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Buffalo start-up born at UB finds a global market

A business startup with roots in the University at Buffalo (UB) is extending its reach around the world while also expanding in downtown Buffalo. 

PLS 3rd Learning offers educators in K-12 schools online access to teaching resources, plus professional development opportunities. The company recently started working with the European Council of International Schools (ECIS) to teach educators around the world to implement e-learning initiatives. 

The venture got its start in mid 2000s, when Donald Jacobs, then director of UB’s Center for Applied Technologies in Education (CATE), and Paulette Gandel, then CATE’s managing director, built a portal to help teachers find details on New York State’s learning standards. The New York State Education Department funded their work with money from the U.S. Department of Education. 

CATE soon added other features to the portal, called NYLearns. One was a tool teachers could use to share curricula they had created to align with the state standards. 

“These would be sent across the state for their peers to review, to determine whether they actually met those standards,” says Jacobs, now chief executive officer of the startup, PLS 3rd Learning. Once a curriculum gained approval, it became available for other teachers to download. 

NYLearns began as a free service. Later, to help fund further research, CATE started charging school districts an annual subscription fee. Finally, the dean of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education suggested that Jacobs work with the UB Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) to create a company.  

“STOR provided a lot of advice, introducing us to attorneys, giving us some incubator space where we could hold meetings and helping us craft a business plan,” says Jacobs. In 2007, UB licensed the intellectual property behind NYLearns to a new entity, 3rd Learning. Jacobs and two other staff members at CATE, Michael Horning, Jr. (now the company’s executive vice president) and Robert Daunce (chief information officer), left UB to found the venture. 

Having sprung from UB’s Graduate School of Education, rather than from a science or technology lab, PLS 3rd Learning is an unusual business spin-off for the SUNY system. It’s also a busy one. 

The company has built portals similar to NYLearns for educators in Pennsylvania, Texas and Turkey and provided consulting to the California Education Department. It has revamped its content in New York and Pennsylvania to reflect the new Common Core education standards. In 2012, 3rd Learning bought out and merged with one of its investors, Performance Learning Systems, to form PLS 3rd Learning. 

That union brought in a new line of business, providing technology-based professional development. PLS 3rd Learning currently delivers online courses to educators in Oman, Turkey, Switzerland and Portugal. The new agreement with the ECIS, with its 750 member schools, will spur significant expansion, Jacobs says. “This will be a real international launch.” 

While stretching its arms around the globe, PLS 3rd Learning has also made impact on downtown Buffalo, an important focal point for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic development efforts. With 44 of its 70 employees located in its Buffalo office, the company has outgrown those quarters, a renovated building in the city’s Theatre District. So PLS 3rd Learning recently agreed to co-invest in renovating the building next door, and then lease it. 

“We take a very strong Buffalo perspective,” says Jacobs. “To have a region be successful, you have to have an urban core that’s successful. And investment counts.”

Tags Tags: University at Buffalo , START-UP NY , Education

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