August 3, 2006

Tech startup does well in school

Kyle Stock  /  The Post and Courier

eSchoolware finds success in tracking teacher progress

Software startups often attend the school of hard knocks, but eSchoolware Inc., a fledgling Daniel Island-based company, is making the grade selling software that helps teachers, pupils and administrators track progress.

The outfit won a $350,000 contract from the state Department of Education in January, the same month it incorporated. And its eight employees will be on hand to receive $200,000 in seed money this afternoon from the South Carolina Research Authority.

Aiming at a relatively untouched national market, eSchoolware said it has the potential to grow into a major employer and join the area's handful of technology darlings. "I've been involved in a number of startups in my history, and it normally doesn't go this well," said Sean Ryan, who recently joined the company as chief technology officer. "We're starting in an area that's completely unserved. ... If all goes as planned, we'll be off to the races."

The company is the brainchild of Elaina Ezelle, who developed the software platform at a company she founded called Beacon TSP Inc. Ezelle fine-tuned the product with a supply-chain management outfit and bought the intellectual property outrightbefore bidding on and winning a big piece of state business in January.

Starting in the fall, all public schools in South Carolina will be able to use eSchoolware software to help teachers become more tech-proficient. Lexington County, which spent about $20,000 on eSchoolware software last year, is already seeing results, according to Patrick Hanks, the district's director of instruction technology. The program tests the county's 1,500 teachers and identifies weak spots. The administration can then offer training courses targeting specific weaknesses. "It has helped us stay on focus rather than managing all the paper and the process," Hanks said. "Usually, it's the tail wagging the dog."

Ezelle signed on chief executive Lenna Ruth Macdonald, formerly vice president and general counsel of Commonwealth Industries, a Kentucky-based aluminum maker. Shortly thereafter, the firm hired Ryan and recruited a salesman from Blackbaud Inc. In recent months, eSchoolware struck a deal with a Michigan school district and started knocking on others doors nationwide.

Ryan said the company's biggest challenge will be drumming up business across state lines. "A salesman came in the other day with a two-year, $50,000 contract," Ryan said. "We get one or two more of those and we'll be feeling really good about ourselves."

The firm is the ninth company to receive seed money from the Research Authority's new S.C. Launch, an initiative to help fertilize startup knowledge businesses. Dave McNamara, director of the investment program, said the company posted very promising grades when his group reviewed its business plan. "I think they have a competitive advantage and maybe the first-mover advantage," McNamara said.

Reach Kyle Stock at 937-5763 or