UniBrowse will send college students on the right course

24 Jul 2017

From left: UniBrowse co-founders Niall Cronin and Alan O’Beirne. Image: Aisling McCurtin

Our start-up of the week is UniBrowse, a search engine for students to discover and explore the best third-level courses for them and, in doing so, reduce college dropout rates.

“At the core of it, we take the stress out of college applications for students,” explained UniBrowse co-founder Alan O’Beirne.

“UniBrowse is a search engine for students to search, compare and explore third-level options on one standardised, centralised and simple platform.

‘Colleges are faced with increasingly high dropout rates. Last year, from the 75,000 who started first year, 6,500 didn’t progress to second year and the primary reason for this was lack of information on courses’

“We collect large amounts of data from different data sources and present it [to] students in a visually engaging way, making it easy for them to identify and analyse college courses seamlessly.

O’Beirne pointed out that everywhere you look, technology is making lives easier and increasing decision-making power.

“In a world where Netflix is simplifying entertainment, Skyscanner is simplifying travel, there is nobody simplifying education. Education is quite obviously the cornerstone of global society, so we felt that something needed to be done to improve decision-making support for students.

“We are enabling students to improve their future by basing college choices on informed decisions,” he said.

The market

UniBrowse will send students on the right course to reduce college drop-out rates

Image: UniBrowse

“We’ve a number of targets, but our primary user is the student,” said O’Beirne.

He pointed out that every year, more than 75,000 students apply for third-level courses in Ireland through the Central Applications Office (CAO).

“That’s 75,000 students going through practicals, orals, mocks and the Leaving Cert all in one intense period. Throw in researching college courses on top of that and it’s mayhem. At 16, 17 and 18 years, you’re expected to make such an important decision on your future as well as prepare for the most pressurised and hyped exams in your life – it’s a really stressful time.

“Well, what we do is remove one of those stresses for students, probably the biggest headache: researching college courses. It’s a mammoth task, very time-consuming and work-heavy. UniBrowse makes it possible to get all the key information on demand, drastically reducing the time, effort and stress on students. It’s not an overwhelming task anymore.”

O’Beirne added that on top of all of this, parents are a key part of the college applications process, and the reality is that they are quite often left in the dark by students.

“They face the same issue as the students: pages and pages on long-winded information dispersed across different websites, presented in different formats with different agendas.

“All my parents wanted was what was best for me but certainly they found it difficult to follow my thoughts on courses and what doors were open to me, so we want to give parents confidence in their child’s future; give them the peace of mind that they are making an informed decision rather than just shooting in the dark.

“We also provide value to secondary schools by saving them time; guidance counsellors, principals and teachers can spend all day trawling through different courses to help their students. Now they can do it instantly.”

O’Beirne said that the final target is colleges.

“Colleges are faced with increasingly high dropout rates. Last year, from the 75,000 who started first year, 6,500 didn’t progress to second year and the primary reason for this was lack of information on courses. We want to tackle this and reduce dropouts – empty seats in colleges cost the colleges a lot of money, as well as the taxpayer.”

The founders

UniBrowse has four founders: Alan O’Beirne, Niall Cronin, Walter Holohan and Kenneth Casey.

O’Beirne has been in technical recruitment for three years and worked with Harvey NashTech and Amazon Web Services. He has a degree in sports management from University College Dublin, a master’s in business entrepreneurship from Dublin Institute of Technology and a master’s in e-commerce from Dublin City University (DCU).

He said: “Niall also completed the MSc e-commerce with me and has three years as a tech consultant in Deloitte; Walter and Ken are two brilliant web developers with three years’ experience each working on cutting-edge, high-availability global websites. We each have our own strengths and that’s what makes it click so well.

“I definitely consider the founding team of a start-up to be the big differentiator – you’d follow each these guys into battle. We get on great and we knew each other before we started this journey so we had the confidence in our bond.”

The technology

UniBrowse will send students on the right course to reduce college drop-out rates

Image: UniBrowse

UniBrowse has built a state-of-the-art web application that uses complex search algorithms to match keywords to college courses in Ireland.

It operates so that users can access the data immediately with zero wait time and can browse through large bodies of data seamlessly. UX and design play a massive part to make it enjoyable for users.

How the site looks and feels is critical – it’s quick and simple to use with a really clean and engaging interface.

“The ultimate goal is to become the industry-standard platform for education choices globally.

“The problem we are solving isn’t just in Ireland, it’s [a] widespread global problem and we have the infrastructure, the team and the ambition to solve this.”

O’Beirne said that in addition to Ireland’s 75,000, the UK has more than 800,000 applying to college annually, with more than 10m in the US and more than 30m in China, each with their own specifics and differences.

“Alleviating the college dropout crisis globally is a task and an opportunity that we are chomping at the bit for.”

Launching in life

O’Beirne said that UniBrowse has gotten off to a positive start.

“We’ve a long way to go yet but overall, I can honestly say we are happy with our initial launch in Ireland. We’ve got great traction with students, parents, schools and colleges in the few months that we’ve been live.

“We’ve helped over 14,000 students with their college decision already. What’s more fulfilling for us is the feedback that we get from people who use it and how it’s helped them. It’s been really rewarding. In terms of engagement on the site, our average user time is over six minutes per session, which is quite strong, and our bounce rate is less than 0.6pc.

“We have yet to seek investment as we’ve bootstrapped our minimum viable product launch to prove that it works and get initial traction, but yes, we will be looking for investment moving forward as we are looking to scale quite quickly to the UK and beyond.

“I’d be lying if I said it was plain sailing from day one. As with any start-up, every day is its own hurdle. It might sound obvious, but the biggest challenge [was] taking the very first step and deciding this was something that we were going to go after 100pc. That was certainly challenge number one.

“Along the way, we tried to break down the bigger challenges into smaller, more achievable wins that accumulated to the bigger tasks.

“Building the actual product was a mammoth challenge, then launching it and letting people know was its own beast. It’s been an intense, difficult and challenging uphill journey since we put pen to paper 18 months ago but, without being cliché, every challenge has been its own opportunity.”

Do, or do not

O’Beirne describes the start-up scene in Ireland as incredibly supportive.

“There’s so much support available and there’s loads going on and people are really receptive. We’re actually on the UStart Accelerator in DCU Ryan Academy at the moment and some of the ideas are really interesting and we are taking a lot from the programme and other companies on it.

His advice to other founders is a quote from Yoda from Star Wars: “Do, or do not – there is no try.”

“Action your ideas with 100pc conviction. Let the shackles off and go for it and push yourself out of the comfort zone. There’s loads of support out there and plenty of people to network with, so just go for it. For me, it’s been an incredibly rewarding journey so far with a long way to go yet.”

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