After selling his previous company, the email newsletter service Mailout, in 2016, Gregg Oldring was trying to figure out what to do with the empty downtown office space for which he still had a lease. Then he ran into Tony Williams, at that time merely an acquaintance, at a coffee shop.
“I didn’t really know him that well, at that point,” says Oldring. “We had that classic conversation, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And Tony’s response that day was, ‘What I do is stupid.’ Which got me thinking, ‘Okay, tell me more.’”
Williams went on to describe to Oldring his job at the time as a consultant to universities for international student recruitment, which he painted as a frustrating experience for both schools and students.
“That problem seemed like a great thing to be solved with technology,” explains Oldring. Out of that conversation emerged Zept, which allowed Oldring to stop looking for subtenants.
Since then, Oldring and his team have tasked themselves with helping make the experience of finding the right school easier for international students.
“The challenge is that there are a lot of schools, and you don’t necessarily know which ones you could get into. And often, really the only way you can find out is to apply. And that’s a daunting and incredibly time-consuming process.”
Zept streamlines the entire endeavor, asking a few simple questions at the outset — where a student would like to study, what they would like to study, and their grades. Zept’s algorithm then filters out schools that don’t meet a student’s criteria, acting as a scholastic Tinder of sorts. When a “match” occurs, a student can then learn more about that school and apply, or the school can even reach out to the student.
Whereas education agents, who work with universities to recruit students, have their own interests at heart, Zept aims to remove the middle-man entirely and put students and schools into direct contact with each other, helping ensure a student finds the best school for them.
And the more data Zept acquires, the better recommendations it can make over time.
“Our algorithm learns from previous recommendations,” says Oldring. “It learns from whom the schools actually accept,” he continues. “And it learns from what a student has typed in because there’s lot of synonyms and crazy things with programs.”
Using technologies developed at universities — including here at the University of Alberta, home to the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) — to help students find schools to attend is also a nice loop for Zept, which to do date has helped more than 50,000 students find schools.
And Zept has recently teamed up with another startup, Flywire, to make the experience even more seamless: A student can find a school with Zept, then can pay their fees with Flywire directly inside the Zept app.
As a Startup Edmonton Preflight alumnus, Oldring’s passion for Edmonton’s innovation community is palpable.
“There’s a fabulous ecosystem that we’ve got here now,” says Oldring. “It’s completely different than squirreling away in my parent’s basement back in ‘90s where I didn’t know anybody that was doing similar things and had to go pretty far away to connect with people who understood my business.”
Are you curious about entrepreneurship? Do you have an idea for a tech product, but aren’t sure where to start? Book a meeting with Startup Edmonton to learn more about the opportunities to connect with the community, access programs and mentorship, and get started on your idea. For more information and to book your meeting, visit www.startupedmonton.com.
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