Durham’s écree Lands $1.5M To Keep Writing Its Own Story

Co-Founders Jamey Heit (left) and Robin Donaldson in front of "Major," the bronze bull sculpture, in Durham.

Durham-based startup écree helps improve students’ writing with color-coded, real-time markups. But it likely put away the virtual red pen and brought out the gold stars for the check-writing of SEI Ventures.

SEI Ventures is the new seed-stage venture fund for Strategic Education, Inc., the publicly traded parent company of online universities Strayer University and Capella University and several chains of coding camps. The new fund’s first investment is $500K in écree, leading a $1.5M round completed the last week of October. Strayer University students have had access to the écree software since the fall of 2016, which ultimately led to the strategic investment.

“We worked with SEI for over 18 months, vetting and testing the technology,” said Jamey Heit, the CEO of écree. “They’ve seen that the data we have showing students improving is the best the market offers. The other competitors aren’t even close. They have two to three percent retention of students, which is considered good, but we have 16.6 percent, so we beat the market standards by 7.5x.”

Expansion Plans

The four-year-old company plans to use the new investment for further development of its assessment capabilities and to expand the service to more students. This will include reaching out to local schools in Orange, Wake and Chatham Counties as well as in higher education nationwide, looking to add to écree’s current roster of more than 100 schools.

The company’s software provides immediate human-like feedback on the organization, argumentation and use of evidence in academic writing for students in high school, college, AP courses, SAT prep, and more. (No word on what feedback the software gives écree for not capitalizing its own name despite it being a proper noun.)

Teachers can create personalized assignments using écree’s nine standard essay formats, from argumentative to synthesis essays, or they can input their own questions and prompts. This allows the teachers to focus more on teaching new content and engaging students, Heit says, rather than grading papers.

“They (teachers) love to teach but instead are getting paid to grade,” Heit said. “So now we say ‘Don’t do it, you don’t have to do it, we can.’”

The software highlights content to help students edit their papers in real time with constant feedback.

The software’s algorithms highlight the students’ work in different colors. The color red means “work needed,” yellow means it’s “satisfactory” and green means it’s “good” content. These colors can change as students edit their writing. The feedback helps students identify where they need the most help and apply the new concepts in real time.

Students want to learn, Heit said, it’s just close to impossible for teachers to sit down with every single student to go over their writing in detail. But écree allows students as much time as they want to practice.

A  junior at a high school in Houston — Heit calls her “Maria,” but that’s not her real name — set the record for most revisions to a paper on écree: 94 drafts. Maria started off with a grade of 38 percent, which she didn’t know at the time, but she knew a lot of things were wrong because of the red highlights smeared across the screen.

“She was able to do this at home, and slowly and surely did it,” said Heit. “She worked on the concepts and started to understand what the software was explaining to her, so she was able to gain enough confidence in the content to improve her paper significantly.”

Her final paper was a 98.

Students are unable to see their grade on écree until it has been submitted. “By not showing the current grade for the students’ papers, they’re not just using the software to get an A,” Heit said. “They’re doing it to improve and understand the fundamental concepts.”

In the future, écree hopes to expand nationally and also broaden their software’s capabilities — maybe even entering the realm of creative writing. But for now, they are focusing on helping students learn and teachers teach.

“We are not out to replace teachers,” Heit said. “We are here to help assist them and their students.”