competition ($2,000), 2013 Business Model Competition ($5,000), 2013 Regents Innovation Fund Proposal Competition ($10,000), and 2013 TIA/JPEC Pitch and Grow ($1,000).

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