Entrepreneur Profile: Chris Merrill
Chris Merrill wasn’t necessarily setting out to become an entrepreneur. What started with his background as a high school educator, an idea while on vacation and a serendipitous graduate school connection grew into Adapta Education.
Adapta Education is a platform that gives teachers data and tools needed to personalize education based on their students’ ability. With the platform, teachers use the adaptive test generator to determine their students’ strengths and weaknesses.
“What’s nice about it is for the teachers, the setup is super easy,” Chris said. “They just select what standards and competencies they want students to be tested on and how many questions. Then it gives each student an adaptive test. What’s nice about it is the upper-level students, it keeps giving them harder and harder questions because they keep getting the easier ones right, whereas the lower-level students stay at their level.”
Chris first considered this idea while on vacation years ago. While driving with his wife, he began thinking about a product that could give schools individualized data on students’ capabilities, but, at that time, Chris was a teacher and working in sales, so he put the idea on the back burner.
“Fast forward a couple of years – I come to Notre Dame for grad school, for my MBA, and I hear about the IDEA Center, which essentially is that on campus incubator and accelerator,” said Chris. “I submit the idea, because I remember saying if I were to run a startup, this would be it. So, let’s just see where it goes. And they come back to me, saying there are two professors that created something just like what you’re talking about. I get connected with them and I find out, yes, they did create it and they did a much better job than what I would have ever thought of.”
The professors were looking for help to turn the technology into a business, so Chris seemed like the perfect fit to come on board to commercialize the project into a startup.
“I’m not doing this because I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “It’s just more of ‘hey, this is something I believe in and something I think can make a difference.’ You know, I came to the MBA program thinking I want to be a product manager or something along those lines. I came to school to find something I wanted to do, and since then I believe in something that’s worth working for.”
A Salt Lake City native, Chris first moved to the South Bend – Elkhart region to attend graduate school. The choice to apply for the MBA program came easy; in addition to the program’s high ranking, he has family living in the area. Since moving to the region, Chris and his wife started a family of their own – they are parents of twin toddlers.
Chris sees benefits in starting a business in the South Bend – Elkhart region. He cites the availability of resources and funding, and the comparatively low cost to start a business as key features, as well as connectivity within the region.
“You’re two hours away from Chicago, two and a half hours away from Indy and then three hours from Detroit,” he said. “You got a really good region to kind of set up from and, and you’re plenty of businesses in those cities that you can work with and network.”
The Adapta platform is currently being used in schools, including Elkhart High School and Heritage Christian in Indianapolis. The tests are available for most high school math courses, including algebra I, geometry, algebra II, precalculus, AP calculus, intro to statistics and AP statistics, which allows school districts to use the platform across the entire high school math curriculum. An SAT addition is launching shortly. The adaptive structure of the tests allows students at all levels to stay engaged, without checking out over too many easy questions or overwhelmed by too many hard questions.
“Every student feels challenged, but not overwhelmed, and it only took two minutes to set it up so teachers can have time to focus on other spots in their classroom or other areas of their curriculum,” Chris said. “And then the data we provide them after is very specific competency based, so it shows them exactly where their students are struggling, where they’re excelling.”
This allows teachers to adjust the lesson plans to address students’ needs. Personalized education was a trend in education for years but has grown from a goal to an expectation in the years following COVID-related school closures.
“COVID set behind our students,” Chris said. “The average math student fell four months behind, so teachers, a population of people that we had already stretched to their limits before the pandemic, now we’re asking them to stretch a little further. They have to use their time as efficiently as they can in the classroom to ensure all their students’ needs are being met, that they’re catching students back up, and that they’re not wasting any time. That’s an incredibly hard thing to do.”
For more information on Adapta Education, visit www. adaptaeducation.com.