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ACT makes strategic investments as it continues to expand its scope

When most people hear ACT, they usually think of the assessment test that helps determine which colleges they get into. But the organization wants to provide more than just an assessment.

Since changing leadership in 2015, the Iowa City-based company has made 10 deals in which it has invested in, acquired or formed strategic partnerships with educational companies.

“ACT is moving from being only a testing company to being a learning, measurement and navigation company,” said ACT’s Senior Vice President Alina von Davier. “And we have a very ambitious mission and has a strategy to get there. Our management team looks at all the capabilities that we have and the gaps that we have within our strategy in order to accomplish our mission. These investments and acquisitions are meant to fill these gaps.”

Most recently, the company invested in Open Assessment Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup that offers open-source tools for building and delivering digital tests.

In February of this year, ACT invested $7.5 million in Smart Sparrow, an Australian developer of adaptive courseware tools used in colleges and universities.

Smart Sparrow has become a partner with ACTNext, working to build new products. The two organizations can now share their existing research in adaptive technologies to create more effective online educational tools.

“It’s just a matter of putting the right pieces in the right places to accelerate development,” von Davier said.


In addition to making outside investments, ACT is also innovating from within.

ACTNext was founded in 2016 with the idea of being a multidisciplinary innovation arm of ACT. The group is comprised of experts in fields ranging from psychometrics and learning sciences to software development, AI & Machine Learning, and data visualization and is led by von Davier.

“What we plan to do is change and transform the learning and teaching experience by bringing in technology and allowing the technology to facilitate human and social collaboration,” von Davier said. “We would like social interactions, collaborated learning and collaborated problem-solving to be part of the learning and assessment systems that we are developing.”

ETCPS 2018

ACTNext is hosting an event on October 3-4 at the Graduate Hotel in Iowa City, called the Education Technology & Computational Psychometrics Symposium (ETCPS), which focuses on education research and technological innovation.

The symposium is meant to represent the fusion of theory-based science of learning with the technology of artificial intelligence methodology.

“We chose to do the symposium in Iowa City because of our desire to partner with the local community,” von Davier said. “We are very much committed to being connected to the Iowa City community.”

ACT makes strategic investments as it continues to expand its scope | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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