The idea for Lingt Language came to MIT seniors Scot Frank and Chris Varenhorst while they were sitting in Chinese class. The students, who were preparing for trips abroad as part of the MIT-China program, found that their professors had little problem teaching the written language but, with 30 to 40 students in a class, teaching proper pronunciation was difficult.
To address the problem, one of Frank's teachers created digital audio recordings that featured prompts that could be rerecorded by students and returned to the professor via e-mail. But the process was tricky and time-consuming and involved downloading special software. There had to be a better way, Frank and Varenhorst thought. So they partnered with Justin Cannon, a 2008 MIT graduate, to develop a tool for teaching foreign languages. Unlike other software on the market, which focuses on self-learning, theirs would be designed for use in the classroom. The result is Lingt Editor, an application that lets teachers create custom assignments with images, text, and video. It also includes a tool that allows a student to record and submit audio of himself or herself directly through a Web browser.
Throughout the development process, the founders of Lingt (pronounced linked) worked closely with MIT's Venture Mentoring Service, a campus office that introduces prospective entrepreneurs to volunteer mentors. Through these sessions, the founders got the idea to differentiate their technology by targeting teachers and schools. The decision has come at a price, however. Investors tend to shy away from educational software companies because the customer is price conscious and wary of new technology. Lingt's founders did attract the interest of one funder, Y Combinator, a group that provides small amounts of seed money to early-stage tech start-ups. At the time, however, Y Combinator was accepting pitches only from companies that were willing to relocate to California, which would have delayed graduation for Frank and Varenhorst. The partners decided not to make a pitch to Y Combinator until later this spring.
Remaining in Cambridge has some benefits, as it plants Lingt in a region with a large number of prestigious private schools and charter schools that pride themselves on being early adopters of classroom technology. A pilot program conducted in several charter schools and the language classrooms at MIT helped to improve and refine the product. Now, a deal to test the technology in high schools in Kansas City, Missouri, is in the works.
Though Lingt's founders are aware that many of their fellow MIT grads have made a fortune developing new technology, they say their motivation is more about solving a vexing problem. "We're interested in language learning," says Frank. "We wouldn't be doing this if it was just a way to save the stock market."