When Clint Knox sold Spree Racing — the event management company that put on the Big Gay 5K and the Colorado Springs Marathon, among others — he assured his wife he’d wait at least a year before starting another business.
Two months later he had the idea for Brainitz, and that promise came undone.
Knox has a habit of going after adventures and new ventures with enthusiasm. He’s an eleventh grade English teacher, but he also spent years as a camp director, an entrepreneur, a triathlete, and a free spirit who took his motorcycle and traveled all of Highway 1 and California 1, “much to the chagrin of my mother,” he says.
Born and raised in Illinois, one of five kids with a teacher dad and a stay-at-home mom, Knox started as a YMCA summer camp counselor while he was getting his degree in education. After college he worked as program director for a Y camp in Missouri, then as a camp director in Wisconsin. Then the executive director job at Camp Shady Brook opened, and that brought him to Colorado.
He stayed at Shady Brook for four years — “camp life’s wonderful, but it’s a bit isolating,” he said — before leaving to teach.
When he came up with Brainitz he was restless, and grappling with a glaring need in his classroom.
“I saw kids failing,” he said, “and they were falling behind primarily due to bad life situations that they had no control over. I would’ve been checking out too, if I was in their situation, and I wanted a way to help them catch up.”
Brainitz lets teachers easily embed questions in recorded lessons so rather than a student passively watching, the videos pause and questions pop up. If the student answers the question correctly, they move on. If they answer incorrectly, the video returns to the section the student missed, and they rewatch that section as many times as they need until they get the question right.
By completing video instruction this way, Knox said, the student has to get 100 percent right. Brainitz guides them through learning until they thoroughly understand the concepts.
Three and a half years later, Knox has just finished ushering his startup through the rigors of tech accelerator Exponential Impact, to the point where Brainitz is “truly ready” for investment.
This week, Knox talked with the Business Journal about the local startup community, his drive to help teachers, and why Colorado Springs is home.
After you left the Y, why did you stay here?
I really did fall in love with Colorado Springs. At that time I was 30 years old, I was single and I had a chance to go anywhere in the world — I’d actually traveled to every state except Alaska, so I’ve seen a lot of places — but I really, really fell in love with this community and decided I wanted to stay. And teaching was a good opportunity to do that. While I was teaching I also started an event management company. We were the ones that put on the Big Gay 5K, the Half on the 4th, and the Colorado Springs Half Marathon, which is coming up. I was at [Colorado Springs School District] 11 — I’m still at D-11 — and we were on a pay freeze for three or four years. So during the summer, I’m like, ‘I gotta do something.’ It’s hard to tell, but I used to be an Ironman triathlete — 50 pounds and 10 years ago. I’d worked for the Y, so I had this management experience and I had the summers. I love teaching, but it was lacking the opportunity to promote change outside my four walls. Previously at a camp, I mean, it was a world. As I told my staff, we had the opportunity to make the world as it was meant to be. For two weeks, these kids could come into a place that didn’t have to be perfect, but it could be just and it could be real, it could be fun and could be righteous, for anybody that wanted to come in. I love teaching, I love school, but I kind of got this pat on the head after I had ideas and I could see things that were broken. And it was like, ‘Oh, that’s nice that you have an opinion, but why don’t you go back and be a teacher. That’s really what you’re here for.’ … and that was a very frustrating piece. So I started this event management company and it was very fulfilling, but it was starting to get in the way of teaching but it was not [bringing] enough income to overtake. So I sold the business and I really got the bug, but I promised my wife it would be at least a year before I started another business.
How do you sum up what Brainitz does?
It depends a bit on who I’m talking to, if it’s a teacher or a potential investor. But what we do is we reach all kids, regardless of life situation. It doesn’t matter what school a teacher is in, or what family situation a kid is in, our product maintains control of curriculum in the hands of the teacher so they can deliver the best education to their kids. We amplify what the teacher can do. People talk about ‘What’s your culture of your company?’ For us, it’s not ping pong tables and beer after 5. For us, it’s ‘Help the teacher so they can help the kid.’ I come from a long line of teachers and it’s like, if you want to help kids in schools, that’s great — be a teacher. And if you don’t want to be a teacher — I totally understand, it’s really hard — then help teachers. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve developed a product, and that’s our whole core concept: Focus on the teacher, so they can focus on the kid.
Is it still the same concept as before you did the accelerator?
The marketing strategy has pivoted, but the product itself hasn’t. The term that we use is ‘verified learning.’ We’re focusing on K-12, but the broader implications for corporate and for college are very much a part of our long-term strategy to the extent — and this is part of our pitch — that your doctor, lawyer, could take a recertification class and get an 80 percent, and pass. But that literally means your doctor could have missed one out of every five questions, and still be good to operate on you the next day. So … verification of learning during the learning process is a problem, and Brainitz solves that by giving immediate feedback, immediate re-instruction, until the question is answered correctly. And that’s important whether it’s prepositional phrases, or how to operate on a prostate.
You come from a line of teachers?
My dad, my uncle, my brother, my grandmother, my great-great-grandmother … we have a long, long line of teachers. So I ended up kind of following that family tradition, but I had this executive experience with the Y and I had this passion and path for education and a large background. And when I started to see frustrations, the paths in my life merged together.
What stage is the company at now?
We’re truly ready for investment. There’s different milestones in company life. There’s idea — a lot of people have a lot of ideas — and then there’s the MVP, the minimum viable product. And then there’s product and market, where you get customers, so that’s where we’re at. Through these customers we’re able to find out what’s good and what sucks and what we need to fix, and we’re fixing it and moving on. … With having customers and getting real feedback, we’re at the stage where we’re ready for that infusion of cash to then take the product and scale. …
What else should we know?
The accelerator was a great experience. … The mentors are great, and I was really happy with how the community rallied around it. I think this relates — you know, we are a community that has a large amount of individuals of means, but we’re not yet a community that has a large amount of people ready to invest in technology startups. And I think the more we can highlight the local success stories, like BombBomb, like Cherwell [Software], and many others that were … here at an early stage and grew with this community, then people can see this is a real investment. It is a viable part of somebody’s portfolio, to invest in local startups. And when you do that, you’re investing in higher-paying jobs, which fills houses and fills buildings and fills your infrastructure and generates your tax income. I guess the last point would be for me: What’s the next stage for our community, now that we have this really great accelerator and we’ve got a lot of energy around it? The next step is educating our community about the success stories that we have within our own backyard.