DoctoralNet makes it easier for students to finish their degrees

6 Aug 2018

From left: DoctoralNet co-founders Emily Alana James and Margie Milenkiewicz. Image: DoctoralNet

Our Start-up of the Week is DoctoralNet, which aims to improve the graduate/postgraduate experience through research and technology.

“We’re improving master’s and doctoral work for universities, their professors and the students who attend,” explained Emily Alana James, co-founder and CEO of DoctoralNet.

“Ultimately, we want to make it easier for students to finish their degrees.”

‘The aim is to provide enough support that no master’s or doctoral student ever drops out because they became so frustrated they quit’

DoctoralNet is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of portals and apps to universities to aid postgraduate success, retention and completion.

The company is already enjoying successful traction with universities in the US.

The market

“Master’s and doctoral students attend over 100,000 universities around the world,” James explained.

“Each university generally supports between 1,000 and 10,000 students in this area. Right now, we are focused on the US universities, of which 1,200 offer master’s or doctoral degrees, of which 120,000 start every year but only 60,000 graduate.”

The founders

DoctoralNet co-founders Alana James and Margie Milenkiewicz. Image: Darragh Kane

From left: DoctoralNet co-founders Margie Milenkiewicz and Emily Alana James. Image: Darragh Kane

James, with a doctorate in educational leadership, has worked in online education from the beginning of her career. She is an expert on changes in higher education and how business-university partnerships are the wave of the future.

Her co-founder, Margie Milenkiewicz, is the student services arm of the company, and the person who loves finding just the right resource for people who need it.

The technology

“DoctoralNet and MastersNet are a mash-up of fairly common ideas reworked for a specialised group,” explained James.

“Our portal gives students and professors access to content on research, writing, critical thinking and work-life balance issues … to entice users towards fun ways of learning such as self-assessments on research design, a 30-day challenge for writing or work-life balance, 365 motivational emails and boxed sets of content on areas such as the lit review.

“This package can be accessed online or through phone apps, and the international cadre of students from all our partner universities meet in our groups and attend webinars.

“This package is modular so universities chop and change it, as necessary, for their student base and the subjects they teach.”

James said the goal is to fill the natural gaps that universities face because they are big, complex enterprises, and consistency of support becomes very hard.

“The aim is to provide enough support that no master’s or doctoral student ever drops out because they became so frustrated they quit.”

The start-up has been signing a US university a month since the start of 2018.

“Our biggest is Texas A&M with 7,000 graduate students. Almost 20,000 students will start with access to our services through their universities this year. This is a 500pc increase over this time last year.”

The start-up journey has not been without its fair share of challenges.

“These have been mostly timing and money, which go together. We were early on the mark, which was good for us in that we had the time to build a really quality product. But it was hard for us because our customer wasn’t ready, and still isn’t in many parts of the world.

“We were fortunate to attract support from Enterprise Ireland but are challenged by much of the premises on which the High Potential Start-up (HPSU) system is based. Finally, five years into it, the flow has caught up and the work gets a bit easier.”

Fortune favours the founder, or does it?

James said that no start-up journey is the same as the next and that the rules around funding start-ups in Ireland need to reflect this reality.

“Whoever said that good, solid, profitable business could be built to the €1m-a-year level in three years? In what industry and to what long-term advantage? I think the answers to that display the limitations, but let me tell you a couple of stories. I recently visited Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, both in the US, for our business.

“Grand Rapids has six or seven family-owned, huge international companies, all built over 20 or 30 years. These are strong businesses, supporting the economy of their part of the world. Fayetteville is the home of the Walton family – Walmart sells more food than any other business on Earth. They are so successful that old man Walton told his biggest suppliers that if they wanted to continue to do business with him, they would not only come to see him in Arkansas … but they would have a presence there.

“Now, over 100 Fortune 1000 businesses are located in that state, changing the entire economy of the area.

“Do we really think the ‘get investor ready’ approach, where the investor either has to believe you will be an overnight success or they won’t look at you, is the way to build our economy? Who is winning here?

“I don’t think new business owners win as so many chase the cash rather than the business, and I don’t personally believe the country wins either. I see a lot of people making short-term money on the changes brought out by the fourth industrial revolution but I don’t think this view will create the long-term viable economic growth the world needs.

“At this rate, the big boys will just become bigger as they gobble up the creative little guys. I don’t trust, nor should any of us trust, that corporations have the best interests of the world at heart.”

Get perspective

Her advice to fellow founders is to know your business inside and out.

“Keep building what you know is right in your heart and if it is a slog, so be it.

“Surround yourself with positive people who aren’t in technology – they will help you have perspective on what business is all about.

“We would not be here now if it weren’t for our small business group. You need others who don’t know what you do but do understand the hard situations that occur with marketing, customer relations and selling.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years